With all eyes dazzled by Brexit pyrotechnics the Tories have quietly gained a lot of ground this year in the culture war of British colonial history.
It peaked this month when Karen Bradley U-turned the party’s stance on the Troubles in Ireland by insisting that British soldiers had not committed crimes, but instead went about ‘under orders and under instruction and fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way’. This contradicts Lord Savile’s report – released under a Conservative government in 2010 – which asserts that ‘what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong’. Bradley was an MP watching then Prime Minister David Cameron apologise and accept that verdict without dispute at the time, and she has not produced any evidence to explain her shift since.
This rhetoric regrettably translated into government policy as Secretary of Defence Gavin Williamson announced that the Ministry of Defence would be covering the legal representation (and ‘welfare’, not specifying what this means) of Soldier F: the sadist who was greatly responsible for the slaughter of 14 civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry, 7 of whom being children. Soldier F shot a dying and unarmed father of 6 in the buttock as he was crawling away in agony, before shooting his comrade who desperately waved a white handkerchief as he ran to his mate’s aid. It was a straightforward slaughter of civilians.
There is obviously a gaping contradiction in the actions of the Ministry of Defence in providing support for a murderer and the Tory government which condemned him in no uncertain terms in 2010, which will be addressed as ‘the Government will urgently reform the system for dealing with legacy issues’ according to Williamson. The compass has clearly been set in the direction of blanket denial and unfettered militarism where for a long time there was at least dialogue.
The shift on Belfast falls into a clear pattern of this Conservative government unilaterally revising history without impetus nor evidence, often with minimal attention from the media as everyone has their eyes fixed on Brussels.
On BBC Question Time in February Jacob Rees-Mogg excused the ‘appropriate’ Boer War Concentration camps for having similar mortality rates as Glasgow at the time (poverty in British slums is hardly less egregious anyway). According to historian Thomas Pakenham the camps were designed to ‘sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children’: tactics which foreshadowed and certainly contributed to mass genocides of the 20th century.
Although columnist Grace Blakeley was visibly incredulous at Rees-Mogg’s comments on the broadcast, the lack of public outrage at a prominent politician attempting to sweeten the image of concentration camps should make those listening carefully very uncomfortable indeed. Much like the Troubles, crimes of the Boer War faced generations of historical reinterpretation facing a wall of stubborn British establishment resistance – careers were staked and lost on uncovering the truth. It makes Rees-Mogg’s belligerent attempts to push back on this both frustrating and heinous.
Without wanting to jump on the ‘everything is Brexit’ bandwagon, unravelling the bandage of the Good Friday agreement and hovering possible Irish borders have no doubt created an atmosphere where everything is back on the table between Britain and the rest of the world. The Tory cabinet is dominated by elites who attended Oxbridge with neoconservative historians Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, whom have sought to downplay the Amritsar massacre amongst various atrocities throughout their respective careers, thus making this brand of heterodox historical interpretation that benefits the British Empire second nature to them. This is coupled with a general historical ignorance from the broader public, meaning that the symptoms of our history come and go but the disease is always latent.
Whether it was Brexit or any other substantive political change, we can’t escape wrestling with our past sins as a nation at some point, and without ordinary people holding his feet to the fire, Rees-Mogg and his ilk are granted endless artistic licence to rewrite them. The longest period of peace in modern Irish history is a dialectical antithesis to the horrors of that period; erasing this dark chapter from our collective memory will shake the foundations of this beautiful but fragile period of stability and joy in Ireland. We cannot afford to forget.
Furthermore, being able to state outright that concentration camps are bad is one of the least rigorous moral examinations of any government. This was a tiny hurdle to trip over for the party of ‘compassionate conservatism’, but trip they did.