The political battle over WW1 misses the ‘c word’ – colonialism

In recent days a political battle has broken out over the teaching of World War 1 in British schools. This battle is, by definition, political and misses the more important point: we need to be teaching our children a history that goes beyond the ‘we fight bad guys and win’ narrative. Britain has some stains on its history and we have to make sure our kids know about them.

Writing in today’s Telegraph Boris Johnson hits out at Labour’s Education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, saying that Hunt is “guilty of talking total twaddle” for “his mushy-minded blether about ‘multiple histories’”.

This all come as backlash to Labour’s attack on Michael Gove’s “crass” comments that attacked “left-wing and unpatriotic” understandings of what caused WW1. The party-political rhetoric goes on and on…and I won’t bore you with more of it here. If you like, you can read Gove’s original Daily Mail article here, and Hunt’s Observer response article here.

This whole argument between Labour and Conservatives falls into insignificance when you consider that they both have failed to reform the teaching of history in our schools that still so overwhelmingly misses out so much of Britain’s (let alone the rest of the world’s) history.

Take my (now rather outdated) personal experience of school as a case in point. I took history up to my A-levels and then studied history modules during both my BSc and my MA. By the time I left university I had studied different elements of Nazism and WW2 on at least 5 separate occasions. WW1, and particularly the causes of WW1, were covered on at least three separate occasions.

A sign of a good education? Possibly, were it not for the gaping holes in my education that failed to enable me to put any of this into context. One word was significantly and consistently missing from my education – colonialism.

It took me until the age of 22 before I started reading, of my own accord, about the rest of Britain’s track record outside of the two world wars.

The only thread I can spot between what I didn’t learn at school is that it paints my home country in a bad light. Although colonialism is an obvious case in point for this, there are other notable gaps such as the UK’s response to post independent Ireland.

So my rhetorical question is this: who decided not mention the atrocities of British colonialism in our classrooms? Who decided, and perhaps more importantly continues to decide, that the 26,000 women and children who died in British concentration camps during the Boer War are worthy of only a passing mention in our schools? Who has chosen to edit our history of colonial suppression in Kenya that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths to be about mutiny and uprisings not political oppression?

I will tell you who…the man! No, not Gove but the man. As much as we would like to blame this all on Gove and his merry band of revisionists we have to be honest with ourselves. My lifetime has been defined by years and years of establishment thinking that has failed to face up to its own atrocities.

Over the last few days politicians, both red and blue, have spent their time arguing an important argument – how do we teach, interpret and understand our history. This debate about how to represent or understand an event can only take place though if you’re teaching the event in the first place.

It’s time we start teaching our kids about the c-word – colonialism.


Filed under History, Politics

2 responses to “The political battle over WW1 misses the ‘c word’ – colonialism

  1. Out of all of them, Hunt seems to be the only one who actually understands what History is. Johnson does himself absolutely no credit with his response.


  2. A response from twitter: “Until the lion tells his story, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”, the lion needs to get writing.


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