War on the past: a war on the public?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London

Recorded at the Battle of Ideas festival 2023 on Saturday 28 October at Church House, London.


When Sir Winston Churchill stated that ‘a nation that forgets its past has no future’, he had no idea that decades later we’d have such a problem with history; that we’d problematise anyone daring to defend past achievements and values. Indeed today, even quoting Churchill is enough to get you cancelled in some circles. Meanwhile, historical figures and the intellectual legacy of the past are presented as ‘problematic’. Towering figures such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant are casually dismissed from the curriculum as racists; buildings or streets renamed because scientists such as Thomas Henry Huxley failed to live up to modern values; galleries rearranged or even shuttered because an Athenian figure or Victorian explorer exhibited racist, sexist and ableist behaviour.

If the past is filled with bad people who did bad things, their continued presence is cast as the root cause of problems in the here and now. Hence why correcting the sins of our fathers is the solution – or at least the first step – to dealing with contemporary issues. Racism, sexism and homophobia in old books or historic figures must be removed from our cultural landscape so that there can be no confusion over what values we hold today. Some worry that we have all but adopted Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’ theory – that the past is merely the rubble of human mistake and misery, piling up as the years go on. Everything that is old was wrong, and, as such, the outdated ideas of yesterday must be cast out from contemporary society.

While some suggest it was ever thus – young generations decrying their parents’ beliefs as outdated and unworkable – today’s cultural war on history seems more an assault on the traditions, the language, the values of today’s public who do not espouse the fashion of disdain for past mores. Modern linguistic updating, school history-books rewritten, places renamed to eradicate historical sinners, self-censorship and internal iconoclasm instigated by cultural institutions can leave the majority of citizens feeling alienated and disorientated. Some argue, the expansion of the present backwards in chronological time serves to detach Western society and its citizens from its legacy, and from the origins and the traditions that underpin conventions, practices and identity – not just an aversion to the people of the past, but a visceral aversion to the people of today who espouse the ‘wrong’, ‘outdated’ values.

Is there anything intrinsically wrong in updating backward attitudes of the past? Before we confront the problems of our time, should we fix the problems of the past? Or by erasing the boundary between our history and our current moment, are we imprisoning ourselves in a timeless vacuum? Is our only hope of looking to the future in regaining some clarity about how to draw the line between the then and the now? Without a knowledge of the past, can we know ourselves?

Dr Ashley Frawley
sociologist; author, Significant Emotions and Semiotics of Happiness

Ivan Hewett
writer and broadcaster; chief music critic, Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; author, Music: healing the rift

Ivan Krastev
political analyst; permanent fellow, Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna; chairman, Centre for Liberal Strategies; author, Is it Tomorrow, Yet? How the Pandemic Changes Europe

Dr Sean Lang
senior lecturer in History, Anglia Ruskin University; author, First World War for Dummies and What History Do We Need?; fellow, Historical Association

Professor Robert Tombs
emeritus professor of French history, Cambridge University; co-editor, History Reclaimed

Jacob Reynolds
head of policy, MCC Brussels; associate fellow, Academy of Ideas