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White-Washing British History

16/09/2013 12:19 BST | Updated 14/11/2013 10:12 GMT

On Friday 6 September, David Cameron refuted a Russian official's summation that Britain was 'just a small island' by delivering a speech that reeked of a Gove-esque approach to popular history entwined with petulant patriotism. He seemed to cry out that "Britain's one of the bigger kids too, even if it wasn't allowed to go to war this time", calling upon the rhetoric of the past as if to prove Britain's place in the present world and reimagining it as it suited him.

He stated that 'Britain is an island that helped abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth inventing', and true to Gove's retelling of history, seems to have forgotten that whilst Britannia only just missed out on becoming the inventor of the transatlantic slave trade, it certainly gave it a go, transporting many of the approximate 12 million slaves forced across the Atlantic; whilst Britain may have helped in abolishing slavery it was still about 300 years before anyone felt morally compelled to do so.

Likewise, in his impassioned outburst he declared Britain has 'the proudest history', and 'one of the best [contributions to] world civilisation', and let's not forget about the British Empire, because of course being a part of the empire was the greatest gift we could bestow upon any nation, right? Everyone benefitted from it. I mean, as long as you were British. Otherwise, actually, as a contribution to world civilisation and humanity the empire was a pretty god-awful gift wrapped with a musket and blood-stained hands. Oh. Well I guess David forgot about that then. Or maybe he thought historical objectivity is a little bit unattainable - seems to be the way the school curricula are headed.

But we can forgive David for omitting the deaths of millions from his list of notable facts, can't we? I mean, 'our music delights and amuses millions', that music being The Beatles, Elgar and One Direction, obviously. That alone is more important than acknowledging our nation's past isn't as idyllic and perfect as he would have it, surely? He argues that 'this is a country that cleared the European continent of fascism', when as everyone knows this was with American and Russian help, and on top of that many of Britain's forces were from the empire.

I could happily sit here and poke holes in Cameron's rosy imagined history all day (and believe me, I'll probably still go on about it for the next couple of days anyway) but what actually disturbed me the most about the whole situation was the response. Drawing upon the BBC's selection of reactions which, in true BBC-style, attempted to cover every moderate political opinion on the matter, this romanticizing of the past still coloured half of the quoted opinions, even with Gove's utopic portrayal of history yet to be unleashed.

One wrote: 'I thought it was fantastic stuff. Finally, someone actually broadcasting our history with some pride'. Another that: 'we built the world's biggest and best-run Empire. We have paid in blood and gold to fight evil empires, often alone and are still paying for it. Not bad for a tiny island. We should be proud and speak a little louder'. Obviously the latter feels Britain should still be thrusting its swords into the blood and wealth of others, extending its empire somewhere over the horizon, but even with this imperialist's war cry, there is an insatiable belief that 'this island is ... almost single-handedly responsible for the world we have right now', which simply point is utter arrogance and nonsense.

I should clarify that I have no problem with patriotism, and I am happy to call myself British; I identify as a British Asian. But this idyllic reimaging of the past and its Imperialist undertones not only ignore the realities of tragedies that have occurred, but also ignore the circumstances that have led Britain to being as it is. One of the criticisms of Gove's curriculum was that, except for some minor tokenism, it disregarded the development of a multicultural Britain, something that empire and particularly its downfall played a vital role in crafting.

And if the cause of multiculturalism is ignored, both its tragic and unwarranted beginnings and its wonderful end result, because they don't support an ideal past, the consequence is that the tradition of multiculturalism itself is rejected, as was illustrated by the EDL when they came to Sheffield in May and June, and as they continue to do nationwide as recently as the 7th September in Tower Hamlets. Instead of a complete and honest historic narrative that accepts and supports multiculturalism in Britain we have Othering taking place in the streets with groups like the EDL and the BNP dividing Brits and "non-Brits" on account of race and not heritage.

As I said, I don't oppose patriotism. I especially don't dislike celebrating history, I just wish we would we would accept and celebrate the past for what it was, rather than feeling the need to reinvent it or omit parts as and when it suits, because it's the whole of Britain's past that determines our identity as Britons, and in the end there's much more to be proud of in our actual history than David Cameron's exaggerations and patriotic bilge.