Sunday, August 02, 2015

How history is made

Picture: Greg Gjerdingen
Henry Ford (of motor car fame) famously said that History is Bunk - or so we think. What he actually said, in the Chicago Tribune in 1916, was: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today."

He wasn't really talking about History though - he wanted people to work for the future, not to live in the past, But when he talked about "the history we make today," he said something very true about how history comes to be. History is not just remembered, or even discovered. History is made.

Back in May, we all knew that the Coalition's days were numbered. We knew there would be a new coalition. We knew the Tories were on their way out. But on 7th May the people spoke - and they didn't say what we had been told to expect.  Suddenly what we all knew wasn't true any more. The press and pundits had been caught out.

But just as Nature abhors a vaccuum, pundits need a Truth to tell. A Truth had to be found - and quickly! Labour needed to know why they had lost. Pollsters needed to know why they had been wrong. And we who had been following the news wanted to make sense of it all.

Some pundits and pollsters got in fast with Shy Tories: the voters on the right who didn't like to admit their right-wing tendencies in public (and especially to pollsters).  Although the UKIP campaign suggested that people weren't all that hesitant to speak out against what they saw as a "progressive" project of "uncontrolled immigration".

It turned out when the polls had been digested a bit that it was more "lazy lefties" that "shy tories" - voters on the Left had, for some reason, failed to turn out. The next question, in the solidifying narrative of how the election was lost, was "why". Why hadn't more people voted Labour? We already "know" why voters deserted the Lib Dems, but that's a whole different story.

There were a few theories to explain Labour's defeat. Ed Milliband had moved too far to the Left. Ed was unelectable. The campaign was ineffective. Their economic programme was not credible. The media were against them. Aspirational voters were turned off.

There was merit in many of these ideas, but the debate has been shaped by the Labour leadership contest - and in that contest, there are three broadly Blairite candidates from the right of the Party, and Jeremy Corbyn, the old-school candidate who is proving unexpectedly popular. The other candidates need to show that Corbyn is not the answer to whatever question we should be asking. And (post-Levenson) much of the UK's press is worried by any challenge to the narrative of deregulation and freedom for "wealth creators" (and mainly multinational wealth creators). So we have seen a sustained drumbeat of "too far to the left." A consensus is forming. The fluid Present, with its many competing stories, is solidifying into History before our eyes.

Soon history will be written in stone. We will all know that the UK electorate has no appetite for redistributive taxation or a non-punitive welfare system... that people don't believe we can fund adequate care or pensions for the elderly... that we won't vote for enough taxation to pay for public services... that people think regulation of rapacious multinationals and the finance "industry" will hurt the economy and cost jobs.

Perhaps before this becomes solid, unquestionable history - the stuff that "everybody knows" - we should look again at some of the unspoken assumptions that underlie this worldview, and consider some alternative possibilities?

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