Colin Brazier: If you apply the lens of modern sensibilities, there is almost nothing from history someone won’t find objectionable
In our rush to embrace other cultures, other histories, other identities….we risk the neglect of our own
Remember, remember the Fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.
We do remember, don’t we. For four hundred years and more, Britons have lit bonfires and launched fireworks into the chill November skies, to remember our most famous – and least successful – act of domestic terrorism.
Depressingly, the folk memory of Guy Fawkes and his fellow traitors is wearing thin. A survey this week showed that four in ten Brits have no idea about the origins of Bonfire Night.
A quarter think it’s a pagan festival, a tenth think Guy Fawkes is a fictional character… only fractionally more than the number who thought that he gave his name to the fork…as in, knives and forks.
The poll wasn’t one of those silly surveys, dreamed up by a bored PR executive and involving a sample that included a handful of respondents, some of them made up. No, this was fairly robust. Fifteen hundred people and old enough to know better. These weren’t kids. They were aged between 16 and 29.
It’s all of a piece with where we are as a society. In our rush to embrace other cultures, other histories, other identities….we risk the neglect of our own. There is a growing suspicion that anything that happened beyond living memory is somehow irrelevant to modern Britain or, worse still, tells a story that is, dread word, problematic.
But for a society to have social cohesion, it needs foundational stories. That’s difficult when a large and growing part of the population have ancestors who were not in the UK when Palace guards stumbled upon Guido minding his gunpowder. The temptation has been to find new stories - new characters to tell our national story.
And that often involves slaying the old, to make way for the new. Out go the old white men – Churchill, Gladstone, Nelson, Newton – in comes Mary Seacole. It’s easier to sell a national story if it looks less like Brideshead Revisited and more like Bridgerton.
And, the truth is, that if you apply the corrective lens of modern sensibilities, there is almost nothing from our history which someone won’t find objectionable. Even the Gunpowder Plot. It sought to rid our country of its monarchy, its aristocracy, its politicians, its Established Church. There’s quite a few alive today who would applaud such a revolutionary manifesto. Even the idea of lighting bonfires, releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere, all those fireworks scaring the animals, will offend someone, somewhere.
But Guy Fawkes isn’t Cecil Rhodes. He’s not being actively airbrushed from our history. He’s been forgotten about as a by-product of an educational system which simply chooses to prioritise other narratives. There are only so many hours in the school day. And where DO you find the time to explain the ways of Medieval Britain or the Civil War, if the syllabus is groaning under the weight of Black History Month, which ended a few days ago. Or if children are encouraged to focus on learning about the very latest twist in identify politics. Yesterday, for instance, we told you about the primary school in Edinburgh, where boys as young as three are being urged to attend class for a day wearing a skirt – to promote equality.
The people who run our culture, the media, the NGOs, the charities, the museums, the arts; they subscribe to the laudable idea that history must be inclusive. The objective importance of an event or a person now matters less than whether they can be shoehorned into a story of diversity. Guy Fawkes isn’t being cancelled, but nor can his life and death be presented in a way that makes all Britons feel he’s relevant to their life, right now. And so he begins his slow, posthumous march towards obscurity, aided by a culture which aids and abets this strange mania for amnesia.