I had an interesting exchange yesterday. It wasn’t especially interesting for the substance of the matter — a rather dull debate about history to which I contributed little of novelty. What was interesting was the form it took and the reaction to it, for it illustrates something important about public debates in Britain, namely that those that shout loudest and most vigorously attempt to censor the opinions of others, are frequently not representative of majority opinion.
The events of my tale took place on twitter. It began with someone noting that a statue of Friedrech Engels, the 19th century Communist writer, is being erected in Manchester. He queried why we object less to the erection of a statue to an inspirer of Communism — a creed responsible for some 100 million deaths – than we would to the erection of a similar statue to a Nazi. Someone else said that if a statue to Engels seemed bad, one should read up on the British Empire – then there’d be loads of statues to object to.
I weighed in at this point, noting that opinion polling by YouGov has demonstrated the vast majority of Britons (76 per cent of those expressing an opinion, to be precise) think the Empire is “something to be proud of rather than ashamed of”. It is common to encounter even quite highly-regarded commentators who openly state things such as “Until Brexit I honestly didn’t know there were people in this country who still thought the empire was a good thing.”
The Empire is one of those topics — rather like austerity or Brexit — where it appears many folk (including quite influential folk) operate in closed circles where they never encounter anyone prepared to say they disagree with the conventional wisdom of the circle, with the consequence that everyone in these circles blithely assumes everyone agrees with them even though their opinions constitute a minority view in the country as a whole. Armed with their assumption that everyone (or at least everyone respectable) agrees with them, their circles police opinion and self-reinforce by shouting anyone down who attempts to disagree with them.
Not only does this oppress those with conservative opinions — who tend to be the ones shouted down by socialists, centrists or libertarians — and stultifies public debate. It also enfeebles the engagement with reality of those in these circles. They just assume that everyone agrees with them.
When, occasionally — at some politically mixed dinner party or on Facebook or Twitter — they encounter someone with a contrary view that they’ve been used to censoring by screaming down in their own circles, etiquette abandons them. They believe themselves entitled to mock, or to use foul language, or to demand that the dissenter be shunned. Presumably even a hint of these tactics is usually enough to police opinion. When a dissenter is confident enough to stand her ground, the ante is raised and the censoring escalates.
But we should stand our ground. In yesterday’s exchanges I suggested that although doubtless there was incompetence and negligence and outright wickedness in Britain and its Empire, that happens in all countries and does not prove we should be ashamed. Otherwise we would say we should be ashamed of every country that has ever existed or will ever exist. And in Britain a number of important key failures are widely recognised. One widely-recognised example is the 1840s famine in Ireland. One that I consider particularly iconic is the failure to deliver real average wage rises in India between 1850 and 1930 — an extraordinary failure of British policy over many decades at a time when British mainland incomes rose rapidly.
But Good Guys do bad or incompetent things and often fail. It doesn’t stop them being, when all is boiled away, the Good Guys. And in my view (and I’m confident it’s a majority view in Britain), for the considerable majority of the period since Great Britain was formed in 1707, Britain was amongst the Good Guys of history. Doubtless there were other Good Guys as well, and perhaps the British weren’t even (at least always) the Best Guys. But we were mainly the Good Guys, and the political philosophy and values we aspired to (though often failed to live up to) have come to define the core of what is today regarded as good in government and political society, and we should by and large be proud of our past not ashamed of it.
I don’t think that’s an especially deep or novel or even interesting claim. The vast majority of Britons agree with me. Perhaps most academic historians don’t, but I’d very much mark that down as “Left-wing (and often Marxist) academics disapprove of Empire shock!” And of course many smart people would disagree with me with very well-reasoned cases. But my view is the standard majority opinion of Britons.
Yet expressing this view triggered a huge number of negative responses. Literally hundreds of people tweeted abuse at me and thousands more Liked and Re-tweeted along. Most were incredulous that anyone could be bold enough to express in public the view that the British Empire was not a source of shame. They laughed. They mocked. They ridiculed. They insulted. They thought it obviously falsified by one or two examples. “This is genuinely one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read.” “Please stop embarrassing yourself.” “The absolute state of this.” “Imagine being educated, but still being purposefully this stupid.” And those are just a few of the ones without obscene language or obscene emojis.
That’s all fine. Folk can attack me on twitter all they like. That’s what it exists for. But what I think interesting is the way certain folk with what happens to be minority opinions presume to believe those with what happens to be the majority view cannot have a case. Just because you shout loudly and mock hard, and those you know shout and mock along, that doesn’t mean most people agree with you.
And when you get shouted at or mocked widely, you should not assume you are the eccentric or out-of-step one. Often those with conservative opinions are too polite or too busy to shout and mock themselves. But they still have opinions. They still pass their opinions along. And they still vote.
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