’Twas Ever Thus

No. I’m sorry; but ’twasnt. As a historian, I think I can confidently say that nothing approaching the present degree of governmental corruption, duplicity and incompetence has been seen in British politics over the last century or more. Of course one can point to examples of all these traits at certain times in the past, some of them egregious; but they never combined together to characterise politics as they seem to be doing today.

Nor do these past examples indicate that politics has always (‘ever’) been like that. That’s a common mistake of people’s using – or rather misusing – history to make present-day political points. Because they’ve found something like it happening in the past, they jump to the assumption that this is how it has ‘ever’ been. An example is the evidence Michael Gove gave to the Leveson inquiry into Press malpractice in 2019; when – in his usual self-confident style – he cited instances of scandal-mongering journalism in the 1790s, in order to prove that this had ‘always’ gone on. Of course that doesn’t follow. Because something happened in the late eighteenth century which bears a resemblance to today’s journalistic practices, it doesn’t at all follow that those practices were common in the intervening years too. In actual fact they weren’t, during most of the nineteenth century and the first three-quarters of the twentieth; when the Press – even the left-wing Radical press – was far more fair and balanced, and indeed intelligent, than it is today. To show that journalism – and by extension politics – were ‘ever thus’, one needs to provide evidence for the intervening years too. But people very rarely do. This applies to those on the Left as well. Citing, for example, the Indian ‘Mutiny’ or the Omdurman massacre or any of Britain’s other imperial crimes to prove that racism in Britain was ‘ever thus’, falls into exactly the same error.

I’m not sure why some on the Left feel they need to do this. My forthcoming Britain’s Contested History: Lessons for Patriots (the publishers now tell me it won’t be out until July) will I hope put them right – or a little bit righter – on these matters. So far as people like Gove are concerned, however, the ‘’twas ever thus’ argument helps to excuse the methods of men like Rupert Murdoch, his great patron, whose News of the World he was defending; on the grounds that if his sort of journalism had always gone on it must be ‘natural’, which meant that he (Murdoch) could not be blamed for it. You could make the same argument – and some people do – for a whole load of things. Poverty is the most obvious one: ‘the poor are always with us’. And cheating and lying. Indeed, the ‘’twas ever thus’ argument is one of the most powerful weapons that can be deployed against reform, or indeed any kind of change. Fatalism can only encourage acceptance and apathy. And ‘history’ – proper history that is, not the sort that simply relies on ‘precedents’ – doesn’t support it at all.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to ’Twas Ever Thus

  1. Pingback: They’re All the Same | Porter’s Pensées

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