Brian Wilson: History being turned into propaganda

The SNP's Dr Robert McIntyre is prominent in VisitScotland's timeline. Picture: Getty
The SNP's Dr Robert McIntyre is prominent in VisitScotland's timeline. Picture: Getty
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We are in danger of allowing our past to be distorted to facilitate a preordained political agenda, writes Brian Wilson

Most of us would subscribe to the proposition that political zealots – of whatever persuasion – should be kept as far away as possible from the writing of history. There may be no such thing as pure truth and all versions of history are prone to selectivity and subjectivity. That is very different from setting out to distort reality to facilitate a preordained political agenda. There are growing signs that Scotland has to be vigilant of that distinction in the months ahead.

I made roughly this point last year after receiving an invitation from STV to participate in a documentary series that purported to tell the history of post-war Scottish politics “through the prism of the national question”.

This request was dispatched to the bin on the grounds that the vast majority of the political history that has affected people’s lives in Scotland since the Second World War had absolutely nothing to do with “the national question”. To pretend otherwise was a lie. A bogus prism meant a false history.

STV is a commercial concern that can more or less do what it likes. But when the same thing starts to happen, using taxpayers’ money to propagate a blatantly partisan interpretation of Scottish history, then it is time for people – and particularly those with a sense of history – to say: “So far and no further.”

The crudest example to date has been the “Timeline” of 20th century Scottish history produced by the tourism quango VisitScotland as part of its “Homecoming” guide for prospective visitors. As there are already strong suspicions of political fingers in that particular pie, one might have hoped that a little circumspection would prevail.

Not a bit of it. According to VisitScotland, the only noteworthy event in 1945 was the election of the first SNP MP. Nothing worth mentioning then happened until the 1979 referendum, which was followed by the SNP suffering “electoral decline”. Leap forward a decade and the poll tax “helps to revive the Scottish independence movement”. And so, incredibly, on.

This was taking “the prism of the national question” to self-satirising levels. In face of protests led by the former tourism minister Patricia Ferguson, VisitScotland added a few more dates and names – John Logie Baird and Alexander Fleming now get a mention – but none of the original drivel was removed or revised. What remains is still a gross distortion written by a very silly person, a zealot or possibly a combination of both.

A glance at the events propagated by VisitScotland as great landmarks in our post-war history tells us exactly why there are two sides to every historical coin – and, therefore, why we need either declared partisanship or intellectual integrity, when what purports to be history is portrayed via any public medium.

Take the case of the SNP’s first MP, Dr Robert MacIntyre, who held the Motherwell and Wishaw seat for three months in 1945. While Britain was fighting the Nazis, all political parties in the House of Commons agreed not to contest by-elections to maintain national unity. The Scottish Nationalists did not subscribe to that arrangement, so MacIntyre had a clear field to challenge incumbent Labour.

When the war in Europe ended and the 1945 general election was called, normal service resumed. With a Tory standing, the anti-Labour vote in Motherwell and Wishaw split two ways and the Labour candidate was returned with a thumping majority. Having had that explained to them, do VisitScotland still regards the brief sojourn of Dr MacIntyre at Westminster as one of the great Scottish events of the 20th century – or perhaps a rather grubby footnote?

Leap forward to the poll tax “landmark” and its claimed role (and remember this is still being fed to puzzled prospective tourists on the VisitScotland website) in “reviving the Scottish independence movement”. In fact, at the subsequent general election, the SNP failed to increase its vote or improve on the three seats it already held. The only party to gain a Scottish seat in 1992 were the Tories!

So, as well as being wildly out of place on a tourism website, this partisan political tract is also downright inaccurate. Like all propaganda, it offers a version of history that suits the self-image of its political puppet-masters. Having paid for it as taxpayers, surely we are entitled to know who wrote this rubbish and who approved the content before its appearance in the name of VisitScotland? Ms Ferguson should persist.

Historical revisionism in the Scottish schools curriculum is also well worth the watching. Last year, the Scottish Association of History Teachers expressed concerns about changes being made under the Curriculum for Excellence, leading to “a parochial view of history” and a built-in prejudice against the British dimensions that have helped shape our society. It quoted the way in which the First World War is to be taught as an example.

This was met with indignant denials from ministers of any political agenda being involved – unprovable one way or another in the short term. But then I noticed the press release last month from Alex Salmond about the scheme to give grants to schools wanting to organise visits to First World War battlefields and I was reminded of the history teachers’ concerns.

Was it really necessary for the First Minister’s entire press release to avoid the use of the word “British” and to refer only to “the sacrifices made by the many thousands of Scots and those fighting for Scottish battalions during the First World War”? Are the sacrifices of those who fought alongside them of no interest to us? I doubt if our children will want to make that distinction – and neither should the history they are taught in Scottish schools.

I have long had my own gripe over the teaching of history, which is that it is still perfectly possible for a child to leave a Scottish school and know virtually nothing of the social and economic forces that created the place in which he or she lives – whether a depopulated Highland glen or a scarred industrial landscape. But since little of that would fit into “the prism of the national question”, it will continue to be ignored. Instead, we are being edged towards a version of events that accords with the false doctrine of a permanent “national question”.

That is not history but propaganda and it should be identified as such wherever it arises, starting – but doubtless not finishing – with the VisitScotland website.