Thatcher, Churchill and the Lib Dems: The danger posed by simplistic judgements – Alastair Stewart

If our take on past politicians is too simplistic, we risk overlooking the wisdom of people like George Washington, who gave a foresighted warning about the danger to democracy posed by populists, writes Alastair Stewart.

Winston Churchill gives a ‘V for Victory’ salute in November 1942 (Picture: Reg Speller/Getty Images)

Margaret Thatcher occupies a fantastic, half-remembered place in the Scottish canon. She’s the left’s favourite bogeyman and the right’s most vaunted hero. When the Iron Lady died in 2013, there was a remarkable outpouring of hate. It often came from people too young to remember her, her policies or her government. Glasgow City Council even issued a statement warning off a so-called death party in George Square.

And yet Thatcher also represents a curious question: for all her lingering legacy, when is it acceptable to forgive a political party and move on? At what point does a party get a free break with the past?

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At the 2019 general election, a young man derided Jo Swinson for betraying students over tuition fees. Popular memory seems to think the Lib Dems ‘introduced’ fees in coalition with the Conservatives a decade ago. What actually happened is that, when in coalition with the Conservatives, 28 out of 57 Lib Dem MPs ignored the party’s pre-election pledge to oppose increasing tuition fees in England and voted with the Government to allow charges of up to £9,000 a year. But that seems almost irrelevant. The zeitgeist has made up its mind, and the Liberal Democrats continue to pay the price.

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In 2013, David Cameron’s government brought forward legislation to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales. For all the significance of this milestone, 25 years earlier, the Conservatives also introduced Section 28 banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. Somewhere along the way, the media, the public and party members met somewhere in the middle and decided all was forgiven. LGBT website PinkNews even named Cameron as ‘ally of the year’.

Britannia personified?

What’s interesting is where cultural memory and election results meet. Some argue that a fresh majority at the ballot box is enough to wipe the slate clean. Others say that the mud sticks but, if that’s the case, when do we stop looking back? Should we still be debating the repeal of the Corn Laws?

Equally interesting is how anthropomorphised political parties and the country become the further back you go. ‘Britain’s’ imperial conquests or ‘Britain’s’ record on slavery are condemned. It was ‘Britain’s’ finest hour in 1940 and ‘Britain’ that launched the industrial revolution. ‘The Tories’ fought the miners and ‘Labour’ introduced the welfare state.

With the exception of an extraordinary few people, history can be reductive to the point of absurdity but this is, perhaps, out of necessity. There’s not enough print space to consider all the cogs in the machine that made history.

And yet the reverse of this is the level of responsibility given to some individuals. Some seem to feel personally betrayed by Ramsay MacDonald when he committed to a coalition government in 1931. For all the electoral catastrophe that Jeremy Corbyn presided over, he truly cleaned house of Blairism. Few point to the Labour Party today and see the same iteration as 1997. Blair is still personally tarnished by the Iraq War, but not the Labour Party he led a mere 13 years ago.

Winston Churchill is regularly held responsible for singularly saving the nation or committing gross acts of folly. Both have elements of truth. He directed Britain’s war effort, but he was far from alone. The Gallipolli disaster in 1915, the George Square riots in 1919, the Bengal famine in 1943, the Dresden bombings in 1945 – all fall at the feet of Churchill.

There’s just as much complexity within people as parties and countries. It is not a zero-sum game, but the 280-character tweet has turned history into precisely that.

The king over the water

Where Brexit differs, and what makes the question of ‘moving on’ so hard to answer, is the levels of compliance and opinion have been unprecedented. Everyone had a view, a few turned back, but Brexit happened.

And this begs the tricky question – will the electorate ever be able to forgive the Conservatives for Brexit, Labour (as it is today) for being so indecisive or the Liberal Democrats for facilitating the 2010 coalition that fuelled David Cameron’s hubris? Will we conveniently condemn the behaviour of some and pass out laurels to others?

There is no exact science and history is fickle. But we’re at the cusp of the great Brexit rewrite as we move into a new epoch. Few countries, for better or worse, can boast political parties as old as Britain’s. Yet what is the cut-off point, when do they begin anew – is it every manifesto, every election or every half-century? There’s no definitive answer, save that history is not just written by the victors but also romanticised by the losers who preserve the memory of past ‘martyrs’.

You could spend days sitting and dissecting every party policy over the last 300 years. It is statistically unlikely ever to find a party you 100 per cent agree with but, the simplistic idea of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ Brexit threatens historical reflection.

There are still those Scots who cast their drink over a glass of water at a loyal toast in honour of the ‘king over the water’, Bonnie Prince Charlie. How will the post-Brexit narrative look in the post-truth era of the internet? And how do we challenge it?

He might not have predicted the internet, but in his farewell address, George Washington warned of “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” undermining the power of the people by pursuing “popular ends”. He didn’t hold back. Then again, if we crane our necks west, we’ll see that the denizens of the less-than-United States of American never did heed the warning of their founding father.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. He regularly writes about politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism, and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart