Why Don’t We Just…
own up to our shameful history?

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Imagine if you will that EastEnders gets desperate for ratings and introduces a character based on Hitler. He gets his own major story arc in which he conks his head (clumsy Hitler!) and gets a type of soap amnesia where he can only remember the good stuff he’s done. He spends the whole month-long run wondering why people in the Queen Vic think he’s the devil incarnate and explaining to whoever is kicking the crap out of him “But I’m a good guy – I don’t even eat meat”, while Ian Beale wipes blood off his shoe in disgust.

Amnesia soap Hitler is basically the British. Over the last few years there’s been a trend for politicians and people on the street to take credit for the good bits of our history and conveniently forget about all the atrocities. Politicians manage to use the pronoun “we” when talking about winning the war, like they personally stormed the beaches of Normandy as a sperm. And yet suddenly we all go “We aren’t responsible for what our ancestors did” when reminded about what we did as an empire. Saved France? That was us! Jallianwala Bagh? Never heard of him.

There are many reasons to own up to our shameful history: to give closure to people calling for us to apologise; to begin to make amends for what our ancestors did; because it’s the right thing to do. But it would also be good for ourselves and figuring out our new role in the world if we finally saw what we’ve truly been like as a country – like Dorian Gray looking at his horrific gnarled portrait but on the scale of a nation state.

We’ve made some strange decisions over the last few years and our selective memory of history is at least in part to blame. YouGov polls keep showing the British think we did the most to win the Second World War, for instance, grossly underestimating the part the Soviet Union and USA played. No wonder we think we can go it all alone if we’ve forgotten we only got to where we are by forcing others to work cooperatively with us through nodding pointedly at a cannon. We have an image of our great nation, kept alive through a selective memory, and it’s time we started remembering all the other stuff that takes us down a peg or two by reminding us we’re basically bellends with fancy bow ties.

I know you want to say “But all these things are in the past”, like you’re Rafiki from the Lion King. “We can’t be held responsible for what our ancestors did.” And that’s perfectly coherent as a viewpoint. But you don’t get to pick all the good bits and say “We saved you in the Second World War” like it means anything, unless you somehow personally shot Nazis while still inside your grandfather’s testicles.

Our delusions of grandeur and image of ourselves as the goodies aren’t going to disappear overnight. It’s probably going to take decades of humiliation and begging allies – at whom we’ve spent the last three years screaming “We don’t need you” – for help before we finally get a sense of our place in the world. But as a quick fix I insist that if you must allude to our glorious past you caveat it with: “We helped to defeat Hitler. Mind you. we did sort of test nuclear weapons in Australia, realise there was more radiation than expected but did not tell Australia nor the nearby Aboriginals, and sent 18,000 British troops to fight 4,000 basically naked Maori armed with spears and then did the same in Tibet.

“Also we caused genocides by installing hierarchies of ethnic groups where none existed, then arming them and then leaving the country saying ‘Whatever happens now is on you.’”

And so on and so on all the way to the beginning of recorded history.

James Felton’s book 52 Times Britain Was A Bellend: The History You Didn’t Get Taught At School is published by Little Brown (£9.99)

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