top of page

History in the Making

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

As we stumble, blinking, into the sunshine after nearly three months under effective house arrest we’re looking at a changed world. In some ways for the better. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the death of one man looks set to improve the lives of millions of others. ‘How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?’ That question, about the relationship between guard and prisoner in Stalin’s labour camps, was posed by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his seminal novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And it sums up the commentary about how people of colour all too often feel about life in predominantly white communities. It’s not about policemen using their knees to squeeze them to death so much as the subliminal racism that hampers their life chances. In education and job prospects as much as law enforcement. A line from the Bible is relevant. ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Of course not. Hardcore hard nuts on the neo-Nazi far right are in a minuscule minority. But the white majority can easily bankroll the head start their complexion gives them. Not any more. The sight of an unarmed black man in no position to resist arrest, pleading instead for his life, and his mother, has combined with coronavirus to force a rethink. People have had time, lots of it, to ask themselves the meaning of the word humanity. And decided enough is an awful lot more than enough. Silence is complicity. Hence the Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, and here in Britain. Hence the toppling in Bristol of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colson. And hence the domino effect across the United Kingdom of town halls wondering how many others need to come down. Ah well, the slave trade was a long time ago and a long way away. Except that it wasn’t. As well as millions of African people being dragged from their homes in chains and being reduced to the status of battery hens, so-called Barbary pirates used to do the same in European countries, including Britain and Ireland. Imagine you’ve gone for a nice day out in Brighton only to find you’re being shipped off in dire conditions to be treated with extreme cruelty for the rest of your life. Raping slaves was the norm. So was whipping, sometimes to death. At times, perforce, by members of the slave’s own families. Branding was also commonplace. Slaves owned by Colson had the initials of his company burned across their chests. Bet that hurt. Naturally, there was compensation when the trade was finally abolished. Except it was shelled out not to the victims but the slavers who were very cross about having their property taken away. The debt we ratcheted up to repay them in 1833 took till just five years ago to clear. Not surprising, as it added up to the best part of two thousand million pounds in today’s money, nearly half the nation’s entire budget. They were after all influential, law-abiding citizens, holding mainstream views. Back then, not now. Jolly fine fellow, that Robert Baden-Powell, founded the scouts and all that. But his statue in Poole Quay is judged in need of protection. Seems his racism, homophobia and support for Adolf Hitler have dob dob dobbed him in it. And Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square has also been boarded up, for fear it might be vandalised. Scandalised best describes Bojo’s attitude to that. But before Winnie did, as was undoubtedly the case, save us from the Nazis, he did have attitudes that don’t sit so well these days. Like this, publicly expressed a couple of years before the war. ‘I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.’ Then there’s Sir Henry Stanley, who famously said ‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume’ when he found the lost explorer in east Africa in 1871. Brilliant line, merits the erection of his statue in Wales. Now a bunch of killjoys want that taken down too, because, they say, he used to shoot black children from his boat. Talk about political correctness, he was only trying to calibrate his rifle sights. Doesn’t bear thinking about. Or does it? So much history. So little time. Not that the kids look like getting much chance to study that, or any other subject this side of September. So much for Boris Johnson’s plan to see all primary schools reopened. A fail, that one. Likewise his idea of having a test-and-trace scheme up and running by now. World-beating? Stuttering, more like. Then there’s quarantining people flying in from overseas. Apart no one being able to work out quite how it’s supposed to work, airlines are taking him to court over it. Would have a brilliant idea three months ago. Bit late now. Scientists are also admitting the lockdown should have started sooner. Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College boffin who helped make the rules then got in a spot of bother for breaking them, now believes Britain’s death toll could have been halved if they’d come into force just a week earlier. As it is, we have one of the highest fatality rates in the world. And look set to reap a bitter harvest. The economy shrank by more than a fifth, month-on-month, in April, the biggest tumble on record. The tab on that is for later. Likewise the political price the Prime Minister may have to pay for his mistakes. According to YouGov his personal approval rating has dropped twenty-nine points. But, good news for the rest of us, Covid-19 is very much on the wane. Deaths in England and Wales are falling towards normal levels, according to official figures, and, some say, could be zero by the end of the month. Hence the reopening of most shops, likewise pubs and restaurants pretty soon. Much hinges on whether the government dares relax the two-metre rule. Expert advisers’ take on that? Up to you, chum. Your call. At least if you’re a grandparent missing the little ones you can now be forever blowing bubbles. Or rather, join a social bubble with the family and give ’em a good hug. And take them to the zoo. But what about the naughty bits? Couples living apart will be able to get (it) together if at least one of them lives alone. Definitely one up on the law stating let’s not spend the night together. Snappy headline? ‘Boris Boosts Bonking Britain.’ Annoyingly, it’s not that simple. Delve into the rules more carefully and it seems you can have sex with a zookeeper but only in a car at a drive-in cinema and not in the reptile house. Or thereabouts. Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter. Click the banner to share on Facebook


bottom of page