In 2014, the Scottish people marginally voted ‘No’ to independence. One year and eight months later, the United Kingdom voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union. Both referendums were fought on the grounds of sovereignty, control and autonomy in the face of powerful, economic interests that do not represent the full range of national opinion. The differences in opinion was stark, I noticed, at school.
The Scottish Referendum took place at the dawn of my A-level career, whilst Brexit ensued on the evening of my final A level exam. My first (and only) in-school exposure to the debate was a passing query made by the Critical Thinking teacher, who often sardonically joked about our generations’ apparent ignorance regarding politics, sparking a minor debate between a handful of students. During Brexit and the 2015 General Election, the school held mock elections with ‘Party Leaders’ and debates in assembly, with the politics and sociology teachers clarifying both sides of the argument. Nothing of the sort happened for the Scottish referendum. Rather obviously, being the Scottish referendum, the large majority of the UK’s population didn’t have a vote. Nevertheless, this does not excuse England’s comparative indifference to, or, more to the point, its general disregard of the Scottish nation.
Not only has the current English education system turned a blind eye on Scotland by refusing to address key elements of its own history and relationship with the country in schools, but other poignant periods in British history have been side-lined. Until recently, every module in GCSE History focused on the modern period, with the majority being related to the First and Second World Wars: The Origins of the First World War, The League of Nations, Weimar Germany, and Hitler’s Germany.
Variation in this Anglo-centricity came from interests on the other side of the Atlantic, one example being the ‘Roaring Twenties’ in the US and its Cold War conflict in Vietnam; these topics were often considered less fundamental and clumped in the same category as ‘The Challenge in Northern Ireland’ and ‘The Middle East’, only one of which would be set on the exam. It was chosen that we would study Vietnam, very possibly because it is easier to point the finger at the USA for meddling in foreign affairs, than it is to admit that England, in some instances, was very much on the wrong side of history. History syllabuses are full to the brim with Britain’s modern triumphs that ‘Teachers [are] told to move on from Hitler years’ as one Guardian article puts it.
Indeed, with recent changes to the GCSE and A Level specifications, it appears that exam boards have done exactly that: seven of the fifteen available AQA courses date beginning around the 14th century. At least one compulsory module being either on Norman, Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration England. No doubt the exposure of these periods is positive in terms of historical and educational nourishment; previously, such periods in history were mostly ignored by GCSE syllabuses. However, what remains is a gaping hole in our education that fails to explain Britain’s effect on other countries around the world and also how that links to modern day political affairs.
The only current AQA module that concerns itself with the possible colonial and imperial history of Britain is the module named ‘Britain: Migration, empires and the people’. The most explicit section in this module in terms of examining the lasting and damaging effects of the British Empire on its colonies is expressed in ‘Part three: Expansion and empire’:
- Expansion in India: causes and impact of British control; East India Company; Robert Clive; Warren Hastings; Indian Rebellion (1857); the social, political, cultural and economic impact of empire on Britain and India.
- Expansion in Africa: causes and impact of British involvement; trade and missionary activity; South Africa; Egypt; the Scramble for Africa; Cecil Rhodes; the Boer War (1899–1902); imperial propaganda.
- Migrants to, from and within Britain: Irish migration to Britain; Jewish immigration to Britain; transportation; migration to and within the Empire, including movement of Asians to Africa; migration from rural to urban settings.
This is a promising start to a course that lacks relevance to the contemporary questions that can and need to be explained by history: why do Scotland want independence and what is the history behind it? Why is it that the Royal family hadn’t set foot in Ireland for a century?
The result of this can lead to an absence in national awareness; is it possible that fewer people would hurl racial and islamophobic slurs at Pakistanis and their communities if they knew that the British Raj was responsible for encouraging Pakistani migration to Britain in the mid-twentieth century? I think so. The act of brushing such periods of history under the carpet, means that bigotry is fed by ignorance, which then allows for obliviousness and inaccuracies to find their ways into history books. One widespread example of this was a photo shared on social media: ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.’
Unless more specifically indicated in an AQA textbook, the claim that African slaves were ‘workers’, who were presented with economic opportunities to work abroad thanks to the ‘Atlantic Slave Trade’ could potentially evoke sentiments that can easily be translated to fit into British politics. The backlash towards Muslims and the rise of islamophobia being prime examples of how generalised assumption is being paraded around as ‘fact’.
In the circumstances that we are unaware and uneducated in the history of the country in which we live, a path is granted to other authorities to distort political discourse and feed off of the ignorance that a poor education leaves behind. Media platforms, mainly tabloids and the ‘fake news’ that circulates on the internet, incite a staunch right-wing prejudice. Naturally, with this, comes a wave of nationalist newspaper clippings, online articles and TV coverage, all of which pander to the story sympathetic to those attempting to rewrite, and even obliterate the parts of our own history for which we must accept blame.