Barnacles Through History

In my previous post (see also the comments) I talked about the emotional baggage that has built up around various issues and words. The metaphor I used was barnacles crusting the hull of a ship. When the barnacles become too thick, they destroy the steering impossible, and the issue becomes a third rail, the word becomes meaningless. Was WW2 a just war? Don’t even think about it.

Sometimes people deliberately try to put barnacles on words or issues – a large part of Political Correctness is campaigning to make certain words unacceptable (e.g. retard). And it’s not always a bad thing. Indeed, I argued that a large part of Iraq’s problems have been due to the failure to put enough (positive) barnacles around certain issues of national identity.

But what really hurts is when barnacles build up around an issue that are contrary to all fact and reason. Imagine, for example, a religious fanatic who rose to power in the army and used it to purge the elected assembly of anyone who disagreed with him. But even that wasn’t enough, so he abolished the assembly altogether and ruled by martial law, as a complete tyrant. His regime was one of constant terror and violence, he persecuted the majority religion of the people, and is generally thought to have committed genocide.

Now realise that man has a statue commending him as a champion of democracy.

For over a century, Cromwell’s name was mud – his rule was too well remembered for a revisionist project to take place. He always had a small knot of supporters, however – those who spoke of the “Good Old Cause.” Fired by the radicalism of the French Revolution and with his memory passing out of the popular mind, they were able to reshape our historiography and remake his life into something heroic – not without a struggle. “The man – it is ever so with the noblest – was greater than his work” is Gardiner’s famously bizarre attempt at praise. When you have to commend a ruler for the kind of person they are rather than the things they actually did, you might want to give up the project.

But Cromwell was not merely rewritten this way as a petty project by a bitter few. Partly it was an Orwellian “He who controls the past controls the future.” But mostly it was a genuine admiration of the man by what we would now call the Left. Of course a military dictator who banned people from playing football “for their own good” was attractive. Of course using the awesome power of the state to stamp on what the government deems “immoral” was attractive. Of course abolishing that bothersome “rule of law” was attractive. These were the people voting for Gladstone! And Lloyd George, and Attlee, and Wilson, and Blair… This is exactly what they want in a leader. Oh, they wouldn’t like it if they got it, but now they had sufficient distance from what he wrought, they could perform a whitewash.

So with the academic elite having provided the cover, there was a sudden explosion of Cromwellian memorials in the second half of the 19th century, which of course say less about Cromwell, and more about the Victorian radicals. Even now, he remains a favourite, and the only real damage to his reputation is from his deeds Ireland. He tyrannised his own people too – but the left don’t care about that. It was for their own good, after all.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] history to evaluate the thesis, but in British politics there is a clear parallel. As I have mentioned before, there is a direct line from Cromwell to Shaftesbury to Walpole to Fox to Cobden to Gladstone to […]

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