Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

The history wars. notes

Bagehot / The history wars                                                                                                   Sept. 24th 2009.





In politics, generally, platforms and manifestoes are made of promises, promising things for the future that will be better than the things of the past. One of the most striking paradoxes of that axiom is the fact that those who dub themselves conservatives always promise changes…

The article is a somewhat intricate reflection about the various treatments of the past and future by British political figures. It boils down, eventually, to an umpteenth piece of Bagehot advice to British politicians, clearly expressed in the subtitle: forget the past, and face the future. Yet, although the piece of advice seems founded on a sane and pragmatic vision of the problem, little is said about what that future might actually look like.




The aim of the columnist is to wring the neck of the saying mentioned as early as line one: He who controls the past, controls the future. In order to reach the conclusion, the reverse is the case, the columnist mixes historical facts, examples of how politicians have been pastmongers during the last half-century, with reflections about the question.

In the introduction, one of the mainstreams is deliberately introduced: although The Economist is supposed to back the Conservative Party, both the Tories and Labour are about to be chastised for their unusual and dispiriting bickering over history. The short-term is first evoked, with what both parties say about each other in the current post-crisis situation and about what has been done and the efficiency of what has been done. The columnist then shifts to less recent history, from 1997 to 1976, revisiting the past quarrels that took place around the last transfer of power from Conservatives to Labour, from Thatcherism to Blairism. Reference is even made of Winston Churchill and his 1945 defeat to hammer down the idea that the past does not count in politics.

Analysis follows, dealing with the reaction of voters when confronted to this past/future interface in periods of elections: according to the columnist, voters do not care about the past, however juicy or glorious; they are ungrateful and pragmatically selfish. On the other hand, such obliviousness can be beneficial to politicians since their past mistakes are forgotten as well.


In a second part, the columnist focuses on the major aspect of politics, either past or future: Economy and government spending. Eager to criticize that, because that is the Bagehot column, therefore a defense of liberalism, the columnist draws a dreadful sketch of politicians’ propensity to turn to the past and stick to established behaviours in order to escape the uncertainties of the future. In Bagehot’s opinion, the crux of the debate is here: the times of mindless spending have vanished and the time for bold reforms have come, but neither the Tories, nor Labour seem ready to confront those pressing issues.


The article is not tender with politicians, and the columnist does not mince his/her words: dispiriting, recession-busting, blood-curdling reminders, infinite and sterile regret, dull for voters, “I told you so” history, blotched, consciously or otherwise, parrot, courtiers paying hurried obeisance, vapid generalizations… Yet, apart from giving an obviously pertinent piece of advice to British politicians, Bagehot does not appear too explicit about how to face the future, except the necessity to free British economy from financial services and spend public money a little bit more democratically. But is that a liberal piece of advice?




Bagehot: A recent habit of attacking both ruling parties.

Bi-partism: Outdated?

British politics: A muddle: Labour is extenuated and even the supporters of the Tories lack confidence in them.

World politics: The present is the future of the past. The past has been better than the present. One must look to the future, but how to look at it without fear?

Philosophy: How to cope with the necessity to take the past into account and that to head towards the future?



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