Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has routinely been surrounded by fierce, and often acrimonious, controversy. In the time since the comprehensivisation of education in the 1960s, few Education Secretaries have courted the kind of controversy that has been created by Gove’s proposals, from the introduction of Swedish-style free schools run for-profit, to the replacement of GCSEs with the English Baccalaureate, which the government was forced to abandon in February 2013.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the most polemical debates have centred on Gove’s reforms to the history curriculum. Constructing an ‘impartial’ history curriculum is always going to be problematic, wherever one goes in the world. Many argue that the history curriculum currently taught in China is constructed specifically for the purpose of legitimising and justifying the rule of the Communist Party, and that it deliberately frames history in order to present China’s system of government as the only possible way of protecting the people from Western and Japanese oppression. Closer to home, the Scottish National Party has met with accusations that its government’s reforms to the history curriculum in Scotland (which now includes more exclusively Scottish history chock-full of memorable instances of English-Scottish antagonism) have been an attempt to tilt September’s Independence Referendum in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote by mobilising newly enfranchised 16-17 year olds.
Much of the debate on the history curriculum has been conducted along ostensibly Left / Right lines. The Right-wing press has showered praise on Gove, whereas the N.U.T likened his proposals to pub-quiz history, and Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry was amongst those to declare that the new curriculum was myopically Anglo-centric. Gove was perhaps keeping this in mind when, speaking in the run up to the centenary of the First World War, he chose to blast what he called ‘Left-wing academics all too happy to feed [myths about the war] by attacking Britain’s role in the conflict.’ It is undisputable that, in the U.K., the First World War is one of few historical events that takes genuine pride of place in our collective consciousness, having a unique influence on art and culture. As novelist Pat Barker explains: ‘The whole British psyche is suffering from the contradiction you see in Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, where the war is both terrible and never to be repeated and at the same time experiences derived from it are given enormous value.’
Yet there is a certain farcical narrative about the events of this period that sits alongside the memory of war (and the pity of war). Gove draws attention to dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, which he claims paint the war as ‘a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’. One can hardly argue with Gove on this point. Indeed, Blackadder’s Colonel Melchett reveals that the generals’ plan is ‘to continue with total slaughter until everyone’s dead except Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan’. But many historians have claimed that it’s a misconception that the upper classes got off lightly. The BBC recently pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, some 12% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers. The social and political elite was actually hit disproportionately hard by the war. Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – 20% of those who served. Wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two.
It’s also a myth that tactics on the Western front remained unchanged despite repeated failure, as the period 1914-18 marked a time of extraordinary technical innovation on both sides. In 1914, generals had believed the war could be won by the cavalry regiment and the use of tanks and aerial reconnaissance seemed almost inconceivable, yet the latter were effectively employed by the middle of the war. As to whether the war was a just one, historian Dan Snow has argued that it was perhaps more so than the Second World War, which saw Germany invading Poland, a much more distant threat than the one faced in 1914, which saw German troops in Belgium; a closer threat to Britain’s borders.
Was Michael Gove right to blame left-wing academics for spreading myths about the war? He seems to have got that wrong, particularly given that the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’, was coined by the historian Alan Clark, a Conservative MP. However, Gove seems to have reinvigorated discussion and debate on an event crucial to our history as a nation, both culturally and politically, and that really isn’t such a bad thing.