historical stuff by Gareth Millward
Well, here’s a good “water cooler” conversation for history departments across the country: if you can no longer Google something, did it ever happen?
Today, Twitter was abuzz that the British Conservative Party has been attempting to remove speeches made by its senior members between 2000 and 2010 – that is, the ten years before they were elected as the largest party in the current coalition government.1 Presumably this is so that it will become more difficult to accuse the party of breaking its election promises. An attempt to “erase history”.
So, if it becomes more difficult to find the past words of Cameron, Osborne et alter, how will this affect the way history is viewed? Are we entering an age where large corporations can rewrite the past through omission?
In the long run, the short answer is “no”. Even though the Conservatives have removed the speeches from their own website and certain online archives,2 it quite clear that enterprising individuals are able to track down the salient points of these politicians’ words through other media.3 Moreover, the speeches and the deliberations around them will, presumably, become available at some point through the Conservatives’ own archive at the Bodleian Library.4 With a combination of television, print media, personal papers and the records of the Party itself, mass media makes it virtually impossible to delete this sort of very public information.
The more worrying problem, however, is the short term. With fewer and fewer “physical” sources (printed paper, film reel, etc.) it becomes a distinct possibility that various documents can be “deleted” in their public, digital form and made rather difficult to access. Internet service providers can already filter out certain types of website, as the government has made very clear in the case of pornography,5 and it does not take much paranoia to believe that this could be done for more overt political reasons – such as we see in China.6
Moreover, politics is not conducted in history books. While the more recent past is still legitimate terrain for the modern historian, those critiquing the government need access to material. The behaviour of cabinet ministers over the last ten years is very important information. Indeed, as shown by the recent trawl through Tory speeches – an amusing if entirely predictable reaction to getting caught – George Osborne himself argued that:
We need to harness the internet to help us become more accountable, more transparent and more accessible – and so bridge the growing gap between government and governed.
George Osborne, shadow chancellor of the exchequer, 8 March 2007.7
The speed at which “the internet” jumped on this story is probably a sign that, in the end, any attempt to remove evidence of the past will be futile. Or, at the very least, crude attempts to delete things will trigger a tsunami of keyboard warriors who will attack anything that threatens freedom of information and freedom of speech. The more worrying issue is whether powerful institutions (and that doesn’t just include government departments and political parties, but large companies too) with competent PR experts will be able to coerce search engines and databases to remove unsavoury information either through “investment” (read: bribery) or legal pressure through arcane libel laws.
But in the end, there is probably a much better defence that powerful entities can employ – information overload. As the history of social security has shown, it has become harder and harder to resist social security reform as the system has gained ever greater complexity. It is simply beyond the knowledge of the lay person to properly critique benefits, medicine, the law, scientific discoveries, policing, teaching and a whole host of other areas of our lives. True, we can maintain an opinion, perhaps even a semi-informed opinion. But with greater complexity has come greater mistrust in the systems which govern us. Departments have, ironically, become far more transparent over the past 40 years, especially since the rise of the internet and Freedom of Information. But there is so much information that analysing and presenting it in an intelligible way is beyond most people. And those with the professional capacity to explain it are presumed to have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and so their explanations are ignored or pooh-poohed.
Well, that’s a depressing note to end on, isn’t it? So, can the Conservatives rewrite history? It appears not, and any attempt to do so will backfire. The more worrying thing might be that they have no need to.