Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Comment - Socialist historians and the culture wars

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 74 (Autumn 2021)]

The Tories are continuing to prosecute the Culture War with the appointment of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary. This issue of the Newsletter rounds up a number of the interventions the LSHG has made in some particularly high profile instances. 

Dorries’s first act as culture secretary was to nod through the destruction of the Dorman Long Tower on Teesside. A monument or statue to the steel industry and steel workers on Teesside, it was grade ll listed by Historic England but that didn’t bother Dorries. In a war, tactics and strategies can vary. The Government’s aim is to invent a layer of people it calls ‘woke’ and in reality promote their history over ours. Hence statues of slave traders must stay at all costs, while the Dorman Long Tower must go.

Dorries’s predecessor Oliver Dowden had pursued a slightly different strategy along the lines of ‘retain and explain’. He oversaw a policy that no statue or monument should be moved or taken down. He claimed he preferred new statues to be erected but in fact during his tenure as Minister none were. It might be argued that much of this is simply a distraction launched by the Tories while they get on with bashing the working poor. However, it is also something that seeks to establish and dictate exactly what British history is or is not. 

That is reflected not just in statue wars but in terms of persistent interventions by Tory politicians into what history is taught in schools and universities. Labour has had very little to say on this, not least because it’s clear that the current leader Starmer is not a history man. It is however a task that socialist historians need to address and dispute rather than leave the field to Tory propagandists. 

Thatcher laid waste to industry on Teesside. Now Dorries want to destroy the industrial heritage. The Dorman Long tower at the former steel works at Redcar on Teesside was built to store coal in the 1950s. It was a fine example of brutalist industrial architecture. Unsurprisingly the Tory mayor covering the area, Ben Houchen, would prefer to have no reminders of Thatcherite destruction of jobs and industry left on Teesside. He lobbied for the tower to be destroyed - an act of Tory industrial vandalism.

 I lived on Teesside in the 1970s and 1980s including the 1980 steel strike, in which I had a supporting role. The destruction by Thatcher of people’s livelihoods and lives has left a dreadful legacy and, as Dorries’s diktat shows, the Tories are proud of that legacy. Given that Dowden went to great lengths to make sure that no bit of existing British history was in anyway moved let alone destroyed, presumably Ms Dorries will no raise no objection to a few old statues being taken down as well.


Keith Flett

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