If William Pitt falls, no figure in history is safe
Comment

If William Pitt falls, no figure in history is safe

To keep finding new targets, the woke iconoclasts are having to resort to an ever more simplistic view of history

As our current bout of national self-flagellation continues unabated, the latest target is Great Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, William Pitt. The “Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review group” has listed a statue of Pitt as one of its targets and asks residents “whether features known to be linked with slavery or colonialism should be considered for removal, or renaming”.

It is true that Pitt was a complex character. His 1793 intervention to seize St Domingue, driven by a desire to take advantage of the anti-slavery Haitian Revolution and strike a deadly blow against the French, ended in disaster for the British and is one of the reasons why he is being condemned today. While yellow fever accounted for most of the British casualties, the intervention cost a fortune and weakened British influence in Europe.

However, Pitt had also spoken out against the evils of the slave trade. Addressing the House of Commons in 1792, he argued that slavery was a “curse of mankind” and that it should be seen “by the House in its true light” as “the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed”. So why has Pitt now joined the topple list?

The obvious answer is that the cultural revolution’s high priests are running out of targets. The best-known sinners are either already cancelled or now have “badges of shame” to contextualise their sins, such as Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. Like any cultural revolution, its central strategy is continued momentum. Thus more figures must be swept up in a purity spiral of iconoclasm.

But to enable this process, the revolution’s understanding of history itself must become ever more simplistic. Pitt must fall because some of his actions might be deemed by modern eyes to be problematic, even if a fair reading of his life might show that the true picture is substantially more complicated than that.

The effect is to render any study of history itself almost meaningless. After all, to understand the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, we must also acknowledge the British state’s role in abolishing it. As Peter Grindal documents in Opposing the Slavers, it took 60 years for the British finally to suppress the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and Brazilian slave trade. Moreover, in nearly all states and civilisations in history (the African kingdoms, the Barbary states, and so on), slavery has been the norm, not the exception.

Insofar as countries like Britain are exceptional, it is because they gave birth to the movements to end slavery. They are exceptional, too, in wanting to atone for it. Perhaps there are similar “Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review groups” in the capitals of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, the centres of the Barbary slave trade between the 16th and 18th centuries?

The blinkered certainties of “woke” iconoclasm must be seen as part of a deeper cultural malaise. As the essayist Wesley Yang has argued, it is a “successor ideology” to liberalism in the anglophone West. Beginning in the ivory towers of universities’ social science and humanities departments, it has now escaped into broader consciousness. Rejecting the civil rights struggles of yesteryear, whose challenge to injustice was based on pluralism and the common humanity of us all, the leading proponents of this ideology state openly that they seek to deconstruct “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality, theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law”.

The result is that a new moral hierarchy has inscribed itself on British life. The nation itself must be repudiated, as well as its heroes, and the facts of British history must be subordinated to a predetermined moral script of sin and self-flagellation. Our new cultural masters, sitting on the boards of national institutions, are no longer the custodians of a precious past that links our present to an as yet unwritten future. Instead, they vent their anger on statues and other visible elements of British identity.

So Pitt might fall, regardless of whether he was truly virtuous or yet another sinner. And if he does, surely no other historical figure will be safe.

Doug Stokes is a professor at the University of Exeter and a contributor to History Reclaimed