Historical Hyperbole

‘Historical analogies provide us with a route through a chaotically frightening present’

According to some people, we live in lurid times. The superbly pompous BBC World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, has compared the coalition government’s freeze on the licence fee with “waterboarding”. He wrote: “As our head is pulled out of the bath, we’ll be so desperate that we can’t be certain what compromises and deals we might be tempted to make. We will be at the government’s mercy.”  

Worse was to come. The Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn, trembled as he told a clerical conference: “I’m about to use an analogy and I use it quite deliberately and carefully. And it slightly frightens me to use it but I do think it’s where we’re at. I feel very much increasingly that we’re in January 1939.” No, you haven’t missed a gathering storm of war. The bishop was referring to the prospect of women becoming bishops in the Church of England. 

Historical analogies figured prominently among kneejerk responses to the coalition’s cuts in the subsidy taxpayers make to people with large families renting big houses in upscale urban areas. The crassest intervention came from Polly Toynbee (she subsequently apologised) who claimed this was a “final solution” to the problem of the inner-city poor. Never one to miss the publicity which comes from sticking his foot in his mouth, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, added that this proposed policy was akin to the Serbs’ “Kosovo-style cleansing” of Muslims. It may be that Johnson speaks without input from his brain or that his brain — a second class degree in Greats at Oxford hardly makes you Plato — amounts to less than his admirers tell us. He could also be pitching for the inner-city ethnic vote in 2012. 

What the government is proposing is to cap housing benefits at £400 a week, which may mean that an estimated 17,000 people, including some who receive outrageous sums of money to live in Notting Hill or Swiss Cottage, may have to move to Lewisham or Deptford. Lord help us, they might have to get on a bus or train to go to work, like others who commute daily to London from as far away as Bristol in conditions which resemble a “legion of the damned”.

Historical analogies are more usually drawn during international crises. Every minor dictator, including Nasser, Galtieri, Saddam and Ahmadinejad is immediately compared with Hitler, even though he led a heavily armed industrial state in the heart of Europe and took on three major powers. Anyone who seeks to deal with these “Hitlers” through diplomacy, international institutions and sanctions finds themselves reverted to Munich in 1938, while the mantle of Churchill is blithely assumed by those who wish to send young men into battle. Every military intervention by the US is invariably referenced back to Vietnam, quagmire of, even though modern technology has enabled the US to end the purely military part of such conflicts with extraordinary rapidity. The history of counter-insurgency wars, from the Rif to Malaya or the Philippines, would surely be a better point of comparison for the problems which ensue after the major war fighting is over.

Why do so many people accept such analogies? They surely reflect a nation’s psyche, even when the experience of one country (say Britain and France in the 1930s) is actually being incorporated into that of another, as has happened with fears of appeasement in the US. 

Looking to the past is part of any nation’s sense of identity, whether for lessons to avoid or stirring examples to pursue. Simon Schama and David Starkey have built careers as pundits out of what are at best tenuous analogies with the remoter past and our present and future. The grim, thuggish, bureaucratic reality of Labour is unnecessarily dignified by comparing it with machinations at the court of Henry VIII. 

Historical analogies also provide us with a reassuringly manageable cognitive map or route through a chaotically frightening present. Although there are significant differences between, say, parochial Irish Republican terrorists and the global jihadists, some take comfort in the delusion that a peace process lurks behind every corner. Everything can be negotiated if reasonable men sit down and settle. If it can’t, then the “spirit of the Blitz” will see us through, even though “then” enemy aliens and Nazi sympathisers were also quarantined in internment camps and prisons. 

For that is surely another reason for historical analogies. Our country is so partially and poorly informed about foreign affairs, not least by the likes of John Simpson, that it needs to be mobilised around sentimentalised snippets of a past it also hardly knows, which on closer inspection was less sentimental about our enemies than we like to think. 

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