I tend to be very wary of using history as a guide to anything. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned from history. But the more distant things are in time the less likely they are to be directly relevant to the present. Patterns of events may seem to be repeating. But this may be no more than an artefact of our propensity for finding patterns in randomness. Our aversion to chaos is so strong that we frequently impose patterns where none actually exists. Explanations and extrapolations based on these perceived patterns can lead us far astray.
History does not repeat itself so much as imitate itself. Events happening today may seem to precisely echo something in the past; but however similar the events themselves may be, the context in which they’re happening is necessarily different. And increasingly different the more the events are separated in time. When we look at the historical record we must be aware that what we are seeing is not a photograph, but a photo-fit. An account pieced together from pieces whose reliability is varied.
Here’s a thought! Suppose you could be transported back in time as little as 100 years, what would be the difference that struck you most and most immediately? You’d think the world was not so very different then. You’d think most of it would be fairly familiar. Stuff then would just be older versions of stuff we have now. It wouldn’t be an entirely alien environment. But for one thing – the smell! The stench would hit you like a steam train. And, indeed, steam trains would be the cause of much of the foul odour. Along with coal-burning domestic fires, coal-burning industries and coal-burning power stations.
Added to the choking fumes from all those millions of tons of burning coal you’d have the stink of uncollected or inefficiently collected garbage. And the smell of horses. And the smell of people. However recognisable the rest might be, the very air around you would be an entirely new and profoundly unpleasant experience.
This is merely to illustrate how different the context is even if events are apparently identical. A man being stabbed outside a pub today is, superficially, exactly the same as a man being stabbed outside a pub in 1919. You can imagine the stabbing. But you almost certainly can’t imagine the context of the 1919 stabbing. You can’t imagine the smell. You imagine the past event in the context of the present that you know. So you have a false impression. Because if you’re not taking account of something as obvious as the smell, how many more subtle contextual difference might you be missing?
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
For all that, there are things which remain remarkably constant over time. For example, England has always regarded Scotland as a problem. And not only Scotland. England thinks of itself as an island nation. The lands peripheral to England are, therefore, viewed as a source of threat and something to be dominated every bit as much as the seas. That was England’s attitude towards Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the distant past. It is England’s attitude now.
The declassified documents from the time when John Major was British Prime Minister illustrate the point. They show that Scotland was seen as a problem by the ruling elites of England-as-Britain in the 1990s just as it was seen as a problem by the ruling elites of England in the 1690s. Much changed in the intervening three centuries. But England’s attitude towards its nearest neighbours altered not at all. An attitude of distrust and contempt.
Mindful of the need to take account of changes in the context, we can also see parallels between the then of history and the now of the present in the way England sought to deal with the problem of Scotland. Then, they sent armies bristling with swords and spears rebellious Scots to crush. They invaded our land; crushed our people under the heel of a brutal military occupation; destroyed our towns and villages; and built castles from which to rule over us. Now, they send politicians and civil servants armed with constitutional powers afforded them by the Union. They invade our land; crush our people under a leaden blanket of propaganda; destroy our democratic institutions; and build office blocks from which to rule over us.
History isn’t repeating itself. But the present is doing a damned good imitation of the past.
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