TAITMAIL Lie back and think of empire

Written on .

The government is stepping up the culture wars by blocking the reappointment of Dr Aminul Hoque as a trustee of Royal Museums Greenwich (pictured).

It seems a small matter, but it has enormous implications.

The Hoque affair has been a slow burn in that the board’s recommendation that he be given a second four-year turn was actually vetoed by DCMS in February. The reason for the sudden resignation then of his chairman, Sir Charles Dunstone, was a mystery at the timer which has only come clear now: he told Dowden, the culture secretary, that if he didn’t reverse his decision he would quit.

Even Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, seemed bemused when he told The Guardian that the government had actively sought to appoint allies to the boards of public bodies over the past 18 months. “This is not the first time this has happened. Such attempts tend to go in waves” he said. “What is different now is the breadth of the campaign and the close engagement of 10 Downing Street.”

Hoque’s crime appears to be his belief in “decolonising” the national curriculum, though there is no evidence that he, a lecturer in Goldsmith’s education studies department and an East Ender of Bangladeshi descent, brought those views to bear in his four years during which there was huge change at Greenwich. The government’s thinking seems to be that he might, so best to take precautions. Hoque told the FT he was “shocked, disappointed and baffled” at being sacked.

The Hoque affair is the latest episode in the culture war sparked by the government after the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, provoked by the murder last June of George Floyd and described by the home secretary somewhat coyly for her as “dreadful”, dumped a statue of an 18th century slave trader in Bristol harbour.

The government reasoned, if that’s the word, that the action was a symptom of a mood in the heritage sector to reassess the politics of memorial subjects. In October Dowden wrote to museum directors threatening to cut their funding if they didn’t fall in line.

But there are two issues here which are easily confused. For some years now DCMS has been winkling out, vetoing and replacing trustees who appear not to agree with the government. In 2013 Liz Forgan was denied a second term as chair of the Arts Council because she strenuously opposed Jeremy Hunt’s 50% arts funding cuts. In 2016 Althea Efunshile, former deputy CEO of the Arts Council and a friend of Forgan’s, was blocked from joining the Channel 4 board. In January it was announced by Downing Street that the new chair of the BBC would be Rishi Sunak’s former boss at Goldman Sachs, Richard Sharp; the new chairman of the Royal Opera House is the Tory donor David Ross; William Rees-Mogg has been put on the board of the National Portrait Gallery; DCMS is pushing for the ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to be the next chair of Ofcom. In October No 10 tried to block the appointment of Dame Mary Beard, a prominent anti-Brexiter, to the British Museum’s trust but this time failed.

The other issue is how we teach our history and how the empire and colonies are placed in that narrative. In January the local government minister Robert Jenrick wrote in the Sunday Telegraph about the “baying mobs” of a “revisionist purge” intent on “ripping down heritage”. And because those baying revisionist mobs have been elected to local authorities or appointed to museum boards, he introduced “legal safeguards” for historic monuments “at risk of removal” – planning permission would have to be sought and he would have the power to call in any proposal he didn’t like. 

These particular dreadful people are the decolonialists, such as Dr Hoque, and at this point we need to work out what the term means. Decolonialism is changing the school curriculum from giving history only from the British point of view but instead examining the subject from all its aspects, distasteful as some might be. We could still be taught about the advantages empire brought around the world, such as modern agrarian practice, mineral extraction, engineering, governance and administration and military training, but we would also look at the post-empire relationship between Britain and the former colonies, the evils of slavery and incidents like the British soldiers’ theft of the Benin Bronzes. 

The simple truth is that ours is no longer a white history.  Nor is it black or brown, colour is not a defining factor in telling the story of Britain and its place in the world.

Last week’s AI Profile subject was the writer Tanika Gupta, a British writer who can turn her hand to anything on stage, radio and TV, from EastEnders and Grange Hill scripts to plays for the National Theatre and Royal Court and adaptations of Forster and Ibsen. Her parents came from Bengal via Calcutta but she is married to a white Englishman so her children are mixed race. When they were small, she says, and she took them out people assumed she was their nanny. “I watched my kids going through school and they didn't have any wider historical perspective to tell them how they fit, and that’s very important”. Nor did she have any teaching about her Indian or Bengali background at her own school, or even at Oxford where she read modern history.

She hates the term “BAME”, a horrible box-ticking label. “Now I’m told we have to call ourselves ‘brown’ as opposed to ‘black’ - we can’t call ourselves ‘Asian’ because that might mean Chinese. So why do we have to call ourselves anything?”

Because until we educate our children to understand that racial difference is not a barrier in our society but an enhancement of it, the institutional racism that colonialism is predicated on will never go, and shuffling individuals like Dr Hoque out of positions of influence consolidates it. That’s why it's important.

Posted in Features