Opinion

History haunts modern life, but will we ever learn from it?

The echoes of our history live on in the politics of today, and the divisions we seem destined to repeat

A statue of Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi’s London statue. January 30, the anniversary of his assassination, is a significant date for global events. Image: Will Oliver/EPA/Shutterstock

This week I slept in an icon of British ingenuity and inventiveness. Or I should say I slept in a former icon of British ingenuity and inventiveness now consigned to history and converted into a Premier Inn.

Sitting at the foot of Putney Bridge, on the opposite bank to the church where the Putney Debates took place in 1647 (discussing among political things ‘one man, one vote’), the concrete hotel was once the HQ of International Computers Limited. This seemingly modernistic intervention in the quiet streets of south-west London was to be the Labour government of Harold Wilson’s attempt at seeing off the American giant IBM.

ICL was supposedly Britain’s answer and fitted in with Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ programme that, from 1964 to 1970, was going to bring the UK into the forefront of innovation.

Wilson was fully aware of the incredible antiquity of UK industry, and its history of failure to modernise; its nationalised industries hampered by the fact that to modernise meant to innovate new techniques, meaning smaller workforces. And no trade union movement was going to buy a reduced workforce, especially coming from a government that was supposed to be for the workers.

Wilson never got the modernisation he wanted. The nationalised industries of coal, railways, steel, heavy engineering and shipbuilding slipped further into debt that was picked up by the taxpayer. And eventually, as was bound to happen, Thatcher’s government 20 years later stamped all over the basic industries, shredding them and leaving an enormous army of unemployed social security recipients.

Now, of course, 40 years on from the days when Thatcher’s government knocked the ballocks out of much of industrial Britain, we still have the problems of productivity causing grief. For we are an economy of low wages and low investment. Hence when the cost-of-living crisis hits, we have millions never lifted out of poorly paid work due to the non-existent earlier investment in better jobs and higher skills. Skilling people away from being the working poor did not happen under Wilson, nor did it happen under Thatcher.

I liked sleeping the night away in the one-time HQ of an ambitious piece of innovative history. Earlier that day I had stood in Parliament Square and laid a wreath at the foot of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue. There were a few hundred people there to commemorate his assassination on January 30, 1948. Called the Martyr’s Day by a number of the speakers, it was the 75th anniversary of his killing.

Interestingly, historically, one could hold a trail of events to commemorate that calendar day. Across Whitehall one could have commemorated the execution 374 years earlier of Charles I at the Banqueting Hall. Or in the Great Hall in Westminster Palace, opposite Gandhi’s statue, the sentencing of Guy Fawkes and his accomplices to death 417 years before. Aside from laying a wreath at Gandhi’s statue, I was in London to celebrate my birthday on this auspicious day. Being a self-appointed historian and having the fortune or misfortune of being born on a date when a lot of history had happened, I have carefully accumulated these historical events.

But the event that happened on my birthday that echoes down so completely to our days, and was not remembered in anything I read on the day, was the rise to power of Adolf Hitler on January 30, 1933. The 90th anniversary of his assumption of the Chancellorship of Germany and the beginning of preparations for the Second World War and the Holocaust seemed to go unnoticed. I say “echoes down” now because it was Hitler’s war that made the modern world, made the powers of America and Russia so strident and dominant in modern history. Which created the Cold War and all the accoutrements of world events.

And it now lays the foundation stone of the new instability of the Russian war in Ukraine. And lays the foundation stone of world poverty that has hit the poorest because of the inflationary pressures released by that war. January 30 can be blamed for many world events, but the biggest in history is that terrible war that was created by Hitler saying yes to the political hierarchy of Germany and accepting the role of führer.

Among all this movement of living history, we still have the concerns that fill our lives with distractions and disagreements. We still have the political divisions that grew out of Brexit and then Covid and how we handled it. We still have a party system that seems to preach ‘more of the same’ as a mantra.

This lot replaced by another lot without ever stopping to say, why do we still keep people in poverty? Why is it so expensive to keep people poor? Why are people being evicted under our very noses because there is no consensus on preventing homelessness and a destruction of the future for so many children?

We live in the shadows and the distortions of the war that ended 78 years ago. It gave us our consumer revolution. But a revolution in thinking seems to have been put on the back burner. I did have a great 77th birthday, though, in spite of the political inclemency of our times.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

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