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Opinion

The debris of history surrounds us. So why are we still making the same mistakes?

We must lay to rest the ghost of former wrongs, iniquities, abuses of power that laid the foundation stones of many people’s current poverty

Rugby pitch with players

The multi-racial line-ups of men’s Rugby Union World Cup finalists South Africa and New Zealand showed how sport can break down barriers Image: PA Images/Alamy

Last weekend I watched the final of the Rugby World Cup. I know little or nothing about rugby but thanks to the referee’s constant but polite explanation of rules and infringements, heard over the playing of the game, I got some grasp of its great complexity. What a nice bloke he seemed to be in the middle of a heaving tangle of human effort.  

South Africa clashed with New Zealand, the two dominant forces in world rugby, with South Africa managing a one-point victory. And boy, was it nail-bitingly intense!  

The racial complexity of the teams was interesting, with black South Africans fighting for the title with their white counterparts, against a New Zealand that had people of Māori origin in the team. This is still astonishing to me, old enough to remember sport when it was all white, growing up in a white world where the skills and abilities of people of colour were completely ignored.  

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As Europe spilled itself out of its continent into other continents, South Africa and New Zealand – as well as Australia – became outposts of white domination that has only been punctured in the last 30 or so years. Sport has broken the race barrier with greater agility than perhaps any other human activity. It is to be admired, but it can only address a small percentage of the problems thrown up from former colonial times.  

The occupation of other people’s lands will always throw up an historical echo, resonating down through the following decades and centuries. South Africa is still a country dominated by the vestiges, the leftovers of its apartheid times. Its arrested development as a country is still haunted by the treatment handed out by Europeans who went there and made their lives at the expense of the Indigenous peoples. That legacy is still as of yet unresolved.  

Australia still struggles with its historical treatment of Aborigines, as New Zealand still struggles with the historical abuse of Māoris, who were displaced by a white arrival. A unity between peoples was never attempted. And now poverty stalks the occupied peoples’ lives.  

Of course those rougher times threw up bad history, and history has a habit of coming back to bite you. We live in a world that has yet in any way to get over how it was formed as a global system and order. The 19th century saw Europe became the world economy’s driving force. And every continent was subordinated to that dynamic.  

Now in the 21st century we are seeing the results of various imperial expansions and having to face up to what I have called ‘history as debris’.  

I should confess that I am a self-appointed historian. I have no degrees in the subject, no publisher or TV company has ever offered me money to wander around displaying myself as a historian. But I cannot but help apply my mind, as I grow older, to the issue of how we always seem to be having to avoid, hide from, or ameliorate the wrongs of the past. How come the past is so dominant and so unresolved in the present, and therefore the future?  

How come we cannot avoid the debris of history? We cannot seem to end the past in an even, honest, fair-handed way by putting the past into the past. Is it simply, as some would have us believe, because people like me keep talking about the wrongs committed in the past – for instance, like Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson overseeing the expulsion of the people of the Chagos Islands; expelled to create a US base in the Pacific Ocean?   

Sitting watching the Rugby World Cup, I clearly could not – on the back of what is happening in the world, on that Saturday night and other nights – see it simply as a game, a clash of sportive titans. Suffering is all around us because of history.  

The debris of history surrounds us in the UK. We are a once, so-called mighty industrial nation that has not managed its transformation into an inclusive social polity; hence people are still stuck in poverty while others prosper prodigiously. That is why I am obsessed with creating in government a Ministry of Poverty Prevention. So that we can lay to rest the ghost of former wrongs, iniquities, abuses of power that laid the foundation stones of many people’s current poverty. Where many children receive their parents’ poverty as an inheritance. Gifted to fail. Gifted to die younger, and be crippled by the diseases that inhabit the lives of people living through the Bastille of poverty.  

‘Thinking’ is required – new thinking, different thinking, not the same old thinking that has failed to extract us from the debris thrown up by history. ‘Thinking’ that has no truck with telling people off for past mistakes; but helps us build new politics that are not mired in the failures of the past.  

I’m sure I will lose some of my readers along the way if I carry on in this vein. But I can’t help thinking that, as the supposed ‘thinking animal’, we humans are pretty dumb in the way we keep repeating the mistakes of the past.  

Perhaps a ceasefire in Gaza would be a good place to start.

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

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