Very few critics appreciate the positives. In his new book, Douglas Murray examines the thinking behind these attacks, which take a wholly negative view of our history. He met with the editor to discuss how the West’s history is now fair game, but that it shouldn’t be.
Douglas Murray is quite a phenomenon. His work rate is impressive – simply google him and you’ll find articles, columns, podcasts, TV and YouTube interviews, and all seemingly within the last few days. He’s a prominent political writer with a string of very successful books under his belt including The Strange Death of Europe and The Madness of Crowds. He published his first book as a second-year undergraduate, with the award-winning biography of Alfred, Lord Douglas (the lover of Oscar Wilde) and in 2011 he released Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies and the Saville Inquiry (more on that later). With that in mind it was very good of him to find time for this magazine, and to chat with its lowly editor to discuss his new book, The War in the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason.
The reader’s first question may be, ‘why is this the lead feature in my history magazine?’ My answer is that much of the book deals with how we in the West view the past. Since embarking on my new career in the last year, I’ve noticed historically illiterate comments made not only on the lawless internet (naturally), but also in mainstream publications and media outlets. Added to that has been the accepted viewpoint that we should feel only shame at both the West’s history and its most admired leaders. None of this is more apparent than in the figure of Winston Churchill. Murray devotes a chapter in his book to the great man as he tackles head on the effort to take him down. No-one is perfect, and I think we all understand that, but, I ask him, since Churchill remains a hugely popular figure, surely these attacks are futile?
“Well, you say that, but…I think it is possible. You see, I think that it entirely depends on what history ends up winning through. Now, of course, this is in itself a sort of ludicrous claim because nothing’s ever settled, reputations rise and fall and go through cycles and so on. And, I should stress, and I say this in the opening of The War on the West. I don’t want any of the debate to stop…I enjoy the debate. I think the debate is necessary, but it cannot be one-sided…If you decide that anyone in the past who used a racial term that we would not use in 2022 is to be cancelled…except for, as I say, the case of Karl Marx, who is a very vicious, racist by modern standards, but weirdly isn’t put through the same process. If you look at somebody like David Hume, whose reputation has been destroyed, because one footnote of, one of his essays, which all Hume scholars know about has a nasty, racist thing in it. If that’s enough to have David Hume’s name taken off buildings in Scotland and calls for his statue to be removed from the Royal Mile, then clearly no one knows where the STOP levers of this damn cart are.
“If you don’t know…Winston Churchill was born in Victorian England. He would’ve had some Victorian attitudes because he was born in Victorian times. If you don’t know…what the context of the times were, you could be told, well, he was a racist.
“I realised this movement was underway some years ago at a lecture at university in America. I mentioned Immanuel Kant, I think partly because there’s only two people I’ve ever known who really read and understood Kant, my late friend Roger Scruton and also a professor of mine up at Oxford. I mentioned [Kant] in passing…and a student said afterwards to me, ‘you know that Kant used the N word’, and I couldn’t work out why this student was saying this…then I suddenly had this break, ‘Oh, I see, if you can call Kant a racist, then you don’t need to read him, you see, because you are better than him because you are not a racist and you live in 2022…and he didn’t live in 2022 and he didn’t have all of our views and therefore skip over it.’ Well, it’s the same thing with the Classics. And if anyone thinks I’m exaggerating again, go and read things like the Washington Post piece two years ago saying that Aristotle was ‘the grandfather of scientific racism’…if you don’t have your present in the right context and you don’t have anything in the past in the right context, you can actually be told anything. You can be persuaded that up is down and down is up, and that Churchill is a villain… I’m afraid that the fight for the history to be correct is one of the most important fights of all.”
One of the most prominent accusations levelled at Churchill, which Murray addresses this in the book, is that he permitted the Bengal famine which killed around 3 million Indians during 1943/44.
“I think people would be surprised at the ferocity of the attack on Churchill. It is now at the point that the BBC, whenever they run a story about Churchill, always have a link to their page of the Ten Great Crimes of Winston Churchill. Things like the Bengal Famine have been litigated, they’ve been gone over and over, and I think the evidence is very clear that in the middle of the war Churchill did what he could to try to assuage the appalling hunger that was going on in parts of Bengal, and it was not successful. He did ask…of the Australians and others, to supply grain, but the allegations made by his accusers are not just that he didn’t manage to do it, it’s that he wanted Indians to die.
“It’s such an outrageous smear on Churchill…why he would want fewer Indians is not made clear. And second, of course, even if he did, which he didn’t, he was very bad at it because, of course, famously the population of India boomed during the period of British rule. The point is that everything about this is deeply, deeply unfair as a historical exercise, but what interests me and I think might interest your [readers] as well is, is why Churchill should have come in for such special attack. If you look across the Atlantic to the US where so many of these mania are coming from, precisely the same exercises going on there.
“If you look at the way in which the Founding Fathers of America have been re-litigated in recent years, or indeed, very interestingly, the historiography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that a similar process of iconoclasm is happening there. I’m aware you have a very sophisticated audience, so I don’t want to belabour this point, but I believe there is a reason why this is happening. And that the reason is that what I’m describing in The War on the West is a revolutionary movement. It is a cultural revolution that is going on or is being attempted. Now, what does that have to do with Churchill or Lincoln? If you are carrying out a cultural revolution, you need to go to the holiest places of the civilization you wish to make subject, you need to destroy their holy places. You need to defecate on their altars. You need to deliberately show them that what they worshiped can be destroyed. And then you have a subjugated people. Now, some people might think that sounds extraordinarily extreme, but I ask you why is the effort so strong to come for the most revered figures?
“It isn’t because we don’t know his flaws, or think he didn’t do anything wrong, but because he also represented what our parents or grandparents went through, and what they suffered for and so this is, this is deeply moving to the British people in the same way that Lincoln is deeply important to the American people. Why would you come for Lincoln? The same reason they come for Churchill. They want to attack the holiest figures. They want to make people despondent and subjected and demoralized. And I’m afraid I think it’s a big giveaway.”
One area that has been alarming in recent years is the attempt to ‘dumb-down’ university education so as to widen the appeal of a discipline. It is something addressed by Murray, in particular the field of music notation. This is a subject knows plenty about since he was a sixth form music scholar, though he studied English at Oxford.
“There are calls within the music faculty [at Oxford] to stop teaching musical literacy. That is, you would be able to get a degree in music…without being able to read music. What’s the explanation? That the Western notation system was come up with by that worst of all categories, dead white males. When I first encountered that argument, I thought this is insane because there are several different musical systems across the globe that have been developed that have pitch and time, which are the two things you need to have for an accurate notation system.
“There’s a system of a kind in China. There has been one that’s been developed in India and others, but none is as accurate as the Western notation system. We know that because if you were to play a Beethoven piano concert to somebody writing in any non-Western system of notation, they could not write it down and then play back to you something that resemble that Beethoven piano concert. Whereas when various ethno-musicologists from the West travelled to Bali, for instance, they wrote down Gamelan music and played it back to the locals using the Western notation system. It just works better. It’s like the argument against free markets – that it was produced by white men. Well, again, it’s not because it was produced by white men, it’s because it works.”
I was keen to discuss Murray’s book, published 11 years ago, Bloody Sunday: Truth, Lies and the Saville Inquiry which anyone with an interest in The Troubles should read. Saville was the second inquiry into Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 14 civilians were killed by members of the Parachute Regiment during a Civil Rights march. The inquiry took 10 years and was published nearly 40 years after the events it was investigating. The sheer amount of work to produce such a book is very apparent, and it is a great achievement.
“I’m so glad you say that because I’m very proud of that book and very few people have read it. It took me an awfully long time, an enormous amount of work…before that the longest judicial proceeding in the UK ever was the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings [1787-95]. That looked like a positively fleeting legal issue compared to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. There were thousands of witnesses, thousands of days of evidence. I went to all of the most important days: the soldiers, the victims and others. It was probably per hour of work to book ratio, about the most work you could put into a book because the volumes of evidence I needed to go through were millions and millions. I had an entire room filled with Bloody Sunday files. You had to know so much about it, and when I wrote that book I was very aware, I had to do justice to the whole thing in the round, whilst making it understandable to the widest possible audience. I really enjoyed that challenge of distilling a really complex story, which was made complex not least by the fact that when people 30 (or 40 years in the end) later are trying to remember something, we discover our memories are very fallible. I learned personally so much from that process. I read into the psychology of memory and much more and I realised that, for historians it’s even more complex than we thought, because even our memories aren’t fixed. I found it a really invigorating and sobering process and a reminder of how difficult it is to get to historical truths.”
I’m conscious that much of above makes our conversation sound serious, and whilst the subject is, Murray himself is incredibly funny. Throughout the book, and the interview, I laughed out loud as he describes the latest bonkers idea. A personal favourite of mine is the racist garden.
“Yes. Isn’t that amazing? I do sub-headings to whip along the narrative, I always find that it’s useful for me as a reader…if you see hundreds of pages of text and no breaks, it can be off-putting to the reader. Sub-headings are very useful that, and I quite enjoy sub-headings that are true, descriptive and utterly ludicrous. My two favourites from The War on the West is the sub-heading Racist Babies, which is the allegation that even two-month old white children can express racism or some such a nonsense. And the other is Racist Gardening. Racist gardening is the claim that even gardening is racist because, as one Canadian academic put it, lawns are racist, apparently, because lawns demonstrate order. By the way, the person writing this clearly is a racist himself because that means that black people represent disorder, which is a profoundly racist claim. Why white people would represent order is beyond me. White people are able to be disordered as anyone else. And also, of course, the claim that Kew Gardens and others are, are now forcing on us and on themselves, which is that you need to ‘decolonise’ horticulture. I can’t help thinking that a world that believes that there is any priority to decolonising horticulture is a world very close collapse. You can’t have very much to do with your time if you think all your main task in life must be to explain why the shrubs are racist.”
Our meeting comes to an end on a more uplifting note as we discuss a passage in The Brothers Karamazov dealing with gratitude. It’s a chapter of his book that I found moving. As Murray himself says in our final exchange, “my argument, among much else, in The War on the West is that we could be peoples of resentment. We could all bring up the next generation to reopen wounds and cry about the hurt. We could bring them up to hate what they don’t have and to hate what they have. Or we could say, what we have in Western democracies like Britain and America is not just unusual in historical terms, but highly unusual in the world today.”
Douglas Murray is the author of The War in the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason which is out now. You can listen to an extended version of the Editor’s chat with Douglas on the Aspects of History Podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts.