For the most acute comment on the outlook for Brexit Britain, look neither to bankers nor economists – but to the British Museum’s former director. Speaking in Germany last week, Neil MacGregor described his compatriots’ habit of swaddling themselves in their past as if it were a blanket.
“In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us: to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, deep down, good people,” he said. “Maybe we mention a little bit of slave trade here and there, a few wars here and there, but the chapters we insist on are the sunny ones.” Then came the warning: “This sort of handling of history is dangerous as well as regrettable.”
It seems to me that MacGregor’s comments cut straight to the heart of what is most dangerous in Brexit Britain. What he’s describing is delusional thinking: the red-faced insistence on one’s beliefs despite the mountains of evidence that prove them wrong. Delusional thinking helped tip Britain out of the European Union: the promise of those sunlit uplands of £350m weekly cashback and thousands of trading opportunities. Three months later – even after all the warnings from the European leaders soon to be suing us for alimony, the anxiety from business associations and the repeated broadsides from financial markets – delusional thinking remains rife.
Take the helium-filled unreality of the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. There, the top draws were the Brexiteers, Liam Fox and David Davis. Men whose careers were lost down the political U-bend just two years ago were now the star turns.
At one packed fringe event I heard the MEP Daniel Hannan sketch out Britain’s glorious future (“We can trade with Kenya!”), drawing primarily on the 18th-century economist David Hume. Elsewhere, a colleague saw a businesswoman raise with David Davis her worries about foreign trade. The response from the new Brexit secretary was to cite the example of the Congress of Vienna, the diplomatic carve-up of the continent that concluded in 1815.
Then there was foreign secretary Boris Johnson describing his new offices: “When I go into the Map Room of Palmerston I cannot help remembering that this country over the last two centuries has directed the invasion or conquest of 178 countries.” Ah, the good old days, last seen in Rhodesia! How the conference hall loved that.
The crash in the pound punctures the delusion that Brexit Britain will flourish | Aditya Chakrabortty | Opinion | The Guardian
Here is Neil MacGregor speaking from Germany:
Britain's view of its history 'dangerous', says former museum director
Neil MacGregor, once of British Museum, says Britain has focus on ‘sunny side’ rather than German-like appraisal of past
Neil MacGregor, before the opening of the British View: Germany – Memories of a Nation at the Martin Gropius Bau exhibition hall. Photograph: Adam Berry/AFP/Getty
Kate Connolly in Berlin
Friday 7 October 2016
Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, has bemoaned Britain’s narrow view of its own history, calling it “dangerous and regrettable” for focusing almost exclusively on the “sunny side”.
Speaking before the Berlin opening of his highly popular exhibition Germany – Memories of a Nation, MacGregor expressed his admiration for Germany’s rigorous appraisal of its history which he said could not be more different to that of Britain.
“In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” he said. “Maybe we mention a little bit of slave trade here and there, a few wars here and there, but the chapters we insist on are the sunny ones,” he said.
Neil MacGregor: ‘Britain forgets its past. Germany confronts it’
MacGregor warned: “This sort of handling of history is dangerous as well as regrettable”.
Germany’s approach towards accounting for its Nazi past had been in contrast “rigorous and courageous”, and had earned it admiration around the world, he said, speaking in fluent German.
He said Germans had given expression to their the worst chapter of their history in extensive memorials and Mahnmale (‘monuments to national shame’). “It’s telling that in English we don’t even have a word like ‘Mahnmal’,” he said. “The term is just too alien to us.”
MacGregor said that an example of how Britain was selective with the truth was the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. “We learn in school that it was the Britons who finally, finally beat Bonaparte in Waterloo and got rid of him,” he said. But it was often forgotten that it had been an Anglo-Prussian alliance that defeated him. “As Wellington himself said, without Blücher, (the commander of the Prussian army, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher) we wouldn’t have managed to defeat him ... This was joint German-British effort, but we don’t learn it that way”.
Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin Gropius Bau where the exhibition is due to open on Saturday, thanked MacGregor and the exhibition’s curator, Barrie Cook, for having “given the Britons another view of Germany, and for giving the Germans their Germany back.”
Memories of a Nation, which showed at the British Museum and was accompanied by a BBC Radio series, explores the memories of a united Germany through 200 diverse objects, including the first motor car, from the 1880s, the entry gate to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and a wet suit used by someone trying to escape communist East Germany via the Baltic Sea.
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MacGregor said the exhibition was conceived some time before the EU referendum. But he said the exhibition’s glimpse at Germany’s long tradition of decentralisation of power – for hundreds of years it consisted of many kingdoms each with their own currency – highlighted one of the major differences between Britain and Germany. “If you’re looking for reasons for Brexit, just the idea there were no hard and fast borders in Germany explains ... how Europe is shaped today, but makes an island folk like ours panic,” he said.
MacGregor, who is also involved in creating the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a new German equivalent to the British Museum, said he was curious to see how the British view of German history would be received by the public in Berlin, following the success of its London run. He said he would welcome a similar exhibition about British history from a German perspective, “precisely because it be helpful for us to have our own history explained to us from an outside perspective,” he said.
Britain's view of its history 'dangerous', says former museum director | Culture | The Guardian