Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Churchill and Thatcher left off Tories' great Britons list

The Times
Churchill and Thatcher left off Tories' great Britons list
Philip Webster, Political Editor

Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are conspicuous by their absence in a list of 12 great Britons who created the institutions that shaped the country’s history, compiled by the Conservatives and eminent historians.

The ranking was prompted as part of the Tory party’s review of the teaching of history in schools and comes after surveys showing that many children lack a basic knowledge of history.

The review is looking at ways of increasing the emphasis on narrative history, which children find more interesting and which helps to make the past more accessible to them. But the debate it stokes is likely to consume the adult population as well.

As David Willetts, the Shadow Education Secretary, said yesterday, history is always a matter of interpretation and the list is neither definitive nor exhaustive. If the aim is to provoke debate, as Mr Willetts said, it seems certain to succeed.

The list is in chronological order, and begins with Saint Columba for bringing Christianity to Britain, and ends with Nye Bevan (1897-1960), who is included for his role in creating the National Health Service.

That his is the last name on the list suggests that the historians and the Conservatives do not regard any of the institutions founded since the middle of the last century as comparable to those that came before.

Mr Willetts commented: “The loss of national memory means a loss of national identity. Britain needs to be one country — and this means that all British people must share a knowledge and understanding of the events which have made us what we are as a people.

“A country is more than an aggregation of individuals. It consists of the associations that individuals form — the institutions which bind us together in common and overlapping memberships. These institutions are the inheritance of every British child, and all British children should know about them.”

He added: “History is always a matter of interpretation, and this list is intended as neither definitive nor exhaustive. But this list should provoke thought and debate.”

The selection differs considerably from the findings of the 2002 BBC Great Britons poll in which the public voted to place 100 figures in order of greatness. Only two of those on the Tory list were selected by the public to take places in the BBC Top Ten — Isaac Newton and Oliver Cromwell.

In the BBC vote, Churchill, whose cause was advocated by Mo Mowlam in a BBC Two debate, was victorious after 1.6 million votes were cast, beating the engineer Isambard Brunel by 456,498 votes to 398,526. Diana, Princess of Wales, came in third with 225,584 votes.

Charles Darwin was fourth, followed by William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, John Lennon, Horatio Nelson and Oliver Cromwell. The BBC was surprised that Shakespeare, voted Man of the Millennium in 2000, struggled to secure 10 per cent of the vote. He is not included in the Tory list.

The Conservatives have also invited people who would like to contribute their ideas on how history should be taught, and who they think have shaped Britain’s institutions, to e-mail their thoughts to the public services website: www.publicserviceschallenge.com.

The list was compiled from suggestions by Neil McKendrick, Emeritus Reader in History and former Master, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; David Starkey, author of The Monarchy of England; and Michael Burleigh, the historian and author of Earthly Powers: The Conflict Between Religion & Politics.