Tuesday, 15 September 2009

We can change the future, not the past

I studied history at university because I prefer living in the past. Like a photographic print in the pre-digital era, it is developed and fixed. I can wallow comfortably in my memories, free of the pressure to take difficult decisions that always mars the present.

The past is also, as L.P Hartley observed, “a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Britain and the other great empires that have risen and fallen through the ages generally did not achieve their pre-eminence by being nice to foreigners, women or other less favoured groups like followers of minority religions or homosexuals.

Which may be a shame, but is a fact that cannot be altered. So we are on the slippery slope to madness when our leaders start apologising for laws and customs long consigned to history. Our own Prime Minister was at it on Friday, writing (or, more likely, lending his name to) a newspaper article announcing that we were all “deeply sorry” for the “appalling” treatment of the Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing, whose subsequent conviction for gross indecency apparently drove him to suicide.

There were, in fact, a couple of good reasons to welcome this piece. First, because more people should be aware of Turing’s pioneering work in computers, and of the huge contribution that the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park made to shortening the war.

Secondly, because it was a rare example of people power actually working. The apology was prompted by a petition on the Downing Street website; the first time I can recall a blind bit of notice ever being taken of one. If you have a few hours to spare this morning, there are currently 4,403 petitions open for your signature at http://petitions.number10.gov.uk and you can also view a further 58,603 that have been rejected or closed.

This one clearly escaped the usual fate because it had some celebrity supporters and the backing of the LGBT community (which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, in case you were another dinosaur who mistook it for the acronym of a provincial bus company). One of the alliance of special interest groups on which Labour hangs its slender hopes of re-election next year. The convolutions that will be required to stay simultaneously on side with gays, militant feminists and fundamentalist Muslims should be a source of much amusement in 2010.

You may concede that it is doing little practical good to say “sorry” to a man who has been dead for 55 years, but wonder what harm it causes. Like Tony Blair’s “deep sorrow” for Britain’s role in the slave trade, it is putting a foot over the edge of a potentially bottomless pit of grovelling for historical evils: for the children killed up chimneys or down mines, the women burned as witches, the Catholics slaughtered by Cromwell or the Protestants martyred by Bloody Mary. I could go on forever.

Also, when the word “sorry” has been uttered in any case, it will surely not be long before we hear the rumbling bandwagon of lawyers seeking appropriate compensation for the heirs of the wronged.

If the Prime Minister feels the urge to apologise, there are many people still alive who would no doubt be pleased to hear from him. The widows and orphans of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example; or all those who have lost their jobs, had their pensions devalued or are about to be landed with enormous additional tax bills to pay for his brilliant management of the economy over the last 12 years.

I make that about 60 million letters that will need signing. On the whole, it might be easier to take the hint from the number one petition on his own website, with over 70,000 signatures at the time of writing, and send just one short, contrite note to the Queen.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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