NEWS & ANALYSIS

Which side of history is the right one?

John Kane-Berman says the Guardian newspaper has been on the wrong side of it before

The Guardian, a one-time liberal British newspaper that is now very woke, green, and Brussophile, recently took the opportunity to throw a hissy fit against Boris Johnson’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.

Mr Raab had committed the sin of thinking that the current globally fashionable phenomenon of “taking the knee” had originated in the “Game of Thrones” television series instead of as a form of protest against racism, notably as most recently manifested in the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis last month.

The Guardian’s columnists, op-ed pundits, and reporters could scarcely conceal their glee as they went to town on Mr Raab. His ignorance was yet another sign of the “total incompetence” of Mr Johnson’s cabinet. Some or other Lib Dem was trundled out to tell the newspaper’s readers that taking the knee – as any fule kno – is a “key global movement”. A former Conservative MP chimed in that Mr Raab was an “embarrassment to our country”.

“Taking the knee”, the newspaper informed its readers, had originated among American athletes as a protest against racism and police brutality, but had since become a “way of showing support for Black Lives Matter”. Mr Raab was now “mocking the Black Lives Matter movement”. To add insult to injury, he had said he would take the knee only to the Queen, although he might have done so when he proposed to his wife.

All of this, The Guardian and its columnists informed us, showed that Mr Raab and the Johnson government were “on the wrong side of history”.

If so, they are in excellent company, for The Guardian was once right there itself. This is the newspaper, which, when it was still the Manchester Guardian, wrote of Abraham Lincoln that “it was an evil day both for America and the world when he was chosen president of the United States”. Not even Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865 caused the paper to soften its opinion of the man whose proclamation liberating slaves had come into effect in January 1863.

The proclamation read that all persons held as slaves shall “then, thenceforward, and forever be free”. But the newspaper thought Lincoln a tyrant and wrote in an obituary that it could never speak of the murdered president’s rule other than that it had been a “series of acts abhorrent to every true notion of constitutional right and human liberty”.

Ouch! With everyone who is anyone now in turmoil over slavery, having excoriated Abraham Lincoln is just about the wrongest side of history you could possibly be on. Not long after his death, Lincoln’s proclamation was translated into the thirteenth amendment to the American constitution, outlawing slavery throughout the United States and empowering Congress to legislate against it.         

In more recent years, the Manchester Guardian’s stance has been discussed by some of its senior staff and also explored in an academic thesis. Although the newspaper was opposed to slavery, it was convinced that the South had a right to secede from the United States as an act of self-determination. The paper’s “ferocious” and anti-Lincoln “obsessions” arose from its fear that he intended to preserve the union at all costs, which would make the United States a more powerful country than the United Kingdom. The paper had nevertheless given a “magnificent display of stupefying ignorance of the meaning of the American civil war”.

The good news is that it is not too late to make amends. If there are any statues of Abraham Lincoln that have not been toppled, guillotined, or hidden away so as not to upset anybody, the editors and board members of The Guardian could now bestir themselves to locate one so that they can “take the knee” before the heroic president. They could at the same time reflect on a rather agreeable irony: their newspaper is now enthusiastic about the toppling or defacing or removal in the American south of statues of the very Confederate generals with whose cause it sided in the American civil war.

The Guardian could further ponder a little about its views on what constitutes the right side of history. As we have seen, Mr Raab’s ignorance put him on the wrong side. At the moment, getting on the right side means joining in the hysteria that has swept across the US, various European countries, and elsewhere following the killing of Mr Floyd and its ruthless but astute political exploitation. Unless the newspaper is more circumspect in its political choices, some future writer might once again have cause to explain the “stupefying ignorance” of The Guardian.                     

*John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.