George Orwell painted a nightmarish picture of Britain under totalitarian rule in his epic novel 1984, brilliantly explaining how ideologues weaponize history as propaganda.
‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every painting repainted, every statue and street building renamed,’ he wrote. “There is nothing but an infinite gift in which the party is always right.”
Tragically, today’s social justice warriors seem eager to turn fiction into reality. In their war against Britain’s heritage and identity, they try to reshape the past according to their own narrow values.
According to their warped mindset, our island story is a tale of shame to be either thrown overboard or re-formed – a deliberate slap in the face of millions of fellow citizens.
Nothing is more evident of this impetus than the move this week by the Liverpool Guild of Students to ditch the name William Gladstone from one of the housing blocks and replace it with that of Dorothy Kuya, an anti-racism campaigner and longtime activist of the Communist Party. .
Both hailed from Liverpool, but that’s where the parallels end. It is absurd to pretend that Kuya, whatever her virtues, has something like the 19th-century ‘Grand Old Man’, as his legions of contemporary supporters called him.
Ms. Kuya, who died in 2013, was a left-wing agitator, teacher and municipal bureaucrat. Meanwhile, Gladstone was one of our greatest prime ministers, with a record age of 84.
But in the eyes of the awakened brigade, Gladstone was committing the mortal sin of having a family connection to slavery. He never owned slaves himself, and during his career described the trade as “a monster” and “by far the dirtiest crime affecting the history of mankind.”
Nothing illustrates this impulse more strongly than the move by the Liverpool Guild of Students this week to ditch the William Gladstone name from one of the accommodation blocks.
But his father Sir John, a Liverpool merchant, owned plantations in the Caribbean, for which he received generous compensation when slavery was abolished in 1834. This is enough to damn Sir John’s innocent son.
While rewriting British history, disdainful of justice, the zealots work on the principle of guilt by association.
Indeed, in this culture of Pap smears, the link doesn’t even have to be with a close relative.
In a ridiculous recent move, the British Library targeted the great poet Ted Hughes for character murder because he had a distant 17th century ancestor named Nicholas Ferrar who was involved with London’s Virginia Company who owns the slaves.
If Gladstone can be convicted of his father’s sins, why would Dorothy Kuya escape criticism for her long-standing devotion to the vile ideology of communism, which was responsible for tens of millions of innocent deaths in the 20th century?
For 40 years, Kuya clung to her worship of this murderous teaching, even after news of Stalin’s labor camps surfaced, and after the Soviet Union’s barbaric suppression of democratic uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
But the negativity should not be exaggerated. We do not build statues or name buildings in honor of figures from the past because we consider them to be saints to be worshiped, but because we admire their achievements.
According to an objective analysis, Gladstone’s record is in a different league from Ms. Kuya’s.
The block will instead be named after Dorothy Kuya, an anti-racism campaigner and longtime Communist Party activist.
For more than 60 years, he was a towering leader with an electrical talent for eloquence, ferocious intelligence, phenomenal ability to work and far-sighted vision.
Unlike many of today’s politicians, he had major interests outside of politics, including Ancient Greek, theology and tree nursery – even in old age he continued to cut trees by hand.
His library in Hawarden, Flintshire, which contains more than 250,000 printed items and is open to the public, is a monument to the capabilities of his intellect.
Gladstone had a unique influence on the 19th century political landscape through his unparalleled authority. He was not only the first modern finance minister, but also the architect of our impartial civil service through reforms he carried out in the 1850s.
Likewise, his innovative election campaigns in his Scottish constituency of Midlothian in the 1880s, full of rallies and mass publicity, set the model for twentieth-century politics.
Notably, he was the driving force behind the founding of the Liberal Party in the mid-19th century, turning it into a powerful vehicle for reform. This brings us to the bitter irony at the heart of the awakened campaign against him.
For Gladstone could be described as the godfather of British progressive politics. Although he was a conservative at first, “the rising hopes of the stern, unyielding Tories,” he became increasingly radical over time.
Hostile to imperialism when the empire was at its height, he supported national freedom in Italy, Greece, the Balkans and even Ireland.
Had his long, gallant crusade for Irish Home Rule – now called independence – been successful, much of the blood-soaked conflict of the last century would have been averted, while Ireland might have remained unified rule within the Commonwealth.
He loathed militarism and fought long-running struggles against increases in defense spending, the issue that led to his final dismissal in 1894.
Ms. Kuya, who died in 2013, was a left-wing agitator, teacher and municipal bureaucrat. Meanwhile, Gladstone was one of our greatest prime ministers, with a record age of 84
He was also a passionate advocate of parliamentary democracy and the first prominent politician to call for all adult men to vote.
In fact, well ahead of conventional opinion, he believed in universal human rights and racial equality.
“The sanctity of human life in the hilltop villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as yours,” he once said.
Yes, Gladstone had flaws too. It could be long-winded, quirky, and hypocritical, with a volcanic intensity that could be presumptuous. Queen Victoria complained that he had “a strange look in his eye” and always addressed her as “when I was a public meeting.”
Like another – much more recent – center-left prime minister, there was also a good wave of vanity in Gladstone dressing his own political interests as a mission from God.
One of his most stubborn critics, radical Member of Parliament Henry Labouchere, once said, “I have no objection to Gladstone always having the trump card in store, but only to the belief that the Almighty put it there.”
The worst example of this hypocrisy was his eccentric rescue work among prostitutes, which, despite all his compassion, was laced with sexual desire. (On his deathbed, he denied ever having committed adultery, a claim that is true.)
Yet these weaknesses only emphasize how human he was. In all his vivid complexity, he is one of the most essential and fascinating figures in British history.
Liverpool, his hometown, should cherish him. It says all about the vigilant culture-canceling enthusiasts that they should prefer a supporter of the deadly, repressive communist faith to a world-renowned pioneering champion of human rights, democracy, freedom of conscience and national liberation – and one of the greatest British who once lived.
Robert Tombs is Professor Emeritus of French History at Cambridge University.