Clive Barrett argues that a radical review of national, community and family memory would empower resistance to racism and right-wing extremism.

What we say matters

I would like to suggest renaming the National Health Service, the “Ministry of Defence”. This Ministry of Defence would keep citizens secure, protected from any external threats. Coronavirus “excess” deaths have surpassed sixty thousand people; the London blitz claimed thirty-two thousand. An amply-funded Ministry of Defence would address the current crisis with all the urgency of the former one.

Tempting though it is to make such comparisons, to reveal the scale of seemingly either Government incompetence or disdain for human life, the danger in this kind of language is that it can easily slip into the pernicious militaristic terminology of “fighting” illness, where the strong and morally virtuous survive and where implicitly those who die are feeble people, both physically and morally, who deserve nothing better. Our language in pandemic matters, what we say and how we say it, not least because normalising metaphors of aggression can so easily be used later to justify the real thing.

It is not simply our words that matter for human security and well-being, but the stories that we relate. What stories do we tell and how? Whose stories do we hear, and why? Below, I consider two different social contexts for story-telling, highlighting in particular the role of memory.

Memory and Religion

The first context concerns the practical role of religion. Herein lie my own roots, as a priest of the Church of England, the marketing strapline for which claims to have “a presence in every community”. Every place matters; every person matters.

The clergy in the place where I live, a wedge of Leeds that covers inner city to leafy suburb, had complementary experiences of lockdown. Some conducted restricted funerals of virus victims, attended by known virus carriers, enabling lives to be remembered and deaths to be grieved. Others were immersed in a large community feeding operation, developed from a long-standing pay-as-you-feel junk-food café, community action providing food security for people whose safety net had long been torn to shreds, not least people seeking sanctuary in the UK who possess nothing but their memories. And throughout there was digital streaming of clergy-only religious services, reflecting a rapid technological learning curve for clergy and online congregations alike. Collectively, the practice embraced priorities of life, death … and memory.

In this context I narrow religious services down to memory because they include both recollection of foundation narratives, that is scripture reading, and in some Christian traditions the central prayer is the Anamnesis, remembering the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth at his Last Supper. The ritual revolves around recalling memories, personal or inherited. A narrative of rebellion and empowerment for some, of comfort for others, is transmitted through this ritual of remembering, this identity-forming culture.

One astounding aspect of lockdown has been the ease with which the Government has, with the collusion of religious leaders, been able to prohibit community religious practice. (Where were the turbulent priests speaking truth to power?) For a period, local leaders were barred from accessing their own premises, from making remembrance in that place, from continuing to “kneel where prayer has been valid” (T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, I.45-6). Religious places are often the focal points for community memory (even including the ambiguities of Remembrance). When centres of memory are closed down, it is as if memory needs controlling, as if it is dangerous. It is.

Memory and Museum

The standard repository of memory would be the museum. Artefacts provide insight into cultures and communities, values and stories. But which artefacts are collected; whose stories are told? Memories are selective, there has never been a neutral museum: stately homes are marketing opportunities for aristocracy; military museums boast of “campaigns” overseas; in Leeds, the Royal Armouries promotes fascination in weaponry – mainly from the trigger end, seldom the view of those looking down the barrel. Folk museums and social history museums see society at its roots, and The Peace Museum in Bradford, where I am a trustee, tells stories of peacemakers, peace movements and protests.

Any future exhibition on peace and the pandemic would give centre stage to Black Lives Matter. This movement has broken down the false securities of colonial inheritance, and challenged racist value systems explicitly or implicitly promoted by national narratives and statuary of the privileged. There are few corners of the world where Britain has failed to exercise military power, to exploit for its own gain.

In the same way that feminism rediscovered stories of women invisible in former male-only histories, and that peace historians have subverted militaristic understandings of Britain’s past, dominant national narratives are now being overturned by recollection of BAME stories previously unknown or disregarded.

Dominant monochrome myths are not only being dismantled by these complementary if uncomplimentary perspectives, but also by internal disintegration. Whitewashed memories are being stripped of their veneer to reveal a rotting interior. For those of us who tick the “White British” box, even the fad of discovering our family tree could become an uncomfortable pastime. For the institutions of state, even more so.

The Royal Navy, for example, is proud of its role preventing slave ships leaving Africa in the years following the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Less is said of its simultaneous role in keeping open trade routes to Caribbean slave plantations, or more than three hundred years support for the slave trade since Drake and Hawkins in the sixteenth century. Rule Britannia, anyone? Nelson must fall? Taking the knee at the Cenotaph? Kneel where protest is valid.

Security through Subversive Memory

The casualties of the blitz were victims of an attempt at a racist, fascist takeover. The myths of that age sustained Britain for nearly eighty years. The casualties of Covid-19 have shown that Defence has changed its meaning. And future histories of this time will not be complete without due reference to BLM. The memories we choose will determine our understanding of this present time in the future and, in part, our future identity.

Britain’s future security depends on us collectively grasping this opportunity to rethink memory, to confront genocidal and colonial memory (in religious terms, to “repent”), to embrace BAME memories, to consider memory as resistance. Broadening and reordering memories strengthens society, making it more resilient to racist, right-wing lies. A more inclusive society becomes more robust, confident and secure as narrow myths are undermined by more comprehensive and subversive memory.

An Anglican priest, with a background of ecumenical community action, Clive Barrett is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Leeds. A peace movement historian, and author of Subversive Peacemakers: War-Resistance 1914-1918, he is Chair of Trustees at The Peace Museum in Bradford.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image CreditCaitlin Hobbs. The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. The ground is covered with Black Lives Matter placards.