The English Civil War Is A Crucial Part of Australian History

There’s an appalling article in Crikey today by Associate Professor Tony Taylor of Monash University, co-editor of an upcoming book History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives.

The article responds to an article in The Age, “Coalition would scrap Curriculum” saying Federal Opposition Education spokesman Christopher Pyne is prepared to scrap the new national history curriculum. The article says Pyne thinks there is to much emphasis on Asia, indigenous culture and sustainability in the history curriculum, and not enough on Christianity, Greece and Rome, and the English Bill of Rights and English Civil War.

There’s plenty to criticise there. Australian students need a good grasp of indigenous culture and the deadly and destructive effects that white settlement had on it, and of the history of Asia. Sustainability – we can do without that, thanks very much! We could replace sustainability with a discussion of how humans have moved away from being at the whim of nature every moment of the day.

However, the response in Crikey is arrogant, dismissive and, frankly a joke. Taylor’s lowest moment is when he says the English Civil War is “arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have a special significance for UK history, but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing up in period costume).” Anyone with even a basic knowledge of how bourgeois Parliamentary democracy works knows that this is ridiculous. Most of the assumptions behind it come directly or indirectly from that Civil War. The most important tenet of parliamentarism – the idea that only the parliament, not the executive on its own, may tax – is a direct result of the war and the main issue it was fought over. You can’t understand the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, which lead to the sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, without understanding that crucial point.

But the bad thing about Taylor’s article is not just that he is wrong, but that he is in a position to affect the curriculum of Australian schools but clearly has contempt for democracy. He implies that Pyne’s threat to scrap the curriculum and start again is an example of the “arbitrary rule of one”. Of course, Pyne will never be in a position to change the curriculum unless he is part of a government elected in the closest thing we have to a democratic election. Does Taylor really contend that elected Governments have no right to change public policy?

Taylor’s contempt for outsiders interfering in work only he and his priesthood should be allowed to carry out is revealed in another passage, where he discusses criticism of the new curriculum: “I read it and dismissed it as someone who doesn’t know much about how education or history works.” Not because it was wrong, or misguided, or suggested a poor use of scarce classroom time, but it came from  an outsider.

What’s worst of all about this article is it carries on the smarmy pseudo-left habit of congratulating themselves that they must be right, because the slightly more right-wing ruling class party is against them. This is part of the nature of the bureaucratic pseudo-left; they push the line that their work must be done behind closed doors because evil right-wingers and the stupid populace they fool are too dumb to know what’s best for them. There is no sense at all of actually trusting ordinary people, of welcoming outside debate or being ready to submit their decisions to the judgment of the great unwashed.

We need to keep attacking the pseudo-left with this – with the idea that, while they parade their moral virtue, they are utterly unwilling to actually try to win public debates.

A cached version of the Crikey article is here, and my first comment replying to that article on the original site is here.

10 Responses to “The English Civil War Is A Crucial Part of Australian History”

  1. 1 jimboot

    Thank goodness I don’t subscribe to Crikey or I would have read the article 🙂 I heard Pyne interviewed this morning. Certainly I when I went to high school in the early 80s we were taught bugger all about the white mans impact on the original Aussies. Certainly the quotes you’ve used above are enough to raise my ire, even if they are out of context, surely though the history of western democracy is kind of important.

  2. 2 youngmarxist

    I know it’s difficult to credit, but that quote about the English Civil War is quoted in its correct context. When I saw it on Twitter today, I thought it was just trolling!

  3. 3 byork

    In 2008, I made a submission to the National Curriculum Board concerning its draft History curriculum. I posted it here: I made the point about the English revolution, though on reflection should have emphasized it much more. It is staggering that a leading national historian could make such an absurd statement about the nature and relevance of the English civil war/revolution. How far to the Right can the Establishment try to take us?

  4. 4 captainbildad

    The major point of the article in Crikey, which you neglect, was that most of what Pyne wanted to see taught in history classes (classical civilisation, the history of Christianity, the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights) is already covered by the curriculum.

    That’s the reason for Taylor’s dismissive tone – Taylor is accusing the opposition spokesman of reacting ideologically and reflexively to a fantasy leftist curriculum of his own imagination, and not to a reality grounded in fact. This is why “experts” and “insiders” are better equipped to advise on these issues – because they’ve actually read the relevant documents and understand a little more about their context. There’s nothing scary about “expertise” of this kind. It’s certainly preferable to policy written by the media managers of opposition spokespersons, or by bloggers.

    I think Taylor’s tone also reflects an exhaustion with the history wars, which Pyne is desperately trying to stoke to life with his dogwhistling call for more Christian and British content in schools. Surely we can all come to some agreement (as you do in your article) that the curriculum needed updating to take account of certain modern-day issues (like the rise of Asia and the history of aboriginal Australia), and that those issues needn’t displace the more familiar themes of world history. This would be the kind of polite and rational consensus that parliamentary democracy was supposed to encourage. Treating the issue as a political baseball bat and tearing up the curriculum every three years is irrational, and cannot lead to better education outcomes.

    You claim that Pyne is engaging the public in an important debate about policy, but Pyne’s failure to read the relevant documents, his misrepresentation of the facts, and his tone of sensationalism and crisis (where things aren’t nearly so bad as he’s saying) means he is degrading rather than encouraging public debate. We the public should be armed with information and evidence, not spin and disinformation. We should understand the size and shape of the problems before us, and not be distracted by phantasmal monsters of the imagination.

    As to the tiny issue of the relative merits of the English Civil War, if Pyne wants more space for it he should make the case that it’s more significant than the French or Russian revolutions for our understanding of the modern world. I think he’ll fail on that too.

  5. 5 youngmarxist

    captainbildad, if Taylor is weary of political struggle to determine a national curriculum, he should resign and leave the job to others more energetic and willing to fight for what they believe in.

    Pyne is reported in the article as saying “giving inadequate coverage to Christianity, Ancient Greece and Rome”, not as saying it is *not* in the curriculum. Taylor has ignored what Pyne is actually reported as saying, and interpreted it to his own ends.

    There’s no problem with experts advising on curriculum – it’s when they decide that their point of view is the only viable one, that they and only they should dominate the process, as Taylor seems to me to do, that the process becomes thoroughly undemocratic.

    I wasn’t aware that parliamentary democracy was supposed to promote “polite and rational consensus”. I was under the impression that it was a battleground of the different groups who wish to run the modern bourgeois democracy; a way of measuring the strength of the various factions in society without resorting to war.

    If you think tearing up the curriculum every three years, or even each time government changes, is a bad idea, who do you propose should be in charge of such a curriculum and how should it respond to changes in the democratically-elected government?

    Even though I profoundly disagree with much that Pyne says, it *is* important to have this debate and to WIN it, not to brush it off in the way Taylor has.

    I disagree that the merits of teaching the English Civil War in Australian schools is a tiny issue. I think the period from the Black Death to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (including the Reformation) is so crucial that it needs to be taught to every school child in detail, explaining how Europe moved from absolutist monarchy to the establishment of the “Crowned Republic” we currently have.

    There are plenty other important periods too, and all need to be discussed. Open debate needs to be held to help decide what shall be in the curriculum and in what amounts.

    But in my view, Taylor’s dismissal of the English Civil War makes his opinion on the history curriculum deeply flawed. Given his position as a senior consultant to the Australian Government on history curricula, and other senior government-funded positions closely involved with deciding how history shall be taught, I’m worried about the gutting of important periods from history classes.

  6. 6 tom

    Thanks YM for noticing Taylor’s nonsense. His assertion that the English Civil War was “arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have a special significance for UK history, but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing up in period costume)” is an absolute cracker. Like many reactionary historians he can’t bring himself to say that the Civil War was a part of the English Revolution (1640-1660), the first Bourgeois Democratic Revolution in human history.

    YM offers a very pertinent and brief analysis in his post on Crikey but alot more could be said, including alot more than I’m about to say.
    The stuggle for democracy (representative democracy, no censorship, for example) as it is popularly understood today was fought for by the radical wing of the revolutionaries and was lost. The most inspiring quote from this time, and one that continues to resonate today, was written in the context of that struggle: “Freedom is the man who turns the world upside down, and he therefore maketh many enemies” (Gerrard Winstanley).

    The struggle for democracy as the newly dominant bourgeoise understood it – and the words used in those days were ‘liberty’and/or ‘freedom’ rather than democracy (“the many headed monster” as it was known) was won, albeit with a few concessions to the defeated aristocracy and the return of Charles 11 who, by know, better understood that the role of monarchy was not to act as a fetter to bourgeois development. It is worth while reminding ourselves that his father lost his head because he didn’t understand this – or if he did, refused to bend to it.

    As minimalist and miserable as this victory was it represented an enormous leap and provided the political and social foundation without which the Industrial Revolution could not have occured (and twelve or so generations later we are still getting used to the consequences of this while the ruling elites of countries like Egypt actively fear these same consequences).

    The distinction between popular democracy and democracy for capital (democracy for whom?) is an important one. One of the great lessons of the English Revolution is the clarity with which the bourgeoisie understood and pursued their priorities. It’s all about business and freedom is enjoyed only by those who have property. They were explicit about this as there were no political inhibitions (as have developed with the emergence and growth of an organised and increasingly articulate working class from the early/mid 19th century) forcing them to be diplomatic or to obfuscate. People without property were to be silenced and oppressed and folowing the restoration they again were. Democratic reforms such as extension of the franchise, the struggle against censorship, political and legal rights have all come from below, have been the result of popular, generally working class struggle.

    What YM says about parliament is quite true. It is also true that parliament not only did not represent the people, ie the masses, but was conscoiusly antagonistic to the idea. And yet for the revolutionary decades there was a unique period of liberty for the general population the likes of which England would not see again for over 300 years. This was the result of a parliament having neither confidence in the king nor control over him, a situation where it could not afford to alienate any potential allies in the country. Because there was no constitutional mechanism for controlling the king John Pym, one of the leaders of the Long Parliament, in a move that would have appealed to Mao, by-passed parliament and appealed directly to the people.

    And this (and much, much more) is what Taylor dismisses as confusing localised squabbles of no interest to anyone anywhere other than a few English boffins and period dress wonks.
    As YM suggests, this is not just wrong it is deeply reactionary and lines him up with a raft of well credentialled right wing historians of the period who possess a deep mistrust of the people and an antagonism to them being placed centre stage in the sweep of history.

    BTW I would strongly recommend people to read anything by Christopher Hill on the period (Amazon makes this easy as many of his books are out of print). In particular:
    The World Turned Upside Down
    Reformation to Industrial Revolution
    The Century of Revolution

  7. 7 tom

    Whoops, apols to YM as in the second last para my lack of proof reading stands exposed. It is, as I hope readers will understand, Taylor and not YM who is lined up with the right wing historians.

  8. 8 youngmarxist

    Tom, two of those books by Hill’s are also available on Bookdepository (I tend to find that site has cheaper shipping)

  9. 9 Dalec

    I confess to a certain puzzlement:
    “Does Taylor really contend that elected Governments have no right to change public policy?”
    How is history a question of “public policy”. Perhaps I mis-understand.

  10. 10 byork

    There’s a free on-line essay by Christopher Hill at

    He wrote it in 1940. Stands up very well today, in my opinion. I like the conclusion, as relevant now as then (despite what Tony Taylor says): “We still have much to learn from the seventeenth century”.

    The more extended conclusion:

    Ever since then [1688] orthodox historians have done their utmost to stress the “continuity” of English history, to minimise the revolutionary breaks, to pretend that the “interregnum” (the word itself shows what they are trying to do) was an unfortunate accident, that in 1660 we returned to the old Constitution normally developing, that 1688 merely corrected the aberrations of a deranged King. Whereas, in fact, the period 1640-60 saw the destruction of one kind of state and the introduction of a new political structure within which capitalism could freely develop. For tactical reasons, the ruling class in 1660 pretended that they were merely restoring the old forms of the Constitution. But they intended by that restoration to give sanctity and social stamp to a new social order. The important thing is that the social order was new and would not have been won without revolution.

    “If writings be true,” said the Leveller Rainborowe in 1647, “there have been many scufflings between the honest men of England and those that have tyrannised over them; and if it be read, there is none of those just and equitable laws that the people of England are born to but are intrenchment altogether. But … if the people find that they are not suitable to freemen as they are, I know no reason should deter me . . . from endeavouring by all means to gain anything that might be of more advantage to them than the government under which they live.” [Woodhouse]

    It is struggle that wins reforms, just as it is struggle that will retain the liberties which our ancestors won for us. And if the people find the legal system “not suitable to freedom as it is,” then it can be changed by united action. That is the lesson of the seventeenth century for to-day. It was of us that Winstanley was thinking when he wrote at the head of one of his most impassioned pamphlets:

    When these clay bodies are in grave, and children stand
    in place,

    This shows we stood for truth and peace and freedom in
    our days.”

    “Freedom,” he added with a bitterness born of experience, but also with pride and confidence, “freedom is the man that will turn the world upside down, therefore no wonder he bath enemies.” And freedom for Winstanley was not a cheap politician’s slogan: it meant the living struggle of comrades to build a society based on communal ownership, a society which ordinary people would think worth defending with all their might because it was their society. “True freedom lies in the community in spirit and community in the earthly treasury.”

    “This commonwealth’s freedom will unite the hearts of Englishmen together in love, so that if a foreign enemy endeavour to come in, we shall all with joint consent rise up to defend our inheritance, and shall be true to one another. Whereas now the poor see, if they fight and should conquer the enemy, yet either they or their children are like to be slaves still, for the gentry will have all.” [Winstanley]

    “Property … divides the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere.”

    “When the earth becomes a common treasury again, as it must, . . . then this enmity in all lands will cease.”

    We still have much to learn from the seventeenth century.

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