FACTS can be so disappointing. Everyone likes a good story and all too often reality falls short.

If only our favourite screen accounts of history were true. Tragically there’s no evidence that Queen Elizabeth I threatened people with execution if they didn’t laugh at her jokes or that Prince George, the Prince Regent, was so thick he couldn’t figure out how to put on his own trousers.

There was never a Lord Blackadder. Puritans didn’t eat raw turnips; heck, they didn’t even sit on spikes at the dinner table.

As well all know, contrary to the Braveheart story, William Wallace didn’t seduce Isabella of France (she was a toddler at the time of their alleged meeting) and he didn’t wear either woad face paint or tartan. Braveheart was so cavalier with the facts, Boris Johnson could have written it.

History is powerful because it can be used to tell us stories about ourselves – and our perceived enemies. It’s the ultimate manifestation of our national heritage, one far more powerful than any crumbling castle or loch view. It should be treated with delicacy and respect but in the current climate of endless conflict between unionists and nationalists, meddling politicians and campaigners can’t keep their mitts off it.

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The latest to blunder in is Andrew Bowie, the Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, backing a plan to eradicate “undue Scottish nationalist bias” in the teaching of history in Scottish schools.

He sees it as part of a “Unionist fightback” against the threat of independence.

The plan in question is put forward by a little-known think tank going by the wonderfully self-important name of the Council on Geostrategy. It recommends developing and selling a “morally attractive” story about Britain to younger Scottish people, countering a negative narrative about the British Empire and urging the UK government to “provision an entity within civil society to conduct a review of the way in which the history of Britain is actually taught in Scottish school classrooms, with a view to maintain political neutrality, exposing any undue Scottish nationalist bias”.

In other words, by the sound of things, Whitehall should fund a body to vet how Scottish history is taught and root out problematic ideas.

It’s a spectacularly bad political idea, destined to inflame nationalists and irritate many unionists. Mr Bowie and his think tank associates have handed the SNP a propaganda opportunity, allowing them to condemn the Orwellian-sounding notion as “sinister” and suggest that Tories are urging Boris Johnson to “force teachers to deliver a Tory-led version of history”.


Well, that’s wrong for a start: the inconvenient fact for the SNP is that Boris Johnson can’t “force” Scottish teachers to do anything given that education policy is devolved – the Scottish Government have the power on that score. Even so, the notion of setting up a Westminster-funded educational inquisition under this Tory government – of all governments – is woefully tone deaf.

But there is a need to be vigilant about the possible abuse of historical facts for political ends: that much is definitely true. And both sides, the SNP and the Tories, need to be watched like hawks.

Last December, the Scottish Government earned itself a stern rebuke from Scotland’s most eminent historian, Sir Tom Devine, over biased and inaccurate resources produced for Scottish history classrooms. A 700-year timeline called Road to the Scottish Parliament approved by Education Scotland was condemned by Sir Tom as “dangerous nonsense”. For instance, it included a debunked myth about Winston Churchill dispatching “English troops and tanks” to Glasgow in 1919 and was silent on Scotland’s role in the slave trade or the Empire, in spite of Glasgow being the second city of that empire. Sir Tom said the document read like “a simplistic piece of arrant propaganda” and said he very much hoped history teachers would see through it and not convey such “rotten history” to their pupils.

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Sir Tom, you will remember, voted Yes in 2014. The Scottish Government said it would review the publication, but the damage was done.

What about the Tories? Of course they’re at it too. The Conservatives have thrown their lot in with socially conservative, “anti-woke” voters and have shown themselves determined to defend that world view to the hilt, out of political expediency. That is not a promising starting point if there’s to be a hope of historical objectivity. The Tory brand includes pride in Britain’s past, empire and all. Boris Johnson has rejected “cringing embarrassment about our history” and the Brexit campaign famously made ample use of romantic ideas about British history.

But that “cringing embarrassment” about Britain’s colonial past is simply a necessary corrective to the decades in which British children were brought up to believe that the UK was the greatest nation on earth, years in which the enslavement and oppression of other peoples was treated as a footnote. It’s painful but incredibly important that we face up to who we really were.

Historical facts rarely fit neat narratives but we have to learn to live with that. Scotland’s modern history is certainly not one of “colonisation” by England, as some rabid nationalists would have it, though the bigger partner has inevitably dominated in the relationship, and Scotland shares with England the shame of slavery and other colonial injustices. At the same time, there are moral highs in Britain’s recent history that both nations can share.

Looking back at history, we have the opportunity to cut through bias and propaganda, something that is harder while political events are unfolding. An unbiased account of British history would not be the sort advocated by either unionists or nationalists. It would be messy, unflattering and at times downright shameful but would also show ingenuity, resourcefulness and occasionally moral rectitude.

Any politician painting our history in primary colours should not be trusted.

Sometimes, the truth is as compelling as fiction, if we give it a chance. There was, it turns out, a real Private Baldrick during World War One, a northern Irishman who was sadly killed in Flanders in 1914 aged 23. And there was even a Captain Blackadder. He was a Scottish accountant, born in Dundee, who won the Military Cross for gallantry at the Somme.

Their histories may have been obliterated by a more compelling fiction, but we should not tolerate that happening to our collective past.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.