We read a lot these days about ‘fake new’ and ‘disinformation,’ and even ‘conspiracy theories.’ These phrases are banded about in the media and seem to have the intention of damning an idea or opinion without the need to discuss its merits or failings in detail. The use of these epithets seems sufficient to damn a person and their opinions out of hand.
If it happens in our contemporary world, it also happens when considering the past. We might ask ourselves what is ‘fake’ history and what is ‘real history?’ How do we know what we read is correct and reliable? Could we actually be receiving a lot of sham history from dubious sources? Indeed we can! To prove the case, I am going to take one historian to task – myself!
Last year, when I was writing my book on Hilaire Belloc (Hilaire Belloc, The Politics of Living), I was very conscious that although I very much revere this man and his writings, many people do not, and it was my duty to give a voice to Belloc’s critics, as well as my partiality would allow.
Without doubt the most damning accusation against Belloc was that he was anti-Semitic, and a man who greatly disliked and feared Jews. In my book I give the case for the prosecution as well as the defence on this matter. In my desire to neither whitewash nor excuse, I even included a quote from one of Belloc’s fellow Members of Parliament that appeared to be damning. The MP in question was Edward Turnour, Earl Winteron, one time MP for Horsham and Worthing (in the days when the two towns were part of the same constituency). Here is part the quote from Turnour as it appears in my book –
“He [Belloc] made one or two good speeches and then committed a fatal error. The late Mr Harry Lawson (later Lord Burnham), a popular and much respected man, had just concluded a mild and unprovocative speech from our benches when Mr Belloc rose and, in his rather high pitched voice, began, “In extended observation of the Anglo-Judaic plutocracy….” He got no further. This obvious reference to Mr Lawson was received with angry cries from the Conservative benches of “order, withdraw cad!!”, whilst his Liberal colleagues sat in silent disapproval, which is always a sure sign that a member has made a grievous mistake.”
At this point the reader of this article might well be feeling uneasy and wondering if this is even an article they should be reading at all. So, I should add immediately, that I was able to show instances of Belloc roundly condemning any a notion of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and that he was an ardent and persistent opponent of Hitler and the Nazis and urged Britain to fight on in 1940 and 1941, when many others were calling for a deal to be struck with Hitler.
However, it also turns out that Edward Turnour’s allegation against Belloc was false. He never made the speech he was accused of making and members did not shout out he was a cad while his colleagues sat in stony silence. How do I now know it is untrue? Because one reader of my book took the time to search through Hansard, the written record of every speech ever made in the House of Commons, trawling for this supposed speech by Belloc. He even put the phrase “Anglo-Judaic plutocracy” into the online search facility. Indeed a speech came up containing this phrase, but it was not in speech by Belloc but by another MP, A.D.Steele-Maitland, member for Birmingham East.
In his speech, Steele-Maitland made reference to Jewish people in public life and asserted that Belloc would regard this as evidence of the ‘Anglo-Judaic plutocracy.’ But these were Steele-Maitland’s words, not Belloc’s.
It is interesting, although not surprising that Belloc did not object to the speech, nor comment on it, as by this time (1910) he was thoroughly disillusioned with the House of Commons and the party-political system. His appearances in the chamber became less frequent, and when the General Election was called later that year, Belloc decided not to stand for re-election. The following year he gave a speech in Worthing in which he declared that he was “glad to quit the vilest and dirtiest company” it had ever been his misfortune to keep. In a letter to a former constituent who was sorry to see him go, he wrote, “one must be inside the House of Commons to see how utterly futile is any attempt at representative action.”
So, it has to be admitted, that I was guilty of including fake history in my book. I took Edward Turnour at his word. On reflection, of course, I can see that I should have wondered how objective a Conservative MP would be about a former Liberal MP. Steele-Maitland was also a Conservative MP. I was rather naïve, wasn’t I? In my desire not to let Belloc off the hook, to show that I was including the views of all those who criticised him in his lifetime, I allowed fake history to be included in my study. It should also be borne in mind that Turnour’s quote came from his autobiography, published some 40 years after the events he was describing. As I know only too well from my own work with oral history, people can be genuinely deceived by their memory, it is our most valuable human characteristic, but memory can also be a great trickster: our imagination intervenes to create a narrative that twists the memory to suit our own view of how things should be, not necessarily how they actually were at the time the event took place.
In truth, all historians, at some time or another allow questionable material to be included in their published works, some through negligence, some through a deliberate attempt to add spice to their story, but probably most, for the simple reason that it would take more years than most historians have left to them to check every fact and trace every piece of evidence back to its original source.
Fake history, like fake news is an inevitable consequence of the human condition and it is always well to bear this in mind.
Anyone wishing to contact me should they wish to buy the book (£10 plus p &p) can do so at email@example.com