George Orwell set out a nightmarish vision of Britain under totalitarian rule in his epic novel 1984, brilliantly explaining how ideologues weaponise history as propaganda.
‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every painting repainted, every statue and street building renamed,’ he wrote. ‘Nothing exists except an endless present in which the party is always right.’
Tragically, today’s social justice warriors seem bent on turning fiction into reality. In their war against Britain’s heritage and identity, they seek to re-fashion the past according to their own narrow values.
According to their twisted mentality, our island story is a narrative of shame to be either jettisoned or remoulded — a deliberate slap in the face to millions of their fellow citizens.
Nothing exemplifies this impulse more starkly than the move this week by the Liverpool Guild of Students to dump the name William Gladstone from one of its accommodation blocks, replacing it with that of Dorothy Kuya, an anti-racism campaigner and long-serving Communist Party activist.
Both of them hailed from Liverpool but there the parallels end. It is absurd to pretend Ms Kuya, whatever her virtues, has anything like the stature of the 19th-century’s ‘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, holding the post a record four times until age 84.
Yet in the eyes of the woke brigade, Gladstone committed 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 foulest crime that taints the history of mankind’.
Nothing exemplifies this impulse more starkly than the move this week by the Liverpool Guild of Students to dump the name William Gladstone from one of its accommodation blocks
But his father Sir John, a Liverpool merchant, had 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.
Contemptuous of justice as they rewrite British history, the zealots operate on the principle of guilt by association.
Indeed, in this culture of smears, the link does not even have to be to a close relative.
In one ridiculous recent step, the British Library made the great poet Ted Hughes a target for character assassination because he had a distant ancestor from the 17th century called Nicholas Ferrar, who was involved in the slave-owning London Virginia Company.
If Gladstone can be condemned for his father’s sins, why should Dorothy Kuya escape criticism for her long-standing commitment to the vile ideology of Communism, which was responsible for tens of millions of innocent deaths throughout the 20th century?
For 40 years, Ms Kuya clung on to her worship of this murderous doctrine, even after the news of Stalin’s labour camps emerged, and after the barbarous suppression by the Soviet Union of democratic uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
But the negativity should not be overdone. We do not erect statues or name buildings in honour of past figures because we regard them as saints to be venerated, but because we admire their achievements.
By any 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 long-serving Communist Party activist
For more than 60 years, he was a towering leader with an electric gift for oratory, a ferocious intelligence, a phenomenal capacity for work and a far-sighted vision.
Unlike many of today’s politicians, he had vast interests outside politics, including Ancient Greek, theology and arboriculture — even in old age, he continued to chop down trees by hand.
His library at Hawarden, Flintshire, which contains more than 250,000 printed items and is open to the public, is a monument to the capacity of his intellect.
Through his unrivalled authority, Gladstone had a unique influence on the 19th-century political landscape. He was not only the first modern Chancellor of the Exchequer but also the architect of our impartial Civil Service through reforms he introduced in the 1850s.
Similarly, his innovative electoral campaigning in his Scottish constituency of Midlothian in the 1880s, full of rallies and mass publicity, set the template for 20th-century politics.
He was, notably, the driving force behind the Liberal Party’s creation in the middle of the 19th century, turning it into a powerful vehicle for reform. This brings us to the bitter irony at the heart of the woke campaign against him.
For Gladstone might be described as the godfather of British progressive politics. Although first a Conservative, ‘the rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories’, he became ever more radical over time.
Hostile to imperialism when the Empire was at its zenith, he supported national freedom in Italy, Greece, the Balkans and even Ireland.
If his long, brave crusade for Irish Home Rule — now called independence — had been successful, much of the blood-soaked conflict of the last century would have been averted, while Ireland might have remained a united dominion within the Commonwealth.
He loathed militarism and fought long-running battles against increases in defence expenditure, the issue that brought about his final resignation 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, holding the post a record four times until age 84
He was also a passionate advocate of parliamentary democracy and the first leading politician to call for all adult men to be given the vote.
Indeed, well in advance of conventional opinion, he believed in universal human rights and racial equality.
‘The sanctity of human life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own,’ he once said.
Yes, Gladstone had flaws too. He could be long-winded, priggish and sanctimonious, with a volcanic intensity that could be overbearing. Queen Victoria complained he had ‘a weird look in his eyes’ and always addressed her as ‘if I were a public meeting’.
Rather like another — far more recent — centre-Left Prime Minister, there was also a heavy streak of vanity in Gladstone that dressed up his own political interests as a mission from God.
One of his most persistent critics, the radical MP Henry Labouchere, once said: ‘I don’t object to Gladstone always having the ace of trumps up his sleeve, but merely to the belief that the Almighty put it there.’
The worst example of this hypocrisy was his eccentric rescue work among prostitutes, which, for all its compassion, was tinged with sexual desire. (On his deathbed, he denied he had ever committed adultery, a claim that rings true.)
Yet these foibles only emphasise how human he was. In all his vivid complexity, he is one of the most essential and fascinating figures of British history.
Liverpool, his home town, should cherish him. It says everything about the woke enthusiasts for cancel culture that they should prefer a supporter of the lethal, repressive Communist creed to a world-famous pioneering champion of human rights, democracy, freedom of conscience and national liberation — and one of the greatest Britons who ever lived.
Robert Tombs is Professor Emeritus of French History at the University of Cambridge.