History and identity politics don’t mix

A history festival, held in the Wiltshire countryside, has faced a boycott over its supposed lack of diversity.

This week, the Chalke Valley History Festival – which, according to The Times, is ‘history’s answer to the Hay and Cheltenham Festivals’ – hosted a number of prominent speakers and historians, including Anne Applebaum, Robert Tombs and John Julius Norwich. However, the event was nearly soured by the decision of one historian to pull out of speaking. Rebecca Rideal, who specialises in the Great Plague, took exception to the fact that 147 of the 148 speakers were white, and only 32 were women. ‘It just didn’t sit right with me’, she said, ‘we need to support our black and minority-ethnic historians’.

In response to the negative press Rideal’s comments drew, festival organiser James Holland pointed out that the interests of a Wiltshire audience may not be the same as one from, say, inner-London. Speaking to The Times, he said that if he booked ethnic-minority and female historians to simply fill quotas, the festival would suffer. He also said that asking historians to speak purely for the purposes of appearance would be ‘insulting’ to the academics themselves. Historian Alexandra Churchill, who is of Asian descent and also appeared at the festival, echoed Holland’s sentiment. ‘To be honest, it annoys me when white people fight that corner for me’, she said.

These are two crucial points. First, how can an event succeed if what’s on offer isn’t appealing to punters? If a Wiltshire audience happens to be most interested in the Tudors, the Somme or the Hundred Years War, those are the topics a Wiltshire festival will inevitably cover. If minority and female academics don’t happen to specialise in those subjects, then that’s just the rub of the green. And second, to suggest that the festival should go out of its way to find female or minority speakers only patronises the people those calling for diversity claim to speak for.

As a discipline, history should be concerned with objective truth. But all too often, it is warped to fit a political agenda – not least that of identity politics. Good on the organisers of this festival for resisting this divisive, patronising and anti-intellectual trend.

Benedict Spence is a writer based in London.

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