This is a guest post by Samuel Grove*
If the main threat to the prevailing hierarchical order is a politically aware public, then the BBC does a commendable job in staving it off. It is not that it is a conscious conspirator with the ruling classes; it is more that its fidelity to banality generally rules out the possibility of anything so interesting that it might challenge the status quo. The BBC literally bores the public into submission and passivity. Perhaps the symbol of the BBC’s establishment status and pedestrian output is Melvyn Bragg: elder statesman of British broadcasting, fellow of the Royal Society, member of the House of Lords, close personal friend of Tony Blair and author of a triumvirate of books on how great it is being English. His weekly show In Our Time—whose marketing title—‘The history of ideas’—is intriguing enough—is like a slightly more adult version of a public school history syllabus (which order were the English Kings again?).
Today’s programme was on the Industrial Revolution—cue 40 minutes of masturbation over British genius, dynamism, and entrepreneurial spirit.
It all started well enough…
Jeremy Black (Professor at Exeter and In Our Time veteran) wheels out the traditional ideological tropes for five minutes. Things start to get a little irregular however thereafter. This woman Bragg hasn’t had on before, Pat Hudson from Cardiff University, starts talking about “structural shifts” in work practices and the “proletarianisation of the workforce”. What could she ever mean?? She’s from Cardiff University—is she speaking Welsh? Better turn back to Jeremy’s safer pair of hands…ahh ‘markets’, ‘competition’, ‘Newton’, ‘Science’, ‘The Royal Society’, mmm…
After 10 minutes Bragg is satisfied that the listening audience fully understands that Britain changed the world and we move safely on from ‘historical overview’ to our first GCSE question. This one’s easy. Best give this one to Hudson lest she start talking Welsh again…
Bragg: Pat, what were the 3 main causes of the Industrial Revolution?
(Bragg has thrown Hudson a gimme into the Endzone—however Hudson, who clearly hasn’t read the script she was given in the Green Room, doesn’t know whose team she is on and makes an end run for the other side)
Hudson: “We must get away from the idea that [the Industrial Revolution] was caused by a wave of gadgets or by a peculiar inventive ability of British science or scientists-”
(Questioning British genius within earshot of Melvyn Bragg is kind of the equivalent of hitting most people over the knee with a hammer)
Bragg: Why?? WHY?? You are not giving this fair due in my mind—Why must we get away from it? People invent stuff, they made things, this made things happen and you keep denying it.
(She had said it once and had not even been given the chance to substantiate her claim. Unperturbed Bragg proceeds to caricature the argument she hasn’t made)
Bragg: ...”Oh its all to do with the broad sweep of history”. Listen people invented things that hadn’t been there before which enabled things to happen that had not happened before.
(Hudson, obviously aggrieved, goes into attack mode)
Hudson: Can I say that that really does characterise nationalistic accounts of the period with a peculiar sort of emphasis on British genius or…
(“Nationalistic”—ouch that is quite close to the ‘R’ word—and Bragg knows it)
Bragg: I didn’t say that!
Hudson: “Or the superiority of the British as a race, this characterises some really almost racist accounts of the Industrial Revolution…”
(Oh no she didn’t! Bragg goes mental)
Bragg: OH NO! COME ON—THAT’S RUBBISH!!
(Bragg then goes into a state of shock. It should be noted that he hasn’t been accused of racism. Only that he has kow-towed to a traditional historiography that falls foul of certain racist or nationalistic precepts. No matter. Bragg can barely say or hear anything at this point and the discussion moves seamlessly onto the issue of coal and steam. After a couple of minutes Bragg regains control of his senses. He interrupts the discussion oblivious to where it has got to)
Bragg: Hold on! When you start talking about my arguments as racist—that’s really not on!
(Aware that Bragg is on the verge of an aneurysm William Ashworth (of the University of Liverpool) tries to defuse the situation. After elaborating more on the contingent circumstances surrounding Britain’s industrialisation, he make a forlorn attempt to placate Bragg)
Ashworth: Here’s a little bit of a defence of you Melvyn, if you like.
(By now a wounded animal Bragg can’t distinguish friend nor foe. He snaps back)
Bragg: I can defend myself thank you very much
The only man that can rescue the situation is Jeremy Black who begins immediate emergency first aid. One can almost see the words ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘men of invention’, ‘social culture’, ‘Enlightenment’ soothing the presenter’s savage wounds. However Ashworth, like an over enthusiastic year 10 student on work experience in an intensive care unit, seem intent on making things worse).
Ashworth: What is happening in this programme is that you see how emotive it is and in some ways the question has become politicised—and why is that? I think that all history is present history and there is a kind of a sense today that you need free markets, free minds to be creative. And [so there is] that association with the British Industrial Revolution: ‘why Britain first?’ ‘Because it was freer than the rest’.
(Watch it Ashworth. Bragg suddenly bolts up from his hospital bed)
Bragg: Nobody on this programme has suggested that!
Ashworth: The historiography suggests that.
(Bragg lies back down)
Click here to listen to the programme in full
* Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist. He is an editor of www.alborada.net, a website covering Latin American society and culture. He is also is one of the founders of Level Ground, an organisation that challenges elite opinion and showcases alternatives (see www.levelground.info). He has published several articles on global politics for magazines such as ‘Red Pepper’ in the UK and websites such as ‘Monthly Review Online’ and ‘Upside Down World’. He is a PhD student at Nottingham University in the UK.