NS: Aren't you making complications about this? The electorate are just bored to tears by the political class, which is the political class's fault. We have been presented with this bunch of marshmallows, haven't we? Most people are just switching off. This is another big problem, surely, not just with us but with pretty well any democratic system at the moment — the politicians are all saying the same. You create in these circumstances an extra-parliamentary opposition — as the Germans used to call it — which kidnaps businessmen and shoots people. Then you get this huge great lump of apathy and 40 per cent abstaining. In America the problem was there even before Clinton — why don't 60 per cent of Americans vote? This was not the case in the past. Another problem is the emergence of this political class. I have to say when I look at the faces — maybe it's just because I'm getting old — but when I look at the faces at those television debates I think: "Are these just babies' bottoms filled with Botox?" Faces which have seen nothing. No wonder people want to abstain.
JB: What Norman is offering there is a good definition of an aspect of our culture, which is a degree of civic engagement: whether it's represented through voting or associating with others for a common purpose in a free environment; whether it is, as it were, to organise allotments in your local area or to organise a local choir or organising voting for an election — that kind of associational element for which you do not, as it were, need permission. Interestingly enough, one of the troubling aspects of British society in recent years is that a mixture of health and safety legislation, concerns about adults with children, issues with insurance, is actually sapping the associational element of society. Whoever runs the country in the next 20-30 years will benefit if political engagement is linked to wider patterns of social engagement.
DJ: Can I introduce an historical element here: how far do you think some of this has to do with a sort of collective amnesia? I mean the subjects and events which you write about in your book, Norman, happened before many of the electorate were born and they simply don't know about them. A lack of historical perspective is surely a factor in this sort of weakness of the West, in this feeling that the West is anybody's for the taking and that because we don't know what it is that we stand for or what we have to lose, we are therefore very vulnerable. How far do historians have a special role to play here in reminding us who we really are?
NS: Gosh, this is awfully difficult, Daniel.
JB: Academic historians do not own the past. This is important. There is clearly a sense of relationships between the generations, relationships between the present and the past that exist either explicitly or latently in all societies. The relationship between those senses and the explicit academic pursuit of history is very variable. If you wanted to criticise modern British historiography and that of some European countries, as well as some aspects of American academic history, you could argue that there has been a fault of a lack of engagement with these wider issues.
I'm not talking about everybody. I know there are many writers out there who do try and look at the long-term issues and who do try to write in an accessible prose, who do understand that academic history has a public and social function.
Unfortunately, there are books which, whilst intellectually distinguished are often very inaccessible, written in a sort of jargon — often called discourse — which is very difficult to follow. There I think historians have suffered because their public function has been lost — or maybe they themselves have lost it, or maybe because there is an often politically-induced, obsession within the academy with certain kinds of behaviour and certain kinds of output. Your essential question about amnesia is a good one but what I would say is that history is not simply an academic pursuit. In many senses our understanding of the past, in the UK and indeed in other countries, rests much more in television and film in what are increasingly visual societies and the way in which they portray the past. What I really regret about that is that on the whole the visual presentation of history is two-dimensional: there is only one answer and Simon Schama or David Starkey will tell you what that answer is. That is not helpful.
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