FLC027, Nelson's Second Death: The Gutting of the National Maritime Museum, 26th January 1999
Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment published on the Internet
Issue Number 27
26th January 1999
Nelson's Second Death
by Sean Gabb
"Who controls the present controls the past.
Who controls the past controls the future."
(George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four)
The National Maritime Museum is housed in a line of buildings that stand in South East London, separating Greenwich Park from the Thames. I first went there when I was ten, and have revisited on average once a year ever since. It has the fullest Trafalgar exhibition in the world—including Nelson's last uniform complete with bullet hole. It has displays about Francis Drake, Captain Cook, and Fisher and Cunningham. It has thousands of scale models and paintings and other images. In short, it is a museum that tells the story of England's great age as Mistress of the Seas.
Out With the Old, In With the New
I now read in The Daily Telegraph (25th January 1999) that the Museum is to be "modernised". Richard Ormond, the Director, claims that it is "old-fashioned" and must change with the times. He explains:
We're not spitting in our predecessors' graves, but when this museum was created the Red Ensign ruled supreme and as a maritime nation we were on the crest of a great wave. We are in a different world today.... Unless we find new intellectual purpose and bring home to people that the sea is still central to our lives, we will become a sideshow museum dealing with traditional artefacts to an increasingly limited market.
Out, therefore, will go most of the paintings and scale models - out too most of the displays about battles and exploration. In will come exhibitions about slavery and history "from the position of the colonised". One display will show a white woman in eighteenth century costume with a manacled black hand reaching out to her. Mr Ormond's suggested text for this is: "The slave trade was driven by the need for an English cup of tea".
There are also to be large displays about global warming, damage to the ozone layer, marine pollution, threatened fish stocks, and the "danger of rising sea levels". Commenting again, Mr Ormond makes no apology for the change. Care of the sea, he believes, is a "number one international issue". It must be brought to our attention even if it means reducing space for exhibitions about the past.
On top of all this, we are promised a sprinkling of new works from something called the Sensation Generation of Young British Artists. Tacita Dean has been commissioned to make a "video sculpture" about the sea. Stefan Gek has already made a sculpture by crushing a buoy in a diving chamber.
There is to be a "Caribbean folk sculpture" suggested by the floats in the Notting Hill Carnival. And a video about weather forecasting is to use poetry and "talking fish".
These changes have been unanimously approved by the Board of Trustees—one of whom is the Duke of Edinburgh; and the museum is to be "reopened" by the Queen this coming 31st March.
Now, why this act of cultural vandalism? The claim that the Museum needs to be saved from "an increasingly limited market" is a falsehood. Every time I go there, the place is crowded—and crowded with people of all ages and all colours. If Mr Ormond believes that more people will want to look at his talking fish than at the bullet hole in Nelson's uniform, he is a fool. There is no need for the Museum to be changed, and the changes that are to be made will actually repel visitors once the word gets round what has happened.
Nor can we fall back on platitudes about trendy museum directors and "political correctness gone mad". The changes involved more people than Mr Ormond; and they are not isolated acts. They are part of a consistent pattern that has been applied and will be applied in many other places. The true reason for the changes is not to get in more visitors into the Museum, but simply to stop it from being what it was. Let me explain.
The New World Order
During the past generation, a new Establishment has grown up in England, in America, and in some other countries. Its ultimate ambition is a world government. I am not talking about a grand conspiracy. There is no central direction. Here in particular, the groups making up our Establishment are split—some wanting an interim merger with Europe, others a direct jump to world government. Even so, they are all agreed that their often different ends are best served by transferring sovereign power out of the country.
This new Establishment's success is already apparent. The world government exists in outline—as a web of treaties and international bodies that constrain national sovereignty in ways that most people still do not understand. This country cannot, for example, legalise cannabis and heroin, or roll back the financial police state that has been created to fight the "war" against money laundering. It cannot allow a whole range of industrial processes to take place within its jurisdiction. It may soon not be able to tolerate the sale of high potency vitamins or the publication of unfashionable opinions about race. Even if a democratic majority could be found in favour of these things, doing them would involve breaking all manner of treaty commitments. And to break these would bring on us the condemnation of the "international community".
London is unlikely ever to be bombed as Baghdad is now being bombed. The pressures on us for stepping out of line would be more subtle—a matter of hard things said against us in all the usual international gatherings; perhaps a few expulsions of our representatives from sporting bodies; perhaps one or two threats of sanctions; and always a general barrage of disapproval and smears from our own new Establishment media. It took just thirty years of mostly uncoordinated pressure to beat down a grimly determined South Africa. Under more coordinated pressure, Israel may last another decade in its present form. I doubt if a democratic reaction against the New World Order could survive more than two years once we are properly into the next century.
The ambition is one world of serfs—spied on, brainwashed, perhaps one day genetically engineered, by one worldwide Establishment. It may be claimed that the New World Order is about liberty and democracy. But no one who has read the international treaties and "human rights" documents on which it is based can honestly believe a word of this. They do not guarantee freedom of speech, or the right to trial by jury, or the right of self defence. The limited rights on offer are better described as limited and easily revoked privileges. Whatever may be quoted at us by the media, the small print in these texts is always about control and arbitrary power.
Patriotism and the Defence of Freedom
All that stands in the way of this is the desire of most people for it not to happen. General ideas about freedom and small government—the sort of thing Libertarian Alliance authors write about—are important but relatively weak as a barrier. In the first place, they hardly ever command self-sacrificing commitment. I believe, for example, that the principle of comparative costs is an almost indisputably valid argument. But I would never let myself be burned at the stake for refusing to recant this belief. In the second place, intellectuals are very easily deceived. I know at least two libertarians who think the European Union is a good thing for liberty. In the past, there were liberals who believed, against all the evidence, that Soviet Russia was home to a progressive experiment that deserved a chance to work.
What really sustains opposition to the New World Order is patriotism—an absolute attachment to the customs and institutions of one's own country. People will die for that. They will march across a field and be mown down like hay if they can believe it is for their national good. They will stand up for their native liberal institutions even when they are not very liberal themselves. Patriotism is a barrier against world government that cannot be directly beaten down.
Playing the Race Card
And so patriotism must be undermined until it collapses. That has been the big Establishment project during much of my lifetime. Patriotism has been made so great an object of satire that patriotic words and deeds have come to be seen as faintly ridiculous. At the same time, it has been ruthlessly confused with ideas of racial nationalism. In a country that has received several million coloured immigrants, many of whom have been positively discouraged from assimilating, this is a powerful weapon: appeals to national pride can be smeared as coded appeals for ethnic cleansing.
See, for example, how cleverly many of the old naval exhibitions in Greenwich have been replaced by exhibitions about black people. From what I am told, these will be unbalanced in the usual way. There will be much dwelling on the commercial interests that benefited from the international slave trade, but hardly any on the unique importance of the Royal Navy in suppressing that trade—or on the uniqueness of England as the first country ever to abolish slavery by law. But the desired effect of these exhibitions is not really to convey information, whether true or false. It is instead to use race as a means of frightening people from complaining about their loss until what they have lost has been forgotten.
The War Against the Past
This returns us to the subject of the Museum. A nation is not merely the population of a territory. It also exists in time. People identify with each other partly because they live together and speak the same language and have similar customs and beliefs, but partly also because they have a common historical memory. Wiping this memory —as if it were a length of video tape—has become the priority of our Establishment. Great anniversaries from before 1914 are almost ignored. History in the old sense is no longer taught in state schools. The weights and measures have been changed by force. The House of Lords is being abolished. National and regional devolution is blurring the old constitutional landmarks. The stated justifications are all threadbare. No intelligent person could advocate them except as a means of turning the past into a foreign country.
Museums must be a primary target in this war against the past. They contain physical objects that real people once made and used. They help to tell us who we were and what we might be again. This is particularly so with the National Maritime Museum. That is why it has been destroyed. The new Museum will remove this physical link. True, Nelson's uniform will remain on show. But it will have been removed from the full context that gave it meaning. As the centrepiece of a museum filled with guns and scale models of Dreadnoughts, it was the secular equivalent of a saint's relic. As an appendage to a PC circus of modern art and moans about racism and the environment, it becomes at best a piece of blue cloth with a hole in it. At worst, it becomes tainted with all the sins alleged against our history.
Do this, and opposition to the New World Order will crumble. Strip us of our national identity, and we defend our freedom with all the confidence and determination of an animal dragged from its lair.
Of course, the destruction of national identity will not make humanity love one another. We are pack animals, and group loyalties will always survive. Destroy the customs and traditions that bind a people together, and a new cement of shared blood will rapidly emerge. Skinheads are not integral to national pride. They are part of what replaces it. Until we can have our group loyalties bred out of us, the New World Order will be a place of wild ethnic hatreds.
Then again, I am sure this is realised by at least some within the Establishment. Turning the world into one great Bosnia will be a prime excuse for world government. It would not be the first time that politicians had written themselves into apparently essential solutions for problems of their own creation.
I used to think that the old Establishment might save us from all this. I am no longer so sure. The Duke of Edinburgh—a former naval officer—has consented to the changes. The Queen is to reopen the Museum. They seem not to notice or to care that they are serving an agenda from which the continuation of monarchy is absent. I do not like to criticise the Queen. At the same time, I do believe that her reign has been one long surrender to the enemies of everything she swore at her coronation to uphold.
For the moment, though, the practical cause for regret is that we have lost a glorious museum. I come from a naval family. One of my great grandfathers managed the Ropery at Chatham Dockyard. One of my grandfathers went down with his ship at the Casablanca landings. I sit and wonder what they would have thought of all this—how their efforts did not save the nation for their posterity. But they at least left me enough for me to notice its loss. What will my children have?
28th January 1999
Before writing the above, I decided to check the story with the National Maritime Museum. Telegraph journalists are notorious for their inability to check the truth of the stories they are fed; and I could easily imagine a credulous hack taking the whole story over the phone from someone claiming to be Mr Ormond. No one could really have names like Tacita Dean or Stefan Gek—or at least not be called that and be modern artists as well. But a conversation with Michael Barratt, who works in the Museum's Press Office, confirmed that the story was true—even down to the names of the artists. I said some very hard words and put the phone down.
A while later, I was called back from the Press Office. Mr Ormond, I learned, had been invited to explain his changes on the BBC Radio Four Today Programme, but could only go on if there was someone to oppose him. Neither the Museum nor the BBC had been able to find anyone willing to say a word against the changes. Would I go on air to do so?
Of course, I agreed. This morning, I argued with him in a White City Studio while James Naughtie chaired the debate. Mr Ormond turned out to be as silly in the flesh as he had been quoted. I always know I have won a radio debate when the other party spreads bits of paper on the table in front of him: the best knock down arguments are unscripted. Mr Ormond's notes were filled with waffle about making the Museum relevant for young people in the new millennium; and he read from these rather hesitantly.
I made a much simplified version of the case given above, and won the debate. I know this from the mass of telephone calls and e-mails I have received today. I do not think Mr Ormond had imagined he would be called a traitor on a programme more used to evasions and PC banalities. As when I go on air to defend guns, I was making points too far outside the normal bounds of debate to be dealt with in the usual way.
I am pleased with myself. On the other hand, I have not saved the National Maritime Museum. And I have been sharply reminded of the correlation of forces in the war for liberty and national independence. Why was I the only person available to argue against Mr Ormond? Where were the Tory MPs? Where were the maritime historians? Where were the retired naval commanders? Skulking in their clubs, I have no doubt—terrified to oppose the prevailing opinions, and hoping those opinions would not fully prevail while they were still around to suffer the consequences.