Simon Heffer on the Curse of History

On 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes – a Catholic dissident living under the very Protestant King James – launched a plan to light a fuse in a cellar located just below the House of Lords that was chock-a-block with gunpowder. The idea, as we now know, was to blow King James, his eldest son, the House of Lords and the House of Commons to smithereens with Fawkes escaping by boat across the River Thames as his fellow conspirators kidnapped James’ daughter, installed her as a puppet queen and eventually married her off to a Catholic, thereby restoring the Catholic monarchy.

A nineteenth-century depiction of the Gunpowder Plot’s discovery.

After the plot was thwarted, Londoners began lighting celebratory bonfires to commemorate the failed coup d’état. Today, however, Bonfire Night practically honours the efforts taken to blow up Parliament and Guy Fawkes is no longer regarded as a notorious traitor, but rather a revolutionary hero whose experience of religious persecution offends our modern sensibilities (even if Fawkes’s aim was not exactly the establishment of a tolerant, heterogenous state…).

Masks of his face even cropped up at 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests as the ultimate symbol of a vigilante rebel revolting over the unjust rule of law, which shows how things can really change, especially our collective morals over the course of a kind of history that inevitably marches progressively forward.

The idea that history changes in ways that always improve the human condition – and by extension that we can look back in time and make more perceptive judgements about right and wrong – was first popularised in eighteenth-century Europe, epitomising the optimism of the day, and flourished in the nineteenth. And while sceptics of the doctrine of progress did exist alongside its supporters from the beginning, it was not until the twentieth century, after horrendous events such as the two World Wars, the Holocaust and the development and use of nuclear weaponry, that many theorists backed away en masse from this prevailing idea.

But as celebrated author Simon Heffer argues in A Short History of Power, many modern historians are still lulled into thinking that things can only get better. Such belief in progress may be typical in times of plenty, but it ignores a less palatable truth: that since the beginnings of recorded history, the major events in international relations can be attributed to a single cause – the desire by rulers to assert or protect their power – and that history shows us that it is ‘an error to imagine that the values of even the most successful and powerful state will not, at some point, be challenged by another polity with a different prevailing view.’

Taking a panoramic view from the days of Thucydides up to the present, A Short History of Power is a brilliant and highly readable analysis of the motive forces behind the pursuit of power and shows why history is destined to repeat itself.

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