On September 30th 1938 a clearly euphoric British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain returned home to a huge cheering crowd at Heston Aerodrome in West London. He had spent the previous days in Munich with other European leaders, in meetings hosted by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.
The reason for Chamberlain’s undisguised joy lay in the piece of paper that he waved in the air, before reading to those gathered on that historic Friday afternoon. The Munich Agreement which had sold out Czechoslovakia to the Germans and allowed them to invade the Sudetenland, a German speaking part of Czechoslovakia, was seen at the time as a major victory for the British P.M.
Though Chamberlain never actually uttered the words that day, his speech became famed for promising “Peace In Our Time,” with Germany committing to work with the British on finding agreed solutions in a volatile Europe.
In the weeks that followed Chamberlain was feted at home and abroad, while his erstwhile rival in the Conservative Party, Winston Churchill, who had constantly proclaimed the threat to peace that Hitler and the Nazis posed, was all but ostracised and in what would today be described as a “scaremonger” and clearly on “the wrong side of history.”
By the end of 1938 with Hungary adding insult to injury by invading parts of today’s Slovakia and German preparations for war continuing at pace, the hero worship of Chamberlain receded. In the summer of 1939 Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact and a few days later Germany invaded Poland. The Second World War had begun. The wrong side of history had proven to be anything but.
So eighty years later what lessons can we learn from this turning point in European history? On a perhaps facetious surface level, it should warn the British not to be too trusting of those who seek to dominate Europe, a lesson that might not go astray in the current Brexit negotiations, but is there not a more fundamental lesson on the nonsense that is the concept of “the wrong side of history” when it relates to the future?
There is no question that we can look back at history and clearly see those that were on the wrong side of the argument when that dispute is viewed from a modern context. The phrase can certainly be used, looking backwards. Science has proven that the earth is not the centre of the universe with all celestial bodies revolving around it and with all due respect to those that still believe it so, the earth has proven not to be flat.
In the field of politics we can now look at the extremes of Fascism and Communism and by today’s values we can decry those that supported both as being on the wrong side of history, albeit that a few slow learners on the damage of Communism may still lurk in Dáil Éireann and Dublin City Hall.
However what we cannot do is to apply the phrase “the wrong side of history” to the future, as the example of Churchill and Chamberlain demonstrates. In the context of the future, the only people who could rightly ever use that phrase are those who either have either time travelled back from the future or have demonstrated ability in fortune telling. Call me sceptical, and I don’t desire to make crystal balls or tea leaf reading obsolete, but I doubt either group actually exists.
However we often hear “the wrong side of history” applied to today’s issues. It was used against those that defended traditional marriage in 2015 and those on the pro-life side in this year’s referendum. It’s been used against those that resist identity politics, gender quotas and and related issues.
It has even been wheeled out against those that wish to defend national sovereignty and a nation’s ability to control who can enter. Suffice to say that if you want to preserve and conserve certain values you will be labelled as being “on the wrong side of history.”
The phrase has often been combined with telling people who are in the minority on a certain issue that they are wrong, based solely on the fact that they are in a minority. We should always remember that exercises in democracy do not determine who is right and who is wrong, but rather where the majority opinion lays. The majority opinions gets to determine what is legal and what is illegal, but it most certainly does not define what is right or wrong, or good or bad, moral or immoral.
One could of course argue that values and social standards are always evolving and that trying to preserve the status quo is doomed to long term historic failure, but that is to ignore one basic certainty of societal change; that it is cyclical in nature and swings like a pendulum, rather than being in one supposedly “progressive” direction.
The liberal heyday of Georgian times was replaced by Victorian era conservatism, the “devil may care” attitude that followed the Great War in the 1920s was quickly reversed by a far more controlling and illiberal era of the 1930s. The era of Thatcher and Reagan undid many of the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s.
“The wrong side of history” assumes that the future is predetermined and more often than not, that future is in the nirvana like image of the user of the phrase. This is patent nonsense. Everything that every one of us does today can not only influence our own future but the future of those around us.
Everything we fight for today has the ability to change the minds of other people and build a future which is more to our liking. Never, ever give up fighting for what you believe is right or concede that the future cannot be improved. We all have the power to create a new right side of history.
So the next time someone tells you that you’re “on the wrong side of history,” ask your accuser what means of transport they used to time travel and is there any chance they could tell you the winner next year’s Grand National. Let’s turn this nonsense on its head for once and for all, or less likely, turn it to our profit.