Miscellaneous / Politics

Calling all cliches: Wrong side of history

If you subscribe to the Marxist theory of historical materialism, then it’s perfectly possible to think that the phrase ‘the wrong side of history’ means something. Which is why, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the expression used to turn up almost exclusively in reports from Eastern Europe. Of course the Soviet experiment subsequently collapsed, with an irony that was not lost on those in the formerly communist countries. ‘East Germans,’ noted Ben Bradshaw in 1992, ‘sum up their experiences with a bleak comment: “How easily you can end up on the wrong side of history.”’ [1]

On the rare occasion when the phrase was employed in British politics, it tended to be in the hands of people like Martin Jacques, the editor of Marxism Today. Having looked into Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to European integration in 1987, he declared confidently: ‘She is on the wrong side of history, unable to face that which is remorseless and inevitable.’ [2]

At least Jacques believed in the inexorable march of history. (One assumes.) More recently, though, the expression has been adopted by people who display a casual disregard for the dialectics of determinism. Particularly, in post-referendum Britain, it’s being bandied about with great enthusiasm by militant Leavers to attack those who voted to Remain. Which raises the possibility of a further irony: maybe Margaret Thatcher was on the right side of history all along.

Here are a dozen examples from the last few months:

Today, the fight is over the movement of people, and the same class of people who are always on the wrong side of history, act as if, to borrow a phrase from Nigel Farage’s midnight concession speech, the genie can be put back in the bottle. – Tom Peck [3]

Welsh government finance secretary Mark Drakeford said… ‘City Deals were an idea of George Osborne and are being treated with caution by civil servants who don’t want to find themselves on the wrong side of history.’ [4]

In a statement, the press secretary for the Russian embassy said the Commons debate had been ‘depressing’, adding: ‘Pity that the British parliamentarians placed themselves on the wrong side of history this time.’ [5]

Again and again the business group [the CBI] has been on the wrong side of history, predicting disaster if we kept the Pound, then campaigning to Remain. – The Sun Says [6]

There is no control experiment, no second Britain remaining in the EU to which we can point and laugh or despair. Despite this, the 48 per cent have lost, and will be judged to have been on the wrong side of history. – Rupert Myers [7]

The Liberal Democrats risk finding themselves on the wrong side of history. They wait generations for a popular uprising against the political establishment and when it finally comes, as it did on June 23, the party finds itself on the same side as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. – Mark Littlewood [8]

[Sir Walter] Scott was on the wrong side of history. – Magnus Linklater [9]

As the EU was gearing up for ever-closer union, Team GB were flying back from Rio and making the Little Europeans look like they are on the wrong side of history. – Tony Parsons [10]

As a management trainee, Mr [Philip] Hammond was ‘thrown in at the deep end’, said one of his friends. But he also found time to set up side ventures with Lord [Colin] Moynihan, including one born on the wrong side of history. The two friends tried selling summer trips to Oxford for Iranians – a scheme derailed by the 1979 Iranian revolution. – Kate Allen & Leila Haddou [11]

The capital of Latvia has been on the right and the wrong side of history. – Joseph Furey [12]

Then, I hear you say, we can’t have a prime minister who was on the wrong side of history and supported Remain. – Michael Dobbs [13]

The people in the Ulster Unionist Party who are campaigning to Remain are I believe on the wrong side of history. – Ian Paisley Junior [14]


see also: History will judge…

[1] Guardian 2 July 1992

[2] Sunday Times 30 June 1991

[3] Independent 25 October 2016

[4] Western Mail 15 October 2016

[5] Daily Telegraph 12 October 2016

[6] Sun 12 October 2016

[7] Independent 23 September 2016

[8] Independent 20 September 2016

[9] Times 7 September 2016

[10] Sun 28 August 2016

[11] Financial Times 22 August 2016

[12] Sunday Times 7 August 2016

[13] Daily Telegraph 11 July 2016

[14] News Letter 20 June 2016

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.