Not many historians would feel qualified to write a history of Britain from Roman times to the present day. Even fewer would chose to write one which covered all aspects of her development - economic, institutional, political, cultural, military and diplomatic. Fewer still would do so in the context of continual comparisons with continental history. Jeremy Black is the exception. Given the task he has set himself, he has succeeded remarkably well. His range of knowledge seems almost encyclopaedic, his insights valuable and his judgements fair and reasonable. No one could fail to profit from this book, which is simultaneously clear, concise and sophisticated. Most readers will consult it frequently in order to come to grips with the huge amount of learning compressed within it. Honest professional historians will ask themselves whether they could have tackled the subject even half as well.
Comparative history is very difficult to write as it can so easily give way to banality. Generalisations can become too obvious and very occasionally even Black hovers on the brink - for example, when he writes that "An emphasis on technological limitations, environmental constraints and local and regional diversity is one that is pertinent to the whole of the British Isles and to the Continent." Yet his generalisations are often remarkable. Thus he not only begins with an interesting account of Roman Britain, but having discussed Britain's place within the Roman Empire, can add: "The European situation appears more noteworthy when considered in a wider geographical frame. The Barbarian invasions had pressed hard elsewhere in the ancient world. In 304 the Great Wall of China was breached, in 315 the Hsiung-nu, forebears of the Huns, sacked the Chinese capital Loyang. In 480 the White Huns destroyed the Gupta Empire of India and 484 they killed the Sassanian emperor of Persia. And yet China, northern India, Persia and Byzantium were all to revive and to serve as the bases for successive empires ruling millions of people."
Black's book, in fact, is full of arresting comparisons and highly sophisticated analyses; his conclusions on national consciousness and state building during the medieval period, for example, are particularly rewarding to read. (In the opinion of this reviewer, Black is best on periods which are not his own.) Readers will also discover a wealth of information to be mined. Will they know which five kings of England died in France struggling to protect their positions? Will they know how the first elephant came to be seen in England? How many adult males died in England during the Civil War? When English was first used during the coronation? Or how huge a proportion of Cornishmen were emigrating by 1890? Black does - and a great deal more.
There are faults with his book. The Glorious Revolution is treated rather less well than other periods - perhaps because Black is too familiar with its diplomatic context. British imperialism and decolonisation are covered much too rapidly to do justice to the part played by empire in our recent past. On a more trivial level, we are told on page 29 and page 94 that King John was the first to style himself "King of England" rather than "King of the English", yet on page 37 we read that "Cnut ruled as King of England". For the most part, however, it should be stressed just how good this book really is. Any omissions are to be regretted simply because the rest of the book is so worth reading.
One final point. Although the book covers Britain's relations with the European Union and its predecessors (EEC, EC), it does not constitute in any sense a piece of propaganda for either Eurorealists or Eurofanatics. Black himself is a Eurosceptic and concludes: "Telling people and their elected representatives that, as they are Europeans, they must act, indeed think, in a certain fashion is unacceptable in a democratic society. In defending the configuration and continuity of British practices, politicians are fighting not for selfish national interests but for the sense of the living past that is such a vital component of a people's understanding, acceptance and appreciation of their own society and identity." As a professional historian this strikes me as absolutely right.
No doubt Black has contracts galore to keep him occupied. Yet after this tour de force, he should be encouraged to write a companion volume on Britain and America.
Alan Sked teaches international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Convergence of Divergence?: Britain and the Continent
Author - Jeremy Black
ISBN - 0 333 60859 3
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £12.99
Pages - 316pp