New routes from past to present

A.W. Purdue on ten years of adroit scholarship that helped to revitalise a discipline in Britain

October 23, 2008

David Cannadine begins this collection of lectures and essays with "Making History Now!", the inaugural lecture he gave on taking up the post of director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London in 1998. The address was a wide-ranging survey of the state of the historical discipline in Britain. Fresh from the greener pastures of academic life in the United States, Cannadine painted a gloomy picture of a "proletarianised" and downwardly mobile profession. Its members, like handloom weavers robbed of their birthright, laboured to the rhythm of a new industrialised higher educational system. History was out of fashion, for had the world not started anew in May 1997? In this climate, where was the time to produce great works, never mind decent lectures?

His directorship spans 1998 to 2008, a period that, he points out, was "roughly coterminous with Blair's New Labour decade at 10 Downing Street". Cannadine is a very present-minded historian, hyper-conscious of the political and cultural climate of the time and at one with Jacob Burckhardt in feeling that history is "the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another".

Most of the essays here survey the major historical debates of recent decades over subjects such as industrialisation, national identity, the British Empire, the Civil War, and the factors determining stability in the 18th century.

In all, his concern is with the relationship between past and present.

He charts adroitly the changing views of British industrialisation as Victorian ideas of an "Industrial Revolution" as progress gave way to a depiction of a "Bleak Age", to be followed by fears about the sustainability of economic growth in the 1930s, and then, in turn, by an acclamation of Britain's pioneering industrial role in the optimistic years of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequently, some historians have doubted the very concept of an Industrial Revolution and industrialisation has come to be seen as a long and complex process for which there is no model. Similarly in Cannadine's essay "Recessional: Two Historians, the Sixties and Beyond", which surveys the debates between historians of the 16th and 17th centuries, he connects historiography since the 1960s with the political and cultural climate of the decades in which the works were written, the buoyant confidence of the 1960s and the conservatism of the 1980s.

Something of a Neo-Whig, Cannadine's sympathies are clearly with those historians who go in for broad explanations of historical development that unite social, political and economic history as opposed to those whose detailed research leads them to doubt the existence of such broad patterns. He is on the side of those whose concern is how we got to where we are now rather than those whose emphasis is on how we were then. When he identifies "Harringtonians and Clarendonians, Whigs and Tories, parachutists and truffle-hunters, lumpers and splitters", he is in sympathy with the former in each pair, just as he champions Lawrence Stone and J.H. Plumb rather than Geoffrey Elton and J.C.D. Clark.

Cannadine is far more than a lofty surveyor of many of the debates he discusses. As one of our most productive historians, both before and during his directorship, he has been an active participant with his work on class, the invention of tradition, the aristocracy and, with 2001's Ornamentalism, a riposte to Edward Said's Orientalism.

He has a sure touch in detecting a subject that casts light on contemporary issues, hopes and fears. His recent work on Andrew Mellon, the American multimillionaire, politician and philanthropist, may have seemed an arcane subject. But now, in the context of financial crisis, the biography of the man who was US Secretary to the Treasury in 1929 seems timely indeed.

Whatever our sympathies, these essays confound any argument that British historical writing is moribund. To Cannadine, two factors account for its vitality: the transatlantic connection and the fact that in Britain, as in the US, history is not just written by academics for academics, but instead - to use Hugh Trevor-Roper's term - the "laity", which provides both authors and readers.

Cannadine's valedictory lecture as director of the Institute constitutes the other book-end to his inaugural address.

It does not give a similar survey of the state of the profession or tell us whether the condition of the "proletarianised" has improved, but it concentrates upon the many achievements of his directorship of one of the senior posts in the English historical profession.

As he takes up his new post at the Institute as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History, the Institute has been refurbished and reorganised and large sums of money (by British, if not American, standards) have been raised, while its profile has been enhanced considerably. This flagship is in good order and public interest in history increases - but "What about the workers?"

Making History Now and Then: Discoveries, Controversies and Explorations

By David Cannadine

Palgrave Macmillan

408pp, £19.99

ISBN 9780230218895

Published 17 June 2008

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