New Whig's soapy sequel

A History of Britain
November 16, 2001

The end of one millennium and the beginning of its successor led to less discussion of the national past than might have been anticipated. In part, this was a deliberate matter of public policy. It was decided at very senior ministerial level to include no history section in the Millennium Dome at Greenwich. Similarly, the project for a Museum of National History was unsuccessful in its requests for governmental support under the lottery grant programme. Yet two public corporations did consider the nation's history. For the first time, the Royal Mail devoted all its stamps for one year (with the exception of a set for Prince Edward's marriage) to an individual topic - British history in the past millennium; while the BBC spent a large sum of money to produce A History of Britain , presented by Simon Schama. Indeed, in this second volume of the accompanying book, Schama notes: "Alan Yentob and Greg Dyke have both given us the sense of how much A History of Britain matters to the BBC." A BBC producer told me the series could be used to justify the continued receipt of public funds, irrespective of the scholarly response. Governmental favour was indicated by the CBE for Schama in the 2001 New Year's honours, and public approval by his appearance on Desert Island Discs and the W. H. Smith general-knowledge award for volume one.

Readers of Christopher Haigh's review in The THES (December 8 2000) will know, there were many serious conceptual flaws and straightforward errors in volume one. In the second volume, Schama appears far happier as he approaches what is for him more familiar territory. He avoids the neglect of Scotland and Ireland that characterised much of the first volume. Instead, the narrative skilfully interweaves the fate of both with that of England and shows how powerfully they interacted, particularly in causing the crisis of Charles I's reign. There is also a welcome fall in the frequency of error although, for example, the bayonet was not a new weapon in 1746, and Britain did not have an ambassador or consul in Rome during the Walpole period. In addition, Schama is more willing to mention the existence of different scholarly viewpoints than in the previous volume, for example in his discussion of Charles I's personal rule. The choice of illustrations is again good but the typeface used for the captions is unattractive.

Yet several of the problems of the first volume are still present. The unbalanced focus on political narrative can be traced back to Citizens (1989), Schama's treatment of the French revolution. This approach makes for vivid television and at one level is amply justified. However, Schama seems curiously uninterested in longer-term shifts such as the spread of literacy. There is little real discussion of environmental history, one of the most important areas of current research and one that urgently needs to be integrated into national histories. There are some references to culture in, for example, the good discussion of Wren's St Paul's, but they are bitty and much is omitted. The coverage of Jacobean literature is particularly poor. At another level, there is far too little on the languages of the British Isles.

There is also far too little on the social and economic history of the period. Thus, the coverage of enclosure is inadequate, and compares poorly with the treatment in schoolbooks that asks pupils to evaluate different contemporary responses. Instead, Schama prefers to focus on what he has referred to as the "soap opera" of the past, discussing, for example, Cromwell's state funeral. His stories are interesting and well told, but the end result is unbalanced.

Another weakness is the failure to give weight to a wider European and global context, not only in terms of the explanations Schama offers, but also of the failure to offer an adequate level of comparison with the Continent. For example, although there is an interesting discussion of the development of the British overseas empire, Schama does not record the wider global context in order to provide some relative assessment of developments within the British Isles.

These particular omissions lead me to stress the urgent need for an informed linkage of high politics and warfare to other topics, in short for a rethinking of narrative. In the case of "public history", there is a problem about assumptions concerning the public response. There is a persistent and mistaken tendency in the broadcast media to underrate the intelligence and interest of viewers, listeners and readers. These people are entitled to a discussion of differing approaches and competing analyses. They encounter this in political debate, so why not for history - or is the audience for the latter supposed to be dimmer? Writers and presenters have to be clear, but clarity is not the same as simplicity. All too often, Schama eschews complexity, a problem exacerbated by his love of cliche: "Walpole was just one of a number of equally unscrupulous and intelligent sharks circling governments in Westminster, their nostrils sensitive for the slightest whiff of blood."

Schama refers to himself as "a born-again Whig" and, at times, appears to see himself as a second Macaulay. He certainly echoes 19th-century interests, while being alive to the variety and ambiguities of Whig method and inheritance. Yet if he is to translate his self-confident energy and ability into something that will be worth reading a century hence, Schama needs in his final series and volume to adopt a voice that strives to reconcile the drama of a clear narrative with an intelligent openness to the multiple complexities of past occurrence and present analysis.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776

Author - Simon Schama
ISBN - 0 563 53747 7
Publisher - BBC Consumer Publishing
Price - £25.00
Pages - 544

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