Not pleasant, but very green

The Isles
July 21, 2000

Jeremy Black considers a non-specialist's history of Britain and asks if it really is a politically motivated effort to 'airbrush' England out of history.

It is often a good idea to ask a non-specialist to write a study. Non-specialists may lack any archival experience of the subject and may not have much understanding of the nuances of its scholarship or historiography. They can, however, provide a fresh view and rewarding insights, especially comparative observations.

So the idea of having Norman Davies, a distinguished if sometimes controversial historian of Poland, write a massive history of what he reminds us should not be called the British Isles is understandable. Presumably, there was the hope that the new book would benefit from the profile he had gained from writing a history of Europe. This explains the attractive pricing of the book, which suggests that it is intended for a mass market.

Davies himself is, at least briefly, commendably honest about his limitations. He admits to "no special expertise in the British historical field" and to a reliance on standard accounts, especially the Encyclopaedia Britannica , which "has been constantly at my elbow". At the same time, Davies does not intend a potted summary. Instead he aims to "escape from the professional game, to address the established record of the past more directly", and, in short, "to boldly go where no manI".

What results is a problem for the reviewer, particularly one not reviewing for the mass market. It would be possible to draw attention to the limitations of this stimulating book, indeed, spotting errors and questionable interpretations is part of the stimulation, but readers may be reassured that they are rarely as serious as those in Sir Roy Strong's similarly bold and individual work.

It is more interesting to comment on the response the work received when it appeared in late 1999. Reviews ranged from the ecstatic to the, well, I will quote those by Andrew Roberts and Nigel Jones. This response is of importance because it throws considerable light on the controverted character of history at present and on the potential role of the historian as a public figure, a task for which current academic models leave scant room.

The Times was in no doubt of what it had bought. On November 1 1999, it began a serialisation heralded with: "In the most controversial history book of the decade, Norman Davies traces the story of our islandsI He finds that much of the history we have been taught is untrue." The section included a piece by Davies - who wrote: "It would be hard to find another country that is so befuddled about its past" - as well as "The real story of the Battle of Hastings".

The leader that day proclaimed: "A history which rescues our past from anachronismI It effortlessly supersedes the attempt of journalists and generalists to lend coherence to the national narrativeI History is presented in all its complexity," and so on. No suggestion of limitations or debate, and apparently no alternative to the "microscopes" of academic specialism and the flaws of the ignorant generalist, bar Davies.

In The Daily Mail four days later, Andrew Roberts began: "This is a dangerous book, written at a dangerous time." Later he claimed: "Because this book is so unrelentingly critical of so many aspects of British institutions and Old Britain - especially the Monarchy - it has been hailed in bien pensant New Labour circles as intellectual justification for their ideological preconceptions in favour of devolution, regionalism and pooling British sovereignty through closer European integration. "

However, having claimed that Davies's assault on "the legitimacy of the British nation state" amounts to very little, Roberts sees the issue as ideological: "With willpower and self-confidence, the present threats can be overcomeI United we stand, Daviesed we fall."

On December 23 1999, Nigel Jones launched an attack in The Times : "It is no coincidence that this determined attempt to airbrush England and Englishness out of the historical narrative comes at precisely the moment when the government should be actively seeking to subsume our age-old national identity in a remote, centrally directed, unelected, inorganic foreign bodyI our own 'cultural cringe': the idea that continental Europe is, by definition, a superior entity, that all roads lead to and from Rome; and that European notions, whether pronounced by popes, by despot monarchs, by committees of public safety and Nuremberg rallies, or promulgated by philosophers from Rousseau to Marx to Nietzsche, are, ipso facto , the bee's knees. This is the self-hating England exemplified by James I, Charles and James II, Harley and Charles James Fox, Philby pére et fils , Lytton Strachey and Sir Oswald Mosley; and in our day, by the likes of Edward Heath, Hugo Young, Ken Clarke and Chris Patten... As a leading light in what might be called the 'collaborationist' school of historians, Davies deplores each and every event that gave these islands their unique distinctiveness - from the continental shift that let in the ChannelI down to the Reformation."

These passages are worth quoting at length because it is rare that an historical work touches to the quick in this fashion. That indeed may be regarded as the importance of Davies's book, because in conceptual and methodological terms it is less innovative than Hugh Kearney's The British Isles: A History of Four Islands (1989), the best book on the subject, albeit one in urgent need of updating in light of developments over the past decade. Kearney's book is also more succinct than Davies's wordy tome.

Any emphasis on nations as imagined political communities is to a considerable extent a matter of stating the obvious. It is apparent that British political entities were in large part created, and that this creation owed much to the formulation and dissemination of new images. This does not lessen the value of such entities. Nor is it the case that a process of moulding and creation necessarily justifies the replacement of existing practices and ideas that give people a sense of continuity, identity and values. Davies's different emphasis stems from another historical imagination, which is fair enough, but he is mistaken in presenting it as a progression from his history. One serious deficiency is any clear sense of self-criticism or any powerful attempt to introduce his readers to the ambiguities of evidence and to such complexity. Maybe he is correct to criticise specialisation, but I feel that many readers wish to be offered a greater degree of complexity and debate. Davies may feel that the defeat of the Armada was bad news for "international reconciliation", but there are other ways of looking at the subject.

Davies can also out-Pangloss the Whiggish historians he derides: he writes of the Hanoverians: "The informal 'King's Party' in parliament was still more important than the formal party divisions between Whigs and Tories. All the King's most critical decisions were taken in conjunction with royal ministers who bestrode the factions in court, government, and parliament... Trade flourished. The empire expanded. Industry advanced. General prosperity increased. The Scots and the Irish had largely accepted their lot." Such a complacent account misrepresents the politics of the period, not least in failing to explain why ministers whom the king supported, such as Walpole and Carteret, fell, and it makes no reference to the victims of trade, empire and economic expansion, such as slaves, indigenous Americans and those displaced by enclosure. But then, as Davies candidly notes, "one of my most distinguished readersI advised me to 'jettison the lot'."

Rather than being destructive, an exercise that can be set for students, it might be more worthwhile for Davies to suggest a way ahead. This is not the book, no more than was Strong's. Aside from error, simplicity and questionable judgement, there is a verbosity that lessens the stimulating aspects. It would be more helpful to build on the recent advances in Irish,Scottish and Welsh history, moving forward Kearney's approach and insights. This needs to be complemented by far more work on England. At present, there is a danger that what is conventionally called British history underrates that of England and misunderstands its roles within Davies's Isles. Indeed, such a situation suggests a need for a re-evaluation of British history, a "new British history" that gives due weight to England. We should have moved beyond the rather tired assaults on historians of the past who allegedly treated England as Britain.

The exigencies of popular journalism presumably encouraged Roberts and Jones to overstate their case, but they have a point. Davies's emphasis on the "invention of tradition" fails to consider adequately the consensual aspect of "manufactured" traditions, more specifically the extent to which they reflect a popular will. Furthermore, to prove that there is no one conception of national interest, or a single constitution that has lasted without change or criticism for a long period, is not the same as arguing that all conceptions or constitutions are of equal value, or that it is a good idea to reject existing systems in favour of an untried future.

Others will disagree. Different views can draw on a rich tradition of scholarship that is alive to different interpretations. It is disappointing that so many generalists ignore this. As final evidence of the breathtaking refusal to engage with complexity and the multiplicity of options, note the following: "If one has to state the obvious, the new game of fighting with words in the council rooms of Brussels over the best way to reform and to strengthen the Union is infinitely preferable to the old game of fighting with tanks over the remaking of Europe's frontiers."

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

The Isles: A History

Author - Norman Davies
ISBN - 0 333 76370 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £30.00
Pages - 1,222

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