Wet island, damp squib

The Story of Britain
November 29, 1996

Roy Strong's history of Britain from earliest times begins with a factual mistake. "Britain", he says, "is an island, and that fact is more important than any other in understanding its history". If so, The Story of Britain deals, from the time of the Anglo-Saxons until the Acts of Union in 1707, with a quite different country. For, until at least the time of Henry VIII, "Britain" was a purely historical term used to describe the efforts made to unite England and Scotland. From 1801 to 1922, "Britain" comprised not one but two islands, Great Britain, ie England and Scotland, and Ireland. Since 1922, Britain has comprised one island together with part of another.

"Unlike other European countries", Strong continues, "the boundaries of what was to be Britain were drawn at the outset by its geographical formation". Yet Britain's boundaries have been highly uncertain for much of her history. From around the ninth century, kings did indeed claim sovereignty over the whole island of Great Britain. Yet they exercised little real authority outside a line south of the Humber and Mersey and east of Offa's Dyke. The annexation of the North was not completed until the end of the 11th century. Wales was annexed in 1536 while Scotland was not linked to England until the union of crowns in 1603. The boundaries of Britain changed yet again in 1922 when the 26 counties became the Irish Free State, an independent dominion within the Commonwealth. Today, Britain is the only country in Western Europe whose boundaries are challenged by another state, the Irish Republic. Britain's boundaries have been decided not by geography but by the contingencies and vicissitudes of history and they have often been very contentious indeed.

The factual mistake which opens The Story of Britain is untypical of a work which retains a high level of factual accuracy throughout. The imperceptiveness is, however, only too typical of the bland tone which pervades the book.

Anyone writing a one-volume history of Britain challenges comparison with Feiling, with Trevelyan, perhaps even with Macaulay. Why do these historians survive? Largely through their prejudices, Whiggish in the case of Macaulay and Trevelyan, Tory in the case of Feiling. The historian must have something fresh to say, a perspective which casts light on familiar events and puts them into a new context. Strong confesses to being an Anglo-Catholic conservative. That, no doubt, is as acceptable a set of prejudices as any other. Indeed The Story of Britain would benefit from a bit of prejudice, rather than the bland Whiggism which it thoughtlessly purveys. Take this for example on the reforming Liberal government of 1905-15: "The Liberals returned to power. They came in with no master-plan but gradually, during a decade of dominance, they were to a great extent to set the agenda for the new century, one which was to embody a fundamental shift in attitude".

A lively sixth-former could do a better job. One would never guess from this passage that the early 20th century excites controversy among modern historians, that it is a living topic rather than something fit only for embalming in a textbook. All too often The Story of Britain degenerates into a historical analogue of one of Ramsay MacDonald's speeches - up and up and on and on. Strong has produced a dish that is flavourless and which invites Churchill's famous riposte, "Take away that pudding. It has no theme".

The historian with whom Strong invites comparison is neither Feiling nor Trevelyan, much less Macaulay, but H. E. Marshall whose book Our Island Story has influenced generations of schoolchildren. It was first published in 1905 when it was still just possible to celebrate the virtues of progress. Later editions were to show rather more awareness that something had gone wrong. But to maintain belief in progress and the continuity of "Our Island Story" nearly 100 years later requires, surely, a suspension of disbelief of heroic proportions.

In its simplistic celebration of Britishness, Our Island Story was perhaps an earlier version of The Story of Britain, but the earlier book has a verve and freshness entirely absent from Strong's work. It led its young readers to more serious books, while Strong will send them to sleep.

Occasionally, however, Strong does not quite reach the level of H. E. Marshall, bringing Sellar and Yeatman to mind instead. Indeed, some of the statements in The Story of Britain could come straight out of 1066 and All That. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for example, are praised for being a "brilliant panorama" and for painting "a glowing picture of the England of Richard II", while on Shakespeare, Strong declares that he was "one of those enigmatic figures who cross the pages of history and give away nothing. Six of his signatures exist but not a single line of his own writing. Although his career as a successful businessman and writer is there to trace, the inner voyage of his mind remains opaque. Who were the young man and the Dark Lady to whom he wrote the sonnets? What were his religious beliefs? What was his exact relationship with his family and his patrons? What is the true chronology of his plays? All of these questions still remain unanswered giving rise in our own age to a massive academic industry".

The Story of Britain is written for children of all ages and its handsomely illustrated pages contain a great deal of uninteresting information of this kind. Those who read it will remain unaware that history is an exciting subject riddled with controversy whose truths can never be anything more than provisional. A historical survey should open up minds, not close them. But if one wants to inoculate someone against the dangers and delights of history, The Story of Britain is the book to recommend.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

The Story of Britain

Author - Roy Strong
ISBN - 1 85681 099 2
Publisher - Hutchinson
Price - £35.00
Pages - 596

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