Sir David Cannadine: ‘I’m all for a free trade in ideas’

The distinguished historian talks to Matthew Reisz about his latest book and his new role as president of the British Academy

September 28, 2017
David Cannadine
Source: Pictures: Getty
David Cannadine

When Sir David Cannadine was director of the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research between 1998 and 2003, he “virtually stopped reviewing, because part of the job was to provide a welcoming place for all historians doing all sorts of different things. I felt that wasn’t compatible with having produced trenchant reviews of history books in the newspapers.” Trenchancy can be dangerous in a role in which one is expected to represent a whole group, and rise above the disputes within it.

Similar issues apply to Cannadine’s new role as president of the British Academy, the UK’s national body for the social sciences and humanities, which he took up in July.

In many ways, he was a natural choice. Now 67, the Dodge professor of history at Princeton University is an extremely distinguished, prolific and well-connected historian whose books always engage with big themes and reach well beyond a narrow specialist readership. Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906, published this week, is an excellent example.

The book is a project he has been working on “off and on for the best past of 20 years”, he tells Times Higher Education. It amounts to “a single volume covering the whole of the 19th century and aimed at a broad public audience…something that I don’t think has been done much recently”.

His aim, he says, is to “bring politics back centre stage, which, in a world of social history, economic history, gender history and cultural history, might seem unusual”. In keeping with that aspiration, the book is “interested in power: the winning, the losing, the manipulation of power, the projection of power overseas…The worry of the proliferation of history subspecialisms, which has gone on for the whole of my academic life and has been hugely exhilarating, is that diversity brings incoherence. I wanted to see if one could pull it all together.”

Such a broad work of synthesis, as Cannadine admits in the book, presents a number of challenges. It has to “reconcile [the] treatment of historical processes and contingent events” and to “devise expositional structures that satisfactorily incorporate narrative and analysis” while striking a balance between a “Little England” approach, the story of the “four nations” of the UK and international relations. In the event, he has been remarkably successful in keeping all these balls in the air. His writing is both informative and entertaining, with a sharp eye for vivid, arresting detail. However old-fashioned its grand ambitions, Victorious Century will no doubt become a standard work.

Great Indian Peninsula Railway station in Bombay
Gothic splendour: the terminus and station in Bombay (now Mumbai) of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway was built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee


Nonetheless, the book also raises a number of questions that come into sharper focus in light of Cannadine’s 2013 work, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences. As well as a bold central assertion about the course of human history, that book includes some sharp views on how he believes history should – and shouldn’t – be written. Separate chapters consider religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. Each opens with a quotation proposing that the relevant concept is absolutely crucial, such as Mao Zedong’s statement that “Classes struggle, some classes triumph, others are eliminated. Such is history” or Germaine Greer’s “Before you are of any race, nationality, religion, party or family, you are a woman”.

Not all these claims can be true, Cannadine points out, arguing that such identities are “rarely as homogeneous, monolithic or all-encompassing, or as naturally belligerent and as adversarially entrenched, as their leaders and apologists, propagandists and historians like to claim”. Alongside wars of religion, for example, history is full of conflicts within faiths, as well as alliances and coexistence between them. The book ends by urging us to try to “see beyond our differences, our sectional interests, our identity politics, and our parochial concerns to embrace and to celebrate [our] common humanity”.

But what are the implications for the academy? The Undivided Past is critical of the role historians have played in promoting “identity-obsessed way[s] of seeing the world”, notably in relation to class. The chapter on that theme doubts whether “Marxist history-writing still has a future in the twenty-first century”, given that “the credibility and conviction have long since gone out of [its] outmoded enterprises and nostalgic claims”.

Perhaps even more striking is its chapter on gender. Feminist debates about whether to put the stress on fighting for equality or celebrating difference, as well as the movement’s alleged focus on the concerns of “the well-educated and comfortably well-off Western middle class”, reveal to Cannadine “the haziness of the feminist project”. And he concludes by wondering whether women will “continue to organise, to campaign, and to assert their collective identity…The generation of active feminists who were the children of the 1960s are reluctantly moving on, and as they do so, they increasingly lament that those women coming after them, who enjoy greater opportunities in part thanks to their predecessors’ efforts, are uneager to carry on fighting, organizing, and mobilizing.”

Polemics are meant to be provocative, yet it is safe to say that many scholars working in the social sciences and humanities will be unimpressed and perhaps offended by such bold statements. Feminism and other approaches rooted in “identity politics” – including even Marxism – remain alive and well in the academy, and many of their practitioners will be hoping to find the British Academy “a welcoming place”.

In his plans for his presidency, Cannadine stresses “a strong commitment to diversity…in terms of the gender or ethnic background” of the fellows, but also “in terms of subjects and disciplines and areas of innovation”. Yet isn’t this in tension with some of his own trenchantly expressed views?

Cannadine will have none of this. “Arguments that claim that one single identity is more important than any other don’t seem to me a helpful way to think about the complexity of the human condition,” he says. “[But] I also think that work that has been done on that basis has often been enormously important. I don’t find those contradictory positions…I’m all for giving appropriate recognition to many scholars in many fields, while also saying that, as a practising historian, I have my own interests and views. I’m all for a free trade in ideas. I have strong views of my own, but I like other people to have strong views. I’m a great believer in not living in a permanent echo chamber. The British Academy is not an echo chamber, and I am very glad of that.”

The suffrage movement used every opportunity to campaign for women’s votes


This brings us back to certain elements of Victorious Century. Take the treatment of the British Empire. Cannadine suggests that the empire was always over-extended (a theme his wife, the equally distinguished Princeton historian, Linda Colley, has also addressed in books such as Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850). The British grip on international affairs, he argues in the book, was often more apparent than real; imperial expansion came largely as a result of pressure from those on the ground and against the wishes of leading politicians, in a spirit “more defensive and pessimistic than it was aggressive and hubristic”. And, “as a cause and as a creed”, the empire was “never all that popular in Britain itself, even in the age of ‘High Imperialism’”.

None of this should be construed as a defence of empire, but doesn’t the stress on how accidental it was tend to detract from the exploitation and brutality that so many of his fellow academics have focused on in recent years?

Again, Cannadine doesn’t see it that way. “I do think the empire was often contingent and accidental,” he explains, “but that is precisely why, when the British were threatened, they were so brutal. The resort to force is a sign that it’s not working, a sign of weakness, even if people on the other side get killed as a result…The Napoleonic Wars, the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War, the Boer War, various adventures and excursions in Africa – it’s brutal stuff. I don’t think I’ve denied that. The reason it’s so brutal is that the British were often less powerful overseas than they appeared to be. They are running this global empire on a kind of shoestring [budget].”

Although it may be odd to focus on a single sentence in a 500-page book, there is also a very strange moment towards the end of Victorious Century. Cannadine is describing developments in sport in the late 19th century and writes that: “Like bicycling, tennis was an activity that women could enjoy as well as men, and cycles and racquets may have contributed as much to advance female causes as any amount of feminist propaganda or suffragette campaigning.”

Asked to elaborate on this, he points out that “if you can get on your bicycle, it opened up all sorts of possibilities in terms of geographical mobility and travel which didn’t exist before. That’s one way of thinking about expanding horizons and opportunities and possibilities which has perhaps not been put in juxtaposition with the suffrage campaign, but it’s quite interesting to think about those two things together. It’s clear that, at various points, agitation by suffragettes or by feminists is enormously important. I don’t think anybody would deny that. But if we are to understand how processes of historical change work, we might want to be open to what the other explanations are as well, so the bicycle is part of that bigger story.”

This sounds perfectly reasonable, but also a good deal more nuanced than the very provocative version of the same point he has chosen to put in print. Cannadine has a vast range of historical interests and can certainly be charmingly diplomatic, yet also enjoys a style of forceful polemic that risks alienating other scholars. It remains to be seen how this will play out during his tenure at the British Academy. 

David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 is published by Allen Lane.

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