This sceptical isle

November 24, 1995

Britain is dead, long live. . . what exactly? David Cannadine on the making of the "new British history" and its future

During the election campaign for the European Parliament which was fought out in May 1994, the Prime Minister, John Major, offered this version of the history of the country whose government he led: "This British nation has a monarchy founded by the Kings of Wessex over 1,100 years ago, a parliament and universities formed over 700 years ago, a language with its roots in the mists of time, and the richest vocabulary in the world. This is no recent historical invention: it is the cherished creation of generations, and as we work to build a new and better Europe, we must never forget the traditions and inheritance of our past."

Albeit in less strident form, these rather idiosyncratic comments of Mr Major echo those made by Lady Thatcher in Paris at the bicentennial of the French Revolution, when she spoke with more force than accuracy about Magna Carta and 1688. Taken together, their remarks suggest that when it comes to producing a contemporary account of Britain's past, the most unreconstructed form of Whig history which survives today is that preached from 10 Downing Street by Tory prime ministers. In more ways than one, it is a significant irony.

For their account is not only Whig history implausibly masquerading as Conservative propaganda. Notwithstanding their ritual invocation of the word "Britain", it is also emphatically "Little England" history. Both Thatcher and Major assert the essential Englishness of the United Kingdom, its separateness from the rest of Europe, the long continuity of its traditions and its unique characteristics. But the reason they feel obliged to reaffirm these beliefs is that recent developments have thrown virtually every one of them into question. And those developments have not merely changed the contemporary political landscape; they have also inspired many scholars to look again at the nation's history. During the last two decades, an emerging school of self-consciously "British" historians has been evolving a very different interpretation of Britain's past.

One problem with discussing the traditional Whig interpretation of English history is in knowing where to begin. The period between the middle of the 19th century and the outbreak of the second world war is generally regarded as having marked the zenith of the modern nation-state. This was the period which saw the reconstruction of the United States in the aftermath of the civil war, the creation of new nations in Europe, the partition of Africa and the Confederation of Canada, Federation of Australia and Union of South Africa. It witnessed mass electorates, mass political parties, mass education, mass transport, mass mobilisation - and mass war. And one result of these developments, which further helped to define the identities of these new countries, was the rise of nationalist history in Germany, in France, in the United States - and also in Britain itself.

The years from 1800 to 1922 witnessed the inexorable expansion of that Great Britain beyond the seas, as the Empire reached its territorial zenith in the years immediately after the First World War. Forster's Education Act of 1870 created a mass literate public; the Reform Acts of 1885 and 1919 created a mass voting public. The boundaries of the nation were being set wider then ever before. One of the ways in which this new nation was defined, its unity asserted and its mission proclaimed was by giving unprecedented attention to its past. In schools the history of the nation became an essential subject.

From the standpoint of the British reading public, the national past came packaged in three different versions. Initially pride of place went to those multi-volume, single-authored works, written by gentleman amateurs, which were so fashionable during Queen Victoria's reign - the most famous being Macaulay's History of England, published in four volumes between 1855 and 1861. Towards the end of Victoria's reign such lengthy leisurely surveys were replaced by new single-volume histories, better suited to the mass audience that had recently come into being. The most important was J. R. Green's Short History of the English People, first published in 1874. By 1930 the third version of the nation's history was well established: the multi-volume, multi-authored series, written by a team of academic professionals, most of whom confined themselves to their realm of scholarly expertise.

Inevitably, these three different versions of the national past varied greatly. But they also had much in common. To begin with, they were all conceived, written and marketed as histories of England. Moreover, these books were almost without exception in praise of England. They celebrated parliamentary government, the Common Law, the Church of England, ordered progress towards democracy and the avoidance of revolution. They took English exceptionalism for granted: it existed, it was good, and it was the historian's task to explain and applaud it. And they generally supposed that this history was a success story: as the authors of 1066 and All That argued, when England ceased to be top nation, history came to a full stop.

These characteristics are the commonplaces of the Whig interpretation of English history which is now so much derided in professional circles, even if it retains its allure for Tory prime ministers. In retrospect it is also easy to dismiss these books as having been wholly devoid of any awareness of the separate identities and the separate histories of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, let alone those of Great Britain, of the United Kingdom and of the British Empire. Almost without exception they indiscriminately interchanged the words England and Britain, as if they were no more than different names for the same country. And to the extent that they did deal with the British Isles, these authors wrote from an anglocentric perspective: they were concerned to describe the gradual expansion of England, slowly but inexorably overwhelming, absorbing and dominating its near neighbours.

It is these attitudes, assumptions and arguments which now seem so outmoded. But what have been the changes which have led to the recent re-thinking of national history?

The most significant international development has been the unexpected break-up of nation-states, many of them created less than a century ago. The demise of Communism brought an end to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact brought freedom to many nations; but in certain cases it was a freedom they were unable to sustain. In Czechoslovakia the break-up has been amicable: in Yugoslavia it has been horrendous. And there is no guarantee that this is the end of the story. There are separatist movements in Spain; Italy has been on the brink of dissolution; the Canadian confederation is in serious crisis; there are even predictions that the United States is bound to collapse into different ethnic and linguistic communities. Nationalism is once again alive, aggressive and on the march; but much of the most fervent national feeling is no longer consistent with the units of nationhood as they were created and consolidated between 1870 and 1919.

Not surprisingly then, the nation-state is widely regarded as being one of the most significant casualties of our post-modern world. Benedict Anderson has argued that nations should properly be understood as "imagined communities": invented associations, encompassing a multitude of shifting boundaries and subjective identities. By deconstructing these myths and traditions, historians are no longer reinforcing national identity as they did in the hey-day of the nation-state: they are intensifying the identity crisis through which many countries seem to be passing.

Britain has fully shared in these developments: both internationally and domestically its identity seems increasingly problematic. The Empire has gone, the Commonwealth is multi-racial. (Indeed, there are few people who believe in it or even know what it is.) And many Britons no longer feel separate from and superior to "Europe". For a nation that has, throughout so much of its history, defined itself over and against "Europe" as something different, something exceptional, something better, this is proving to be very traumatic indeed.

These anxieties about Britain's late 20th century identity have been reinforced by three domestic developments. First, the obverse of post-war decolonisation has been a massive influx of immigrants, especially from South Asia and the Caribbean; Britain is now a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, where there are more Muslims than Methodists. Second, the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, combined with the resurgence of Welsh and Scottish nationalism since the 1970s, have led many commentators to predict the break-up of Britain as a nation-state into its separate, historic, constituent parts of England, Scotland, Wales and (presumably) a re-united Ireland. Third, many institutions which seemed for so long the very embodiment of national identity and national success seem to have lost their sense of purpose and the confidence of the public - the monarchy, parliament, the Church of England, the police.

At the same time, there have also been significant changes in British historical scholarship since 1945, away from the earlier concern with the English nation-state. Although traditional English constitutional and political history was still taught, it was no longer unchallenged. For the new sub-disciplines which came to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s were little concerned with questions of national identity. Economic historians preferred to deal with smaller areas (especially Lancashire) or larger (usually Europe). Local historians concentrated on particular regions. Social historians were more interested in classes than in nations. And historians of ideas, of culture, of capitalism, of technology, of population, of race, of sex, of gender and of religion were rarely concerned with specific national boundaries at all.

Elsewhere in the British Isles, English history was faced with a different challenge: the emergence of Irish, Welsh and Scottish history as separate, self-conscious, academic subjects. The post-war expansion of universities, combined with the Irish "troubles" and the upsurge of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, undoubtedly gave a great impetus to non-English (and sometimes anglophobic) historical studies in these three nations.

Together, these developments have substantially undermined the presumptions which characterised English history-writing in the heyday of the nation-state. Globally, it is no longer convincing to depict the history of England as the successful and still unfinished epic of the rise of a great power and the winning and consolidation of a great empire. Academically, it is no longer convincing to write the history of England without some awareness of the separate but interlocking histories of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and without giving thought to the different identities (and histories) implied by the words England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Isles and the British Empire.

Accordingly, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the gradual abandonment of the Whiggish history of England and the first tentative moves towards a new form of genuinely British history. J. G. A. Pocock produced two seminal articles, which urged the creation and recognition of British history "as a new subject". It should be concerned, Pocock argued, for the early period with the archipelago as a whole (a period for which the designation "British Isles" is not at all appropriate). It should be concerned for the 17th and 18th centuries with the greater British transatlantic world, which was shattered by the civil war that began in 1776. And it should be concerned for the 19th and 20th centuries with imperial Britain, encompassing North America, parts of Africa, much of India and all of the Antipodes.

Today articles, monographs and general surveys regularly appear, proclaiming their commitment to the "new British history". But what exactly is it? What are its prospects and its problems?

Firstly, it should be clear that British history means different things in different centuries. This new fashionable generic heading conceals - or encompasses - a variety of very different problems and issues, approaches and methodologies. Rees Davies has shown how the kings and aristocracy of England sought to extend their dominion, by military conquest, over Wales, Scotland and Ireland during the 12th and 13th centuries. Conrad Russell has sought to explain what used to be called the English Civil War as a British War of the Three Kingdoms. Linda Colley has looked at the many ways in which a new sense of British national identity was created and forged at all social levels during the 18th century. And Keith Robbins has investigated the integration of 19th century Britain via the arts, religion, politics, business, education and recreation. These historians are looking at very different forms of Britishness and so are writing very different forms of "British history."

There is, in short, no one single dominant methodology for the "new British history". Nor should there be. Put another way, this means that the "four nations" approach, so brilliantly pioneered by Hugh Kearney, should not be allowed to dominate the subject. As Kearney himself points out, there are other ways of dividing up the British Isles and thus of conceptualising its history, than that embodied in the "four nations" approach. Suppose, for instance, a history of the British Isles was organised, not around the interconnections between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but around the differences between upland and lowland regions? This might lead to an alternative form of "British history" - one which has never been taken up.

Nor should we expect more from this new subject than it can realistically be expected to deliver. One danger is that too much British history will merely replace the political teleology of ordered constitutional development, and the sociological teleology of an ever-rising middle class, with an identificational teleology which merely and mindlessly claims that, at any given time, the British were actively engaged in the process of becoming more British than they ever had been before. Another risk is that an excessive concentration on "Britishness" may lead historians to ignore those many alternative individual identities, sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory, which are more locally articulated.

To say this is not to provide inadvertent scholarly endorsement for the "Little England" Whiggism of Thatcher and Major. Their excessively anglocentric notion of Britishness tells us much about the evolution of Conservative attitudes and electoral fortunes. The party that once championed the British Empire is now more inclined to dismiss the whole imperial adventure and its Commonwealth aftermath as a distorting aberration from English history. The party which changed its name to defend the Union with Ireland is today widely distrusted by the Protestant loyalists of Belfast. And in Wales and Scotland, popular Toryism has seemed for some time almost a contradiction in terms. As so often in the past, the Conservative party has once again become pre-eminently the party of English nationalism. When Tories pledge themselves to maintain the UK intact, they do so to perpetuate traditional English dominance within it, rather than out of any sympathy with its broader British identity.

For reasons that are precisely the opposite, the Labour party also needs to preserve the UK intact. It is electorally essential for it to do so. The party may have been committed to some degree of devolution for Scotland and Wales. But this is because it is also crucially dependent for its national success on Scottish and Welsh votes. For a future Labour government to devolve so much power to Scottish and Welsh assemblies that the number of MPs at Westminster had to be substantially reduced would be to commit electoral suicide. The Tories use England as the means to dominate Britain; Labour needs Britain as the means to dominate England.

The two main parties thus have very good (albeit very different) reasons for wanting to keep the UK intact. And so, while the predicted break-up of Britain could still occur, it seems equally likely that it will not. Even in the 1990s, nations that have survived far outnumber nations that have dissolved, and the forces holding the UK together may yet turn out to be much stronger than those pulling it apart. British historians, of whatever political persuasion or local loyalty, would do well to ponder this.

This is an edited extract from an essay by David Cannadine in Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History, edited by Alexander Grant and Keith Stringer, published next week by Routledge, Pounds 25.

David Cannadine is the Moore collegiate professor of history at Columbia University.

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