Constantly infuriated, as any professional historian must be, by the distortions of history uttered by the Brexiteers, I’ve been thinking that I as a serious historian ought to write something that will put the record straight – or straighter, at least. I just haven’t got round to it. Now however that the excellent Cambridge historian David Reynolds has come out with his Island Stories. Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit (William Collins, 2019, £16.99), I no longer feel this burden on me.
Reynolds has done what I ought to have done, but better. I’ve just completed my review of his book for the Literary Review’s Christmas number. It’s really good, as you’ll gather eventually from my piece. (I can’t preview it here; journals don’t like your publishing ‘spoilers’ before their versions are out.) It’s just what we need, in order to counter the nonsense contained in, for example, Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor. How One Man Made History (2014); and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians. Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (2019): the latter book described as ‘clichéd’, ‘lazy’ and ‘mind-bogglingly banal’ in recent reviews. Most reviewers of Boris’s book thought it was really about himself.
Reynolds sets about destroying these men’s romantic and patriotic – Etonian? – versions of British history with gusto; and in particular their common assumption – expressed in the subtitles of both of them – that history is ‘made’ by ‘great men’; leaving the door open to Boris, as prime minister, to ‘make Britain great again’ just on his own. He also lays into Theresa May with a will. And into Corbyn, very unfairly – a bit Cambridge High Table – in my view. But Corbyn isn’t ‘history’ just yet.
So, apart from that, I was delighted to read this ‘real’ historian’s corrective to all the crap right-wing history that is circulating just now. Until, that is, I realised (a) that the general reading public doesn’t read ‘expert’ or ‘elitist’ history, preferring to swallow the myths peddled by ‘characters’ like Rees-Mogg and Johnson; and (b) that, with Reynolds’s publication date being October 31st, the very day on which the Brexit die is due to be cast, his book has come too late.
That of course is an advantage that rubbish historians have over serious ones. The former can just write down what comes into their heads. Academic historians have to read, research and think first. And that takes time.