Island Stories (Review)

Back in Blighty, and back to serious blogging soon. And aren’t these serious times? In the meanwhile I’m posting here a review of mine that has just been published in the Literary Review. Or, rather, my original version of it; the LR  edited a couple of things out, including my waspish reference to Cambridge High Tables.

*

David Reynolds, Island Stories. Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit.  294 pp., William Collins, 2019; £16.99.

Bernard Porter

It’s probably too much to hope that anyone on either side of the current ‘Brexit’ debate will have a proper grasp of the history which many of them claim backs up their positions on the issue. This is despite the fact that a number of the leading Brexiteers have themselves dabbled in British history, and even written books about it; most notably Boris Johnson with his fairly well-received The Churchill Factor. How One Man Made History (2014); and Jacob Rees-Mogg with The Victorians. Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (2019), which was – it is fair to say – not so well received, at least by academic historians. (‘Clichéd’, ‘lazy’ and ‘mind-bogglingly banal’ were just three of the terms used to describe it.) The problem with those books goes beyond the actual history recounted in them, and is indicated by the subtitles of both, which imply a view of how history is ‘made’ which not many of today’s academic historians would share. Both regard history as essentially moulded by ‘great men’. Most commentators on Johnson’s book saw it as an effort to acquire at least a patina of Churchill’s ‘greatness’ for himself.  (His Churchill book has been called an ‘auto-biography’.) Very few academics, of course, can claim to be ‘great men’, even in the making, or would want to be; which may be one of the less reputable reasons why they were so rude about Johnson’s and Rees-Mogg’s trespassing into their territory.

Another is that they disagreed with the emphasis on Britain’s past national ‘greatness’ that these two authors clearly felt their ‘great men’ (and one great woman, Queen Victoria, in Rees-Mogg’s account) had created; so, no doubt, offering hope to Prime Minister Johnson that he could do the same. This scepticism over their country’s high status could be attributed to a simple lack of patriotism, such as one might expect of ‘liberal élitists’; but is also, David Reynolds would say, borne out by a proper reading of British history. By that he doesn’t mean a reading that over-emphasises its less admirable aspects – though these should certainly be given their place, in the interests of balance, fairness and truth – but one that acknowledges that Britain’s history has been highly complex – ‘this is a book about “stories”, plural’ – and was to a great extent beyond its own, and therefore even its ‘greatest’ men’s, control. ‘In reality,’ writes Reynolds,  ‘“we” have been “made” by empire, Europe and the world as much as the other way around’. This is crucial. And when it comes to what is generally acknowledged to have been the ‘Leave’ campaign’s most effective slogan – ‘Take Back Control’ – it must be salutary, at the very least.

The core of the book is built around four main themes, pursued across the last thousand years of British history. The first is the idea of ‘decline’, stemming of course from the notion of Britain’s former greatness, and possibly also feeding it retrospectively. (We must have declined from something.) Margaret Thatcher was particularly moved by this. ‘I can’t bearBritain in decline. I just can’t. We who either defeated or rescued half Europe, who kept Europe free, when otherwise it would be in chains. And look at us now!’ Hence her ambition to ‘make Great Britain great again.’ (Did Trump get this catchy slogan from her?) This has been the Right’s obsession ever since Britain’s ‘decline’ first began to be noticed around the time of the Boer War; and also – as Reynolds points out – some of the Left’s, although in a different guise. It is certainly one of the things feeding into Brexit. In the view of the Right it all came down to a lack of national ‘nerve’, or ‘leadership’ – in other words of ‘heroes’; like Churchill, to whom, as Reynolds puts it, ‘the heroic narrative has been sharpened down’ in recent years. Hence Johnson’s book, and his own pretensions.

In the following chapters on ‘Europe’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Empire’ Reynolds spikes most of these arguments: for Churchill’s dominating ‘greatness’, for example; for Britain’s achievements in World War II – forget the Battle of Britain, think Singapore; for the myth of Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’; for the notion that her imperialism was either a sign or a source of strength – ‘Looking back now,’ he writes, ‘the great British Empire seems like a bit of a con’ (how dismissive can you get? But he’s quite right); and for the idea that Thatcher really did anything to reverse Britain’s ‘decline’ in any meaningful sense. In fact it was her neoliberal economic policies that were largely responsible for the social divisions in Britain which were the real fuel for the Brexit vote – nothing at all to do with the European Union – so contributing to the final decline into national chaos that marks the country’s situation today.

In any case, whatever Britain’s ‘greatness’ really consisted of, it can’t be attributed to strength of individual ‘will’. Reynolds’s book is punctuated throughout with examples of the ways good (and bad) fortune mainly determined her progress during the years: from her literal insularity, through that ‘Protestant wind’ that scuttled the Spanish Armada, the fact that Europe’s internal squabbles left Britain the pick of the wider world to colonise freely in the nineteenth century, and her early industrial start. Without these slices of luck she could never have sustained her illusion of ‘greatness’, which was always artificial and fragile, and which renders the condition she is in now the normal one for a nation her size. Which means that it doesn’t need to be ‘explained’, and cannot hope to be reversed by returning to past glories, as Johnson appears to wish. Finally, it was only a ‘decline’ in relative terms. Those people (there can’t be many of them – it probably depends on what kinds of schools they went to) who bemoan the fact that Britain is not ‘top dog’ any more forget that although ‘other dogs are bigger… the British dog is now a lot fatter than a century ago.’ Which is the better measure of the nation’s good? If you think it’s her so-called ‘greatness’, Reynolds writes at one point, ‘this may not be the book for you.’

For those who believe that the great Brexit split really was over ‘Europe’, Reynolds supplies a brief history, over a thousand years, of Britain’s relations with her Continental neighbours which should at the very least disabuse them of the idea that she was never a ‘part’ of it.  Even ‘Britain’ itself  – Teresa May’s ‘beloved Union’ – has always been a smoke and mirrors thing; and was certainly not as ‘exceptional’ – in its ‘liberties’, for example – as British patriots like to claim. (Think Ireland, which seemed to take Brexiteers by surprised in the autumn of 2019; and the Scots Nats.)

‘Both sides’ in the Brexit debate, writes Reynolds, ‘tended to use “history” instrumentally’ – although, to be fair, nearly all his examples are taken from the ‘Brexit’ side. The ‘Remain’ camp mainly gets away with it lightly; apart from some possibly unfair (rather Cambridge High Table?) comments on Corbyn, whose views on the EU were, after all, rather more nuanced than most, which is usually what academic historians like. Reynolds’s main complaint against the Remainers is that they failed to make a sufficiently positive case for Europe, which could itself have been based on history. But it’s the Right who were guilty of actually distorting the historical record. For David Cameron, one of whose favourite books was apparently Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story. A Child’s History of England (1905), history ‘seemed to figure mostly as a reservoir for national pride’. For others ‘the past served as a repository of slick historical analogies’, or of ‘sound-bite warnings’, like Boris Johnson’s notorious citing of Hitler to warn of the dangers of the EU ‘superstate’. None of them used the past in what a professional or academic historian would regard as a proper way. ‘Johnson, of course, was a rhetorical showman, who understood the utility of history as entertainment.’ Which is probably why more people will read him than Reynolds; and why it’s such a shame that the ‘Remain’ side never had a popular rhetorician to compare with him.

This is a splendid book: a clear, well-written and highly stimulating account of the flaws in our understanding of our national past that bedevilled the great existential debate of 2016-19, and helped produce the result it did. We could have done with it two or three years ago. But then ‘real’ history, based on extensive reading, research and the wisdom of a true historian, takes a while to write.

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2 Responses to Island Stories (Review)

  1. Here’s a comment on this post, posted elsewhere. I’ve not decided how or even whether to respond; the comment doesn’t really bear on the argument, either of my review, or of the book, but is really just an attack on us ‘elitists’. ‘Tony’ offers one excellent reply.

    ‘I have just read your “review” of Island Stories in the Literary Review. As a Brexiteer I am used to being insulted by the liberal elite whose views on why people voted to leave the EU become ever more perverse. However your belief that ignorance about our history, even liberal elite approved “post modern” or, even worse, Marxist history, had anything to do with it shows just how out of touch those in the post modern world are. I made a political decision to vote for Brexit and reading your review I’m very glad I did. Fingers crossed that we get Brexit over the line this week.’

    Regards,

    Peter Chadwick

    Like

  2. Tony says:

    There is of course no getting Brexit ‘over the line’ Mr Chadwick, but rather many years of tortuous negotiations, which might at least teach the UK where its proper place is in the world and finally disabuse it of post-imperial hang-ups. Having given up the best of protections in the largest single market in the world, it will be adrift desperately trying to make other less satisfactory bi-lateral trade deals where the terms will not always be in its favour (eg with the US)

    Liked by 1 person

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