Busy re-writing just now, so little time for blogging. I’ll get back to that soon. In the meantime I thought I’d post this: my (draft only) Preface to the book. Just a taster.
First, and to clear up any misunderstandings that the subtitle of this book may have given rise to, I should make it clear that it will not be a ‘patriotic’ history in the conventional sense: glorifying Britain, that is, and papering over her deficiencies. ‘Patriotism’ of that kind does no-one any good, and can do great harm in the wrong hands. It also, quite obviously, falsifies any country’s history if it only paints the ‘best’ side of it, when everyone knows that all histories are a mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and of disputed choices of what should be placed in either of these categories; or indeed in the ‘neutral’ – neither good nor bad – one.
Furthermore, in my view no ‘patriotic’ history can be truly patriotic if it doesn’t address aspects of a nation’s present situation, arising from its past, which might need to be improved or corrected in order to make it better; which ought surely to be the objective of any true patriot. In Sweden, where I mainly live now, school children are taught about their nation’s ‘identity’ in relation to its aspirations for the future, rather than based on its past history. (That’s probably just as well, in view of Sweden’s chequered history before modern times.) It may be thought surprising that the British appear not to have thought of that, but still seem wedded to their ‘Island Story’ as one of the bases for their attraction and loyalty towards the bit of the Earth they happen to inhabit. That’s convenient for me, of course, as a professional historian, who wants to sell his books; but not if the versions of British history they read (or, more likely, view on TV) are less reliable than mine and my fellow professionals’.
So this won’t be a celebratory history of Britain, with lots of flag-waving – an activity that used to be considered un-British, incidentally: too ‘showy’ – and with all the warts glossed over. Nor however will it be a hyper-critical version of the kind that might suit Britain’s denigrators more. That is not because I can’t find anything to criticise in Britain’s past history – far from it; but partly because I don’t want to condemn everything in it, or the nation as a whole, on the basis of these criticisms; and – more importantly – because all criticisms, especially from a later perspective, are likely to be subjective, and I should like to make this account as objective as I can. (That is despite my referencing personal experiences occasionally.) Yes, I am aware of the problems of this, both personal and philosophical – I’m fairly well versed in ‘postmodernism’ – and realise that my ‘objectivity’ may differ from others’; but I still believe that historians can get close to some truths, and in any event – and perhaps more importantly – can reveal obvious untruths, so long as they make allowances for their own biases, and don’t make moral judgments on the basis of them. Indeed, rather than judging, my aim in this book will be to try to explain. One of its purposes will be to uncover some of the common misunderstandings that many people appear to have about Britain’s history, and especially those that come in the form of generalisations about that history which take no account of its – to my mind fascinating – complexity.
From a more traditional patriot’s point of view there must seem much to admire in Britain’s past. For just a little country she has made quite a mark on the world. Conquering continents – all of them, except South America and Antarctica (poor old Captain Scott!); ruling perhaps a quarter of the world’s people at one time; the winner of three world wars (the Napoleonic being the first); inventing manufacturing industry, liberalism and freedom; splitting the atom and discovering DNA; giving the world its lingua franca, together with football and – for those sophisticated enough to appreciate it – cricket; spreading a great literature around the world, as well as, more latterly, popular music and period costume TV dramas: – all these are achievements for Britons to be proud of, surely? And all this from an island base of only 250,000 square kilometres, significantly smaller than modern Germany, France or even Sweden, stuck out on the edge of another continent, and with a pretty rotten climate on the whole. In view of all this, what country could be more deserving of national admiration and loyalty than Little Britain?
But of course there is another side. Yes, Britain can boast a proud history in many ways, although not necessarily all the ones listed above, which may be modified in the following narrative; but also a less-than-proud one in some others. In this respect she resembles every other country in the world, none of which could be said to have an entirely clean bill of historical health. In any case, the notion of ‘pride’ in this connection is problematic: with features that you might admire in a country being deplored by others – conquering continents, for example; and, perhaps more fundamentally, the idea of your being personally ‘proud’ of events and achievements that happened before your time being, quite simply, nonsensical. Besides, no-one surely is entitled to take ‘pride’ in the sheer accident of his or her birth. Only people who have chosen to live in Britain are strictly speaking entitled to that. That means immigrants. Many of Britain’s present-day ‘patriots’, the more ‘racist’ ones, might feel uncomfortable with that.
This book’s aim, therefore, is to give a very brief account of the history of Britain from around 1800-on, in order to help ‘patriots’ and others, including critics of Britain, to come to proper terms with it. It will be organised thematically as well as chronologically, and treated both narratively and analytically; with not much detail – that can be gathered from countless other books, or even from Wikipedia – but lots of ideas. It should probably be regarded as an extended essay, or a series of them, rather than – for example – a ‘textbook’. It certainly won’t be comprehensive. I have tried to make it readable, for amateurs as well as experts in the field. It will avoid major generalisations (not minor ones), until near the end, when one will be offered, but only tentatively – and, it has to be said, fairly unoriginally. That is because of the aforementioned complexity of Britain’s history over the past two hundred-odd years. The first chapter will outline some of the differences between Britons which contribute to this, and the country’s various reputations both then and now. There is not and never has been a single ‘Britain’, towards which everyone can be either loyal, or critical. That is important to know.
Nor is there – to continue the theme of ‘complexity’ – a single type of ‘liberalism’, or ‘imperialism’, or ‘progress’, or ‘conservatism’, or ‘socialism’, or ‘radicalism’, or of any religious denomination, or – arising from this – ‘of Britishness’; and so, it hardly needs to be said, of ‘patriotism’, which is so often seen in simplistic terms. ‘If people are not proud to be British, or of our flag or Queen’, as the Conservative MP Lia Nici tweeted in March 2021, ‘they don’t have to live in the UK. Perhaps they should move to another country they prefer.’ (I’ve actually done that, but for other more personal reasons too.) As it happens it was that statement of Lia Nici’s that provoked me into writing this book; following on as it did from some equally simplistic and shallow utterances – and even actions: toppling statues, for example – coming from ‘anti-racists’ and ‘anti-imperialists’ of the Left. My quarrel with them was not directed at their anti-racism, which I share, but at their simplistic views of it, taken generally out of context; and of ‘imperialism’ – one of my specialisms – more generally. (I also didn’t see why statues even of slave-traders, if suitably labelled, shouldn’t be kept standing in order to make passers-by aware of this sorry episode in Britain’s history.) Besides, judging people in the past is unprofitable, partly because it usually takes no account of the said context, which if you knew about it you might find at least partially excused them; and – more importantly – because it fuels the illusion, if the judgment is unfavourable, that they were to blame for what happened in history. I’ll be coming back to this question of agency in the final chapters. Before then, however, I shall try to be non-judgmental; although to be honest that will be difficult in certain cases, especially as we approach the present day. History is ongoing, after all, and I’m a product of it as well as one of its chroniclers.
So this will be a ‘warts and all’ account; but with the warts never obscuring the patches of fairly healthy skin. Indeed, patriots may well find some objects of ‘pride’ in it still – if that’s what they want – although not always the ones they might expect; and tempered, for accuracy’s sake, with some of the darker sides of British history: atrocities that were committed abroad, for example, under Lia Nici’s Flag, and in the names of successive Queens and Kings. But that will be up to them. It’s not my object in this book to encourage readers to approve or disapprove of any events or trends in the story I’ll be recounting, but only to lay some of the facts before them, as I see them, in order to get them to think about them, possibly in new and surprising ways, and then to come to their own conclusions. Those conclusions may not be simple; but it will be the process of thinking towards them which will be valuable, and should enhance readers’ understanding of the said complexity of Britain’s history over the past two centuries or so. In the end their views – their ‘lessons from history’ – may well turn out to be different from mine; but they will at least be more sophisticated than those of Lia Nici’s ‘patriots’, or of the statue-spoilers of Bristol.
Britain’s Contested History can be seen as a distillation of my nearly six decades of research into British history, specialising in certain aspects of that history: mainly British imperialism, foreign policy, the secret services, refugees, travel, and mid-Victorian architecture; about all of which I’ve published books and scholarly articles, as well as a longer and more conventional general survey of British history since 1850 (which rather bombed), and a couple of collections of essays. I’ll occasionally refer to these in endnotes, if I feel that amplification is needed of what I write here. (My endnotes, incidentally, will be minimal, so as not to interrupt the flow; and bearing in mind that the sources of better-known facts can be easily ‘Googled’.) But this account is different from those earlier ones in many respects, as well as being briefer; not based on any new archival research, for example, only my old studies; and having been affected by recent and current events at this revolutionary time in Britain’s – and the world’s – affairs. The impact of those events on my interpretation of Britain’s earlier history – for even writers on past times can’t avoid being influenced by present times – will doubtless show through.
One way is an emphasis on the question of Britain’s supposed ‘exceptionalism’, which might not have been necessary before ‘Brexit’, with its insistence on her difference from the European continent, arrived on the scene. During the debate over that it was the ‘Leavers’ (from the EU), who mostly appropriated both ‘patriotism’ and British history for their own cause, but without always understanding or even knowing much about the latter. The same is undoubtedly true of the other ‘camp’. I hope this book might offer some illumination to both sides: not simple answers to their questions, for history is rarely that straightforward; but some slightly more sophisticated ways of looking at them.
The book is being written in the unusual conditions imposed by another of the aforementioned revolutionary events: the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21, which has forced me into a (pleasant) self-quarantine in the ‘summerhouse’ I share with my partner on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago, with wi-fi to connect me to the internet, thankfully (how ever did the Vikings manage without it?), but no way of accessing libraries or even my own collection of books and notes back in England. You can’t find everything through Google; and for a long time I was not allowed back into the UK unless I took expensive tests and then self-isolated for a couple of weeks on arrival, which I could not afford, either time- or money-wise, even though I had been fully Pfizered in Sweden. (England at one point insisted on NHS-administered vaccinations. ‘None of those foreign jabs!’) In this connexion I must acknowledge the generous help given me by the staff of Kungligabiblioteket in Stockholm, despite their own working difficulties under ‘lockdown’; and by my Hull friends Robin, Sally and Mike, who took care of my house while I was away and have been a source of intellectual stimulation too. The virus, then, can be blamed for a few gaps in the referencing, which will be flagged up when I come to them. On the other hand my current situation is providing ideal conditions in other ways, especially the isolation and peace, for the business of writing for both of us. (She writes too.) To Kajsa must go my heartfelt thanks, therefore – and much more – for sharing our wilderness with me, to what I hope will be a good effect both healthwise and authorially. My readers will be the judges of that.
4 August 2021