At the age of 81 (82 if you count it from conception) I realise that I have very little time left to me for writing. Which may be just as well, in view of the abject failure of my latest book, Britain’s Contested History, to be even noticed by reviewers; partly because its argument has been superseded by events, but also – no doubt – because it isn’t very good. My powers are failing, together with my memory and my arthritic joints. So I shall have to rely on my past efforts to sustain any academic reputation I may carry with me from the grave. How do those efforts measure up? (I’m thinking here only in terms of my publications; I’m not well placed to assess my record as a teacher, father and all the rest, and far too nervous to attempt it.)
My major textbook, The Lion’s Share, the first objective and balanced history, I think, of British imperialism, is still doing extraordinarily well, going through six editions from 1975 to 2021. Better still, I was told it was banned by one American State school system for appearing to suggest that Christianity was a ‘superstition’. I regard that as an accolade. But a number of my subsequent books have failed just as abjectly as Contested History. The two major flops were Britain, Europe and the World: Delusions of Grandeur (1983), and Britannia’s Burden (1994), both ‘general’ interpretive histories. I still think they were good – I don’t write rubbish deliberately – but they obviously didn’t suit the market, which is overstocked in this area anyway. My books about nineteenth-century refugees and secret political policing fulfilled their purpose as scholarly works, adding to our knowledge. My little diversion into Victorian architecture, The Battle of the Styles (2011), was pretty well ignored, except by an architectural historian who objected to the fact that I didn’t keep to the accepted architectural history conventions, but instead sought to set the subject in a broader historical context; which was in fact the whole purpose of the book, and the way I think most art history ought to be written. My more recent works on the British empire – one of them, Empire and Superempire (2006), comparing it to the American – seem to have been pretty well noticed over there. I’ve no idea how well my recent collections of essays – mainly reprinted from the London Review of Books, which has now given up on me – have done. Or my more occasional pieces on Europhobia, national identity, Norway and Sweden, Elgar, and Brexit.
Clearly I’ve published too much. But what impact has it all had on readers’ thinking about – in particular – the British Empire? One of The Lion’s Share’s overarching themes was that the Empire was not the great powerful entity it was supposed to be at the time, and indeed could be seen as a product of national weakness in a number of ways, rather than of strength. I’m not sure that this has significantly infiltrated into present-day popular ideas about the old Empire, either on the neo-imperial Right, which wants something to celebrate, or among the anti-imperialist Left, which needs a powerful bogey to combat; but there it is. My two most obviously influential works were Critics of Empire (1968, new edition 2011), establishing that anti-imperialism was as important a tradition in British national life as were any of the pro-imperial ideologies that were around in the high imperial age; and indeed that anti-imperialism could be said to have been invented in Britain, which imperialism of course was not; and secondly The Absent-Minded Imperialists (2004), using new methodology to undermine – as I reckoned – the idea that the Empire and imperialism dominated British culture and society to the extent claimed by one influential school of history, and assumed by many others. That latter theme is still hotly debated today, which would indicate that the book had some impact.
It’s not however the impact I would have ideally liked; and I hope it’s not the only one. Throughout my writing career I’ve wanted to convey the complexity of history, and in particular of historical causation; with – in effect – motives, and therefore individual people, not necessarily playing as large a part in the way things worked out as did ‘broad impersonal currents’, and a myriad of other factors, including even ‘accident’. With regard to ‘imperialism’ this is particularly important, with the word itself covering and muddling very different phenomena, which if they are not disaggregated can confuse and distort the picture. The old adage – define your terms – is an essential part of this.
I once suggested at a conference that we imperial historians place a moratorium on the very use of the ‘I’-word for – say – five years, in order to force us to find other terms to describe the particular phenomena we were alluding to; in the interests of clarity, and even – if this is ever a realisable objective – of truth. No-one seems to have taken me up on it. ‘Imperialism’ is still bandied about indiscriminately. So that lesson hasn’t struck home. And at 81 (or 82) it’s too late now for me to do anything about it.