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A history of England

Posted by Richard Friday, September 02, 2011

Simon Jenkins has written a new history of England, which he discusses in The Guardian. Whatever the quality of the book (which I have yet to read), it will probably be very readable and challenging. But even without reading it, I would applaud the Jenkins thesis, and particularly his central theme that only with a knowledge of the complete evolution of English politics can we address the problems facing today's society.

Having reinvented myself as a historian, I could hardly disagree with any premise that puts a premium on understanding history, but a crucial issue must be which "bits" of English history do we need to know? Jenkins addresses that, posing the questions:
Should they be Simon Schama's peasants' revolt, Indian empire and opium wars, or David Starkey's rules of chivalry? Or is the Cambridge professor Richard Evans right to dismiss "rote learning of the national patriotic narrative" out of hand, in favour of studying "other cultures separated from us by time and space"?
The answer, he says, is none of them as such:
All seem static moments torn out of the context of history to suit a particular outlook on the world. Evans is the most wrong of all. His disparaging use of words such as rote and patriotic implies that facts about one's own country are in some way irrelevant, even shameful. All history must start from the reader's own standpoint in place and time. Otherwise it is just a blur.
To me, there seems enormous merit in the argument that history must start from the reader's own standpoint, but I would add a caveat. History, we are often told, is written by the victors, an aphorism often attributed to Churchill, although it had appeared earlier as a "modern proverb", stating that history is written by the survivors – the originator unknown.

Either way – victors or survivors or both – the writing process can often be marred by errors, omissions and misunderstandings. Most of all though, history is written from a particular point of view, and – to be any good, as Jenkins points out - it must start with the framework of authority. He writes:
The distribution of power within a state is its essence, as wielded by kings, generals, politicians and electorates. Their story has to start with the much-derided reigns, battles, statutes and elections. History without dates wanders aimlessly in a fog. It is chemistry without elements or physics without maths.
This is fine as far as it goes, but it does tend to reinforce the creed of the victor – the primacy of the ruling class. Written from an "authori-centric" perspective, it tends to suggest that authority, and especially central government, necessarily plays an important part in peoples' lives.

The truth, however, is most likely different, up until the 20th Century and the burgeoning of rapid transportation and electronic communication systems. Except in times of war and great stress, what is remarkable about most people – and certainly those who lived outside the capital cities of great nations – is how little the central authority featured in their lives.

Even then, where the central authority is often cast in the leadership mould, in many aspects of life, it can be the other way around. Ordinary people – and lesser known figures – are those who take the lead. Governments follow, responding to changes already in progress. Often, at different levels of activity, the lead may shift from top down to bottom-up and back, depending on the circumstances and the nature of events.

Despite this, in most cases, the histories tend to play down the roles of ordinary people and over-emphasise the importance – and effects – of their rulers.

And so back to the Jenkins theme that, only with a knowledge of the complete evolution of English politics can we address the problems facing today's society. While accepting this, we also have to understand what so much history fails to tell us. That is, largely, that when it comes to dealing with problems, most often we have to seek our own salvation. Waiting for the messiah or leadership from our rulers is rarely a solution.

Unfortunately, what too many historians do is automatically put the ruling classes in the driving seat, as if all the key events and changes in society were at their instigation. Some were, but most were not. In that sense, history is written by those who wish to designate the victors.

History, as we know it, therefore, is the instrument by which the myth is perpetuated that the ruling classes are important – and needed. The traditional narrative is the means by which they are given (or claim) the credit for deeds done by others, and thereby cement in their primacy. It will be interesting to see whether Jenkins perpetuates the myths, or whether he confronts and slays at least some of them.