Sooner or later, nations get the histories they need – different ones, of course, at different times. The early Victorians needed Macaulay’s brash, materialistic Whiggery; their less confident descendants a century later needed the more nuanced version offered by G M Trevelyan. By the same token, the bemused, post-imperial, post-modern citizens of the unravelling British state of our day need a post-Whig interpretation of their collective past. The Whig historians were instinctively Protestant and, irrespective of nationality, quintessentially English. They equated England with Britain and the English with the British. They took it for granted that the British were the pre-eminent champions of civil and religious liberty as well as the inventors of parliamentary government. They saw success in the race for empire as a reward for virtue, and the ties of empire as fundamental to the national identity they also took for granted. Above all, they saw mainland Europe as the Other against which the British defined themselves.
All of these assumptions have now crumbled. The loss of empire; entry into the European Community; a generation of relative economic decline; the renaissance of non-English identities in Scotland and Wales; the marginalisation of religion (or at least of Christianity); and, not least, the growing demand for constitutional reforms and guarantees of human rights that challenge the basic postulates of Westminster parliamentarianism – all these have forced academic historians to question the verities of the last two hundred years. As a result, the old Whig edifice is in ruins. But no new edifice has taken its place. There are plenty of detailed post-Whig accounts of particular episodes, but no one has produced a post-Whig synthesis akin to the great Whig histories of the past.
No one, that is, until Norman Davies. It is too soon to tell if he will become the Macaulay or Trevelyan of our day: that depends on the reading public. He has certainly made a good try. This is narrative history on the grand scale – compulsively readable, intellectually challenging and emotionally exhilarating. Although the implications are novel, the approach is curiously old-fashioned, but none the worse for that. Economics and sociology rightly come a poor second to decisive battles, rulers’ ambitions and long quotations from epic poetry. Like all good historians, moreover, Davies has a vision. As his title implies, it is a vision of diversity and interdependence: of multiple identities, impacting on each other in a fluctuating variety of ways. England is only one part of one of the isles, and English history only one theme in a drama in which the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh loom equally large.
That relationship is part of a more complex one. The history of the isles is, and always has been, inextricably bound up with the history of the continent to which they belong. The sea has always been a pathway, not a barrier, and until quite recently it was often an easier and safer pathway than the land. Even in prehistoric times, the islanders shared a common civilisation and a common des tiny with the neighbouring parts of the mainland, and they have gone on doing so ever since. This was obviously true when part of Britain (though only part) belonged to the Roman Empire. But it was also true of Celtic Britain and it remained true after the Romans left – not least during the long centuries following the Norman Conquest, when the kingdom of England was part of a conglomeration of lordships, ruled by a French-speaking elite, extending as far as the Holy Land in one direction and Scotland in the other, and centred on the Crown of France. Magna Carta, later depicted as the foundation stone of English liberties, was won from a Francophone king by Francophone barons. Simon de Montfort, whom the Whig historians saw as the father of the English parliament, was more French than English – as were Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, and John of Gaunt, into whose mouth Shakespeare put the most memorable expression of English nationalism ever written.
Davies’s treatment of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is equally subversive. The Reformation is no longer a moment of glory when the English finally throw off the shackles of an alien system in the name of religious liberty. It is a cultural and intellectual disaster, cutting the islanders off from the community to which they had belonged for more than a thousand years and forcing them into isolation and eccentricity. The Protestants are as illiberal as the Catholics (though perhaps less urbane) and as prone to murderous savagery. The Act of Union – which, as Davies insists, actually created the multi-national British state – is no longer an act of conciliatory statesmanship, bringing the blessings of progress and prosperity to the rude and impoverished Scots. It is the product of a ruthless English determination to keep Scotland out of the race for empire, and of distinctly mingy English bribes.
All of this fits my own prejudices so beautifully that I can hardly suppress a cheer. Still, I have a few quibbles. Davies obviously likes the Celts, as indeed he should; and he can’t help admiring the breathtaking chutzpah of the Vikings. (Who doesn’t?) But he doesn’t seem to like the Romans much. One reason is that he rightly sees that the Romanophilia dinned into generations of English public schoolboys was a function of imperialism. Roman legions were presented as the ancient world’s equivalent of the thin red line, and the conquered Celts and excluded Picts as its fuzzy-wuzzies. But that is hardly the Romans’ fault. A Eurocentric historian should surely see the Romans as the most successful unifiers Europe has ever known, and applaud the relentless determination with which they yanked at least some of the islanders into the mainstream of European history.
A more serious point is that, when he comes to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Davies concedes too much to Whig insularity. Imperial Britain was never as distant from the mainland – politically, militarily or intellectually – as he sometimes implies. The British won the race for empire, not by turning their backs on Europe, but by winning (or subsidising allies who won) long, bloody wars on the European land-mass. They kept the Empire once they had won it by incessant engagement in and vigilant attention to the tortuous diplomatic traffic between the European Great Powers. Empire or no Empire, Britain was always a European power first and a global power second – not from choice, perhaps, but simply because, in the last analysis, the security of the home islands, and therefore the security of the Empire itself, depended on events on the European mainland.
But these quibbles do not detract from a marvellous achievement. What Davies has done – as in his book on Poland and his later book on Europe – is to turn the conventional interpretation upside down, by the simple expedient of looking at the map. The old Whig interpretation of British history, like today’s Eurosceptic one of British politics, flies in the face of geography. The isles are where they are – on the periphery of the mainland. They are too big and important for the mainland to ignore them, and too small and weak to ignore the mainland. Important developments on the mainland, from the rise of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Berlin Wall, have always had a determining effect on their destinies. The question is not whether the islanders belong to Europe, but how.
The same, of course, applies to the relationships between the islanders themselves. Not the least of the absurdities in Eurosceptic rhetoric is the assertion that Britain is an ancient nation-state, and as such unsuited to membership of a supra-national enterprise. The most important of Davies’s achievements is to blow this nonsense sky high. The British state is not ancient at all. It is a good deal younger than the French state, the Danish state, the Spanish state and even the Dutch state. Nor is it a nation-state. It is a multi-national state, and always has been. The relationships between the constituent nations have always been in flux, and the fact that they are more obviously in flux now than they were fifty years ago should surprise no one. Like the facts of geography, the facts of history cannot be gainsaid. The choice is not between unity and disunity. It is between the willing acceptance of pluralism and a sulky fragmentation. Blairite control freaks, please note.