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.
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