Abandoned Albion

By Herman, David | New Statesman (1996), March 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Abandoned Albion


Herman, David, New Statesman (1996)


Once Britain played a central role in major works of European or world history. Now it is being ignored. What has changed?

Ten years ago David Cannadine launched a sharp attack on the state of British history. His main target was the "intellectual timidity and antiquarian pedantry" of our historians. They produce an account of our past, he said, which is so arcane and self-absorbed that they have completely lost touch with their audience. Where are the grand visions of our past?

A decade on and the picture is quite transformed. What is striking today is the intellectual ambition of so many of our historians. Big history is back.

In the past few years British historians have produced major histories of the French and Russian revolutions (Simon Schama's Citizens and Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy), of our century (EJ Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes), our millennium (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Millennium) and of Europe over 100,000 years (Norman Davies' Europe). These will be joined by forthcoming histories of modern Europe (by Mark Mazower) and the postwar world (by Norman Stone). This is autobahn history: great projects cutting huge swathes through history.

But there is a twist. These are not histories of Britain. British history is peripheral to their accounts of Europe and the world, when once it would have been centre-stage. Something has gone wrong with our island story.

This is new. For 30 years an extraordinary generation of British historians produced a series of seminal books on British history, from G R Elton's England Under the Tudors to Hobsbawm's Industry and Empire. At the same time as attacking the state of British history, Cannadine rightly described this as a "golden age" of British history writing. "The result," he wrote, "was a picture as coherent as it was captivating, depicting a great and unique drama in which, century after century, revolution followed revolution."

Elton's revolution in Tudor government is followed by the English Revolution of Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone, then a tranquil interlude of stability portrayed by J H Plumb before the age of revolution described by George Rude, Hobsbawm and E P Thompson. Then came the industrial revolution, the Great Reform Bill, two word wars and the welfare state. This was a heroic history, full of drama and ideas. It was not just great men and great battles. It was a new history of social movements, of a people. And this history mattered. Because Britain had the first great political revolution, the first industrial revolution and was the first world power to move towards democracy, this history was taught around the world. But above all, it was special.

The famous last sentences of A J P Taylor's English [sic] History 1914-45 capture this pride: "In the second world war the British people came of age . . . The British were the only people who went through both world wars from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilised people, tolerant, patient . . ."

This mood ran right across the political spectrum. It is not for nothing that E P Thompson called one of his most important essays "The Peculiarities of the English". For Taylor, Thompson and others, British history was very different from that of Europe or America.

This gives these books their unmistakable energy, the sense that there were still powerful new stories to be told about Britain's past. Even the titles reflect that feeling of a nation growing, of something new and exciting unfolding: Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, Asa Briggs' The Age of Improvement, Plumb's The Growth of Political Stability, Lawrence Stone's Social Change and Revolution in England 1540-1642. These are histories of a society on the move which spoke to a growing audience of schoolchildren and students living in a society that was itself being transformed socially but remained rooted in the past. And this is the crucial point: Britain in the 1950s and 1960s was still close to the industrial culture, social conflicts and religious beliefs of Thompson's "heroic culture" and "Liberty Tree". …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Abandoned Albion
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.