Abandoned Albion

Article excerpt

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". …