'All poetical lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.' So wrote the British politician and classicist Enoch Powell in his strangely insightful biography of his inspired Birmingham predecessor Joseph Chamberlain, published in 1977. These words were widely remembered, since their bleak realism contradicted still-widespread assumptions that political careers are high-minded stories of cumulative achievement: the greater the 'statesman', the greater the achievements.
Today we ask whether we must say something similar about historical writing itself. Never has so much history been written; never has its shelf-life been so short; never have its goalposts been so frequently moved; never have historians complained more of the lack of a single national debate on central themes; never has there been less agreement about what is to be explained. The sense of cumulative research yielding reliable and durable results has been undermined. Instead, historians seem to be people whose best skills are in shooting down the theories of other historians.
Editing A World by Itself: A History of the British Isles (Heinemann) leaves me acutely conscious of the transience of all historical endeavour and the scale of our presumption in attempting so impossible a task. Its six authors--James Campbell, John Gillingham, Jenny Wormald, William D. Rubinstein, Robert Skidelsky and myself--will be denounced for our pains, no doubt justifiably, and our chapters will strive to maintain their currency in the ongoing flood of new scholarship. This is, in part, as it should be. Yet editing this collaborative work and writing one of its sections has forced me to sum up what the intellectual currents have been within which we worked and to locate our project in relation to them. Monograph studies of a year, an episode, an individual or a theme can get by without such self-doubts. But to cover the history of the British Isles over 2,000 years means that the larger problems stand out. Within what developing questions, then, have we written?
One cannot deny that powerful causes have inhibited attempts to write such a survey in recent decades. Even 50 years ago it seemed much easier. In the mindset now labelled modernism, the categories of explanation were unquestionable; all outcomes were over-determined; and counterfactual possibilities were dismissed with indignation by historians at contrasting points on the spectrum from E.H. Carr to Geoffrey Elton. Causes were understood to be arranged in a hierarchy of efficacy, with 'underlying causes' the most powerful of all. General surveys over long time-spans were therefore easier and commanded respect. Today, people defending such positions are clearly an embattled minority and my fellow authors are not among them. We appreciated that we were navigating uncharted waters. What, exactly, were their hazards?
First, we were uneasy about the modernist assumption that events always followed the most probable course. In this volume, our ideas about plausible counterfactuals have therefore been set out explicitly. Not many of the old certainties survive: few things now look likely, except perhaps the loss of French lands in the Hundred Years War and economic growth after 1815. But the events of 1066, the Reformation, 1688, 1715 and 1745, 1776, 1832, 1914 and 1939 all now seem to be confused and chaotic, episodes of which the last thing that can be said is that they unfolded on their merits. Even population growth cannot now be taken for granted. Where the old grand narratives were over-determined, our world now looks radically under-determined.
Partly as a result, there has been a diversification of the national myth of origins. All states have such self-images and there is nothing remarkable in the UK having one or several. The more powerful the state, the more its myth of origins tends to pass unchallenged, as in the present-day United States. …