Magazine article The Spectator

Who Are We?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Are We?

Article excerpt

Never has our national history been harder to write. The specialisation of academic history by burying generalisation under qualification has obscured large patterns. Our decline of national selfconfidence has erased the unifying themes, which gladdened earlier generations, of progress, liberty, uniqueness. Worse, we no longer know which nation we are. The question whether an Englishman is a citizen of England, or of Britain, or of the United Kingdom, used to seem pedantic. Now it nags. That problem of national identity, and the parallel one posed from Brussels, are unintelligible without a broad historical perspective. Yet the GCSE teaches ever less about the history of these islands, while the chronological range of Alevel and university history courses becomes ever narrower.

So we should welcome Roy Strong's brave, lucid, lively, majestically illustrated volume. It has its drawbacks. Strong's great gift as a communicator has always been that of illuminating the general through the particular: of summoning, through the close description of a painting or garden or landscape, the cultural world to which it belonged. The Story of Britain contains, as asides, a handful of brief biographical essays which carry reminders of that talent. But the overall effect, as he sweeps down the centuries, is one of a miniaturist set to work on a huge canvas.

Strong eschews any claim to originality, offering us merely a `synthesis of syntheses'. He has, he tells us, no axe to grind. All he aims for is 'a fair and balanced picture' with 'a strong narrative' to hold the attention. The narrative is strongest towards the end, for three reasons. First, it is to the modern era, about which most is known, that most space is given, the 20)th century being allocated almost half as many pages as the time from the Roman occupation to the end of the Tudors. Secondly, once we get to the Industrial Revolution the handling of the relationship of political events to social and intellectual history becomes more assured. Though Strong's earlier chapters claim the Black Death or the Scientific Revolution or the Commercial Reolution to have been far moe significant than the course of politics, those developments are barely integrated into what is essentially a series of short essays on monarch and ministries. Thirdly, while Strong may not have an axe to grind, his later chapters do have an argumentative thread. …

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