Birth of a Náison
- The Political World of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, 1621-41 edited by J.F. Merritt
Cambridge, 293 pp, £35.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 521 56041 1
- The British Problem, c. 1534-1707: State Formation in the Atlantic Archipelago edited by Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill
Macmillan, 334 pp, £13.50, June 1996, ISBN 0 333 59246 8
- The Stuart Court and Europe: Essays in Politics and Political Culture edited by Malcolm Smuts
Cambridge, 289 pp, £35.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 521 55439 X
- Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, its Development and Literary Expression Prior to the 19th Century by Joep Leerssen
Cork, 454 pp, £17.95, November 1996, ISBN 1 85918 112 0
John Major’s vision of Britain is history by now: a unitary state north and south of the Tweed, secured by consent, subject to one monarch and funded by a non-tartan tax system. When Major first published his views, however, in the punningly titled Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521), his innovativeness upset fellow Scots. It was one thing for a North Berwick-born philosopher to refute the medieval legend which derived English claims to rule in Scotland from the overlordship of a Trojan called Brut; it was another for him to challenge the myth which traced Scottish independence back to an ancient Greek prince called Gathelus. Defeated at the Battle of Flodden, and fearful of Tudor encroachments, the Scottish élite resisted both Major’s historiography and his proposal that royal dynasties on the island should intermarry to unite ‘Greater Britain’. Not until 1603, when James VI succeeded to the English throne, would talk of union become orthodox.
More than an accident of naming links the scholastic philosopher John Major with John Major of Brixton: they stand at either end of a long phase of political development. The Early Modern period saw the emergence of ideas of nationhood in England, Scotland, Wales and (more patchily) Ireland which were probably encouraged and definitely complicated by the construction of a British state – a state which failed to achieve lasting stability, and which, even after the secession of most of Ireland in 1922, has suffered repeated jolts to its 16th and 17th-century foundations. In The Political World of Thomas Wentworth – a distinguished collection of essays on one Stuart minister who advanced British hegemony – Peter Lake urges historians not to link Early Modern crises ‘directly to contemporary concerns about Northern Ireland, the union with Scotland and the European union’. It strikes me that Lake devalues the past, though, when he plays down its connections with the present. What most historians need is more, not less, self-awareness about the political pressures which determine the topics they choose to research.
Certainly, the subject which is at once too blandly and too provocatively called ‘British history’ was generated by political circumstance. J.G.A. Pocock established its parameters in 1973, in a paper read in New Zealand just after the UK had turned its back on the Commonwealth in order to join the EEC. With a chapter in the history of Empire ending, it seemed right to investigate how a dynamic state-system had established itself on the Atlantic archipelago before spreading to North America and the Antipodes. His arguments attracted a number of UK historians whose sense of identity was being shaken by the devolutionary debates of the Seventies. Since then, as he points out in a barn-storming lecture printed in The British Problem, a sense of decline has encouraged Anglo-Saxon historians to ‘decentre’ their investigations. As power ebbs from London to Brussels, Dublin and now Edinburgh, it is tempting ‘to deny that English history makes any kind of sense, or contains within itself any of the motors of its own dynamic or the causes of its own crises’.
While the turn to ‘British history’ may be motivated by waning English confidence, however, many Irish and Scottish historians interpret it as a form of intellectual colonialism. Having dismantled Whig and Marxist explanations of political change in England, revisionists like Conrad Russell make raids into Scottish and Irish history looking for the causes of Civil War. Used in that way, such events as the Presbyterian Covenant of 1637 and the Ulster Rebellion of 1641 clarify English crises at the expense of their local significance. As Nicholas Canny implies in the collection about Thomas Wentworth, Anglocentrism is particularly insidious when talk of interaction across the archipelago is used to obscure English expansionism.
These books show how different the results can be when Early Modern history is decentred. J.F. Merritt’s collection gathers a dozen fine-grained studies of a statesman whose dazzling career took him from the ranks of the Parliamentary opposition in the 1620S through high office under Charles I to execution on Tower Hill. With the help of archival papers scattered between Sheffield, Dublin and California, the contributors are able to build up a new picture not just of the Earl of Strafford but, through him, of an entire period.
Vol. 19 No. 13 · 3 July 1997
I wish John Kerrigan had engaged with the substance of my contribution in his recent review of the collection of essays edited by John Morrill and myself under the title of The British Problem (LRB, 5 June). Instead he resorts to the soft option of an ad hominem put-down by presenting it as an unreflecting regurgitation of the ‘nationalist narrative’ which he – and I, he implies – imbibed as pupils of the Christian Brothers. Interestingly, it seems he emancipated himself from his malformation by devoting himself to the study of English literature at Oxbridge. Perhaps it may be useful to put the record straight as regards my formation as a historian.
My last contact with the Christian Brothers’ version of Irish history was at the age of 12. In the junior forms of secondary school I was taught history by a lay teacher. In the senior forms I was not taught it at all. The Christian Brothers regarded physics as more important. I elected to study history on my own as a subject for the Leaving Certificate. As an undergraduate I was exposed to the chilly winds of revisionism then in full spate at University College Dublin under the aegis of Robin Dudley Edwards and Desmond Williams, ably abetted by such Young Turks as Hugh Kearney – like John Kerrigan Liverpool-Irish. I found my voice and my intellectual perspective on Irish history as a research student at that well-known bastion of Irish Catholic nationalism, Cambridge, under the tutelage of that true-green Irish Catholic Sir Geoffrey Elton, a mentor to whom I remain hugely indebted. However, the major formative influence on me in the course of my research, as I recall, was the testimony of the archives themselves at the Public Record Office and the British Museum (as it then was). I had gone to these with all the assumptions of a revisionist neophyte. The weight of the evidence forced me to conclude that the nationalist ‘myth’ – like most myths that survive in popular memory – contained an important truth which needed to be recovered and probed by professional historians rather than mindlessly debunked by the revisionist barrage. It was only at that stage that I discovered that my approach was shared by two very great historians of medieval Ireland: Edmund Curtis, of English Protestant stock, who professed history at Trinity College Dublin, and Eoin McNeill, the bête noire of Irish republicans.
Queens’ College, Cambridge
I would be the first to agree with John Kerrigan that historians should be ‘self-aware about the political pressures which determine the topics they choose to research’. But even when one has allowed for the fact that no interest in the past, no matter how arcane, can be innocent of current concerns and assumptions, it is still far from clear that the first response to that hard-won self-knowledge should be an orgy of anachronism and present-mindedness without guilt. One might have conceded, albeit after considering far more historical contingencies, mediations and might-have-beens than Kerrigan’s vision of the historical process appears to allow, some relatively tenuous connections between the Early Modern period and aspects of recent events in Northern Ireland. But while one might follow Kerrigan rather half-heartedly down the road to Belfast, the route from the Boyne to Brussels seems a road decidedly not worth taking.
In fact, the problem with ‘the British problem’ involves precisely the lack of such a self-awareness among its proponents. There is a largely unexamined politics of contemporary relevance at the heart of the whole enterprise which has seemed to be leading, in some renditions of the period and some versions of a unitary British problem, to a reading back of entirely contemporary concerns into the 17th century, where they have no place. A whole set of nationalist, party-political, cultural and personal/scholarly agendas can be served by such a process, but writing sensibly about events in 17th-century England, Scotland and Ireland is not one of them.
Vol. 19 No. 14 · 17 July 1997
Since I was unaware until I read Brendan Bradshaw’s CV (Letters, 3 July) that he had been educated by the Christian Brothers, I must plead not guilty to attempting ‘an ad hominem put-down’ in my review of The British Problem when I compared his Irish nationalism with the attitudes traditionally (and not always justly) associated with the sort of school I went to myself.
Given my reservations about the way Bradshaw’s ‘nationalist narrative … sweeps aside caution about relating past and present’, I find it odd that Peter Lake should accuse me of participating in an ‘orgy of anachronism and present-mindedness without guilt’. (His objections are not entirely clear. What kinds of guilt do I incur for bad things done three centuries ago?) In practice, Lake seems to agree that we can better understand certain ‘aspects of recent events in Northern Ireland’ by thinking about the 17th century, and the conclusion which he reaches – that students of ‘the British problem’ should be ‘self-aware’ about the politics mixed up in the field – is exactly what I was arguing. Since my article didn’t posit a single historical ‘route’ from the Battle of the Boyne to modern Brussels, I can only assume that the acidity of Lake’s remarks was provoked by general irritation with the unnamed historians he castigates in the second half of his letter.
Right through the 17th century, from King Lear to late Dryden, the problems of unity and hybridity in a ‘three-kingdom’ polity were addressed in poems, plays and romances. This material has not yet been steadily scrutinised from the multiple-monarchy perspective which historians have been making available. The difficulties involved in constructing an archipelagic literary history are considerable. But I believe that, by doing so, students of literature can help historians resolve some of the confusions and uncertainties which – as Peter Lake indicates – currently bedevil ‘British history’.
St John’s College, Cambridge
Vol. 19 No. 15 · 31 July 1997
The solution to ‘the British Problem’, or John Kerrigan’s ‘problems of unity and hybridity in a “three-kingdom” polity’ (Letters, 17 July) lies, as usual, just across the Channel: it’s known as Benelux.