Past v. Present

Phil Withington

  • BuyGod’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell by Blair Worden
    Oxford, 421 pp, £35.00, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 957049 2

Societies, it is sometimes said, get the politics they deserve. Can the same be said for their history? If contemporary Britain is anything to go by then the short answer is probably yes. Certainly, something happened to British history in general, and the history of 17th-century Britain in particular, when I was growing up. I remember, as a teenager in the 1980s, if not quite lying ‘in awe on the bedroom floor’ (thank you, Morrissey) then sitting up with excitement as the magnitude of the English Revolution, and the range of its possible causes and consequences, were declared, debated and debunked, right before my eyes. Now, as a professional historian with an interest in the politics of 17th-century Britain, I sometimes wonder whether the same thing could happen today. My guess is that it couldn’t. The kind of history that is written – the kind that I write – has changed. So, too, has the place of history in public life and culture.

The historians who grabbed my teenage attention were serious academics confident that the stories they told and vehemently disputed mattered to the present. According to these stories, the English Revolution was an event of seismic proportions, at the epicentre of powerful social, economic and cultural forces which transformed the country from a medieval backwater into ‘the first modern society’. That Parliament should first fight against the king in 1642 and then, seven years later, not simply bring that king to trial but abolish the institution of monarchy was remarkable. That the same royal dynasty should be restored in 1660 only to be forcibly removed in 1688 required explanation. That these political upheavals should coincide with the development of a capitalist economy, the emergence of new social classes, the lash of Reformation, the whip of Renaissance, the prospect of empire – this can’t have been an accident. Which forces caused what, exactly, was up for debate; so, too, were the relative political importance of different social groups and the motivations, real or professed, of individual historical actors. But few historians denied that political revolution was one dimension of a larger set of historical changes which made us what we are today.

These weren’t stories written in the 1980s. They were orthodoxies conceived, for the most part, in the decades before and after the Second World War, and were closely linked to the politics of their respective authors: R.H. Tawney and Christopher Hill on the political left, Lawrence Stone in the Whig centre, and Hugh Trevor-Roper on the right. They were comfortable corroborating their own political predilection with sophisticated historical exposition and, it seems, happy for their opponents to do the same. All agreed on the significance of the events they were explaining, and, like other leading historians, could expect wide public interest in the arguments which ensued.

In the 1980s this consensus position came under severe pressure. All historical periods and events have their revisionists, if only because each generation needs to distinguish itself from the one before. Received orthodoxies are revised, new methodologies proposed, different paradigms adopted: it is a familiar enough phenomenon. This particular manifestation was especially violent and decisive. The harbingers of ‘modern scholarship’ (as Blair Worden described them at the time) self-consciously identified themselves as ‘Revisionists’ and labelled extant interpretations as ‘Whig’ or ‘Marxist’. They then condemned these Whig and Marxist interpretations as ‘teleological’, because they were predicated on explaining outcomes that the historical actors could never have known were going to happen. They derided such work as ‘anachronistic’, because it explained 17th-century behaviour by imposing modern beliefs and values on people in the past. And they denigrated it as ‘reductive’, because it took political thought and action to be determined by social and economic ‘realities’.

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