First past the post

Peter Clarke

  • The People of England by Maurice Ashley
    Weidenfeld, 240 pp, £11.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78178 2
  • A New History of England, 410-1975 by L.C.B. Seaman
    Macmillan, 576 pp, £6.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 333 33415 9
  • The Making of Modern British Politics, 1867-1939 by Martin Pugh
    Blackwell, 337 pp, £19.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 631 12985 5

It is notorious that all societies manifest some sense of their history as part of their own collective self-consciousness. The past is drawn upon selectively, compounding nationhood, cultural heritage, class identity or historical destiny in the creation of a necessary myth. The myth may be necessary in order to fortify the ambitions of the restless, to gratify the complacency of the satisfied or to console the amour-propre of the dispossessed. The functions of the past, in this sense, are governed by the needs of the present. Much general interest in history arises in this way, explicitly or implicitly, and historians would be less widely read if they did not cater for it. Yet their own professional concerns, so they disdainfully affirm, are otherwise.

Their lack of interest in the vulgarisation of their discipline is not just a matter of snobbery: it is a matter of fashion. For by the time works of history intended for the general reader have processed the fruit of historical research for consumption by a wider public, it has, in the way of processed fruit, lost its initial tartness. New tastes have by then become fashionable. As far as historians are concerned, therefore, the popular presentation of their subject often has a stale reek of the past – not the more distant past with which it ostensibly deals but the more recent past in which the historiography took shape. It is one thing to acknowledge the ideological uses of history, and thus to recognise that the questions we ask about the past are prompted by particular concerns of our own in the present: but when those concerns have in turn yielded to new ones, the answers with which we are left are also bound to look outmoded. The live questions in historical research are now playing upon other problems.

Which is a ponderous approach to a paradox: that nothing is apt to look so dated as history. That this constitutes an occupational hazard will be well-known to Maurice Ashley and L.C.B. Seaman, both of them veterans of many campaigns in taking history to the people. Their new books show abundant evidence of their craftsmanship and also of their wish to keep abreast of recent historical writing. They tackle subjects so vast in time and so forbidding in scholarship that younger men would readily be forgiven for blenching. To have made sense of the fundamental transformation of English society over two millennia, as Mr Ashley has done, is in itself a feat of scholarly improvisation. If the air with which it is done is that of the clubman, the reader will become aware that it is a very good club and one in which he wishes he felt as much at home as the author. For Mr Seaman, by contrast, history is not to be evoked with the wave of a pipe but rather surveyed with the riffle of a card index. A slot for everything and everything in its slot is the method of A New History of England. Perhaps more useful as a handbook than compelling as a story, the book brings its account up to date by carefully incorporating the salient findings of a number of monographs published during the 1970s. No cause for professional reproach here.

What Martin Pugh has done, however, must be distinguished from this sort of enterprise. True, The Making of Modern British Politics is frankly aiming to make itself heard beyond the ranks of academic historians. But its wish is explicitly to take their current concerns into the classrooms and lecture theatres and libraries where students and teachers are grappling with the historiography of this period of seventy or so years’ duration. His plan is to build the framework of his own analysis around issues which recent historians have identified and are debating. Not afraid to take a firm line himself, the author is nonetheless concerned to present the lineaments of the problems confronted in the current literature. The result is a commanding synthesis in which the changing structure of politics in the country as well as at Westminster supersedes a recital of ministries and legislation as the core of the subject. Martin Pugh succeeds brilliantly in finding the right voice to explain what matters now.

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[*] Electoral Reform in War and Peace, 1906-18 (Routledge, 228 pp., £6.50, 1978).