For ever Walsall

Angus Calder

  • Rural Life in England in the First World War by Pamela Horn
    Gill and Macmillan, 300 pp, £25.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 312 69604 3
  • Britain in Our Century: Images and Controversies by Arthur Marwick
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £12.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 500 25091 X
  • Labour and Society in Britain: 1918-1979 by James Cronin
    Batsford, 248 pp, £8.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 7134 4395 2
  • Women in England 1870-1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change by Jane Lewis
    Wheatsheaf, 240 pp, £16.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 7108 0186 6

There are, of course, purely academic reasons for fresh syntheses of modern British history. The accumulation of new specialist studies must sooner or later compel wholesale revisions of the overall ’story’. But the underlying compulsion is social. There are no ‘pure’ sciences, and even if there were, history would not be one of them. Thatcherism, if it is to survive, needs to reconstruct our sense of history so as to legitimate itself. Its opponents must struggle towards a better understanding of how Thatcherism became possible. The battle is swung in their favour by the paradox that Thatcherism threatens to destroy the very feeling of deep-rooted continuity and steady evolution in British life which has always favoured conservatism – at least with a small ‘c’ But the anti-Thatcherite’s problem is to construct new perspectives which will make sense of the choices for which they ask, and will counteract that fatalism which is the Thatcherites’ best substitute for faith in continuity. How can we revise history so that imitation of the USA and support for US policies does not appear to be the only possible course for a superseded imperial power still on the skids? How can continued emphasis on communitarian values be reconciled with opposition to the state, now exposed as the violent creature that Hobbes claimed it was?

The first task is to complete the rout of continuity as a possible basis for synthesis. Its attendant mystifications remain dangerous and should be finally discredited. Writing about the centenary of the Fabian Society, Gareth Stedman Jones recently made the simple yet profound observation that ‘in no other country is it easy to imagine a socialist association able to celebrate a hundred years of continuous existence’ and suggested that this achievement ‘owes as much to the stability and continuity of the British State and the British political order as it does to the commitment and tenacity of socialists themselves’. But this continuity isn’t a ‘natural’ phenomenon. The state had to fight for its life in the 1790s, then against Chartism. It was in all kinds of trouble in the first quarter of this century and had its luckiest escape of all, perhaps, in 1940. Its hard-won success had permitted liberal historians to mystify historical experience. No revolution, no civil war (except in Ireland). The end of empire, despite the horrific violence which attended it, did not produce political trauma as in France and Portugal. The loss of Eire, the troubles of Ulster, the bloody wars of Kenya and Zimbabwe have not shocked the average Briton (or even, it seems, Professor Arthur Marwick) out of a deep trust in some gentle, wise and enduring essence of ‘Britishness’ commonly equated with ‘Englishness’.

Stedman Jones went on to point out that Fabianism was part of the continuous British political order, not adverse to it. The principled anti-colonialism for which the Society provided a centre, helped, by its gradualist and philanthropic character, to disguise rather than expose the brutal realities of empire. As the heyday of Fabianism ended in the 1950s, its comfortable assumptions were challenged by a vigorous native Marxism. Yet the influential new Marxist historiography often seemed obsessed with its own version of English continuity. As Cairns Craig has argued in Cencrastus, Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson see class struggle as fundamental to English history, but conceive that history to be ‘shaped as an autonomous inner trajectory defined by the conflicts and the accommodations between classes which do not need to be understood except in their relations with each other’. Their work can be defended as seeking to capture tradition and continuity from the Right so that Left dominance appear legitimate, and it might seem unfair to deny the English their own left-wing nationalism while the Irish, Scots and Welsh are permitted theirs. Yet as Cairns Craig suggests, no Scottish historian would dream of writing about the Scottish working class as if it had not experienced English influence. Despite their magnificent scholarship, there is something inherently implausible in Hill’s and Thompson’s views. They must concede that the Scottish Covenant of 1638 and the Irish Rebellion of 1641 between them dominate the proximate causation of the English Civil War, and that Robert Burns mattered perhaps more than Cobbett and certainly more than Blake to the Northern English working class of the mid-19th century. But their work takes it for granted that English history is in effect self-contained: the American experiences of Paine and Cobbett are left out of the story. The land, England within its ‘natural’ boundaries, is ultimately the key to everything.

Rupert Brooke did not suppose that some far corner of a foreign field would be for ever the back streets of Walsall. As that very effective exponent of One Nation Conservatism, Stanley Baldwin, put it in 1924: ‘To me England is the country, and the country is England.’ (He was addressing the Royal Society of St George, to whom he felt free to express his ‘profound thankfulness’ that he could ‘use the word “England” without some fellow at the back of the room shouting out “Britain” ’.) The myths of English rural life are of much more importance to recent British history than liberal empiricism has allowed.

Pamela Horn’s study is thorough, sensible social history by a scholar who has delved into a vast range of primary sources. It is a very good example of the type of specialised study on which Arthur Marwick, James Cronin and Jane Lewis have had to depend while putting together their syntheses. In this case, the omission of Scotland and Ireland might seem uncontentious. Ireland’s was another story. The Scottish narrative would be similar in respect of government policy, different because of distinctive geography and history. (I think there was no precise counterpart south of the Border to the North-East Scotland peasants of Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song.) But it’s not unfair to suggest that Dr Horn’s focus on English experience would have been sharper if she had taken her thoughts outside ‘England’. Wales is treated as an agglomeration of counties, not as a separate cultural entity, and doesn’t appear in its own right in her index. Her introductory chapter on ‘Rural Life Before 1914’ notes the emigration of energetic and able farm workers, especially to Canada, but, like most British historians, she seems incurious about the effects on this island’s social structure and culture of heavy transfers of population to North America and the Southern Dominions. Kipling’s remarkable ‘Chant Pagan’, projecting the feelings of an ex-Boer War soldier, might have caught her attention:

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