How We Got to Where We Are

Peter Ghosh

  • Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 by Peter Clarke
    Allen Lane, 454 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 7139 9071 6

In 1987, David Cannadine concluded an essay on what he saw as the dark and doubtful state of British history with a call to ‘fashion a new version of the national past which can regain its place in our general national culture, and become once again an object of international interest’. A job application posted through the unusual medium of a scholarly journal? I doubt it, but it may be that this essay found its way onto a desk at Penguin Books, leading to Cannadine’s appointment, in 1988, as general editor of the new Penguin History of Britain. Eight years on – two years longer than it took to commission and publish the entire series of the old Pelican History of England (1949-55) – we see the first fruits of the appointment.

It goes without saying that Peter Clarke’s volume is all his own, but it stands nonetheless in the shadow of the General Editor. Not only has Cannadine issued a prospectus to go with the new series, re-stating those views which supply the criteria by which it is to be measured, but Clarke’s volume is by far the most central to his call for historians to resume their (apparently) neglected function – to supply the nation with a vision of its past which is both ‘usable and very relevant in contemporary Britain’. In Cannadine’s view, the old Sixties paradigm of history was ‘a welfare-state version of the past’: this inevitably places a burden on the interpreter of the welfare state under the new dispensation.

What then of the new dispensation? Cannadine’s assumption that one can re-create the wider general audience that read G.M. Trevelyan or the old Pelican History simply by trying harder is reminiscent of Norman Tebbit on the unemployed or Mrs Shephard on state education – wishful thinking (and ahistorical). Revealingly, the old Pelican series, which Cannadine himself describes as exemplary, observed what was then a well-established convention whereby ‘history’ stopped before the period central to living memory, i.e. in 1914. The volume on England in the 20th Century (1964) was a distinctly inadequate afterthought, suggesting that the commitment of the original series either to the welfare state or to vibrant contemporaneity was limited. A cultural analogue of the Land Rover, its real rationale was more rough and ready: indeed, it must be one of the few multi-volume publishing ventures to have originated as a golden handshake. When Allen Lane sacked the original editor, Jack (‘Master of None’) Morpurgo, from Penguin Books, he offered him the commission for the History as a sweetener. (Morpurgo’s chief historical qualification was a joyous amateurism.) In sprightly contrast to the portentousness of today, Morpurgo supplied a 14-line Editorial Note, pointing out that ‘each volume has been written by a specialist, and each author has been left to decide what he himself considers significant and interesting ... the business of discovering comparison and conclusion, and of adapting the lessons of history to our own times, is left, for the most part, to the reader.’

If, then, the Pelican History was a success, and much of it was, it owed little to a conscious attempt at coherence imposed from above. Coherence came rather from the common understanding of the English national past (the ‘Whig’ interpretation of history in the strict sense) which was diffused through all levels of the cultural community – writers, teachers, readers. What made the series so successful was, above all, the colossal commercial advantage Penguin enjoyed at the time in its virtual world monopoly of serious paperback publishing.

Still, if Cannadine rejects the ‘Whig’ model, he does offer another agenda. The progressive ‘welfare-state’ version of history (he suggests) has been overtaken by the fact of decline, political, imperial, military and economic, a fact which must be squarely confronted if we are to avoid retreating into that ‘sanitised, Ruritanian version of our past called “the national heritage” ’. Beyond that, he invokes national identity, that panacea which is to the Nineties what ‘structure’ was to the Annalistes or ‘relations of production’ to Marx. By this he means two things: first, the new History must be consciously British, and secondly (borrowing from Winston Churchill), it should focus on Britain’s world position primarily with reference to the ‘three circles’ of Europe, the Empire and the United States. This is no doubt unoriginal, and some of it is confused; but it does supply a beginning from which a contemporary interpretation of British history might spring.

For this reason Peter Clarke’s book comes as something of a shock since, apart from a brief Prologue and Epilogue (to which I shall return), it is written as if neither Cannadine nor any of this general historiographical context existed. What it offers instead is an efficient and intelligent digest of a large body of material, albeit within limits: its core is a narrative description of British political economy in the 20th century as seen from the ‘top’, which is what one might have expected from the author’s previous publications. The book offers many insights and felicities of detail. The exposition of British-American financial relations under Attlee is beautifully clear (too much so), and the pursuit of this theme in subsequent chapters revealing – at least to the old-style Pelican reader willing to make the comparison and draw their own conclusions. Again, to anyone familiar with the hoary old debate regarding the decline of the Liberal Party – to what extent was it inevitable? – the way Clarke clinches his points is rather like watching a bridge player making his tricks with an effortless (one might almost say Asquithian) competence.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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