Birth of a Náison

John Kerrigan

  • 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.

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