Can history help?
We are, all of us, saturated with information on change. There is 24-hour news. Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms transmit the latest occurrences across the globe. Those of us old-fashioned enough still to want newspapers can scan their online versions at any time. Yet this blizzard of material easily produces a sense of overload, even powerlessness, a feeling that we are simultaneously being told too much, yet can grasp too little. One vital respect in which history can help is by encouraging us to look away from the blitz of ever shifting news stories, and to consider instead what has proved genuinely significant in the past. Once we do this, we are immediately reminded that most really game-changing transformations have happened slowly. Minute by minute change is a media illusion.
To be sure, there have been a few genuinely world-altering events that seem to have happened in an instant. The men who dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 were deploying technology that had taken decades to develop. Nonetheless, in carrying out that act, these US airmen did effect an almost immediate transformation in the nature of warfare and in attitudes towards it. Many momentous changes, however, have taken centuries to work through. Consider the terrible outbreak of plague in the 14th century known as the Black Death. Europe suffered disproportionately, losing perhaps 50 per cent of its total population. One result of this, however, was that the living standards and wages of many of those who survived seem to have improved. This, it has been suggested, led in time to a marked increase in Europeans’ food consumption and demand for consumer goods. And this rise in demand may well in turn have contributed to the increasing number of European trading voyages across the world’s oceans in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Even traumatic shifts in human history can have mixed and sometimes useful consequences.
So epic changes are very occasionally rapid, but sometimes stretch over centuries. Most commonly, though, major changes become apparent within the canonical span of a human lifetime: three score years and ten. Consider the dramatic changes that have occurred in Germany in the seventy or so years since the Second World War, and the multiple, multinational consequences of this. Or the postwar experience of Sweden. Eighty years ago, Sweden was in some respects on the margins. In 1930, more of its people worked in agriculture than in industry, and many of them were poor. The country had long since lost its empire, and in the 19th century it had been forced to give up some of its territory. In the Second World War, its reputation suffered from the Nazi sympathies of sectors of its population. Yet look at Sweden now, in the early 21st century: a place of ultra-modernity in the arts, technology and design, affluent, comfortably in the top ten, year after year, in tables of the happiest countries in the world, a place that is adroit and effective in its exercise of soft power, as can be seen in its use of the Nobel Prizes, and its championing of neutrality and ecological good causes.
Of course, as the Scandi-noir thrillers remind us, Sweden is not perfect; and it’s possible that Russian armies may challenge it in the future as they have in the past. Nonetheless, its progress since 1945 has been startling, and this alerts us to the potential helpfulness of history in a double sense. First: looking hard at countries that have successfully reinvented themselves, and studying the tricks and adaptations that have enabled them to do so, is a useful and cheering thing to do, not least in this particular country, at this particular time. We can and should learn from others. Second: the degree of transformation that some societies and peoples have achieved within the span of a single human lifetime offers a powerful corrective to the essentialism so often preached by populist politicians and commentators.
Populists, a widespread breed at present, often like to represent particular territories and sets of people in terms of an unchanging and finite set of characteristics, either out of boosterism, or as a means to marginalise and condemn. Thus, Sarah Palin, one-time Republican governor of Alaska, used to refer to her supporters as ‘real Americans’, as though such unadulterated beings existed, and as though her opponents were somehow not ‘real’. By the same token, the leading populist party in Finland used to call itself the True Finns, as though other Finns were not part of an essential Finnish nation.
Given the current bitter polarisation of political allegiances, it is important to remember that national groupings have never been homogeneous and are rarely static. Of course, there are some persistent habits and patterns of thought and behaviour in all long-standing states. But countries and their populations are not just mixed in terms of ethnicity, politics, religion and much more, they also change over time, sometimes rapidly and radically. Swedes today are very different from Swedes in 1940. So whenever you hear people saying ‘the British people are …’, followed by a list of asserted characteristics, or ‘Americans have always been …’ etc, a sense of history will help to summon up a tonic dose of scepticism.
What are the triggers of dramatic episodes of change? Savage outbreaks of disease can be a trigger; so can significant alterations in climate, like the so-called Little Ice Age that began in the 17th century. Some leaps forward in technology, such as the invention of printing in China, have precipitated long-drawn-out, transcontinental changes; so have economic crises, and major shifts in the nature of belief and ideology, such as the Reformation. But perhaps the most recurring and paradoxical trigger of change in human society has been war.
It is a cliché of political science that states make war and that war in turn has the capacity to make and remake states. It isn’t always true. Wars sometimes destroy states and peoples altogether. Nonetheless, outbreaks of major warfare have very often obliged states to reconfigure themselves, sometimes in productive and beneficial ways. Think of the world wars of the 20th century, unquestionably horrendous and lethal episodes, but in some ways constructive. In 1914, no woman in Britain could vote in national elections. Even as far as men were concerned, this country had one of the lowest levels of enfranchisement in Europe. After the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, however, virtually all men over 21 and most women over 30 gained the vote. The First World War wasn’t the sole or a straightforward reason for this change, but it was a major factor. By the same token, the Second World War transformed levels of welfarism on both sides of the Atlantic, helping to bring about the National Health Service in the UK and the GI Bill in the US, which eased mass access to further education. The impact of these wars outside Euro-America was still more portentous. Agitation against European and non-European empires was on the rise well before 1914. But the two world wars’ weakening of the power and finances of the various maritime empires – British, French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and others – allowed decolonisation to advance far faster than it would otherwise have done.
Unsurprisingly, the countries that were invaded or defeated tended to be the ones that underwent the most fundamental changes. Germany, Japan and France all gained new constitutions after 1945. By contrast, neither the UK, which was seemingly a victor power, nor the US, which was certainly a victor power, changed its political system in the wake of the Second World War. Instead, in both countries, victory served for a while to burnish and strengthen the existing political order.
Over the centuries both the United Kingdom and the United States have indeed been almost too successful in their recourse to war, and this has had mixed repercussions for their political systems and democracy. In the United States, success against the British in the Revolutionary War led to the drafting of the American constitution of 1787, a brief but remarkable document. Thereafter, there were many more American victories: a further repulsion of the British in the War of 1812; ruthlessly successful expansionist wars against Native Americans and Mexicans; a civil war which, though bloody, did not result in the fragmentation of the country; and yet more victories in overseas colonial wars and in the two world wars – a record only really marred by the Vietnam War and Iraq, both limited and strictly overseas struggles.
This conspicuous success rate on the battlefield helped to cement the political system established in 1787, which has been subject to only a limited number of amendments. The US now possesses the oldest written constitution still in operation in the world, which is an achievement to be sure, but also by now a source of some difficulties. The 1787 constitution said nothing about the operation of political parties. This lacuna was manageable so long as the main US parties were similar in outlook and prepared to abide by certain ‘gentlemanly’ conventions. Today, these conditions no longer apply, and gridlock has ensued. Similarly, the second amendment, passed in 1791, allowing US citizens access to arms, was manageable when most firearms were muskets that took minutes to load. Obviously, this is no longer the case. So while it may be tempting to attribute current political dysfunction in the US to particular personalities, some of the root causes are long-term, structural and connected to America’s experience of war. Military success has helped to foster constitutional stasis and complacency.
The UK exhibits comparable problems, but to a more pronounced degree. Like the US, but over a longer period of time, the UK has been both a markedly warlike state and generally a successful one. In the mid-17th century, England and its contiguous nations experienced a bloody civil war that briefly made it a republic and gave it a codified constitution. In 1688, it experienced a successful Dutch-led invasion, a crisis that ultimately strengthened the power of the Westminster Parliament vis à vis the Crown. But, thereafter, the island of Britain, as distinct from the island of Ireland, experienced no enduringly successful foreign invasions; and, with the exception of the American Revolutionary War, no really major overseas military defeats. As a result, in the United Kingdom even more than in the United States, old structures of politics were able to persist. It’s true that the electorate steadily widened, though only slowly. But the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the monarchy, the pre-eminence of London, and certain conventions of political and electoral practice: these things endured. Nothing has happened that might have forced a major process of political reconfiguration, as distinct from ad hoc adjustments. And this raises a set of questions and possibilities.
Could it be that Britain’s political stability has become too pronounced? That, by not having to adjust and alter its political system as so many other countries have had to do, the UK has stored up unaddressed problems and unhelpful stagnancies? If so, might the convulsions and divisions over Brexit have some tonic effect? Might this bitterly divisive and presumably long-lasting change turn out to be the painful moderniser that military defeats and invasions have sometimes proved to be for other countries?
Exactly what Brexit will entail remains unclear, and if anything is becoming more so. Some believe that, after preliminary discomforts, the results will be very positive. Others believe we are doomed. A growing number of pundits and activists argue that the decision to leave the EU may be reversed, or that some sort of compromise solution may be hammered out. Some assert that Brexit won’t make much difference at all. This lack of clarity has been exacerbated by an overly narrow focus on economic and commercial questions.
I’d like to suggest a somewhat different perspective on Brexit. By instinct I am a Remainer, but I think that some form of Brexit may now be unavoidable. If that does turn out to be the case, I suspect that the resulting disruptions and realignments will affect far more than the economy: the trick will be to see if this can be turned to the good, or at least to something halfway productive.
In a recent pamphlet on the constitutional ramifications, Vernon Bogdanor has hinted at ways in which Brexit might conceivably have some constructive, albeit unpredictable, effects. As is becoming clear, and as Bogdanor sets out, Ireland represents a major challenge, and not just for reasons of cross-border trade. The Good Friday Agreement promised Northern Ireland parity of rights with the Republic. But if the UK does pull out of the EU, Northern Irish rights will no longer be protected by Brussels and the European courts, but will come back substantially to Westminster. And by the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, Westminster would be free in the future to modify those rights. Indeed, these challenges extend to all of the UK. The British government has undertaken to incorporate relevant sections of EU law and rights in statute law. But the same caveat applies: such incorporation would mean that these transferred rights and laws could be altered in the future by a sovereign parliament.
As Bogdanor remarks, some thoughtful politicians, such as Dominic Grieve, are proposing a new British Bill of Rights in the event of Brexit so as to protect vital rights against such legislative tinkering. This would be a good idea. It would also be valuable if more UK citizens and all political parties shifted some of their focus away from purely economic matters, and devoted more attention to the political, structural and legal vulnerabilities and quandaries that have been exposed by this crisis, and to the question of how these could be addressed. Taking back control sounds alluring. But we need to think hard about who exactly is going to be doing the controlling, and how these potential controllers are themselves to be better controlled.
As I have said, because of Britain’s relative immunity to invasion and defeat, the longevity of some of its political structures has been unusually marked. Brexit, however, may well prove a tipping point, sharpening issues to do with federalism, with undue executive power, and with the need for clearer written rights. We have to give thought to these matters. Brexit is likely to resemble Pandora’s box: all sorts of new and disruptive things will emerge to which our political masters have so far given only scant attention, in public at least.
Consider the prospect, much vaunted by some, of a new ‘global Britain’. If this is to be anything more than a slogan, a fig-leaf for a new parochialism, all sorts of changes will be necessary, and not just in the realm of commerce. For instance, if there is to be a more global Britain, people in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have to become multilingual. Membership of the EU has been an easy ride in the sense that English is its main language of business and exchange. You can get by with English in most European cities. But monolingual English will be a problem if people want to interact more extensively with cities in China, India, South America, parts of Africa and Japan. Consequently, many more children in the UK are presumably going to have to do what their counterparts in other parts of Europe and elsewhere already do: conquer two languages at school, ideally more. History can offer some help with this.
Any notion that Britons are somehow intrinsically bad at learning foreign languages is a recent and bogus invented tradition. In the 19th century, many politicians in this country laid confident claim to several languages. William Gladstone, the four-time Liberal prime minister, according to his biographer Roy Jenkins, was convinced that ‘an educated Englishman ought to be able to communicate in all the principal languages of civilised Europe. So he did.’ Gladstone’s ‘attitude to modern languages’, Jenkins goes on, ‘was reminiscent of a tank cutting its way through undergrowth’. Actors in Britain’s overseas empire needed more than just European languages. Sir John Bowring, the fourth governor of Hong Kong, claimed to speak a hundred languages and dialects, and was certainly adept at more than thirty. Such men, you may protest, were exceptional elite figures. True enough, but there is plenty of evidence of British and Irish plebeian multilingualism too. Sailors, for instance, were famous for picking up conversational skills in multiple languages, because they moved about and needed them for their trade. We may be moving back to that kind of world.
Because, even leaving Brexit aside, given the current advance of robotics, and the degree to which this will radically alter the nature, volume and location of employment opportunities, as many people as possible are going to need to learn how to operate in different places, using different languages. It will help them enormously if they also know something about the history of these places. Recently, a government spokesman argued that UK universities should charge less for arts and social science courses since these subjects ‘do little to boost careers’ or the economy. Such a view is wrong and short-sighted even in utilitarian and economic terms. If there is going to be any kind of globally-involved Britain, people are going to need to study history, just as they will need to study languages, and a whole lot more. You cannot hope to do effective business with other people if you do not understand their language or if you have no knowledge of their societies and how they evolved.
As Richard Evans has pointed out, 20th-century British-based historians were conspicuous for producing important work on the history of other countries, especially European ones. But in recent decades there has sometimes been a contraction of scope and range; and anyway it is not any more just European history that demands attention. The history of China, Japan, Africa, Central Asia, South America, India, Indonesia and other regions is becoming ever more vital.
Yet there are reportedly fewer historians in UK universities working on South America, for instance, than there were in the 1980s. An informal survey published in 2013 claimed that three-quarters of historians employed in UK universities worked only on the European past, of whom a disproportionate number focused on the home islands. In schools, getting children to learn something of the past of the wider world is even more challenging, in large part because of the nature of the curriculum. In Britain, unlike in many other parts of Europe, history is a compulsory subject only up to the age of 14. Given that the prevailing cult of over-testing takes up a great deal of lesson time, children have only limited opportunities for learning about how different parts of our world have evolved.
There are some not overly expensive steps that might be taken to redress this. History could be made a compulsory subject for longer. Testing could be cut back, allowing more time for language-learning, as well as for history. A future new monarch’s reign could be commemorated by the founding of three or four new regius chairs in global history. These would ideally be situated not in Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh, but in universities in cities that once played important global roles, and might do so again: Birmingham, Glasgow, Sheffield, Cardiff, Manchester, Belfast. It could be made a condition of holding such a chair that the holder would present a course of accessible lectures on the non-European past, which would be made available online. It might also be a condition that these professors would help schools to develop a workable syllabus in the subject.
With imagination, thought and will – and it is more a matter of these than of money – this and much more might be done. If Brexit happens, the impact of that change is likely to take a long time to work out. We cannot remotely know all the consequences, though we can be sure that they will be wider than most of the current political and media buzz is suggesting. And we can make plans and projects to meet some of the changes that are likely to ensue. If we are to do this properly, history won’t just help. It will be indispensable.