A History of Britain, Volume 3: The Fate of Empire 1776 — 2000

The men with jackhammers have left, but the disruption of home remodeling lives on.

And I’m still doing research for some future posts.

So, you get another retro review of a history book.  This one’s from December 21, 2008.

Review: A History of Britain, Volume 3: The Fate of the Empire 1776 — 2000, Simon Schama, 2002.A History of Britain Volume 3

There’s history read mostly for entertainment. And then there’s history that’s not escapist at all, that brings to mind the struggles of the day. This is history definitely in the latter category.

The subject of the book may be British imperial history, especially in Ireland and India, but the particulars of that history remind one of all the great debates the world has been having since the Englightenment. Or, more precisely, all the competing philosophies that people have killed, rioted, and rebelled for throughout most of the world in the last 250 years: equality vs freedom, economic security vs dynamism, rule by oligarch or by democracy, universal vs limited franchise, imperialism vs national self-determination. The debate over the aesthetics of the environment are even represented as Schama shows throughout the book, from beginning to end, how political the act of perceiving and traveling through the English countryside has been in the book’s years.

But this book, even though it touches on all those issues, isn’t detailed enough to provide any conclusive answers to any side of those arguments. And Schama acknowledges that up front, that this is even more of a collection of personal essays on Britain than a detailed history. To be sure, you do get an overview of British history up through WWII. To an American like me, it was nice to see some details about the actual philosophies of Disraeli and Gladstone, that Winston Churchill was not the stereotypical conservative that some Americans imagine him to be, Prince Albert’s contribution to Victoria’s reign, the controversies of rule in Ireland and India. Still, I got the sense I was exposed to some elliptical references that only an educated Brit would know. Like many general histories, though, it left an appetite for learning more details.

But I’m going to be viewing a bibliography so heavy with titles from the 1990s with suspicion. Especially when I see Schama repeating that hoary feminist myth about a legal “rule of thumb” sanction for husbands to beat their wives. A running theme is the use of British history from Macauley to Winston Churchill and George Orwell, how their perceptions of what the British past was guided their visions for the future, their notions of what war must preserve. I said in my review of the preceding volume in the series that Schama calls himself a “born-again Whig”. He didn’t just mean subscribing, in part, to a great man of history. (Though you can find that in his portrayal of the great, contradictory Churchill and his defense of the man, warts and all.) He makes clear he mostly means Macauley’s notion of an empire bringing democratic liberalism to the world, teaching its subjects, and then releasing them to become brothers in a common culture.

Schama well-nigh rhapsodizes about this gift of empire at the end. In some ways, this book reminded me of Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. Both attempt to rehabilitate the empire while acknowledging its often emphasized downsides. Unlike the preceding volume, Schama lists many crimes of the British Empire. If he doesn’t genuflect at the altar of Imperial Guilt, he pauses for several moments of silence. Unlike Ferguson, he doesn’t quite come out and say it was, as a whole, all worth it. Still, Schama approvingly notes we get lovely Indian novels in English, West Indians in London, and Pakistanis breathing liberty in the Sceptred Isle.

Schama’s notion of what it means to be British is not a racial notion. He explicitly rejects that. It is what, in American terms, is called a proposition nation. While I appreciated the details of British history Schama gave me, I don’t buy this notion of nationhood, a notion that Schama is so passionate about that he lapses, at book’s end, into a brief, uncharacteristic bit of incoherence. Empires less liberal than Britain seem to have had trouble with diverse populations. Mass immigration, democracy, and multiculturalism are as unsustainable a combination in Britain as anywhere else. And Enoch Powell, deliverer of the infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech against mass immigration, now seems less the paranoid ranter of Schama’s description and more of a Cassandra.

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