“The current approach we have to history denies children the opportunity to hear our island story,” says Education Secretary Michael Gove. All they get is a series of case studies, “with no understanding of how the vivid episodes of our past become a connected narrative. Well, this trashing of our past has to stop.” British history, he promises, will be restored to the heart of a revived national curriculum. Is he right — and if he is, why has the government trashed its support for the teaching of history in universities?
I grew up on Our Island Story, A History of Britain for Boys and Girls, H. E. Marshall’s classic account, first published in 1905. Hengist and Horsa, Alfred and the cakes, the Princes in the Tower, Nelson at Trafalgar: it’s all there. The book was republished in 2005 (in part with the support of a Daily Telegraph appeal), and there’s even a CD. I’ve sought to pass it on to my children but, tellingly perhaps, we’ve never quite got past the Vikings. The book’s moment has passed — as I’ve known since I started teaching history to undergraduates 20 years ago. Mine was the last generation to whom the story it told made sense.
Our Island Story worked because, for its readers, British history was still world history. Like other texts to which children used to be exposed — Caesar’s Gallic War, the Aeneid — its purpose was to foster the values of discipline and self-sacrifice necessary to run a global empire. To the generation of students who came of age in the 1980s — “Greed is good” — this account of the burden of power was wholly illegible. Starting out as a lecturer in medieval history in the early 1990s, it dawned on me that I had more in common with the Victorians who pioneered the study of history at universities than I did with students who were (then) just a decade younger. I continue to teach British history, but rather as a doctor might, haplessly, prescribe nostalgia as a cure for a group of amnesiacs. It’s not that the students are less clever, it’s just that I cannot expect them to know what habeas corpus is, or how it might relate to Magna Carta. The situation is summed up in Sellar’s and Yeatman’s brilliant 1066 and All That (1930), the pitch-perfect satire of the Our Island Story tradition. The books ends on an ellipsis: “With Britain no longer Top Nation, History comes to a…”
Is there a way to reconstruct imperial tradition in the post-imperial era? Gove has turned to Simon Schama for advice, doubtless mindful of the success of Schama’s History of Britain, which came to our television screens some ten years ago. Schama’s eloquence may have sold the series, but it also sought to please too many masters. His History was not the many-angled analysis of the making of Britain initially promised, but in reverting to a standard canter through the kings and queens of England, it took some short cuts. It was not the connected narrative which Gove has promised the next generation of students. (The same doubts attend Schama’s recent manifesto in the Guardian.)
Lawrence’s portrait of Queen Charlotte, from the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
Two other historians are currently in view. One, Michael Wood, is offering The Story of England as told “from the bottom up”, from the perspective of one village in Leicestershire. The accompanying TV series and the book are vivid and engaging, and take you to how historians actually weigh different types of evidence. In terms of substance, if Gove wants history to inspire families on a budget or small businesses trying to stay afloat, then this is certainly it. But as a primer for a youth audience it won’t work so well, because to appreciate the worm’s-eye view offered by Wood, you have to know the basic story of England.
For our island story “from the top down”, Gove need look no further than David Starkey’s Crown and Country. Also the product of TV merchandising, the book in effect replaces Starkey’s two previous volumes spun out of his Channel 4 series Monarchy (2004 and 2006). There was a gap between the two books where the Middle Ages should have been: in filling this gap, Starkey offers readers the full sweep, from the fall of Rome to the moral demise of the House of Windsor. The monarchy is the oldest English institution — indeed the two are basically coterminous — and Starkey is a proud guide and advocate.
He opens with a splendid reaffirmation of the Victorian perspective. In this view, the fall of Rome was a Good Thing, as Sellar and Yeatman would have put it. The Roman Empire was an autocracy, in which British elites had very little investment; in fact, they initially asked the Romans to leave. The Germanic barbarians who invaded Britain in the fifth century were hugely uncivilised — no baths, no roads — but they offered one thing the Romans never did: the rough liberty of group participation. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that took shape after the invasion were based on “a partnership between king and people…the sense of all being in it together.” This was what enabled King Alfred, against all the odds, to defeat the Vikings, and to convert his West Saxon kingdom into the realm of England. Whether or not Starkey has in mind a Dark Age Big Society, he is certainly here voicing the 19th-century view of what marked out Britain from the earliest times as a distinctive polity. Bishop Stubbs, who in 1870 instituted the Oxford History syllabus, provided students with a “primary source reader” and an accompanying textbook that laid out the constitutional history of England. In the negotiations between the king and his subjects across the medieval centuries could be plotted the slow but sure growth of English liberty, to be enshrined in the development of Parliament, and to be exported across the world in Stubbs’s own era.
This is, then, Whig history, with its stern faith in the progress of ideas and the amelioration of humankind. It’s exhilarating to find it expounded so unapologetically by Starkey, but we should also remember that Whiggery in this form has been unsustainable for 80 years or so, ever since the publication in 1929 (one year before 1066 and All That) of Lewis Namier’s The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. The founder of Tory history, Namier showed that, in politics, ideological considerations are much less important than the pursuit of self-interest through the development of patronage networks. The early history of the present coalition government — think of that first press conference in the Downing Street garden or the Lib Dem U-turn on tuition fees — is a textbook illustration of the pertinence of Namier’s approach, in Britain or anywhere else. Tory history, then, is awkwardly at odds with the Whiggish narrative championed by Gove, which seeks to connect “the struggles of the past” with “the liberties of the present”.
The tension between Whig and Tory perspectives seems to be one experienced by Starkey himself. He made his name as an historian in the Tory mode, bursting onto the scene in the early 1980s. As an A Level student, I heard him speak and still remember the adrenalin rush produced by his gleeful trashing of the verities about the Tudor revolution in government canonised by his own former supervisor, Geoffrey Elton. What Starkey realised was that, for all that historians might talk of institutional change, the Tudor world was still one of personal monarchy and household government. “Control of access [to the king] and the wiping of the royal bottom” went hand in hand. The men, and occasionally women, behind the throne, such as Roger of Salisbury, Cardinal Wolsey or Sarah Marlborough, were the real architects of monarchy. Scratch the surface of Crown and Country, and something of the Tory in Starkey is still there.
In the book’s peroration, Starkey nails his colours artfully to the mast. On the one hand, he shows open disdain for the modern monarchy — not only for its feeble pursuit of matrimonial happiness over dynastic duty, but also for the shallowness of its historical sense.
Traditions such as Trooping the Colour are promoted by the Crown as “venerable”, when in fact they are but a few decades old. The level of ignorance displayed by the House of Windsor in the face of some 1,500 years of monarchy in England clearly offends Starkey. Then, unexpectedly, a reversal: in Prince Charles’s personal sponsorship of the restoration of Dumfries House, when all state mechanisms have failed, Starkey sees a glimmer of respect for the past and so of hope for the future.
Neatly, this conclusion brings Starkey into line with coalition policy on the privatisation of higher education. He cheers on the (enforced) return to Victorian philanthropic values in the funding of arts and humanities teaching. But here one can read Starkey against himself. If it shows one thing, Crown and Country demonstrates that it is the bond between government and people which defines the English polity, and which, in particular, is the base for the extraordinary wealth of England. Some kings — especially William the Conqueror — extracted this wealth by force. Others who betrayed trust and tried to extort — King John, Charles I — met with a bad end. The really successful ones, such as the William of Orange who conquered England in 1688 — found a way to win through collaboration. William came to the throne in a constitutional crisis, where the duty to obedience to King James II was thrown into confusion by his tyrannical insistence on the promotion of his own religion, Catholicism. Within four years, William had not only secured the throne, but managed to broker a power-sharing deal with his subjects, and to raise unprecedented tax revenues of £4 million.
This, Starkey says, was the key to turning England into Britain and Britain into a world power. Tax, not philanthropy, opened on to greatness. Thus spake, in so many words, the 50,000 parents, teachers and students on the streets of London last month.
H. E. Marshall’s aspiration for readers of Our Island Story was that “when you grow up, you will want to read for yourselves the beautiful big histories which have helped me write this little book for little people”. But there will be no big, shared histories, unless Gove has the courage of his convictions to insist that education, including higher education, is a public good, for which the public purse should be required to pay.