The Skeleton of History

Abandoning narrative form in history writing leads to laziness, the omission of important facts, and a flimsier understanding of cause and effect. Why doesn’t the OUP know that?

Academia Critique Education History UK Politics

The latest volume in the replacement Oxford History of England series raises in acute form the questions: how important is a high-level, multi-volume national history, and what should be its structure? The answer to the first question is: very important indeed, and to the second, it should be fundamentally narrative, with a strong element of chronology. In medieval times, seers rightly believed history was “the school of princes”, and in a democratic age it is vital that the parliamentary elites, at least, should have a firm grasp of history. History is by far the most significant subject taught at university and the quality of the textbooks provided at undergraduate level is a key factor.

I count myself fortunate that, when I read history at Oxford, in 1946-49, the original Oxford History of England was largely complete. Although my tutoring (by Bruce McFarlane, Beryl Smalley, A. J. P. Taylor and others) was first-class and the lecturing often superlative (I attended Richard Southern’s original course, later published as The Making of the Middle Ages), the Oxford Series, by its scope and quality, was indispensable. One took it for granted, but it is only when a comparable series does not exist, as in the US, that its necessity becomes obvious, as I discovered when I was writing my History of the American People.

The Series was planned in the 1920s by the Oxford faculty, and entrusted to the capable hands of G. N. Clark as general editor, who produced the first volume himself, on the Later Stuarts, in 1934, thus setting an example of industry and deadline-keeping, and providing a model-specimen. The centrality of narratives plus reflective sections on “Intellectual and Economic Tendencies” and “Literature and Thought” etc tended to be followed by Clark’s colleagues, though he gave a loose and wide rein to his contributors. The series eventually comprised 17 volumes, concluding with A. J. P. Taylor’s vigorous summation of near-contemporary events, English History 1914-45, published in 1965. It included one undoubted masterpiece, F. M. Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England, whose research and synoptic skills made comprehensible for the first time the most difficult period in English history. It also originally included a remarkable work on Roman Britain, by the philosopher-historian R. G. Collingwood (though this was eventually replaced with a more straightforward account by Peter Salway), and a splendid effort by a non-academic, R. C. K. Ensor, England 1870-1914, which could, and can, be read straight through, with delight and profit. Most volumes were reprinted many times and some went to second editions also. Altogether it was among the most successful works ever produced by the OUP and an eminently practical monument of historiography.

The decision to replace it with an entirely new series, instead of repairing and adding to the old one, was debatable but probably inevitable, and the new effort was entrusted to J. M. Roberts as general editor. I knew both Clark and Roberts, and what they had in common was wisdom, judgment, considerable administrative ability and diplomatic skill in handling scholarly prima donnas — all very necessary. Roberts set the series on firm foundations but died in 2003, and thus, unlike Clark, was unable to see the project through to completion. I possess six volumes so far, and am very glad to have them, for they produce in highly accessible form the results of a vast amount of research conducted since the original series was set in motion, and new ideas and insight about what the history of England should encompass. In particular, there is an outstanding volume by Gerald Harris, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461, which changes our concept of a difficult period, and a most enjoyable one, by K. Theodore Hoppen, on The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-1886. I thought I knew this epoch well but Hoppen produces some fascinating material new to me.

The new volume, Seeking a Role: The United Kingdom 1957-1970, by Brian Harrison, is the first of what the OUP calls “two free-standing volumes” to bring the series “up to the present”. One significant change is that “the United Kingdom” now replaces “England”, though it must be said that most previous volumes, in both series, have dealt perfectly adequately with Scottish and Welsh affairs, and usually Ireland too. More important, however, is that for the first time, in either series, the predominant narrative form is largely abandoned. The main sections are static: that is, “The United Kingdom in 1951”, “The Face of the Country”, “The Social Structure”, “Family and Welfare”, though inexplicably there is a pseudo-narrative section called “The Sixties”.

Now I am not necessarily opposed to the dropping of narrative, though I wish the need for this fundamental change had been fully explained. A. J. P. Taylor believed that if you sacrificed narrative, you opened the floodgates to laziness, for it was no longer necessary to take enormous pains organising a moving structure into which everything fitted. And it is true that it is much easier to write a volume called Engineering: a Social History, than an honest, old-fashioned History of Engineering. Such a book, and there are countless such “social histories” today, may be entertaining and saleable, but when you want to look up a vital fact or date, you usually find it isn’t there.

Non-narration is also contradictory, for the series as a whole is arranged in narrative order and according to the chronology of events, usually new reigns, dynasties, regimes or governments. This volume begins in 1951 precisely because that is when Clement Attlee’s post-war government ended and Churchill returned to power. But the new Churchill government does not make its appearance until page 400. Again, the year 1970 was chosen to end the volume presumably because during it, Harold Wilson was booted out, and Ted Heath came in. But in the text of this book a figure which repeatedly makes its appearance is Margaret Thatcher, not just as an adumbration of things to come, but as an active agent, though in fact by 1970 she had only just reached the Cabinet, as Education Secretary. Indeed, to make the periodisation seem still more artificial, even Tony Blair makes his bow, though he did not become Prime Minister for more than a quarter of a century after the volume supposedly ends.

I do not wish to disparage this volume or belittle the enormous amount of work that Professor Harrison has clearly put into it. Though I lived through the entire period as an adult and was often in close touch with most of the principal actors (and actresses, both literal and figurative), Harrison’s book taught me a lot I did not know and I am very glad to have it. But I question its practical use, in some ways, to Oxford undergraduates or indeed others taking a history degree today. They are often, I find, surprisingly ignorant of even salient events more than a generation ago. The virtue of chronology and a narrative framework, the bones, as it were, of the historical body, its skeleton, is that they make it so much easier to explain what happened, and to bring to significant life half-forgotten events. In the 1950s, I often heard the Commons chant such jeering phrases as “Groundnuts!” “False teeth” and “Suez”. Catch-phrases in the 1960s included “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Hard to tell what they meant from this account. Mandy Rice-Davies does not pop up in this index, though Rice Krispies do. The lugubrious figure of Colonel George Wigg MP, so important at times in the 1960s, is not there, though Kenneth Williams, the comic actor, merits five appearances. Suez destroyed the Eden government in January 1957 (I remember it vividly and wrote an instant book about it, my first, which came out just before the poor sick man resigned) but it is not properly explained here, nor why Churchill said: “I would not have dared go in, but, being in, I would not have dared to come out.” The Macmillan government, a strong one in its day, was destroyed by Profumo. But the Affair is not explained, especially the significance of the lie in a Personal Statement. Christine Keeler is referred to minimally as “model and showgirl”, without explaining how ravishing she then was (I met her at the time). As Jack Profumo said to me years later, “There was no resisting her”. I wonder, if Professor Harrison had been writing the late-Victorian volume, how he would have dealt with Kitty O’Shea.

Again, I found the treatment of Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife policy in 1968-9 confusing and inadequate, due to its lack of a narrative approach. Yet its failure destroyed Wilson’s government the following year, the first of three occasions in which the unions smashed to pieces democratically elected governments, the other two being Heath’s in 1974 and Jim Callaghan’s in 1979. Throughout the book the significance of the unions at that time is underrated. In the post-war period, Britain was not “seeking a role” — that was merely a smart-aleck remark of Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State — but seeking a living, with diminished resources and a vanishing empire. The task was made infinitely more difficult by the huge legal powers handed over to the unions by Attlee in 1945-7, later enhanced by Wilson and Michael Foot in the mad years 1974-6. This enabled idiotic union demagogues, such as Hugh Scanlon, to destroy the West Midlands car industry and British shipbuilding, once the world’s largest, and to subject the nation to what I called “the Brotherhood of National Misery”.

In 1951, Churchill was unwilling, or felt himself unable, to enact another Trades Disputes Act, as he had done in 1927. It became the prevailing wisdom, especially after Heath’s feeble attempt, ending in the three-day week, that unions could not be subjected to the law. Margaret Thatcher cut through this nonsense in the early 1980s, and proved in two epic battles that they could, in the process destroying the two most powerful unions, the printers and the miners. The way was thus open for Britain to move to a new level of prosperity, with financial services being the largest and most valuable single industry. This satisfactory solution was in turn destroyed by the folly of the politicians and the greed of the bankers — but that is the subject of a different volume, to be written perhaps in the second decade of the 21st century. What is clear to me is that the ultimate failure of the unions to impose syndicalism on our parliamentary system ought to have been the main theme of this period, the second half of the 20th century. But it is not told, and splitting the volume into two, at the hinge-point, makes it impossible to tell.

One final point. Harrison appears to find historical sociology more interesting than history proper. So perhaps his volume should have been called The United Kingdom 1957-70: A Social History. Like the vast majority of sociologists, he has left-leaning views, which occasionally obtrude. Thus in his preface, thanking American helpers, he writes: “The warmth in personal relations generated by such individual acts of kindness helps to scale down the huge damage the USA’s reputation incurred worldwide with its friends after 2003.” If this means what I think it means, it is foolish and quite inappropriate in such a work. I doubt if J. M. Roberts, had he lived, would have passed it. Still, A. J. P. Taylor would have laughed.