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This book reminds us in the Afterword that all histories are overtaken by events, and inevitably become out of date even while they are going through the press. Nonetheless that is no reason for the reader to ignore them.
As one who has always felt most at ease with the standard chronological approach to history, driven by events and major personalities, I found the close-on 700 pages of this volume fairly demanding reading in places. It is divided into six parts, each by a different contributor, with the editor himself writing the fourth. Every part is divided into Material Cultures, discussing topics like geography and industry, followed by essays on topics (not for all sections) on Religious Cultures; Religion, Nationalism and Identity; and Political and National Cultures.
What we have, therefore, is an overview of events from each period, more thorough in some instances than others, and a certain amount of theorizing on the general social, political and even artistic background. A straightforward narrative history through the ages - it is not.
It can be a baffling book at times in that its coverage of certain major events in the past is very inconsistent. There is one brief sentence referring to the two civil wars that King Charles I lost, in 1645 and 1648, but without any reference at all to Prince Rupert, the New Model Army, or even any of the individual battles. All this is despite a comment elsewhere that of the many changes which affected people's lives between the late 15th and mid 17th centuries, the three most dramatic were the Reformations, the union of England and Scotland in 1603, and the civil wars. We also have a brief reference, really only in passing, to the battle of Bosworth, which is described as arguably the last conflict of the Hundred Years' War, but nothing about the rest of the Wars of the Roses which had so destabilised the country for the previous thirty years. The remainder of the Hundred Years' War just gets a paragraph, while at the start of the 20th century there are two pages about the Bloomsbury and Fabian Groups. It's very interesting, yes, but surely not so important in the grand scheme of things.
All this results in a lack of balance which I find rather odd. Also I've always regarded history as very much driven by events, dates and personalities. Call me a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, but that kind of emphasis is all too often absent in some sections of this book.
Even with these quibbles, this is an interesting if rather flawed historical overview. Also whereas a number of similar works only focus on England, in this one Wales, Scotland and Ireland all receive plenty of attention. And while other writers have sought to downplay the influence of the monarchy on contemporary events, these authors do not. It is pointed out that every crowned head from Henry VIII to James II had some bearing on the Reformation, with continuous changes in policy according to the preferred religion of each monarch until the predominantly Protestant kingdom stabilized under the rule of William and Mary. Moreover, in medieval times, emphasis is placed on the fact that there were five dethronements of Kings in the 14th and 15th centuries, leading the French ambassador to comment publicly in 1484 on the English habit of murdering them. (It should be remembered that we did however behead one for the last time in 1649, whereas the French did much the same over a hundred years later).
Sometimes, as we are reminded, history can be a case of not just what happened, but also what did not happen - and why. For instance, why Britain did not experience major revolution in the late 18th century? According to this book, the answer is that there was a British revolution, but not in Britain, only among fellow Britons in the North American colonies, and at home there was only a limited constitutional transformation, hardly amounting to a major upheaval, between 1828 and 1835. The point is made that despite the great changes and transformations of the Victorian era, Britain changed less markedly between 1800 and 1914 than virtually any nation in Europe.
From more recent times, the political history of the last forty years or so is handled with commendable objectivity, which is not always the case, even though the statement that Tony Blair's tenure as Prime Minister will always carry 'the taint of the invasion of Iraq' - something which may be seen by some (OK, I suspect not that many) as a little one-sided. The analysis of such recent factors as the collapse of communism and the Berlin wall, the advance of multiculturalism and Britain's increasing involvement with Europe have brought more and more people to realise how much their corner of the world has changed in the last fifty years or so.
One of the last chapters allows some speculation as to what might have happened if Britain had lost the 'battle of Britain' or the 'battle of the Atlantic' in 1940-41 and Britain had become a Vichy state with the elderly Lloyd George as 'a possible leader for a compromise peace,' or what if Britain and France had succeeded at Suez in 1956, signed a wide-ranging agreement to coordinate their foreign and defence policies, built a joint nuclear deterrent, and aborted Arab nationalism.
The introduction also reminds us that it was written at a time of growing insecurity as terrorism, global climate change and epidemic disease seemed to threaten the social-democratic certainties entrenched in the West by the victory of 1945,' and that even the concept of 'the West' has come under critical scrutiny. The historian's task is never done.
The perfect history of Britain does not exist. All of them have their flaws, and taking an approach which will appeal to everyone is well nigh impossible. For all of its omissions and occasional lack of balance, this is a challenging, informative, occasionally argumentative book which will appeal to anyone who likes a thorough examination of the subject. Having said that, it is not a light read, and really for the more dedicated. I wouldn't recommend it for the general reader.
[This is a revised version of a review I originally posted on other sites]