A World by Itself

Jeremy Black looks at a single-volume history of the British Isles, from 500 BC to the present  

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Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Jonathan Clark
Publisher: WM Heineman
Price (RRP): £30

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This well-written volume is an attempt to present a history of the British Isles free from the established modernist agenda, as understood in terms of a belief in the state and other social-democratic certainties, not least a secular progress. Instead, there is a determination to emphasise the extent of changing goals, values and peoples. 

In his perceptive introduction, Clark argues that a society’s understanding of its history is continually debated and always able to be refined, but liable to be diluted. Differing accounts are linked by Clark to “counterfactuality”, which he claims subverts the over-determined and complacent accounts of modernism. These, he suggests, challenge moral and self-assurance.

Clark also seeks to advance contemporary explanations: “With the disintegration of the complacencies of modernism there is a renewed attention to how people in the past understood things rather than how present-day analysts schematise them”.

After this exciting prospectus, what is the achievement? Clark should be pleased with his contributors, who have provided effective accounts of their periods. James Campbell tackles 500 BC to AD 1066, John Gillingham takes the story up to 1485, Jenny Wormald to 1660, Clark to 1832, William Rubinstein to 1914, and Robert Skidelsky looks to the present. Each begins with material cultures, then looks at religion and culture, next considers political cultures, and closes with some counterfactuals.

The common plan provides a worthwhile basis for comparison, and offers a helpful continuity between the sections. There is also an appropriate engagement with the four nations approach. Gillingham, for example, points out that the growing authority of the Scottish crown in the 14th and 15th centuries meant that its reach extended further into Gaelic and Scandinavian regions, while the social and cultural contrast between Highland and Lowland, Gaelic-speaking and English-speaking Scotland still remained strong. 

Perceptive remarks can be found throughout, and they are valuably linked to historiography. Thus, Wormald suggests that it is putting too much responsibility on the shoulders of James VI and Charles I to see 1625 as a key turning point, as that leaves in place the over-personalised approach of the Whig historians. 

Clark argues that Britons’ sense of imperial superiority was based on cultural, as opposed to racial, assumptions and that strategic calculations revolved around defence against perceived foreign threats rather than militaristic assertion. He argues that in the 18th century, apart from the east coast of North America, Britain’s overseas possessions were scattered, small and heterogeneous, and that they had been acquired for a bewildering variety of reasons, so that to analyse them historically we need to question the demand to define them as an ‘empire’ sustained by imperialism. This approach is typical of his interesting linkage of discussion with historiography.

Skidelsky writes that Blair’s premiership will always carry “the taint of the invasion of Iraq” (scarcely neutral phrasing) and argues that “in accepting mass immigration from outside Europe, the European nations, Britain included, opened themselves up to a whole host of unintended consequences, which amount to irreversible changes in the character of their societies”. Clark is to be congratulated for his enterprise and selection. His book reminds us of the extent to which British history is capable of many accounts. 

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Prof Jeremy Black’s books include Modern British History (Palgrave, 2000) and A Short History of Britain (Social Affairs Unit, 2007)