This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Why have you decided to write a history of England?
I was aware that my knowledge of history was imperfect and that almost all of us know history as a series of stories and incidents that very rarely join up. So I was interested to see what the connections were that link history together. I was also keen to see if I could do a very short history book. The majority of history books are extremely long and I think one result of that is people love reading biographies and dipping into personalities but they’re overwhelmed by the prospect of reading as much as is required to compose the narrative of English history. So I just wanted to find out if I could write a very short history of England that could be read in three hours.
Why have you focused on England, as opposed to Britain?
Almost all histories I’ve read are of Britain, or of the British empire or the English speaking peoples, virtually negating the identity of England. It is almost as if history has become politically correct. I wanted to try to disentangle the history of England from this highly politicised history of Britain and to see if there’s something unique to England that was distinct from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the British empire.
How easy was it to continue writing about England in the period after Britain had been formed?
It was difficult because most history pretty much denies a distinction between England and Britain. If you see British history from Cardiff, Belfast, Dublin or Edinburgh you have a very vivid sense of the presence of a different political culture and entity in these places. But if you see it from London then somehow or other the borders don’t exist. I just wanted to re-establish this idea of a border within what is now called the old English empire of the British Isles and to focus on the English part of it.
Do you agree with the idea of Britain being an English empire?
Yes it is an English empire and it is an empire that has never ever worked. If you look at it politically, relations with Scotland, Ireland and Wales have always been vexed and they still haven’t been settled today. We made a complete hash of our domestic empire.
Might we now be entering a period of decolonisation for this English empire?
I think that the dissolution of the British empire is not over. It was pretty messy overseas and it has been extraordinarily messy domestically. If you go to Edinburgh and talk to intelligent people about the relationship between Scotland and England they’ll tell you that it can’t go on. Intelligent people want what happened to Ireland to happen to Scotland.
What do you see as the defining moments of English history?
To me they’re the obvious ones, beginning with the arrival of the English – the Angles – from Denmark and Germany in around 500. You’ve then got the great invasions such as the Vikings, which was very important and often under-written, and the Norman invasion, which is often over-written.
There are also key moments like the evolution of parliament under Henry III, the great peaks of Henry VIII, and the Civil War. Then there was 1832 when parliament firmly opted for reform [with the Great Reform Act that widened the franchise] at a time when most similar institutions across Europe were opting for reaction after Waterloo. More recently, I think that the period after the Second World War was seminal as well.
Do you believe the postwar experience for England was more important than the war itself?
The British talent had always been to keep away from wars overseas. We had kept out of Europe all the time. Every now and then a Marlborough or Wellington went in to sort out Europe but it was always rather aloof. For us it was a bit of rather expensive glory.
I’m rather straining the parallel but in some senses the two world wars were not that different. What was different was the effect the wars had on domestic Britain. The first of them emancipated women – or gave them the franchise at least – and hugely expanded the power of the state. The Second World War did that even more, giving the government powers that it never relinquished. I see the 1945 Labour government as really a continuation of the 1940 coalition government. It was the establishment of a modern state as a major player in the domestic economy.
There is a sense in which, from the mid-20th century onwards, the Norman ascendency was reasserted against Saxon pluralism or territoriality. Thatcher and Blair crushed localism in Britain completely, in the same sense that William the Conqueror did. We now have the colossal bureaucratic state that William was aiming for with Domesday.
You can draw parallels there and also with resistances. The resistance you saw under King John that led to Magna Carta is similar to the bubbling resentments that you see now from localists, regionalists and from Wales, Ireland and Scotland to the central power of London.
Has there always been this tension between central government and the wider population?
Absolutely. It is a running theme of English history and it is resolved in the institution of parliament. While writing this book I came to see that parliament is a most extraordinary institutional phenomenon. It was always there. It never lost control. That is why the period before the Great Reform Act is so important because that is the moment when parliament really could have lost control. Power could have shifted onto the streets, or to the king, or ministers but it just never happened. Somehow they worked out that they couldn’t leave urban England disenfranchised.
Do you see England as separate from the other European powers?
I think so. It is an island and islands tend to be different. To be a maritime nation is normally a sign of strength because you are less easy to invade. A seagoing nation tends to be enterprising and outgoing and extrovert. All those things helped England, and parliament was also critical in setting the country apart. Look at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which effectively re-established dictatorships in all the major countries of Europe except Britain. For various reasons Britain moved towards a liberal democracy at that point and all the other countries retrenched. It took them another 100 years to sort themselves out.
Who do you see as the most important people in English history?
Henry VIII for me was a great revolutionary. A tyrant and a bully, yes, but what he did was sensational. He was a star, an absolute star and I think in a way Oliver Cromwell was another. Then you have this extraordinary series of political leaders in the 18th and 19th century: Walpole, Chatham and in a funny way people like Palmerston and Gladstone. Not Disraeli in my view – although Tories such as him and Peel did their bit by not being reactionary.
It’s also clear that some of the bad kings played their part in political evolution as much as the good ones, largely because forces rose against them. The constitution advanced hugely under John and under Henry III because they were weak and so the barons acquired power.
Do you believe English people can be proud of their history?
I begin my epilogue by saying that England really is a most successful country. If you look across the span of English history there are very few countries in the world that have anything remotely comparable in terms of progressiveness, liberalism or potency at various stages. I think we are justified in being proud of English history and I am not ashamed of saying that.
Simon Jenkins is a journalist and author who has previously been editor of the The Times and the London Evening Standard. He is chairman of the National Trust and has written several books on history and heritage, including A Short History of England (Profile, 2011).