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Volume 45, Number 1 (Winter 2007)

A Case for Insular History

book cover imageThe Discovery of Islands
by J. G. A. Pocock.
Cambridge University Press (Cambridge), 358 pp., $75.00, 2006.

William Anthony Hay

Each generation revises history to fit its own needs and preoccupations because, while the past itself remains constant, the prism through with it is seen changes. Besides helping people understand their own time, history shapes identity and provides a sense of place. These factors together explain how historiography—the principles, perspectives, and methods behind the writing of history—responds to questions driven by contemporary preoccupations.

Trends in British history offer a case in point. The Whig interpretation in Thomas Babbington Macaulay’s nineteenth century History of England and Henrietta Marshall’s children’s book Our Island’s Story describes British history as the progressive movement toward increasing liberty and prosperity. As academic history emerged in Britain under the guidance of scholars like Macaulay’s nephew George Otto Trevelyan, it largely assimilated Whig assumptions to shape public culture into the 1920s. Declining power and a crisis of confidence posed new questions that led British historians to examine the past in different ways. Marxism and social science methodology turned historiography from constitutional history and focused instead on class conflict and social change. Postmodernism reflected the growing hold of expressive individualism from the 1960s with a consequent interest in identity that posed questions about sexuality and ethnic differences. Failure of the post-1945 social democratic consensus during the 1970s followed by Thatcherism further shifted the terms behind historical inquiry.

Decolonization, renewed interest in histories of component nations within the United Kingdom, and reorientation toward Europe as part of Britain’s membership in the European Union have also influenced historiography, and J. G. A. Pocock’s essays in The Discovery of Islands offer a profound reconceptualization of British history. Rather than English history writ large—with occasional detours into other Irish, Scots, Welsh or imperial narratives that highlight turning points in England’s past—Pocock argues for a British history that examines relationships within the Atlantic archipelago and its overseas progeny. British history is a multinational story; the history of nations forming and deforming one another and themselves through their interactions. It extends beyond what he calls the Atlantic archipelago across the seas to include settlements from the North American tidewater and piedmont to Oceania. Culture, ancestry, and ongoing relationships define the connection between the British Isles and neo-Britain’s overseas, and those connections matter at least as much as geographic proximity. Pocock has insisted since 1973 that British history in this sense deserves to be reinvested with meaning both because it covers areas of human experience it would be beneficial to study and because neglecting it limits self-understanding among English-speaking peoples.

Pocock’s background as a New Zealander of English-speaking South African heritage with a career spent largely in the United States shapes his approach. His essay here offering a plea for British history as a new subject originated with a lecture to a New Zealand audience in May 1973, and passages in The Discovery of Islands recount Pocock’s own story as a chapter in the history of Greater Britain. Far from nostalgic pining for a world he admits has been lost, Pocock’s emphasis on the British diaspora follows from his efforts to understand the terms in which people see themselves or what he would call “the nuts and bolts of the mind.” A noted historian of ideas, he pioneered a new approach to intellectual history that viewed texts in the context of their time so as to understand the language contemporaries used to communicate ideas. Instead of great books providing a debate amongst themselves across the ages, key texts could offer insight on how men at a specific point of time saw their world. Pocock’s approach to British history as the story of nations interacting with and occasionally seceding from an imperial state plays this theme from his other work in a different key.

The Discovery of Islands brings together a collection of essays dating from the 1970s that sketch out Pocock’s case for a new British history. Early chapters set forth the approach, followed by others engaging specific questions. The second section covers England’s history within the framework of relations among the three kingdoms that defined early modern Britain. Part three explores empire and rebellion from 1688 through the first age of union that lasted up to 1800, and the fourth section brings together chapters on New Zealand history as part of the British diaspora. The last few chapters consider Britain’s turn to Europe since the 1970s as a partial rejection of its history.

Integrating Wales fully into the English state during the sixteenth century followed by the dynastic union with Scotland in 1603 and increased attention to Ireland cast British history as an age of three kingdoms up through the Act of Union with Ireland in 1801. Pocock discusses how this wider understanding redefined the struggle over sovereignty in the 1640s known as the English Civil War or English Revolution into a War of Three Kingdoms. So horrified were the English at finding themselves at war with one another that they “assumed the causes of this disaster must lie within English politics,” but that premise overlooks the fact that the wars began in Scotland with a conflict over religion. Many issues underlay the wars, but a central question involved who possessed ultimate authority. The Act in Restraint of Appeals of 1533 may have declared England an empire sovereign unto itself, but the dynastic union with Scotland and the imperatives of governing three kingdoms under one crown muddied the waters at the same time England’s parliament felt increasingly sure of its status. Pocock argues that the War of the Three Kingdoms caused an English Civil War when England’s political order broke down under pressure from events originating from Scotland and Ireland. England had developed to the point where governmental and ecclesiastical integration meant that war with the realm could be nothing other than a civil war, while Scotland and Ireland lacked the prerequisites for such a war. A war between members of a single polity differs from one among polities associated under a ruler.

Events took a different course in England during 1688 when William of Orange challenged James II. No civil war occurred in England that year, only conflicts in Ireland and to a lesser degree Scotland that could be seen as suppressing disorder along the marches rather than a civil conflict within the polity. Where Charles I forced the question of sovereignty at every stage during the 1640s, his son’s flight at the end of 1688 spared English elites from the necessity of choosing sides. Even an inconclusive battle, Pocock notes, might have led to civil war by rallying supporters to opposing sides as king and parliament had done in 1642. The presence of professional armies rather than militias called up from the shires also played a part in preventing a crisis over sovereignty. Hobbesian politics came to end with the restructuring of the English state’s fiscal and military structures during the War of the League of Augsburg, which Pocock aptly suggests might be called the War of English succession. Union with Scotland and a tighter hold over Ireland that lasted until the imperial crisis of the 1770s followed. Whig history, for all its flaws, makes sense here, not least in Pocock’s view by explaining the consequences of 1688 and its aftermath.

The imperial system broke down in the 1770s when it could no longer accommodate the claims of American colonists, and the war for America set off wider changes that undermined Britain’s ancient regime. A second age of union lasted from the Act of Union with Ireland in 1801 to the second great secession of the British Empire after the Anglo-Irish war in 1921. That period also coincided with imperial expansion and the settlement of New Zealand and other neo-Britains in the antipodes. The realignment brought by British accession to the E. E. C. forced New Zealanders who thought of Britain as home to reassess their own identity, including relations with the indigenous Maoris who had preceded them.

New Zealand’s example shows that a sovereign, self-governing state can open its sovereignty to debate, reassess its past, and negotiate between competing ideas of sovereignty without either dissolving the state or abolishing its sovereignty. The European project is a very different matter. It rejects skeptics as atavistic and undiscriminating in their opposition to integration, partly because it has no substantive argument in response to their objections. The democratic deficit follows from realization among elites that democratic electorates will not readily give up sovereignty and must be lured into it by stages. “Europeanizing” British history involves downplaying the centrality of the state and refocusing relationships toward continental Europe rather than within the British isles or overseas. Deconstructing identities often involves a smug provincialism among elites who cannot see beyond their own times. Pocock warned that demolishing Whig history—even though it brought a deeper understanding of past and present—amounted to a program for “asking the present to live without a past that justifies it.” Much the same could be said of postmodernist enthusiasm for Europe without the compensating benefit of illuminating the past. Indeed, where revisionism opened doors, the politics behind the new historiography of Europe seems eager to close them. Pocock contends that a history of either Britain or Europe must consider how it is a creation of nation-states even before attempting to transcend that framework.

Pocock’s concluding chapters highlight the symbiotic relationship between historiography and politics. History serves a central purpose in public culture, and, consequently, the question of how it is to be written never quite finds a resolution. Each generation rewrites its history to understand its present. Pocock gives a judicious and well-written overview of the process, and his essays leave a sense that the past may not be such a foreign realm as is sometimes thought.

William Anthony Hay teaches History at Mississippi State University.

Posted: May 15, 2007

A “conservative character [is] suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state.”

Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, 1954

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