Andrew Marr presenting "History of the World". Photograph: BBC
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Popular history has been conquered by a complacent liberalism

Television history, in particular, has changed - and not always for the better.

At the end of September, the BBC screened the first part of its eight-part History of the World, written and presented by Andrew Marr. Within days of the show’s first episode, another world historian, Eric Hobsbawm, died, at the age of 94. Although the proximity of the two events was coincidental, it did seem as if the baton was being passed from one public historian, keen to paint the “big picture” and with a taste for the grand sweep, to another.

However, a closer comparison of the two men reveals how far popular history has changed and not always for the better. For Marr’s series shows the extent to which the struggle to interpret our history has been won by a complacent liberalism. And victory has been rather easy, as many historians have simply refused to join the fight.

This is a triumph with serious consequences – especially for anyone trying to make sense of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Our view of history shapes our attitude towards contemporary politics. Consciously or not, we are perpetually judging the present by the measure of the past. Once a particular “history” that supports the status quo becomes all-powerful, it is very difficult to make alternative political and economic solutions seem either plausible or necessary.

Hobsbawm and his generation of intellectuals were keenly aware of how damaging liberal complacency could be. In the 1920s, the postwar victors were convinced that they could impose the pre-1914 laissez-faire order without fully incorporating the working class – as if the First World War and the Russian Revolution had never happened. Hobsbawm, a teenager in 1930s Berlin, witnessed for himself the disastrous consequences of such conventional thinking – soaring unemployment, social breakdown and the rise of Nazism.

Yet after the Second World War the tables were turned. Now the western elite accepted that states had to control markets and improve workers’ lives. This analysis lay behind the grand social-democratic projects of the era – welfare states, the Bretton Woods system and the Marshall Plan. It also underpinned the “Marxist” history that dominated the postwar era: socio-economic forces were central; and educated experts, who understood those forces, could use reason and science to improve society and help the working classes.

However, just as Marxist-influenced history reached its high tide in the 1960s and 1970s, serious signs of decay had set in. For the convulsions of 1968 triggered a powerful – and in many ways justified – critique that left it looking deeply old-fashioned. The main target of the ’68-ers was the technocrat-worker alliance that characterised the era of social democracy. Scientists, the new radicals argued, far from being progressive, were apparatchiks of the military- industrial complex. As for the supposedly heroic working class, they had sold their souls to consumerism. History’s real heroes were the victims of cultural discrimination – whether ethnic minorities, colonised peoples, women or homosexuals.

This political sea change required an entirely new view of the past. With cultural identity now central, historians scrutinised subjective perceptions, not objective economic conditions. In the vanguard were Ranajit Guha and the “subaltern” historical school, who sought to rescue the cultures of the Indian poor for posterity; meanwhile, gender historians surveyed the many ways in which patriarchy shaped everything from progressive politics to the micro-power relations of everyday life.

This cultural turn was accompanied by an attack on notions of historical “progress”. Marxists were now lumped together with liberal “Whig” historians, such as Macaulay, as the false sirens of an Enlightenment that claimed “rationality” would make society more fair and free, when it often did the exact opposite. Newly fashionable “postmodernist” thinkers now saw progress as the highway to the Gulag and the death camp.

Postmodernists insisted that historians themselves, with their simple-minded “grand narratives” – whether “Whig” stories of progress towards liberal democracy and capitalism, or Marxist fables of progress towards communism – were contributing to this oppressive way of thinking. Historians had to avoid all grand theorising and concentrate on the marginalised and the powerless.

One casualty of this approach was economic history. Once the aristocracy of the profession, economic historians were now regarded as servants of hegemony. As free markets swept across the globe after 1989, there were even stronger reasons for historians – like most humanities academics, generally people of the left – to concentrate on the cultural sphere.

Hobsbawm represented all the postmodernists hated: the mandarin surveying the world from Olympian heights, uninterested in everyday life. Surely this was the attitude that led to grandiose projects of social engineering that caused the death of millions (not least in the Soviet Union, of which Hobsbawm was an unrepentant supporter)?

In somewhat diluted form, postmodernist ideas have reshaped both academic and popular history, and with many positive effects. In their insistence on the value of the experiences of ordinary people, such histories fit with a more democratic age. The recent BBC series presented by Pamela Cox, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, is an excellent example – giving us the real voices of the domestic servant class and driving a coach and horses through the Tory romanticism of Downton Abbey. These histories have also had a broader cultural effect, contributing to a growing intolerance of the abuse of power in ordinary life.

Necessary and important as these gains have been, the rejection of the most influential grand narratives has brought serious losses. In their abandonment of the big picture in favour of the fragment, academic historians have ceded the political high ground. And this crucial strategic space has been occupied by popular historians from the liberal centre and the right, such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.

Until the 1980s, it was the right that was most suspicious of grand narratives, whether Marxist or Whig. For them, history was one damn thing after another, a long series of accidents and of great men making decisions; or, for a more “new-age” right, of randomly significant butterflies fluttering their wings in some corner of the globe or other.

Yet after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it suddenly seemed that history was going their way; the right embraced grand narratives with relish. In his history of the cold war, The Atlantic and its Enemies (2010), the Thatcherite Norman Stone shamefacedly admitted that he had ended up writing a Whig history of progress, even though he had spent much of his youth condemning the very idea.
 
And it is various forms of Whiggery that dominate our history today – whether propagated by those on the centre-right, such as Stone, or on the centre-left, such as Marr. Much of this is ideological rather than economic Whiggery: history is seen as a battle between liberalism and totalitarianism, and liberalism has won. The political theorist Francis Fukuyama put the argument most eloquently in his 1989 essay “The End of History?”. But it also underpinned some of the most popular histories of the early 21st century, including Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (2000-02).

We also see it in the widespread notion that Nazism and Stalinism were essentially the same – violently utopian ideologies created by dangerous anti-liberal intellectuals. We are still battling with their heirs, we are told, but the struggle will inevitably be won. This, in essence, was the history that George W Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Economic Whiggery is equally influential, though it is more frequently peddled by science writers and economists than by historians. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) tells an optimistic story of the defeat of warrior values by a peaceable liberalism. More forthright is Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010). Yoking Darwinism to free market economics, it casts merchants as the main agents of progress in human history.

Ridley’s analysis is a cruder version of a fashionable “big history” that combines the insights of evolutionary science with praise for economic globalisation (though it tends to be much more pessimistic about its environmental consequences than Ridley is). In his History of the World, Marr has whipped up all these trends into a tasty dish, mixing evolutionary history with Whiggish enthusiasms about global trade and warnings about “utopian” ideologies, though marinated in a conservative pessimism about human nature and political improvement.

Marr’s series is expertly crafted and stimulating; but it rests on an unexamined assumption common to much popular history today: it assumes, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that “there is no such thing as society”. Marr gives us evolutionary imperatives, economic forces, ideologies and great (or evil) men. But the social groups Hobsbawm saw as central to history are in the background.

The Marxists certainly saw these social groups in crude terms – the postmodernists rightly argued that history was not just driven by economic “classes” but by a range of different groups, in part founded on culture and identity. Even so, occupation is enormously important in creating those identities. To ignore that is to deprive ourselves of a powerful tool for understanding.

The violence of the 20th century was not primarily caused by the pursuit of illiberal utopias, nor by evil dictators. It was largely caused by struggles between groups – social, national and ethnic – over questions of hierarchy and equality. These were the battles that brought Hobsbawm and his fellow Berliners on to the streets.

We saw the consequences of this analytical failure in the incomprehension of commentators and policy-makers when confronted with the turmoil of the Arab spring. Having seen the Middle East as the site of a struggle between liberals and “totalitarian” Islamists, they were bewildered as conflict exploded between competing social and ethno-religious groups – poor Islamists, their more business-orientated co-religionists, leftist workers, cosmopolitan liberals, Shias, Sunnis and Christians.

It is no surprise that the left is not flourishing in this intellectual environment. For the left is primarily concerned with equality. And if social hierarchies and the struggles of social and ethnic groups to flatten or bolster them are airbrushed from the historical record, the left’s agenda appears wholly irrelevant.

But even more serious, perhaps, is the effect of Whiggish ideas of gradual progress on our understanding of the financial crisis. We are so used to thinking of history as a process of gradual improvement that we find it difficult to remember how suddenly world orders break down – as they did in 1918, the 1930s or the 1970s – and how radically our ideas have to change in response. Whig gradualism simply cannot prepare us for the very serious challenges ahead.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward”. The British are right to value their historians, and the BBC should be investing in grand histories. Yet they have to choose the right ones. For bad history may be worse than no history at all.

David Priestland is the author of “Merchant, Soldier, Sage: a New History of Power” (Allen Lane, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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