Forging our history

The Isles: A History

Norman Davies <em>Macmillan,1,264pp, £30</em>

ISBN 033376370X

In the preface to a good if now little-read book on South African history published nearly 60 years ago, C W de Kiewiet wrote that most of its pages told of the last century, "and yet they are also about today". That remains true of very many other history books, popular or scholarly. Not only in books: history is continually cited in a way that shows its contemporary importance. It might be the war of 1980-88 between Iran and Iraq, when both sides regularly invoked the battle of Qadisiyya, fought in 633, or it might be the Scottish elections in May, when one kilted buffoon stood as "William Wallace". And few historians are entirely detached or objective, as the best ones recognise.

No one could call Norman Davies detached. He was known for a long and learned history of Poland until three years ago, when he published Europe: a history, which, to say the least, divided opinion. Apart from other controversial aspects, it was consciously intended to redress a balance, by emphasising the importance, as Davies saw it, of eastern Europe as against western.

With remarkable speed, he has written another huge book, a history of the British Isles. Not that he calls them that. Indeed, he relates how he once addressed an Irish audience and was about to say "the British . . ." when the words froze in his throat. His new mission is to redress another balance, between England and the rest of "these islands", or the Isles, or the Islands of the North Atlantic, or whatever coy, geographically correct turn of phrase is preferred.

Pursued in a different way, his theme could be illuminating: the interrelatedness of the histories of the different parts of the British Isles (as I shall continue to call them). And he makes some good points. Still, much of the book is altogether too whimsical, from a prehistorical map with names of Davies's fancy - "the Great Isle", "the Green Isle", "the Misty Country" (ie, England, Ireland and Scotland) - to cute chapter titles: "The Painted Isles", "The Isles in the West".

But where other historians write of "the English civil war" or, if Marxist, "the English revolution", Davies writes of "the War of Three Kingdoms", and he is correct. From the 17th century onwards - and especially in that century - the history of any one corner of - oh, all right - the Isles, can only be understood in terms of the other corners. If Davies had left it there he might have written a better book. Instead, he has tried to write a consciously Anglophobic - or at least anti-Anglocentric - book that doesn't really work.

Apart from his hostility to most things English, he has other axes to grind, including a marked aversion to Protestantism. Those who have never quite got round to reading the enormous History of England by the 19th-century Catholic apologist Fr Lingard will find it summarised here over several pages, although one can't help feeling that this sort of thing was done better by Chester- belloc. In any case, this predilection itself shows up the weakness of Davies's approach. Writing a history of England over the last 400 years from a Roman Catholic perspective is rather like writing a history of Soviet Russia from a Tsarist perspective, amusing but ultimately idle.

One could not call Davies himself idle, but this book gives every impression of being written very fast. It is full of long, undigested quotations, of prochronistic terms and hackneyed phrases ("landmark event", "ultimate nightmare scenario") that would make a tabloid sub blench. And then there are the mistakes. When reviewers pointed out that Davies's Europe was littered with errors, Oxford University Press ignobly explained that the book had been typeset and proof-read in India. That excuse won't do for a book set in Essex and printed in Kent. Not everything wrong with The Isles is the author's fault, since the publishers have excelled themselves even by the standards of the book trade today. For anyone who had enjoyed pages 471-534, my copy thoughtfully prints them twice; there are the usual phantom index entries, and the Duke of Cumberland, victor of Culloden, is slighted as "Earl of".

But Davies himself does seem to have a gift for inaccuracy that is wilful or even neurotic. Thumbing the latter pages finds these: Bright did not say that "the British parliament was 'the mother of Parliaments' " (he said that England was). Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" was not inspired by Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee ("Recessional" was). Rhodes did not "open up the diamond mines of the Rand" (there are none: the Rand has gold mines, the diamonds are in Kimberley). The self-sacrificial hero of the Antarctic was not "Captain Laurence Oates RN" (he was Lawrence, and a cavalryman, not a naval officer).

Asquith was not "a Scots orphan" - could Davies really have confused him with Ramsay MacDonald? The borders of Northern Ireland were not "secured by the findings of a Boundary Commission, which deliberately excluded three of Ulster's nine ancient counties for having too many Catholics" (the border was decided by politicians, and the Boundary Commission later suggested revisions that weren't implemented). The Anglican Church in Wales did not "emerge" in 1930 (it was disestablished in 1920). Cardinal Heenan did not die in 1943 (he means Cardinal Hinsley). The constitutional conundrum over Scottish devolution is known as the West Lothian Question, not "Midlothian". Professor he may be, but I do not think that Davies is a man you would want to have on your side for a pub quiz evening.

In general, anything Davies says about the Church of England, or Protestantism, or ecclesiastical matters, should not be taken seriously, including, I think, his claim that "in 1945, the great majority of British people were practising Christians". And what he writes about recent Irish history is so partisan, or silly, that it is worthless. His hatred of Ulster Protestants is matched by credulity about Irish nationalism; to call John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party "brave" or "moderate" is a matter of opinion, but to call it "non-sectarian" is ludicrous.

It should be said that The Isles is perfectly readable. I learnt from it things that I did not know, and it made me think, if not as the author would have liked. If anything, Davies brought out my own Whig and Protestant prejudices. As his old teacher, A J P Taylor, once wrote: "The revolution of 1688 was truly a Glorious Revolution." This is a truth ignored by those, on both edges of the political spectrum, who care less about liberty than they should. Although Davies seems to be far from a man of the left, it is amusing that his books have been enthusiastically received by people who do count themselves on the left. But then, this illustrates Charles II's principle: "His nonsense suits their nonsense," in the form of a fashionable intellectual Anglophobia.

So in his early pages, Davies muses on nomenclature, horrified that there were once "Histories of England"; that the Oxford syllabus used to be called "English History", or that Pitt "inexcusably" referred to the United Kingdom as England (something everyone did then and many prime ministers since have done, including the Scotchman Gladstone).

This linguistic chippiness wouldn't matter so much if it weren't symptomatic of a graver misunderstanding. In Europe, Davies lamented that Burke's reflections on the Polish constitution of 3 May 1791 weren't as well-known as his writings on the French revolution. But the reason for that isn't some anti-east European prejudice. It is because the French revolution changed history and the Polish constitution did not. We likewise read and write more about English history than Welsh, not out of patronising contempt for Wales, but because the one affected the whole world and the other did not. That is a fact, as it is also a historical fact that England - especially southern England - has politically, economically and culturally dominated the rest of the British Isles for more than 1,000 years.

A book that is also about today, The Isles ends with a gloating prediction that the UK will soon break up. That might be true, but it is based on Davies's modish premiss that "all the foundations of historic 'Britishness' " are "in an advanced state of decay", which is much more questionable. This was Linda Colley's conclusion, suggested rather than stated, in her fine book Britons. She said that a British identity had been forged (wordplay intended) in the 18th century by Protestantism, imperial conquest and war.

The implication is that, with those gone, national identity must disappear, too. But that does not necessarily follow. At any rate, I do not see those who say this also saying that, with the extinction of the Gaelic language and culture and the precipitous decline of the Catholic Church, the foundations of historic Irishness are in an advanced state of decay, to be followed by the disappearance of Irish identity. As for Davies's final, triumphant declaration that "the United Kingdom is not, and never has been, a nation state", well this could apply just as well to most other countries in Europe. No, what is so distinctive about "these islands" isn't their history, but their historians.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's most recent book is "Controversy of Zion" (Sinclair Stevenson)