A Short History of England

With two sure-fire bestsellers, Simon Jenkins and Peter Ackroyd show different ways of re-creating n

A Short History of England
Simon Jenkins
Profile Books, 384pp, £25

Foundation: the History of England (vol 1)
Peter Ackroyd
Macmillan, 352pp, £25

The BBC outside broadcasts of the Last Night of the Proms on 10 September lingered on jolly, flag-waving crowds in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. When it came to Blake's "Jerusalem", however, the camera resolutely stayed put in the Albert Hall and Hyde Park, as if anxious that not all in the Union shared what Kipling called "the England of our dreams".

The English are having a hard time of it these days. When the English Defence League features as a voice of reason on the Today programme you know there's trouble afoot. The BBC, we are told, even instructed its journalists to describe this summer's riots as English, not Welsh or Scottish. New bouts of English introspection appear in the press every week as the break-up of Britain seems to draw ever nearer - Simon Jenkins in his book assumes it will take place in the next generation. So the unions of 1536, 1603 and 1707 may turn out to be only temporary after all, as deeper allegiances re-emerge. We could have guessed it all along: our destinies are intertwined on this island, but our identities remain obstinately distinct.

So what is, or was, England? These books by two heavyweights of popular history set out to tell the tale. By any scale, England's achievements in history are remarkable, so it is good to take stock and produce a fresh view of the story of Britain's core state. Yet neither book, it must be said, sets out to do that. Though full of good writing and lively anecdote, both are conventional narratives marked by kings and queens and great events. Neither, for example, taps in to the vast store of material recently opened up on the social lives of medieval English people. Of the two, Peter Ackroyd is more concerned to weave in the smell and taste of ordinary life, though he would do well to remember that our proletarian ancestors thought, as well as toiled.

The first problem for any author is where to begin, what weight to give to various periods. Simon Jenkins gives the Anglo-Saxons only as much space as Margaret Thatcher and her children. To be sure, the Anglo-Saxons, with their "wars of kites and crows" (as Milton put it), can seem less appealing than the great characters: Becket, Cromwell, Churchill. Yet they are the roots of England; everything flows from them, and Alfred and Æthelstan are of far greater historical significance than Thatcher or Blair - or Churchill, for that matter. Bede's crucial idea of the English nation, the gens Anglorum (whatever its ethnic make-up), was made political reality as long ago as the 10th century, with towns, coinage, vernacular literature and strong royal law. The roots of parliament, too (as John Maddicott argued last year in his book The Origins of the English Parliament, which deserves a much wider public), can be traced to the national consultative gatherings of the different social ranks under Æthelstan.

These are fine ideas, from a defining period in English history, though it is harder to conjure its personalities, especially if one must race through in one volume as Jenkins does. Shadowy they may seem, but they were thinkers. They may have had an itinerant kingship that slept in draughty wooden halls - their kings must often have sat in council smelling of the hunt, or whatever the dogs brought in - but early England was an extraordinarily creative time. In the 10th century, rulers could even recall and restrike the coinage every few years, adjusting silver content for inflation. And it is their polity that continues today as the core state of the UK.

At its root was the idea of loyalty to the king and his law, cemented by oaths and mutual help in the tithings and the hundred courts. Out of this grew the notion of belonging to England. Thus, Englishness is not really about George Orwell's warm beer and cricket, perceptive as is his description in "The Lion and the Unicorn". The core is about allegiance. As long ago as 1055, armies refused to fight in a civil war because there were "too many good Englishmen on either side". England grew out of these deep-rooted ideas and customs.

Simon Jenkins's Short History of England, published in association with the National Trust, is a handsome book whose narrative gains strength as it goes through the Middle Ages and finds itself in the modern period. His account of the 20th century is full of the good judgements one might hope for from such a sensible and readable commentator, and they alone are worth perusing for pleasure and food for thought. Jenkins is especially good at analysing what he sees as the central idea - the balance between royal power and popular consent.

Never one to do things by halves, Peter Ackroyd presents his Foundation as the first of a projected six-part History of England. He is a formidable synthesiser: his technique is to venture down wide avenues of research, build up a pile of rich anecdote, and lay his narrative over the top in vigorous and sometimes purple prose. In 40 short chapters, this first volume covers everything from diet and clothes to the Great Famine and the Black Death, going all the way up to Henry VII; but it begins confusingly with Stonehenge, using the term England to describe lowland Britain that far back in time, as if the landscape were already imbued with the mystic soul of "Jerusalem". As England was the product of historical forces between the 8th and 10th centuries, clarity of terminology in these matters would have helped. Nor will many readers share Ackroyd's idea that England was more the product of convenience, of "continual movement and constant variation", than of conscious state-building. If he could see us today, Æthelstan, I dare say, would disagree.

A further big question is whether the history of England is about the rulers or the people. Though no one has done it recently, grand-sweep English social history has been attempted before; older readers of the New Statesman will recall A L Morton's still readable People's History of England (1938). To write such history, one must go to the original sources, though one no longer has to master medieval Latin. Among new online publications is the fabulous Henry III Fine Rolls Project, scrutinising documents from the 13th century, where hugely detailed social history shows that the English peasantry, often literate, were well aware of their circumstances and in constant confrontation and negotiation with their lords. Class warfare, as the Marxist historian Rodney Hilton used to say, was a condition of medieval life, and an intimate glance at what men and women were doing and saying in medieval England is an eye-opener. After all, it was the "foolish peasants" of Peatling Magna in 1265 who told the king's men to their faces that they were "against the welfare of the community of the realm".

Both of these books do what they do well, and will sell by the truckload as Christmas approaches. But England, its roots and its character, deserves a proper extended treatment. How and why, with only two and a half million people in 1550, did it have such an influence on the history of the world? And when Wales and Scotland go their separate ways, what will England be? As Kipling wrote:

If England was what England seems
An' not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass an' paint,
’Ow quick we'd drop 'er! But she ain't!

Michael Wood is the author of "The Story of England" (Viking, £20)

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.