Finally the sun came out for the longest day of the year, and I met up with a long-lost childhood friend, and discovered the concept of the vegetarian scotch egg, and I feel grateful for what I have (though mostly for blue sky and green fields), and I wonder what I will read tomorrow. Yesterday I tramped eighteen miles up and down South Oxfordshire, getting wet and walking on too many busy roads, and felt a painful affectionate sadness for this country that has had so many ups and downs over so many centuries, some of which you can see simply in the lay of the land and the architecture as you walk through its fields and towns.
Over the course of the last week, I read five books about the nature of the nature of the British state in the eighteenth century, as well as part of a textbook/general history of eighteenth-century Britain. I am trying to force some facts into my dullard’s brain, some prime ministers and some wars and political crises that fifty or sixty years ago surely any schoolchild would have known. Of course, it isn’t fifty or sixty years ago, and that’s the thing about Britain, today, and the reason I haven’t read more than five books this week. From grieving the victims of Orlando to grieving Jo Cox MP and the vacuity of public debate in this country in the run-up to Thursday’s referendum. Of course Cox’s murder hasn’t changed the idiocy with which both sides are talking past each other. This referendum isn’t about Britain’s membership of the EU, and in pretending it is the politicians are either: a) tone-deaf to what is going on in their electorate (or perhaps they have the same wish to return to a golden age of monoethnic welfare-state class-structured Britain as said electorate); b) deliberately trying to mislead said electorate in order to work out a power game of their own devising. No, it’s about that golden age, and I would well believe the politicians are prey to that fantasy because I know that so many modern British historians are too. It’s sure tempting—I can catch a glimpse of it when I look out the window of my current lodgings to the neat rows of brick terraced houses in what was once a mostly-white working-class neighborhood and now is a mostly-white bourgeois neighborhood. The Guardian columnists know that gentrification is part of the problem, but they miss much else: the long story that Ross McKibbin and others have told about why working-class people don’t vote against the bourgeoisie, and also the story you can see when you go into any terraced house in England whose bathroom is in the rear ground floor of the house: a recent addition built into the garden, a sign of what it meant to live in houses like this one before the welfare state, giving lie to that golden age.
That was a confused paragraph. But perhaps that’s appropriate for how confused I feel right now, at a stage in my acquaintance with the modern British past where I know enough to doubt the easy answers of Guardian columnists who preach a very specific kind of comforting class warfare that their readers want, but not enough to offer op-ed-sized pronouncements of my own. I was thinking, though, about the debated and uncertain picture historians over the last fifty or so years have offered of the eighteenth-century British state. That history was first written in the nineteenth century, by the governments’ political opponents, as one of “Old Corruption,” the political and church establishment everywhere mired in the selling of offices, rotten boroughs, taxes that punished the poorest, and otherwise not doing very much. Later in the early twentieth century, the eighteenth was seen as the century of politeness, monarchy and aristocracy. More recently, other pictures have emerged: a messy and violent early form of class conflict; a far-reaching and powerful “fiscal-military state” that occupied a powerful position with respect to the Continent; a thriving proto-capitalist economy on which an empire of trade was founded. Throughout all these histories, it seems to me, there is a pervasive atmosphere of British, or even English, exceptionalism: the first to industrialize, its democracy nascent if imperfect, always favorably compared with autocratic France and Prussia. I don’t know enough yet to challenge this view, but it doesn’t make things look great for this “historian for Europe.”
Actually, though, this impasse tells us something about the uses of history. It’s foolish and misleading to draw direct parallels between past and present, as many historians who have written in the press to criticize the never-ending parallels between Trump and Hitler or Mussolini have argued. But we can use history to learn other things about how people are, how politics works, how we can understand the confusing and contradictory business of human relations, whether people mean what they say and how they behave when they interact with others who are unlike them. In his 1996 The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’, Philip Harling told an intricate high-political story of how Conservative governments marketed themselves as the guardians of sound, efficient, cost-saving government and thus stemmed radical calls for large-scale political reform. I don’t always find political history engaging, particularly in the dry, “establishment” style with which Harling relates it. But one anecdote about how government and radical extra-parliamentary critics in the years after Pitt’s death in 1806 caught my attention. In Harling’s telling, Tory ministers interpreted radicals’ calls for parliamentary reform as calls for greater fiscal accountability. They took great pains to show that they were balancing budgets, cutting taxes, and cutting out dead wood in the form of sinecures and preferments. Most opposition Whig politicians saw the government to be acting in good faith, and disappointed radicals by not taking on their cause. But the radicals didn’t really care whether the government cut the budget in this area or that one, whether they prosecuted war on the continent in this way or that way: they wanted a thorough-going commitment to complete reform, including greater democratization, a revival of the commitment to ancient liberties to which they believed ordinary men’s English heritage entitled them, and a recognition of the social consequences that continental wars had visited on people at home. So the radicals didn’t let up in their critique, but at this point in Harling’s story it wasn’t that the politicians willfully misinterpreted them for instrumental reasons. It was simply that they were speaking different languages, and something very important was lost in translation.
Some of the radicals making the reform case were autodidacts, farmers and working men; but others were middle-class, highly educated. This wasn’t really a class war, not in the way that in the tradition of some social historians it has come to appear. But it was, maybe, about differing visions of nationalism, about operating on different scales in the way that happens when some people are thinking about foreign policy and some people are prioritizing the lives of their families and neighbors in their own communities. I don’t take any direct guidance from this about what we should do about Europe today—as I said, that’s silly—but I do take some other lessons. One is that tensions about what England and Britain are, and how those tensions manifest differently across class, regional, and party-political lines, aren’t going away anytime soon. Another is that, despite how things might have looked in 1806, over the course of the next hundred and fifty years an extraordinary battery of incremental legislation turned Britain into a pretty good approximation of a democracy, and one that has—whether it admits it or no—in some respects (though of course not all) moved on from the more shameful episodes in its history, whether on these islands or in the empire. This is not a linear history of progress, of course, but one of countless messes (some it might have seen coming as the consequences of its own follies, some rather less so), all of which have demanded different responses. I’m not saying “Everything’s going to be fine,” because it might well not be; and even if everything is ultimately fine, it might take many years before that’s the case; and it might never be fine for the worst off among us, as it never has been. But I am trying to put things in 300-year perspective, just a bit, because that’s my job. It’s not a glamorous job, or a morally blameless job or even, sometimes, a terribly interesting job. But it’s the job I was called to do, and I couldn’t change that if I wanted to.
If you’re reading this and you have the UK franchise, I hope you will vote on Thursday, because there is a history stretching over centuries of women and men who gave their lives to the fight for the franchise, and however stupid it was to throw open this particular decision to the people, those people now have a sacred duty to discharge. For my own account, I hope you will vote Remain, because my considered view is that that’s what would be best for Britain today and in the immediate future, regardless of what might have been best for Britain in 1950 or in 1850 or in 1750. You know, no matter how earnestly those on the right or the left sing the praises of the welfare state or the empire, it’s never going to be 1950 again. But we can think seriously about what kind of contribution Britain, in cooperation with other countries of similar size and power and working within the constraints of new political models, can make to the world today. But if you disagree, I hope you’ll get in touch and we can have a conversation about it. There are still three days to go, so lots of time to talk.
My life has been enriched immeasurably by the last five or six years of close study of this country. I hope that I, and it, have many more years to spend together; and I hope that as I continue to read for orals I will be able to offer more cogent accounts of these messiest of political circumstances.