Lord Bragg and the Whig School of History
Lord Melvyn Bragg has come up with a list of 'The Twelve Books Which Changed the World' for a new TV series. Here they are:
Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton (1687)
Married Love by Marie Stopes (1918)
Magna Carta by Members of the English Ruling Classes (1215)
The Rule Book of Association Football by a Group of Former English Public School Men (1863)
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
On the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William Wilberforce in Parliament, immediately printed in several versions (1789)
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
Experimental Researches in Electricity by Michael Faraday (3 volumes, 1839, 1844, 1855)
Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine by Richard Arkwright (1769)
The King James Bible by William Tyndale and 54 Scholars Appointed by the King (1611)
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1776)
The First Folio by William Shakespeare (1623)
An eclectic list of world changing books at first sight - but there is a catch. Lord Bragg's 'Twelve Books which Changed the World' is actually only his top twelve British books. Initially the Honourable Lord had thought about looking beyond the English Channel for inspiration with respect to world-changing books:
'I thought, well, obviously the Koran, obviously Confucius, and I looked all over the world, and I thought it's going to end up with religious books and the Greeks; you'd perhaps throw in a Darwin, and that would be it, and I don't really want to do that.'
Indeed not. Lord Bragg is a member of New Labour and their objective is creating a new pride in 'Britishness' after all - not some sort of new internationalism. And in any case, we couldn't possibly have some Muslim, Greek or Chinese writers on the list could we? What on earth would say they know about Western Civilisation? Yet Lord Bragg is an intellectual, and tries to rationalise his patriotism intellectually:
'The great thing about narrowing it down to the British Isles was that I could then broaden it out. I thought I could introduce things like the women's movement, like leisure, which is why I brought football in, what happened in industry and manufacturing - the industrial revolution was arguably more important than the French revolution, and it started here, so what documents are there? Is there a book?'
The Honourable Lord of course was quite right in playing down the importance of the French Revolution, which merely did more than anything else to inspire the overthrow of the 'ancien regime' across feudal Europe. How could anything associated with that possibly compare with the publication of the 'Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine' (1769), which is still widely commemorated today across the world as being a truly historic event. By 'narrowing things down to Britain' and then 'broadening it out', Lord Bragg was able to include often overlooked minority groups of British society. These included the 'Members of the English Ruling Classes' and 'a Group of Former English Public School Men'. Writers representing 'narrow' groups in Britain, that always traditionally dominate these sort of lists, like say the working class movement, on the other hand were rightly omitted. Who needs the likes of radical Levellers pamphleteers, Tom Paine, William Godwin, William Morris or James Connolly when they are household names already?
Lord Bragg of course does not omit 'the industrial revolution' - and which British writer wrote better about that event than Adam Smith, Gordon Brown's favourite thinker, writing before it even really got going ? Victorians who pointed out the negative consequences of industrialisation after the event, such as say, Charles Dickens, hardly resonate in modern British society. Victorian Britain was characterised by deep wells of poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, and Governments which moralised and divided the working class between those who were deemed 'deserving', 'respectable' and hard working and an 'anti-social' underclass who were fit only for exploitation or prison. The 'new Britain' of New Labour is truly a world away from that.
Certainly it is a relief that Bragg in compiling his list of books which changed the world made sure that did not 'end up with religious books' like the Koran, isn't it? Instead, the list is full of rigourously scientific and rationalist works like, er, the King James Bible (1611).
In keeping with this spirit of science, and as a keen supporter of New Labour, it is no surprise to read that Lord Bragg 'relied on the opinions and experiences of an invented focus group' to devise his top twelve. Quite how one organises 'an invented focus group' is a bit of a mystery, but Bragg fortunately explains how they work:
'I thought of a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday. They would all have to travel by jet - Newton; electricity - Faraday. There would be women there as well as men - Mary Wollstonecraft and Marie Stopes. Their ideas about where life came from would be coloured by Darwin. They would not, on the whole, be able to tolerate black people being slaves - Wilberforce. I thought well, it might not go down very well in the literary world, but it's a hard test.'
What a relief that 'a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday' in the 21st century would 'not, on the whole, be able to tolerate black people being slaves'. What an enlightened lot we are today! Perhaps even we might one day be able to imagine black people being part of the 'bunch of people at an airport going on holiday' as well - but then again, for the likes of Melvin Bragg, perhaps that is a step too far. They should be thankful they are not still slaves, and are able to get jobs as baggage handlers at international airports.
However the phenomenon of 'invented focus groups' does cast some light on how New Labour makes its policy. 'Listening' to the British public is always easier when the public in question exist only in the imagination of the Blair regime. Perhaps this is how the decision to go to war came about, with Tony Blair going:
'I thought of a bunch of people at an airport going on holiday. They would all have to travel by jet - I thought of the Terrorist threat and the need to get cheap oil. There would be women there as well as men - I thought of how useful someone like Claire Short might be to try and sell the war for me. Their ideas about war would be coloured by the mass media - I thought of Rupert Murdoch. They would not, on the whole, be able to tolerate a war for oil - I thought of the idea of lying about Weapons of Mass Destruction. I thought well, it might not go down with the mothers of the soldiers who got killed fighting, but well, there is always a blood price to be paid for being best friends with George Bush.'
Ultimately, I suppose as a Marxist I should not be that surprised by an English Lord like Bragg thinking of Magna Carta, Wilberforce, and the King James Bible when picking the top twelve works which changed the world. After all, it fits into the world view of English Lords from Magna Carta onwards - the 'Whig School of History' - where progress always comes handed down from above by enlightened British Lords, like er, Lord Bragg himself. It would be more surprising if Lord Bragg saluted the real heroes of democracy in Britain, such as the radical preacher John Ball (leader of the English Peasants Revolt), or the real heroes of the anti-slavery campaign like Olaudah Equiano, or the real heroic writers of the English Revolution like John Milton or John Lilburne.
If we have to limit ourselves to twelve British books which changed the world, and it is a big if in any case, couldn't we do a lot better than some of those in Bragg's selection? Feel free to leave possible alternative suggestions below, but personally, I find George Orwell's novel 1984 tells us more about today's world than pretty much anything in Bragg's list. In selecting the Magna Carta writers, King James, Adam Smith and Tory MP William Wilberforce as 'world changing' authors, Lord Bragg reveals only the bankrupt historical philosophy of New Labour. Orwell's work, for all its pessimism, still gave us some sort of solution as well, when he noted that 'if there was hope, it lies in the proles'. For New Labour, hope no longer lies in the proles, if for them it ever did. Hope for them now lies only with Warlords, the oligarchs, the new rulers of the world.