Andrew Roberts: The Historian as Racist
What is it with reactionary British historians and the twentieth century at the moment? This year, we have already had Niall Ferguson's The War of the World; History's Age of Hatred and now we have Andrew Roberts's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900 thrust upon us. This is Roberts promoting his book in The Telegraph:
'In 1956 – half a century ago this year – Sir Winston Churchill published the first volume of his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples . He had won the Nobel Prize for Literature three years earlier, and this new four-volume work rightly won massive critical acclaim. AJP Taylor considered that "it is one of the wisest, most exciting works of history ever written". It was during his Wilderness Years of the 1930s that Churchill had conceived the idea of a book that would, in his words, "lay stress upon the common heritage of the peoples of Great Britain and the United States of America as a means of enhancing their friendship". Publication was delayed, first by the Second World War, then by his war memoirs and later by his peacetime premiership.
Regardless on the thoughts of AJP Taylor on the subject, the fact remains that today no-one reads Churchill's 'History of the English-Speaking Peoples' as it told us only about the rulers rather than 'the people' themselves. Indeed, most of the time it didn't even bother to do that properly. Clem Attlee noted Churchill's History would be more properly titled 'Things in History that interested me'. Roberts - though he did study History at Cambridge - is fundamentally of the same school here - it is interesting to note that after finishing his degree he worked between 1985-87 as a corporate broker at Robert Fleming Securities Limited, before then returning to writing History - and then only to write about the lives of the rich and powerful. For this he gets rewarded by, er, the rich and powerful.
Yet Roberts's work shares with Ferguson's history of the twentieth century one defining thing in common - they have been written to directly tap into the new racism in the US and UK ('the West') against Muslims ('the Other') since the start of Bush and Blair's 'war on terror', and to give some sort of historical justification to the neo-conservative Samuel Huntingdon's 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis. Both historians are vociferous champions of the current imperialist 'civilising mission', regardless of the human cost. Back to Roberts:
Superb though Churchill's volumes are, they stop with the dawn of the 20th century, just as by far the most interesting part of the English-speaking peoples' story was about to begin. Churchill's tale ended with the British Empire and American Republic enjoying peaceful world-primacy, yet they were just about to be subjected to four great assaults: from Prussian militarism, fascist aggression, Soviet Communism and presently from totalitarian Islamic terrorism. In the fourth and latest of these assaults, victory is clearly nowhere yet in sight.
We are back to Ferguson's thesis again - 'good' 'democratic' 'English-speaking' 'people' vs 'bad' 'aggressive' 'militarist' 'totalitarian' 'terrorist' foreign powers. Will the goodies triumph?
In the course of researching my coda to the Churchillian epic, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, I visited the papers of 200 individuals in 30 archives across three continents. While there, I was repeatedly struck by how often common themes from the four great struggles emerged, almost unbidden. We have been here before.
Sorry Andrew, you have looked through the papers of 200 rich and powerful people who lived in Australia, Britain and America and you are able to find 'common themes' and some sort of pattern? Wow - what a fucking genius historian you must be. Lets listen to him telling us what he has gleaned from the archives, what has emerged 'almost unbidden'...
Just as on 9/11, the English-speaking peoples have regularly been worsted in the opening stages of a conflict, often through surprise attack. As Paul Wolfowitz put it at a commencement ceremony in June 2001: "Surprise happens so often that it's surprising that we're surprised by it." The sinking of the USS Maine; the Boer invasion of Cape Colony; the Kaiser's swing through neutral Belgium; the Nazi-Soviet Pact; North Korea's invasion of its southern neighbour; Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal; the attack on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, which triggered the Vietnam War; the attack on the Falklands; Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Almost all were sudden, unexpected, not predicted by the intelligence services, and left the English-speaking peoples at a disadvantage in the first moment of the struggle.
Of course, in war it is always useful to make out that British and Americans are the 'helpless victims' and our enemies are always 'the aggressors', but how historically accurate is it? I just raise a question mark here - clearly though the decision of say, the Egyptian leader Colonel Nasser to nationalise the Suez Canal (built by, er, Egyptians in er, Egypt) shouldn't have come as such a massive surprise given the British had historically caught the people of Egypt 'by surprise' by deciding to conquer and establish colonial rule in Egypt in the first place? The bombardment of Alexandria by British 'gunboat diplomacy' certainly saw the Egyptians 'worsted in the opening stages of a conflict'. [Also it is interesting how 9/11 is now portrayed neither as 'an attack on America' nor 'an attack on civilisation' as a whole but an attack on 'the English-Speaking Peoples'. I can't remember Al Qaida describing it as such, but anyway.] Back to Roberts:
The next common factor was how badly the English-speaking peoples were faring even up to three or four years into the first three great assaults on their primacy. The most dangerous moment of the First World War – at least after Paris had been saved by the battle of the Marne in 1914 – came as late as March 1918, when Hindenburg and Ludendorff flung everything into their massive Spring Offensive. By early September 1942 – only weeks before Stalingrad and El Alamein – Hitler seemed to be winning the war both in Russia and the Middle East, while, had it not been for the battle of Midway, the Japanese might well have rolled up the entire Pacific theatre. Three years into the Cold War, 1948 saw Jan Masaryk's suicide during a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, Mao's victory in China, and the Berlin Blockade.
Right - I think I get some idea of where this is going...ah yes...
Simply because a victorious exit strategy is not immediately evident in Iraq or Afghanistan today does not invalidate either conflict, as so many defeatists and Left-liberal political commentators argue so vociferously. Tony Blair's leadership in the war against al-Qa'eda, the Ba'athists and the Taliban has been nothing short of Churchillian. Far from being George W. Bush's poodle, Blair was advocating the overthrow of Saddam in his Chicago speech of April 1999, 21 months before Bush came to power.
Hmm, but wasn't Blair also telling us just before the war that if it could be proved that Saddam didn't have the dangerous WMD then he could stay in power? And while both Churchill and Blair were warmongers - so Blair is 'Churchillian' in that sense - it always strikes me as insulting to try and compare the threat of al-Qa-eda (before the Iraq War a tiny group of sectarians), Baathist Iraq (a broken weakened third world country) and the Taliban to the threat posed by the industrialised Axis Powers during the Second World War. Back to Roberts:
Bush's foreign policy is denounced as neo-conservatism because of its reliance on pre-emption. Yet was George Canning a neo-con when he destroyed the Danish fleet to prevent it falling into Napoleon's hands in 1807? Was Churchill a neo-con for having bombarded the Dardanelles outer forts in November 1914, before Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire? Or in June 1940, when he ordered the sinking of the French fleet at Oran?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Churchill was a neo-conservative warmonger - the only difference between him and Bush and Blair is that he didn't spend all of his time in power fighting colonial wars against weaker powers but once he led the fight against powers like Nazi Germany which were British Imperialism's own size. Next?
The right of self-protection from Napoleon, Hitler and movements such as al-Qa'eda and its Taliban protectors is, as Enoch Powell pointed out during the Falklands crisis, "inherent in us", since it existed "long before the United Nations was ever thought of".
Ah yes, of course a quote from Enoch Powell (of all people) means that the UN and international law can be ignored if America and Britain want to wage war today against who the hell we like. Quite right, Andrew. And a reference to the English fighting for liberty against Napoleon too? Marvellous stuff.
By far the most justifiable war in recent history is the one we are presently fighting in Afghanistan against the Taliban, the government that hosted and protected al-Qa'eda when it killed nearly 3,000 innocent people – including 67 Britons – on 9/11. Today, that war is principally being fought by 15,000 Americans, 4,500 Britons, 2,200 Canadians, 550 Australians and special forces contingents from New Zealand. Germany has confined its troops to the quiet north, France to guard duty on the Khyber Pass. Once again, therefore, the English-speaking peoples find themselves in the forefront of protecting civilisation.
'Protecting civilisation'? Is that what 'English-speaking' troops are currently doing in Afghanistan? Because it looked rather like, well, the last few times British troops were fighting Afghan rebels to try and conquer Afghanistan to me...
However, the biggest problem with Roberts book is his defence of Churchill's notion that there is a 'racial unity' underpinning 'the English-Speaking Peoples'. As the West Indian historian CLR James - who I suspect will not feature in Robert's History of the English Speaking-Peoples, once noted, 'the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous...' But who or what are are the 'English Speaking Peoples', particularly in an age when the international language of business and commerce is English? Roberts argues that 'it will be recognised that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common - and enough that separated them from everyone else – that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately. A Martian landing on our planet might find linguistic or geographical factors more useful than ethnic factors when it came to analyzing the differences between different groups of earthlings; the countries whose history this book covers are those where the majority of people speak English as their first language.'
Well, while this may well be 'scholarly' or 'pedantic' of me, it seems that if we are going to divide up the world along the lines of nations in order to study History, the idea that British History has so much in common with American History and very little in common with European History seems to me fundamentally flawed. America began as a colony of the British Empire - at a time when the British Empire was competing with other European Empires for global supremacy. Now the American Empire rules - and British Imperialism finds itself again roughly in a comparable position to say French Imperialism.
Moreover, if a Martian landed they may well find linguistic or geographical factors more useful than 'ethnic factors' - but they might also find 'class' or material factors to be even more useful when it comes to 'analysing the differences between different groups of earthlings'. The Martian might even see a tiny elite of rich people ruling globally while the vast majority of humanity pines in pain. That toiling majority deserve 'people's historians', yes - but who, unlike Roberts, do not glorify the ruling class and their prejudices.
At one point in this book, Roberts declares that 'Superb, inspired amateurism [is] in the finest traditions of the English-speaking peoples.' If so, then they in particular deserve far better than Roberts, whose historical writings, far from being superb or inspired are infact deeply racist and stem from the most well established traditional school of history. That Roberts, unlike his hero Churchill, is a professional historian - indeed chair of the Conservative Party's Advisory Panel on the Teaching of History in Schools - only damns this work further. However, that such a reactionary warmongering elitist like Roberts should be so feted of course speaks volumes in itself.
Edited to add: A review of the book in the Liberal Observer, which notes that 'this is the sort of history that makes Arthur Bryant read like an academic monograph...in many ways, Roberts has written a most unEnglish book. Its rhetorical insistence - "In the last century, the Union Jack has flown on Everest and the Stars and Stripes on the Moon" - drowns out the reasoned and discriminating judgments, the measured understanding of the other sides' perspective, that are the best of English virtues'.