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Thursday, June 30, 2016

“A History of Britain, Volume III: The Fate of the Empire 1776 - 2000”, by Simon Schama



576 pages, Hyperion, ISBN-13: 978-0786868995

This is the third of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain trilogy. The subject of this volume may be British imperial history (especially in Ireland and India) but the particulars of that history remind one of all the great debates the world has been having since the Enlightenment – or, to be more precise, all the competing philosophies that people have killed, rioted and rebelled for throughout most of the world in the last, oh, three centuries, or so: equality vs freedom; economic security vs dynamism; rule by oligarch or by democracy; universal vs limited franchise; imperialism vs national self-determination; etc., etc., etc. The debate over the aesthetics of the environment are even represented as Schama shows throughout the book, from beginning to end, how political the act of perceiving and traveling through the English countryside has been over the years since writing this series began. But this book, even though it touches on all those issues, isn’t detailed enough to provide any conclusive answers to any side of those arguments, a point that Schama acknowledges up front. Rather, this volume reads more like a collection of personal essays on Britain than a detailed history. To be sure, you do get an overview of British history up through WWII, and to an American like me, it was nice to see some details about the actual philosophies of Disraeli and Gladstone, the complexities of Winston Churchill’s thought and shifting loyalties, Prince Albert’s contribution to Victoria’s reign, the controversies of rule in Ireland and India, and on and on. Still, I got the sense I was exposed to some elliptical references that only an educated Brit would know. Like many general histories, though, it left an appetite for learning more details.

All is not well with this penultimate work, however, as when Schama repeats that hoary feminist myth about a legal “rule of thumb” sanction for husbands to beat their wives. A running theme throughout Volume III is the use of British history, from Macaulay to Churchill and George Orwell, and how their perceptions of what the British past was guided their visions for the future, their notions of what war must preserve. Schama, though a modern-day Labourite, describes himself a “born-again Whig”; he didn’t just mean subscribing, in part, to a great man of history (although you can find that in his portrayal of the great, contradictory Churchill and his defense of the man, warts and all); he makes clear he mostly means Macaulay’s notion of an empire bringing democratic liberalism to the world, teaching its subjects, and then releasing them to become brothers in a common culture. Schama well-nigh rhapsodizes about this gift of empire at the end. In some ways, this book reminded me of Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power: both attempt to rehabilitate the British Empire while acknowledging its often emphasized downsides. Unlike the preceding volume, Schama lists many crimes of the British Empire; if he doesn’t genuflect at the altar of Imperial Guilt, he pauses for several moments of silence. Unlike Ferguson, he doesn’t quite come out and say it was, as a whole, all worth it. Still, Schama approvingly notes we get lovely Indian novels in English, West Indians in London, and Pakistanis breathing liberty in the Sceptered Isle.

Schama explicitly rejects the notion that what it means to be British is racially based; rather, it is what, in American terms, is called a proposition nation. While I appreciated the details of British history Schama gave me, I don’t buy this notion of nationhood, a notion that Schama is so passionate about that he lapses, at book’s end, into a brief, uncharacteristic bit of incoherence. Empires less liberal than Britain seem to have had trouble with diverse populations. Mass immigration, democracy, and multiculturalism are as unsustainable a combination in Britain as anywhere else. And Enoch Powell, deliverer of the infamous 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech against mass immigration, now seems less the paranoid ranter of Schama’s description and more of a Cassandra.

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