A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.
Weidenfeld and Nicolson 736pp 25 [pounds sterling] ISBN 0297850768
WINSTON CHURCHILL'S multi-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples ended at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was not Churchill's most distinguished work of history, and it clearly and necessarily left a good deal of chronology that needed addressing. Who better, then, to write the missing volume than Andrew Roberts?
Those who narrowly see Roberts as a polemicist of the political right will understandably approach this book with trepidation. Predictably there are some claims that will make their flesh creep--among them the insistence that Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush rank among America's greatest twentieth-century presidents, or the assertion that Britain fought the Boer War in part to protect the rights of non-whites in the two Afrikaner-dominated republics. Nor do Irish Nationalists and the Republic of Ireland emerge from Roberts' scrutiny with much credit. But then neither does Gandhi, Lloyd George, the European Union, Bill Clinton, the French, Germaine Greer, and many more.
There is no dodging the fact that Roberts is partial in his perceptions of the overall record of the English-speaking nations during the last century. On the other hand, and objectively, there is a lot to be partial about. On one score alone his attitude might seem completely justifiable--that of the undeniably crucial part played by the Anglo-sphere in the defeat of German militarism, wartime fascism, and the Soviet challenge, as well as the firm, if sometimes ill-considered, line recently taken in the face of Islamic extremism and aggression. It is also worth remembering that Britain is the only country to have fought through both World Wars from start to finish--though whether this indicates high-minded heroism or mulish obstinacy might be debated.
In any event, Andrew Roberts is far too accomplished a historian to have produced some crude piece of propaganda. This book is deeply researched, very well written and full of fresh thinking. Among Roberts' 'what-ifs' and 'never-oughts' are speculations about what the dismemberment of Germany into its constituent states in 1918-19 might have achieved in preventing the rise of Nazism, the assertion that the 1929 Wall Street Crash and its aftermath were due to institutional fiscal incompetence rather than to any inherent failings in the capitalist system, and the perhaps more familiar view that the creation of the Welfare State after 1945 effectively prevented Britain's full post-war economic recovery.
On receiving this hefty and attractively produced book, my first reaction (like many reviewers, I imagine) was to check whether the author had addressed issues that had been central to my own work on the subject of Anglo-American relations and Empire, for example the inputs of Joseph Chamberlain and Rudyard Kipling, the tensions between Canada and the United States in the early 1900s, and the role played by the empire in both World Wars. I need not have worried: Roberts had spread his scholarly net far and wide, catching minnows and leviathans in the process.
Of course there are some quibbles: why, for instance, does South Africa not join the configuration of Anglo-phone nations at the core of Roberts' study? After all, in practice the official language of the new South Africa is English, and even if the Afrikaner majority among the whites contained many anti-British elements, a significant number (including Botha and Smuts) became committed to the Imperial cause after 1902.
A more serious failing of the book is the tendency to write off the awkward squad of English-speaking dissenters, liberals and dogooders as if they were some sort of aberration, or at best tiresome obstacles. Surely one of the glories of the Anglo-sphere is its apparently limitless capacity to produce the alternative viewpoint, the legal challenge, the seditious pamphlet, and the deadly parliamentary question?
In the end, though, Andrew Roberts has written an extraordinarily wide-ranging, stimulating and necessary book. We should be grateful for that.
Denis Judd is a Professor of British Imperial and Commonwealth History at London Metropolitan University, and the author of The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of The British Raj (OUP, 2004).
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
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