Peoples Since 1900
HarperCollins, 2007, 752 pp., $35
“It’s a great book”, said President George W. Bush of Andrew Roberts’ new tome, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. This is not particularly surprising since Roberts thinks that Bush is a pretty good president, leading the fight against the “fourth great assault” on the English-speaking peoples since Kaiser Wilhelm II launched the Great War. Less surprising still, the book has been hailed in such outlets as the Weekly Standard (“superb”), National Review (“clear and gripping”) and the New Criterion (“exhilarating”).
But “fame is a shuttlecock”, said Samuel Johnson, consoling an author friend over some bad reviews. “If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground.” Roberts need not worry; the other end of the court has been whacking away, too. “Sloppy and snobbish”, says the Financial Times. “Almost valueless”, said the Independent. “Exasperating”, said the Guardian. The New Republic accused Roberts of that dread crime, middle-class origins and, worse, “class toadying.”
If an American reader can’t quite endorse Roberts’ imperial nostalgia or share his excitement at settling old scores against the phalanx of eminent Marxist historians (such as Christopher Hill, Isaac Deutscher and Eric Hobsbawm) who exerted tremendous influence in 20th-century Britain, he will nevertheless find that this engagingly written and widely researched book does have its moments. Roberts is right to weigh in against what he calls the Respectable Tendency, the cross-party elite of “sound” statesmen and thinkers who led Britain into disaster between the two world wars. His unconventional views sometimes allow him to offer a fresh angle on old stories such as Britain’s policy of interwar appeasement. Roberts is right to point out that Churchill’s career would probably have come to an inglorious and premature end had the press disclosed the story of his tangled personal finances and sometimes shady relationships with large donors and backers. Will today’s press scrutiny simply weed out exceptional and larger-than-life figures in our politics, leaving only the unobjectionable representatives of the Respectable Tendency to guide our affairs? If so, our situation is dire indeed.
Roberts’ prose is always a pleasure to read, no small virtue in a book of more than 750 pages. Deeply and widely read, he has a flair for the apt quotation and the telling fact. His portrait of Churchill is refreshingly free of cant. And an historical profession constantly tending toward a dull, genteel and politically correct reading of the past will benefit from reacting to and coping with Roberts’ arguments and evidence, however controversial some of them are. If the unspeakable isn’t uttered once in a while, and uttered sharply and well, we all become lazy and smug.
One must also admire Roberts’ ambition. He has set out to write a polemical book that reinterprets a century of world history and that challenges some of the dominant shibboleths of the age. This is the kind of grand project that historians should take on, and Roberts clearly has the learning, the courage and the passion that such a task demands.
Yet as someone sympathetic to many of Roberts’ ideas, and also as a grateful reader who thoroughly enjoyed the book—even its less inspired passages—I find myself somewhat regretfully conducting an inquest. Why does something so well written, so properly ambitious, so thoroughly researched and so right on so many major historical and political issues still fall so flat?
There are, I think, three core problems with the book. Two have to do with the structure of Roberts’ project; the third, more interesting, is political.
The first problem is complexity. There are no less than six major elements in the Anglophone world story of the last hundred years: the passing of global leadership from the United Kingdom to the United States as the British Empire fell; the transformation of the world system under American leadership; the failure of the “white Commonwealth” (the United Kingdom plus the dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa while still under white rule) to build any meaningful political association among themselves; the different and disparate processes of internal development and growth in each country; the extraordinary economic and technological progress of the English-speaking world; and the assaults against the Anglophone-dominated world order waged at various times by the Germans, Soviets and Japanese.
It would be very hard to get all this into one book under the best of circumstances. Roberts is so focused on the political polemics he wants to hurl against various left-wing or defeatist critics of present and past leaders of the English-speaking world that he makes a serious run at covering only a couple of these stories, and is unable to do a really successful job with any of them. He skips and skimps and points and suggests. It is a technique that relies on the reader’s willingness to fill in the many blanks in the story. Those who already share Roberts’ basic worldview will do so quite happily; those who differ with his political orientation will not be convinced. Those not able to fill in, whether from truncated education or tender youth, will be confused. More matter with less art would have served Roberts well. A less polemical and more coherent narrative might have won him some converts, too. Instead, he is preaching to the choir.
There is another, graver structural problem with the project. Roberts is an Englishman, and the history of the English-speaking peoples in the 20th century cannot be told from an Anglocentric perspective. This doesn’t mean an English writer can’t produce a good history of the English-speaking world, but he or she must learn to think from a global rather than a British point of view. There is much too much inside baseball—or should I say cricket—about Britain in Roberts’ book, and not nearly enough about the other English-speaking countries.
A great deal, for example, is presented about the character defects of Harold Wilson (for the benefit of American readers, Wilson was an obscure British politician who held office in the 1960s) and the poor judgment of Edward Heath (an even more obscure British politician in office after Wilson). Neither of these gentlemen had much impact on the history of the English-speaking world, and both should have been omitted save for passing reference from a general history like this one, as are many similarly obscure premiers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Even among British prime ministers, Roberts’ sense of priorities sometimes deserts him. The skimpy portrayal of David Lloyd George is one of the book’s great disappointments, as he remains, after Churchill, the most important British politician since 1900. Telling more about Lloyd George and the consequences of his policy and personality would have made Roberts’ History significantly more useful in those English-speaking countries where the Union Jack does not fly, and where Lloyd George is too little known.
Obsessed by the minutiae of latter-day British politics, Roberts never gives a serious explanation for why the “white Commonwealth” failed to cohere. He lambastes various British prime ministers for their betrayal of Commonwealth economic interests in the rush to join the European Community (now the European Union), but he does not thoroughly examine the political debates through which all the English-speaking countries declined to endorse the vision of a united imperial Commonwealth that so exercised the imaginations of British (and some Dominion) politicians in the early years of the 20th century. His account of the debates, decisions and changes that led the Americans to pick up the burden that a staggering Britain laid down after World War II is also cursory at best. Roberts’ vast and detailed knowledge of British political history is not, unfortunately, matched by his understanding of American history and politics. Much too much of the book is devoted to defending the substantial benefits to Britain of its “special relationship” with the United States. (Tellingly, Roberts always uses capital letters when he refers to the “Special Relationship.” I doubt any American, Canadian or Australian would even think of doing so.) He also spends an extraordinary amount of space and energy to make what is obviously a deeply felt case: that Hollywood’s portrayals of British citizens are unfair and wounding.
I cannot let this subject pass, either, without referring to the unfortunate way that Roberts’ approach to Ireland undermines the effectiveness of his book in the United States. The Americans and the British (at least some of the British) simply disagree about Ireland. Virtually all Americans believe that, whatever the rights and wrongs of particular issues, the root cause of Ireland’s troubles was always the doomed British effort to rule a country where they were not wanted. Americans will never be convinced that British rule was good for the island, any more than we will ever believe that our ancestors should have submitted patiently to the sensible and wise tax measures of Lord North.
Perhaps the nadir of this approach comes when, pointing to what is undoubtedly true, Roberts claims that the newly independent Irish Free State treated its Protestant minority very poorly. Roberts uses demographic statistics to show how the Protestants in southern Ireland have declined since 1920. Very true, but as any Irish nationalist would quickly riposte, there is no comparison to the catastrophic decline in Irish Catholic population in the last century of British rule, as famine and emigration reduced the island’s population by half—a decline not matched anywhere in Europe. After eighty years of independence, the country is today as prosperous as the United Kingdom, it is attracting young and talented immigrants rather than exporting its young people, and its population has finally matched the level last reached before the famines of the 1840s. More than that, in its devotion to liberal policies and liberal economics, Ireland shows that, freed of the incubus of foreign rule, it is a healthy and contributing member of the English-speaking world.
Irish ingratitude agitates Roberts the most, but the Indians’ runs a close second. For Roberts, the ungracious activism of Gandhi was unnecessary, for the British “plan” to liberate India when the Indians were ready for self-government was laid down in the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1835 Note on Indian Education. There was thus no need for the Indians to agitate for independence; the British would have given it to them on the appropriate schedule. And in any case, the British treated their Indians much more nicely than we Americans treated ours. That last is certainly true, but no serious discussion of the British retreat in India can ignore the ways in which men like Nehru and Gandhi, educated and trained precisely as Macaulay wanted them to be, were rebuffed by British arrogance and racism rather than, as Macaulay vaguely hoped, welcomed into a partnership of equals.
Finally, one comes to the political error. Roberts is broadly sympathetic to the neoconservative project and, like many neoconservatives, is struggling to come to grips with neoconservatism’s comprehensive political failure. His approach roughly parallels that of Robert Kagan, whose Dangerous Nation (2006) is in some ways a very similar work to Roberts’ History. In both cases, the authors argue that neoconservatism was not a new movement, but rather a restatement of the classic themes of, in Kagan’s case, American foreign policy and, in Roberts’, of Anglo-American ideals.
There is some significant truth in these contentions, though neither American nor British foreign policy history can easily be reduced to a Manichean struggle between a “good” tradition of liberal expansionism and a “bad” tradition of selfish or cowardly illiberalism. This approach may provide the tattered neoconservative battalions an avenue of retreat from policymaking posts into a long guerrilla war in the redoubts of certain think tanks, but the price will be high. After all, one of the characteristic hallmarks of the foreign policy of the English-speaking world over the past 300 years has been success. That is not a word many people would use to describe the outcomes of Anglo-American policy between 9/11 and the second Inaugural Address of President Bush. Since then, our foreign policy seems to have become modestly more successful even as practicing neoconservatives are shoved ever more firmly out of the Administration.
To the degree that Kagan and Roberts are correct that the chief themes of neoconservative foreign policy—commitment to spreading liberal institutions, support for free trade and liberal economics more generally, a robust willingness to use force—are the central and abiding themes of Anglo-American foreign policy in general, then the question of neoconservative failure in the first Bush term becomes more pointed, not less. After all, if the neoconservatives were merely advocating what all true-minded Brits and Americans have believed for lo, these many centuries, why were they so spectacularly unsuccessful? If Teddy Roosevelt was a neoconservative, why did he triumph while Paul Wolfowitz, apparently, failed?
The answer lies, perhaps, in the realm of application. Neoconservatives do share some ideas that are important and influential in both British and American history. They have, however, been spectacularly unsuccessful at understanding political and social realities in Britain, the United States, the Middle East and the broader world. They failed not because they had bad ideas, but because they followed good ideas too blindly, too dogmatically, and without sufficient regard for the features of the actual foreign terrain through which they wished to pass.
They were, in short, too ideological. Ironically, that has historically been the greatest complaint by the English-speaking peoples about their neighbors in Continental Europe and elsewhere. Lacking the pragmatism of the Anglo-Saxons, the French and other hotheaded and immature European powers allowed themselves to be overcome by the power of various ideologies that promised shortcuts to modernization and other good things. The neoconservatives somehow became Continentals. They had the right doctrines but the wrong spirit. They sang English verses to a French tune.
Neoconservatives were thus also disposed to mis-hear the “realist” music of such unjustly despised figures as Brent Scowcroft. What sounded like pusillanimous cynicism to them was rather a liberal realism, a pragmatic policy that adopts to the limits of the present the long term goal of extending liberal institutions and values. There are legitimate arguments to be made about how far it is prudent or possible to go at any given point, as well as arguments about what instruments of power and what strategies are most likely to achieve sustainable progress. It is certainly true that realists are sometimes too cautious and too calculating. It is also and equally true that neoconservatives have sometimes been rash.
This is where Roberts and Kagan no doubt unintentionally take us. The neoconservatives were (and the past tense seems increasingly appropriate) unusually doctrinaire and impractical, but otherwise they tweaked rather than upended standard Anglo-American ideology. And to move from political movements to political leaders, Blair and Bush shared a set of ideas to which most of their predecessors on both sides of the Atlantic would also subscribe. They just happened not to be as successful as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt or even David Lloyd George at managing the politics of foreign policy. They look more like Anthony Eden at the Suez Canal than Theodore Roosevelt in Panama. This is not the message Andrew Roberts wanted to deliver, but it is, I think, the unintended moral of his book.