Books: Short cuts on a long haul

A big popular history of the Four Nations in a European frame? Seemed a good idea at the time...
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The Isles: a history

by Norman Davies

Macmillan, pounds 30, 1,222pp

At over 1,000 pages of text and with several tantalising supplements - illustrations, maps, tables and "capsules" - The Isles called for a very long train journey indeed. Dresden to Dortmund did it. At Dresden, I had been talking about contemporary Britain to Saxon civil servants, following the British Ambassador, Sir Paul Lever, who warmly quoted Norman Davies's approval of the European ideal in his Europe: a history. The ambassador was fortunate not to have got to page 1032 this work, where Davies writes "I happen to belong to that group opinion which holds the break-up of the United Kingdom to be imminent".

A handy quote for the SNP's Alex Salmond - or is it? Reading Davies made me a lot less sure, for The Isles is a puzzle of a book - more to be explained, perhaps, by the politics of publishing than by its actual programme. Davies is a distinguished historian of East and Central Europe. His History of Poland was highly praised and Europe welcomed, though not without attracting critics. The idea of locating the experience of the British Isles in European history must have seemed logical, given the huge sale of Sir Roy Strong's shamelessly Anglocentric The Story of Britain. Publishers are, these days, selling personality, not fastidiousness. Hence, I suppose, the decision to circulate a proof copy that seems closer to a first draft than to anything more elaborated.

The proof's lacunae, question marks and remotely-recollected quotations read at times like a collaboration between Private Eye's Lord Gnome ("as Disraeli said... [some suitable quotation, please]") and Bertie Wooster ("Tum-ti, tum-ti, tum-ti tum/ I SLEW HIM!"). Doubtless, by now, Toby or Caroline from Macmillan will have slotted in stuff from the shelves of the London Library, but they had better have made sure that - inter alia - Asquith stops being "a Scots orphan" and Britannia doesn't get scrapped.

The proof gives one the feeling that the whole thing was bashed out on the Toshiba as Davies's Jumbo slouched towards Adelaide. There's nothing wrong with writing remote from the sources - Henri Pirenne's History of Europe was written from memory in a First World War prison camp - but it calls for previous immersion in source material and secondary commentaries. At the start, Davies defends his use of readily-available accounts and reference material, but these tend to reflect scholarship already being superseded. His best chapters, moreover, don't follow this formula at all, but are attentive to new techniques and interpretations - although his discussion of early British settlement using a sort of Tolkienese (the Dark Water Valley, the Afternoon Country, etc.) without modern place- names will irritate more than it stimulates.

The problem comes when Davies reaches the modern period, when these multi- nationed isles encountered the English-dominated drives of trade and capital. His formula kicks in precisely where old accounts really have been outmoded. The themes articulated by Hugh Kearney's The British Isles (1989) have already generated a plentiful literature, but Davies's references to it are thin. Sandy Grant and Keith Stringer's scholarly symposium Uniting the Kingdom (1997) really is the best thing to hand on the variable geometry of the "union state". It seems to go unnoticed.

There are episodes where Davies's command of his material is impressive, his comparisons lively and illuminating. His emphasis on the British seaways rather than the "fortress built by nature" is a shrewd corrective to received opinion. The European circumstances influencing the Reformation and the Stewart succession are persuasively outlined, as is the international background to Anglo-Scottish union. Meanwhile, an attractive intellectual linkage is provided by vignettes of the historians, from David Hume to G R Elton, whose interpretations moulded impressions of the past.

But there are chapters where the idiosyncracies gain such momentum, and evict so much information, that doubt must be cast on the fundamental structure. My own "conjectural history" of The Isles would hypothesise that, after a lot of effort had been put into the earlier period, the publisher's lash was laid on sometime around the 18th century. Davies gallantly churned his copy out, but "The Imperial Islands" - on the Victorian period - has even more Sellar and Yeatman clangers than Roy Strong. It ends as a document anthology with no argument.

Empire does markedly better than industrialisation, effectively the smithy - through telegraphs, steamers and railways - of an age which could plausibly be called North and West British. Here, Davies has left an interpretative hole into which the works of Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, Asa Briggs and Geoffrey Best could be tipped without hitting the bottom.

By contrast, "The Post-Imperial Isles" is so contemporary - packed with quotes from last summer's Sundays - that perspective is difficult. Considering the doom foretold for her "patria", Davies writes flatteringly of Lady Thatcher, and her role in liberating Eastern Europe. He shares conservative concerns about the retreat of national history from the classroom. Yet the real foundations of Thatcher's Britain were as material as those of the Marxists: industry, the welfare state, the class structure, though with a hugely enhanced role for communications and a reverence for America. The "special relationship" (important for the UK, essential for Ireland) is for Davies a non-theme.

But when Thatcher's efforts to win lasting party supremacy within this milieu, and to combat Celtic discontents, coincided with European unification, US-led global finance and Cold War victory, the whole edifice - and its history and historians - was put under unsustainable strain. With the foundations removed, the rulers of the Island of the Mighty did what Davies argues of earlier elites. They took to the boats. Whether the outcome is the Confederacy of Iona, Little England, the 51st State, or Airstrip One, remains to be seen.

Professor Christopher Harvie teaches at Tubingen University