BOOKS: BRIGHT FUTURE IN THE PAST

THE STORY OF BRITAIN by Roy Strong, Hutchinson pounds 35; In the era of failed royal marriages and shifty politicians, an account of our first 2,000 years attempts to restore a little national pride
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The Independent Culture
"Oor annals are fraught with animating scenes of national glory, with bright examples of piety, honour and resolution, and with the most impressive and instructive lessons to princes, statesmen and people." Thus the historian John Lingard, writing in 1849, just two years before the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace celebrated Britain's pre-eminence as the workshop of the world, and as the only superpower on the planet.

No wonder Lingard felt confident and complacent. For Britain was also unique among the nations of Europe in the stability of its institutions and in the liberties enjoyed by its people. The mid-Victorian era was a very good time to be British. Small wonder that Lord Macaulay, echoing Lingard, was soon to proclaim that the history of Britain was emphatically the history of progress, an inexorable and gratifying account of how everything seemed to be getting better and better and better.

This buoyant version of our national past might have served in the heady days of Queen Victoria and Lord Palmerston, when Britain was undisputedly "top nation": but it hardly seems appropriate for the much-diminished era of Queen Elizabeth II and John Major. National glory is a thing of the past, along with the British Empire and the navy that once ruled the waves. Piety, honour and resolution have vanished from our public life: ask Lord Nolan or Sir Richard Scott.

And what "instructive lessons" can our national history offer today, when so many of Britain's supposed successes have turned out to be illusory and ephemeral? Princes make disastrous marriages, statesmen are an extinct breed, and people take refuge from the present and the past in the Ruritanian fantasies of heritage theme-parks and stately homes. English history no longer purveys a comforting or confident message: which may explain why it is being taught less and less in our schools.

Sir Roy Strong is neither discouraged nor dismayed by these developments. There is, he admits, a lack of energy, initiative and ambition about the British today, compared with former times. Adjustment to the loss of great- power status has, he contends, been slow and inadequate. Such patriotism as still exists is, he feels, too insular and nostalgic. He also recognises that the very idea of Britain is now being deconstructed, as the nation becomes more multi-racial, as demands for devolution thrust themselves on to the political agenda again, and as decisions affecting our lives are increasingly taken in Brussels, Tokyo and New York rather than in London. But he insists that this is no reason for ignoring our national history: on the contrary, it makes it more important that we should know it, remember it and value it. "A country which is ignorant of its past," he observes in his grandest manner, "loses its identity."

In this brisk and vigorous, no-nonsense account, Strong sets out to retell the whole of our national story from Caesar's invasion in 55 BC to Margaret Thatcher's departure in 1990. Most of the book is a narrative of political events, interspersed with potted biographies of significant cultural or intellectual figures, from Chaucer to Darwin. He covers the first millennium in scarcely 50 pages; it is only when he reaches the Tudors that he settles into his stride, and it is only when he gets to the 17th century that the majority of the population begins to receive its due. Throughout, Strong does full justice to the competing national characteristics of insularity and cosmopolitanism. He rightly reminds us that ever since it was a Roman colony, Britain has always been closely involved with the rest of Europe. And he has no doubt that Europe is where Britain's future must be sought and found.

As anyone knows who has tried their hand at it, narrative national histories are exceptionally difficult things to construct, and the longer the span they cover, the more difficult the construction becomes. Inevitably, this means some of Strong's judgments are superficial, and the prose is not always as polished as it might be. There are some absurd editorial intrusions, such as when we are informed that archaeology is "the digging up of the past" and that 1914 was "the year in which the First World War broke out". Although the book is ostensibly about Britain, much of it only deals with England, which means that Scotland and Wales often receive decidedly short shrift. And while Strong maintains that Britain's history is "a succession of differently structured societies succeeding one another, as the ideas which created them formulate, reach an apogee and then go into decline", it is not clear what he means by this, or how these changes occurred.

These are more than minor quibbles; but they should not be allowed to detract from the magnitude of the accomplishment. To have sustained, singlehandedly, a national narrative covering 2,000 years is a remarkable achievement of synthesis and stamina. The tone is perfectly judged throughout, being neither portentously sentimental nor cynically debunking, and the illustrations are beautifully chosen and a constant delight. The result is a book which is a powerful antidote to the amnesiac, short-term culture in which we are obliged to live today.

The British past may no longer give us the comfort or the confidence that it once gave the Victorians. But Strong's version of it is a timely reminder of the length and the limitations of our island story. His book should be read by anyone, anywhere, who cares about Britain's national past, national identity or national prospects.

! David Cannadine is Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University New York. His most recent book is 'Aspects of Aristocracy: Grandeur and Decline in Modern Britain'.

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