Our Shadowed Present by Jonathan Clark

The once-trendy Tory historian Jonathan Clark vanished into the Midwest. Now he's back, reports Stephen Howe, with an attack on abuses of the past
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Jonathan Clark first made his reputation in the mid-Eighties, with a pair of intensely combative books on Britain's "long 18th century", from the 1660s to the 1830s. He damned both the Marxists and the "Whigs" - old-fashioned liberals - who had between them, in his view, dominated and distorted the history of early modern Britain. Their respective grand narratives, whether of class struggle and bourgeois revolution, or the inexorable advance of liberal constitutionalism and commerce, were wildly wrong. Britain before the 1830s - and maybe, he hinted, much later too - was an "ancien régime", a far more traditional, status-bound, perhaps above all more religious society than was usually thought.

Clark's critics charged that his picture of predecessors' work was a caricature, while his own interpretations were not as novel as he claimed, and as one-sided as those he sought to supplant. Clark responded in equally trenchant style, but thereafter things became quieter.

His next big book, The Language of Liberty (1994), was no less iconoclastic. It argued that American independence was a result neither of modern, secular ideologies nor of nationalism, but was a British civil war fought mainly over religion. But it made far less of a splash. Younger contenders like Andrew Roberts usurped Clark's brief role of historian-in-residence in right-wing newspapers. His eagerness to tease in media-friendly ways couldn't match Norman Stone or David Starkey - unlike them, Clark was shyer and far less rude in person than in print. He left Oxford to teach at the University of Kansas: an odd career move made under contentious circumstances, and certainly not one motivated by any great love for the US Midwest. It was, indeed, a kind of exile.

Even the left-wing historians Clark had pounded so hard felt a certain sympathy. His earlier public profile was so much that of a rebellious Young Turk, reproving the errors of his elders and framing the disputes in generational terms, that he may have found adjustment to middle age troubling. He was obviously far less in tune with Blair's Britain than with Thatcher's, and equally obviously not at home in either Clinton's or the Bushes' Americas.

Now Clark has returned to the battle over history, but in a rather strange way. Our Shadowed Present is advertised as a sustained analysis of "presentism": the view, supposedly now held by everyone from manipulative politicians to postmodern theorists, that history either doesn't matter, or can be reinvented just as our wills or whims dictate. Clark characterises this stance with a series of sweepingly negative labels, including "nihilistic". In apocalyptic style, he says that presentism "reaches back into the past to silence its message". It threatens almost everything we should value most: continuity and cohesion, public morality and personal identity.

All these claims, though, are made in a fairly brief introduction, repeated in an even hastier conclusion. In between lie a series of very detailed essays on different historical topics - most previously published. Their relationship to Clark's general claims is often distant or tangential, despite his rather strained efforts to convince the reader they all hang tightly together. Some parts of the book, then, are based on profound scholarship and sharp critical analysis. Some are vigorous, accessible and of great interest to anyone who thinks history matters. Trouble is, they're not the same parts, and almost none of Our Shadowed Present displays both kinds of virtue simultaneously. It isn't, bluntly, a Proper Book, planned and written as a whole, but a miscellaneous collection rather misleadingly packaged.

There are further major problems. One is the sheer indiscriminateness of Clark's assault. Modernists, postmodernists, Marxists and ultra-relativists, Francis Fukuyama, Eric Hobsbawm and Linda Colley, social scientists who trespass on the historian's territory and essayists who mock the monarchy, people who think history has no meaning and those who endow it with (in Clark's eyes) the wrong meanings - all are lumped, and damned, together. Richard Evans's In Defence of History, which assailed the postmodernists from a far more leftish and secular standpoint, does a more effective, because more scrupulous, demolition job.

So much is missing from Clark's historical vision. Despite his transatlantic interests, the British Empire barely features on his map of the 18th-century world. Histories of gender are predictably absent, but so are those of ecology, of the body, of sexuality, the emotions, and the great explosion of new work on diasporas, migrations and prehistories of globalisation. Historians' new attention to "spatiality" is equally lost to his view. This has involved some of what Clark would call "postmodernist" excesses, and some silly grandstanding about how space is more important than time in studying societies, but it has also revitalised tired debates.

So has new attention to the relationship - and conflicts - between history and popular memory. Clark gestures towards this, especially via friendly allusions to the late Raphael Samuel: but it is a mere gesture. He dismisses, too, the history of suppressed minorities as just "myopic narratives of grievance". Some of feminist or black history, for instance, fits that bill. But much more has greater ambitions and promise than that, exploring the ways in which looking from the margins of society can offer a transformed vision of the whole.

Clark, at least, has the merit of insisting that these seemingly arcane debates matter a great deal - not just for historians. In that moral urgency lies the greatest strength of his otherwise deeply disappointing book. Its detailed encounters with aspects of British and American history will engage - and infuriate - specialists. The sweeping remarks about the state of the world may entertain (or again infuriate) a wider readership. But they would have been more suitably published as a think-piece. Anyone buying the book in the expectation that it's mainly about those broad themes, or has anything particularly novel to say on them, will be frustrated.

Stephen Howe's latest book is 'Empire: a very short introduction' (Oxford)