This week's big questions: Is the idea of Europe as a political entity flawed? Should austerity continue?

This week's big questions are answered by British historian, commentator and broadcaster, David Cannadine

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In your new book you challenge the whole notion of “Us vs Them” as the key to history. But isn’t human struggle at the heart of all history?

Human struggle may be the left ventricle of history, but it’s certainly not the whole heart of the matter. Just as good news rarely constitutes current affairs, so it often gets ignored in accounts of the past which stress confrontation and conflict to the exclusion of all else. But since humanity is still here, there has clearly been more to human history than war and battles between “us and them”. Despite the efforts of many politicians and pundits and commentators to persuade us so, the world is not wholly made up of collective groups latently or actually in conflict. There are – and always have been – many conversations across these allegedly impermeable boundaries; and it is dangerous and irresponsible to insist that the world is no more and no less than a cosmic battleground on which opposed forces of good and evil are always contending for supremacy.

What is Islamic fundamentalism vs Western values if not a clash of civilisations?

It is emphatically not a “clash of civilisations” – a misleading and regrettably influential phrase made famous by Samuel P Huntington, and apparently given credibility and popularity by the events of 9/11. But Islam is, and always has been, a complex and very varied phenomenon of which fundamentalism is only a part; “Western values” are now, and have always been, equally varied and protean. To inflate the current threat presented by al-Qa’ida into a clash of civilisations is empirically false and rhetorically irresponsible. Across the long haul of the centuries, Islam and Christianity have always co-existed and interacted and borrowed from each other at least as much as they have fought pitched battles.

To what extent should the West intervene in the Syrian crisis?

Its hard to measure “extent”, difficult to be sure who would constitute “the West”, and not at all clear what form “intervention” would take. Until and unless these questions are satisfactorily answered, the whole issue of intervention is surely still moot. And there is always the danger that while it might seem “right” to intervene, that could well do more harm than good.

What should the new Pope do to make himself most relevant to most people?

Marry, beget children, ordain women priests, appoint some female cardinals, speak well of gay people and contraception, deal effectively with the continuing revelations concerning sexual scandal, call in some management consultants, reorganise the church bureaucracy and retire at 80.

Is Michael Gove’s chronological, national-story approach to teaching history the right one?

With two colleagues, I published a book just over a year ago called The Right Kind of History, which surveyed the history of the teaching of history in English state schools across the 20th century. As such, it was in part intended to provide the evidence on which a sensible policy towards history teaching in schools might be evolved.

We recommended that the National Curriculum was, in essence, good, but that the problem is that there is insufficient time to teach it. (History is compulsory only up to the age of 14.) Accordingly, we advocated leaving the National Curriculum alone, but making the teaching of history compulsory to the age of 16. This is what needs to happen if history is to be better taught, which is what Mr Gove wants, as do many of us. I still live in hope that he may yet take our advice.

Is the idea of Europe as a political entity now fundamentally flawed?

There have been many definitions and ideas of Europe from the ancient world until now: geographical, economic, cultural and political, among others. And there have been many different political arrangements, from the Holy Roman Empire to the modern nation state and the EU. No doubt there will be further developments in the future which, as a historian, I would be reluctant to predict. But it is important to remember that, during the first half of the 20th century, Europe nearly wrecked itself, not once but twice. Since then, there has been relative peace, and that is something to be grateful for. We complain about “Europe” too much.

Is prison the answer for offenders like Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce?

Sending people to prison is very expensive, and it is only rich nations that can afford to do so in large numbers. I do not see why Huhne and Pryce should be a burden on the taxpayer in this way. It might be better for our hard-pressed national finances, and also better for them, if they did some community service – separately rather than together.

Should George Osborne continue down the austerity path in next week’s Budget?

If the 1930s are any guide, Osborne’s policy is deeply flawed: austerity didn’t work then, and it does not appear to be working now. The Chancellor should read the articles by the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman that appear regularly in The New York Times. They are a powerful and sustained critique of austerity. Krugman is clearly a better economist than Osborne.

You are a historian of Victorian Britain. What parallels are there between then and now?

Part of the fascination of being a historian is trying to balance how far things change over time with how far they stay the same. In some ways, the past is a foreign country; in others, it is familiar territory. And that’s especially true of 19th-century Britain. The Victorians constructed the train lines on which we still travel, many of our great public buildings and many of the houses in which we live. So while our world was never part of theirs, their world is in many ways still very much part of ours.

Then, as now, there was a long reigning queen who celebrated both her golden and her diamond jubilees, and the parallels and comparisons are in some ways suggestive. But Victoria was the cynosure of a global empire and Empress of India, whereas the present Queen is Head of the Commonwealth. That’s not quite the same thing. And while there was a “Victorian age”, I doubt if there will be a (second) “Elizabethan age”.

David Cannadine is Professor of History at Princeton University. His latest work is ‘The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences’ (Allen Lane, £20)

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