A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, by Andrew Roberts

Pink on the map, but blue in the face

Stephen Howe
Thursday 20 October 2011 13:06

Andrew Roberts's Cambridge tutor apparently said he was the cleverest man he had ever taught. The tutor concerned was famous for his drinking, for the stridently Thatcherite views he shares with Roberts, and his dislike of female students, so the judgement may have been narrowly based. Still, Roberts is indubitably very clever. He has written important, if contentious, things on 19th-century British history, based on serious research. And he has had a parallel career as a media pundit, reheating classic 1980s recipes from the Thatcherite kitchen.

This book, though, seems to me almost valueless, and I am genuinely astonished that so intelligent a person could have written it. Is my reaction just political animus - or envy? I have (Roberts and friends will not believe this) indulged in some heart-searching on that front. Unlike the postmodernists - against whom he makes predictable swipes - he thinks historical truth matters, and that we can as historians get close to that elusive entity. I agree with him, as I do on some more important issues, like the fundamental value of democracy and individual rights. I hope, and believe, I would think just as little of this book even if I shared more of its author's prejudices.

Around a century ago, the idea was very much in the air that "Greater Britain" was taking shape and represented the best hopes of humanity's future. It referred mainly to the United Kingdom and its colonies, but sometimes embraced the United States, too. Across the decades that idea faded, as Canada, Australia and New Zealand - let alone the non-white colonies - asserted their distinctive identities, and it became ever more implausible to think of Brits and Yanks as essentially the same people. In mid-century, Winston Churchill strove to relight the flame, both in his policies and in his writings - notably the vast Anglo-American history from which Roberts now takes his title and inspiration. As one contemporary complained about Churchill's history of the First World War, "Winston has written an enormous book entirely about himself, and called it The World Crisis." Roberts, not quite a figure on the same scale, has tried something very similar. The resulting bluster and pettiness often make him look very small.

Roberts avows that he has written "a series of snapshots taken rather arbitrarily, episodically and idiosyncratically from the life of the English-speaking peoples". From these, "certain common themes emerge, almost unbidden". The book is indeed often arbitrary, episodic and idiosyncratic. Yet no one could possibly believe that Roberts started reading and writing in a spirit of open-minded curiosity, with his guiding ideas emerging spontaneously from the material. Not many historians write quite like that. Few, though, so blatantly select their themes, evidence and arguments to confirm a strong set of preconceptions.

It is, for a start, very much an Anglocentric rather than a globally Anglospheric book. Roberts is much less interested in, and well-informed about, the US than Britain. The rather sketchy discussions of Canadian or New Zealand developments seem merely dutiful: he cannot really accept that they have become anything more than appendages to Britain.

The only aspect of Australian affairs in the past 60 years which gets him going is the supposed pernicious growth of Anglophobia there (spread, naturally, by resentful left-wing intellectuals). And he obviously doesn't think that the West Indies really belong in the story. The brief references relate mostly to contributions to Empire war efforts, and mainly to Barbados - because, as the cliché has it, Bimshire is the most English bit of the Caribbean?

Great swathes are devoted to rehearsing personal hates, whether of leaders - with special venom towards Heath, Major and Clinton - or countries. Roberts passionately dislikes Ireland and the Irish, with their supposed betrayal of Britain in both world wars.

Equally predictably, the French are targets for almost childish abuse. The countries of British colonisation, by contrast, are "the last, best hope for mankind". The Anglos never did anything wrong, so long as they were sufficiently belligerent. The only thing wrong with the Suez adventure was that Britain was forced to back down.

Vietnam tells the same story: America's noble crusade was undermined by treacherous leftists at home. In an unusually slippery passage, Roberts argues that invasion of Iraq was at least half justified on grounds of Saddam's WMD threat. Only when doing peaceful things like building welfare systems, or granting independence to colonies, were the Anglos vile.

Roberts offers robust, not to say grotesque, defences of almost any English-speaker ever accused of blundering or brutality: from General Dyer, author of the 1919 Amritsar massacre, through those responsible for atrocities in 1950s Kenya, to Guantánamo Bay's warders. If anyone is inclined to think badly of them, they are mere victims of anti-British propaganda from universities and Hollywood. He contrives even to credit the Anglosphere with the Red Army's victory over Hitler, on account of the tanks and trucks they shipped to Stalin's aid. He doesn't mention that the Russians thought the British and American tanks were utterly useless.

If you think Roberts is a uniquely fascinating and brilliant man, whose haphazard opinions on almost everything are of value, you'll love the book. And if not, not.

Stephen Howe is professor of history at Bristol University; his books include 'Ireland and Empire' (Oxford)

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