The Luck of the English

A new history shatters myths about an extraordinary nation.

Peter Macdiarmid / Reuters

Which is the largest nation in Europe to lack a state of its own? The Catalans? The Walloons? Wrong and wrong. It is the English: population 50 million-plus, all of them under the government of a multinational entity, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Until recently, nobody worried much about the statelessness of the English. After all, they dominated not only the U.K., but also for much of the past 300 years a vast global empire. The empire is gone, but its legacy of language and law and political systems endures from California to Calcutta.

Suddenly, though, the future of England has become a very live question. Since the late 1990s, Scotland has obtained more autonomy for itself. Nearly 45 percent of Scots voted for outright independence in 2014. And Scotland’s governing nationalists are weighing a second try if reelected in 2016. Meanwhile, the U.K. as a whole faces a referendum on exiting the European Union that could trigger a different constitutional crisis if England votes narrowly in favor of leaving the EU, but is kept in Europe by Scottish, Irish, and Welsh votes. Such an outcome could prod the English to follow the Scots in rethinking the United Kingdom. It’s quite imaginable that sometime within the next U.S. presidential term, England could under one scenario or another part ways from Scotland and emerge as a self-governing entity (albeit with Wales and a sliver of Ireland still attached) for the first time since Shakespeare started his writing career.

For many of its people, “England” retains a primordial emotional power that “Britain” never achieved. The institutions of the state are British: the British Museum, the British Broadcasting Corporation. Likewise the mighty engines of industry and commerce: British Petroleum, British Airways. But when a poet contemplated laying down his life for his country, he wrote, “If I should die, think only this of me; that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” Newcomers to the U.K. rapidly acquire a “British” identity. There’s a Muslim Council of Britain, and “British Asians,” “British blacks,” and “British Jewry.” But it’s a very rare newcomer who becomes English: T.S. Eliot, maybe, or Nirad Chaudhuri, and they often give the game away by overdoing it—leaving the English to worry that they are being mocked rather than mimicked. (As Henry Higgins laughingly sings in My Fair Lady: “‘Her English is too good,’ he said, ‘That clearly indicates that she is foreign.’”) Britain could be dissolved by a vote in Parliament but, as the saying goes, there will always be an England.

This is the cultural context for Robert Tombs’s spectacular and massive book, The English and Their History, newly published in the United States. It’s a book for our times that should also become the standard text for the century to come.

Tombs is an academic historian, but not an academic historian of England. His specialty is France, and especially the century 1814-1914, a period of two empires, two monarchies, two republics, half a dozen wars, and the greatest supernova of artistic, literary, and musical talent in one city in the history of the world. When I interviewed Tombs in December in his stately office in Cambridge’s St. John’s College, he explained that he had regarded the history of his own country as boring in comparison.

“Boring” is one adjective that will not be applied to Tombs’s own work. Subdued and scholarly in tone, it is a book crammed with explosives carefully arranged to blow to smithereens three-quarters of a century of accumulated conventional wisdom.

The dominant theme, tone, and message of British and English history writing since at least 1960 has varied between self-critical and self-accusatory. Over the past two decades, the indictment has only sharpened. “Britain’s Gulag” is the title of a history of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. That writer was one-upped by another who accused Britain of authorship of “Late Victorian Holocausts”—Holocausts plural. Even historians who don’t go quite so far as that still tell a story of mass suffering and exploitation up to 1890, and then decline and failure thereafter. Britain’s rulers are arraigned as snobbish chuckleheads at best; mass-murdering criminals at worst. There sometimes seems hardly a problem on this planet that somebody somewhere has not laid at Britain’s or England’s door, as this piece of Internet flotsam nicely sums up:

Tombs looked ill at ease when I suggested that he had written a patriotic history of England. Perhaps that is overstated. But what he has written is a systematic refutation of the most familiar lines of indictment.

It should be stressed early: The English and Their History is no kind of polemic, not even an anti-polemic. It is a richly detailed political, economic, and cultural narrative with fascinating things to say on everything from the evolution of English Gothic architecture to the rise of professional sports. It explicates rather than argues.

Nevertheless, the elegantly soft-spoken story busts a number of critical myths about England, including the following three.

England and the Slave Trade

The British generally, but especially the English, are often accused of special guilt for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed on behalf of the nation his “deep sorrow” that “Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence was partially dependent on a system of colonial slave labor.”

It’s true that the British, and especially the English, fiercely competed with French and Portuguese slavers to dominate the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries—and to control the plantations on which enslaved people worked and died. Many English family fortunes were extracted from the unpaid labor of slaves, including that of the great Liberal prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. When Britain abolished slavery throughout the empire in 1833, Gladstone’s father received more compensation than any other British subject for his more than 2,500 slaves.

This story is clearly and unsparingly told by Tombs. But Tombs also makes clear that slavery was not an English invention. Between 1530 and 1640, approximately 1 million Europeans, including some English, were abducted by Arab raiders and sold in markets south of the Mediterranean. The Portuguese, moreover, carried as many slaves as the British did. From its start, the Atlantic slave trade was a collaboration between European buyers and African sellers, and any assessment of responsibility also has to reckon with the role of African kingdoms that captured slaves and transported them to coastal markets.

What was distinctively English was the determined and costly campaign against the slave trade led by the British state. In 1834, 31 years before the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States, all 800,000 slaves in the British Empire were emancipated by an act of Parliament. Britain had already outlawed the trade within the empire in 1807. More strikingly still, the British insisted on writing a ban on slaving into the 1815 Treaty of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic wars, a ban Tombs provocatively describes as the first human-rights declaration in an international treaty. Nor was this provision merely aspirational:

The Royal Navy placed a permanent squadron from 1808 to 1870, at times equal to a sixth of its ships, to try to intercept slavers off West Africa. It was based at Freetown, the capital for the colony of freed slaves at Sierra Leone, which had the first African Anglican bishop, Samuel Crowthar, rescued as a boy from a slave ship by the Royal Navy. …

Britain signed forty-five treaties with African rulers to stop the trade at source. … In several cases, Britain paid them to abandon the traffic. … In 1861 it occupied Lagos, deposing the ruler who refused to stop the trade, and thus blocked one of the main slave routes. Over sixty years, the navy captured hundreds of slave ships off the African coast and freed some 160,000 captives. … [I]n 1845, [the British foreign secretary] declared Brazilian slave ships to be pirates, and 400 were seized in five years. In 1850 the Royal Navy even forcibly entered Brazilian ports to seize or destroy hundreds of slave ships—decisive in forcing Brazil, the biggest slave-buyer of all, to end one of the largest forced emigrations in history. … Cuba … came under similar pressure. But American ships were treated more cautiously, as searches of suspected slave ships carrying the Stars and Stripes caused threats of war from Washington.

English Workers in the Industrial Revolution

In 1844, Friedrich Engels published his famous study of the condition of the working class in England, a furious arraignment presented as objective social science:

What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together.

England and Scotland pioneered the Industrial Revolution. In its early years, this mighty economic transformation did not raise wages much. Romantic conservatives and revolutionary socialists then and since have cited this one fact to indict the factory system as cruel and exploitive. Perhaps the single most influential work on the subject in the postwar period, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, insisted: “People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time. … Over the period 1790–1840 there was a slight improvement in average material standards. Over the same period there was intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, and increasing human misery.”

Tombs rebuts the Engels-Thompson version of events with carefully gathered statistics demonstrating that pre-industrial English wages were already the highest on earth—almost 12 grams of silver per day and rising fast for an ordinary London worker in 1775, versus about nine and stagnating in Amsterdam, under four and dropping in Vienna and Florence, a stagnant three in Beijing, and only one in Delhi. In fact, the urgency of economizing on costly labor was one reason that industrialization started in England rather than other then-technologically advanced regions, like the great cities of China’s Yangtze River Delta. In turn, it was the proliferation of attractive goods to buy, not the whip of necessity, that drove many English people to work harder and longer than their agrarian predecessors. Tombs notes that not until the later 20th century would English people take as much leisure time as they had before 1600.

Instead, as early as 1700:

There was a revolution in the clothing of ordinary people: in came white linen undergarments, white stockings, colorful outer clothes, ribbons, men’s wigs, women’s silk hats, neckerchiefs, silver buckles. … Regional styles of dress disappeared. People were not aping their betters, but showing they were as good as anyone. Young working men and apprentices worked and spent—and sometimes stole—to look what they called “tight,” “knowing,” and “genteel.” …

People began to consume more and more things that were merely pleasurable—and novel pleasures at that: tobacco, tea, sugar, coffee, fresh white bread, convenience foods and alcohol. … New habits of consumption reached not only the ‘middling sort,’ but trickled down to the poor, who acquired more goods than would have been available to a prosperous yeoman a century earlier: ownership of saucepans, dishes, clocks, pictures, mirrors, curtains, lamps, and tea and coffee utensils doubled between 1670 and 1730. Watches, usually in silver cases—a new fashion item—became general among English working men in the second half of the century. … By the 1790s, there were an estimated 800,000 silver and 400,000 gold watches in England.  

After 1790, however, England and the United Kingdom were pulled into a quarter century of the most protracted and costly warfare in the kingdom’s history to date. The war both accelerated technological progress and consumed most of the proceeds. What was left over was used by workers to marry earlier and have more children: England’s population tripled between 1701 and 1851, despite heavy emigration first to North America, then later Australia and New Zealand. The northern hemisphere’s climate also seems to have cooled in the early 1800s, ruining harvests in the first decade of post-Napoleonic peace. In consequence of the costs of war, crop failures, and the population boom, which multiplied the number of workers and pushed wages down,

real wages [rose] by only 4 per cent between 1760 and 1820. Over this period working hours greatly increased. Women and children worked more intensively, contributing about 25 per cent of family incomes. Food prices rose and diet deteriorated. Health and hygiene in industrial societies worsened. Infant mortality was high and life expectancy low by present-day standards, and both actually deteriorated. People’s physical condition as measured by their heights fell to one of its lowest ever levels and showed marked differences between classes—over five inches’ difference between rich and poor boys in the 1790s.

The worst crop failure of them all would strike Ireland in the 1840s—the potato famine that still haunts that nation’s memory. The United Kingdom responded with the most ambitious program of food aid and cash relief ever attempted by any nation to that point, but one that still fell horribly short of the magnitude of the disaster.

As with slavery, what was uniquely English about the 19th-century experience was not the challenge, which was universal, but the response. One of Tombs’s main themes is that from Saxon times onward, the English state was one of the most ambitious, efficient, and expensive in Europe. To be English, he quips, has always meant paying a lot in taxes. Yet it was not the state that directed the response to the trials of the 19th century, but English society, led by a self-generated cultural transformation of the English working class. In the generation after 1850, alcohol use tumbled in England: per-person consumption of distilled spirits declined by 80 percent between 1870 and 1930; per-person consumption of beer by 40 percent. Out-of-wedlock childbearing declined. Crime rates dwindled. Religious worship rekindled, as Methodist chapels displaced the Established church, which was beholden to the landed elite. Workers built their own institutions of mutual aid, including trade unions that were more peaceful than their American counterparts and yet also more successful in winning shorter hours and safer working conditions.

“Iron and Coal,” William Bell Scott, 1861 (Wikimedia)

These spontaneous changes from below were reinforced and accelerated by late Victorian and Edwardian state investments in public health, elementary education, and—after 1910—the first foundations of a modern social-insurance state. As late as 1914, when Britain entered a war that would later be justified as a fight to make the world “safe for democracy,” England had not yet bestowed the vote on all men, let alone any women. Yet England at the beginning of the 20th century was in many ways a society more respectful of the rights of all classes of people than countries where all men could vote, at least theoretically: republican France, imperial France, and even the United States, where voting was restricted by race across the former Confederacy and where more than 1,500 people were lynched in the decade up through 1900.

England in Decline?

“America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a.” So W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman concluded their satire of traditional English history textbooks, 1066 And All That. The bibliography of 20th-century British history is a catalogue of gloom, dominated by titles like The Collapse of British Power, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire, and so on and on and on.

Tombs has little patience for this literature of self-laceration. He plausibly argues that the declinist argument blends two genuine facts with a great deal of polemic.

The first genuine fact was the rise of the United States after 1917 to a global supremacy unlike anything seen since Roman times—certainly unlike anything Britain ever commanded. Compared to American wealth and power, Britain—like every other European state—was inevitably consigned to a second tier.

The next genuine fact is the recovery by India and China of something of their previous positions in the world economy. As these two former and future giants loom larger, everybody else necessarily looms smaller.

But inside the United Kingdom in recent decades, the debate about decline has focused less on comparisons with the United States or the reviving economies of Asia, and more on Britain and England relative to other European economies, especially Germany.

In the 30 years after the Second World War, the British economy grew less rapidly than that of Germany, which reconstructed itself from the almost complete destruction of its industry and civilian infrastructure. In many other ways and for many other reasons, Britain in the 1970s seemed a failure; its former enemy, a triumphant success. The ensuing self-criticism and even self-disgust motivated Britain to join the European Community in 1973. Europe seemed to offer solutions to problems England could not solve for itself.

Instead, European economies after 1980 succumbed to weaknesses of their own over-bureaucratic making. And instead of a solution, the EU has become itself one of the most divisive issues in British politics. Few remember it now, but it was an internal Conservative Party row over the European Exchange Rate Mechanism that toppled Margaret Thatcher in 1990—and even fewer remember how rapidly the winning side of that argument proved disastrously wrong.

Tombs wonders:

If Britain’s rulers had not been so panicky about “decline,” would they have followed a different policy? Would a longer game, and less eagerness to “swallow the lot,” have secured a better and less troubled relationship with Europe? It is commonly said that Britain joined the Common Market too late. Perhaps, on the contrary, it joined too early—just before the European economies entered a period of stagnation, and before it had faced up to its own economic shortcomings.

So much of the argument over decline, Tombs insists, is based on misremembering England’s real position in the 19th century. The British Empire had been largely a bluff, built on the weaknesses of others: the collapse of the Mughal Empire in India, which enabled a tiny foreign power to grab enough pieces of territory to build an Indian empire of its own; the exhaustion of France after the Revolution and Napoleonic wars; the division of Germany into squabbling principalities until 1870.

Victorian hegemony, real though it was, always had limits. … [T]here was something in the complaint that Britain had been a third-rate power with a great empire. Except at sea, it had slender means and was shaken by frequent disasters. … If Mrs Thatcher could not delay German unification in 1989-90, neither could Mr Gladstone in 1870-71. … Loss of empire was the most spectacular face of “decline,” but the empire as a whole was ceasing to be (if ever really had been) the bedrock of wealth and power, and its winding up has not weakened or impoverished England—rather the contrary, for what was a liberation for the colonies was also a liberation for England. The fact is that the power of the empire, real when it could be mobilized, had mostly been taken up by defending itself. In military terms (even leaving aside technology such as aircraft and the atomic bomb) Britain in the 1950s was far stronger in sheer numbers of men than at the height of the Victorian empire.

Meanwhile, in economic terms, England today is not only vastly richer than it was in 1850, but among the very richest countries on a vastly richer earth. England does lag some of the small economies of northern Europe and its own successor states in the United States, Canada, and Australia. But since poor East Germany rejoined West Germany in 1990, England no longer lags far behind Germany. Depending on which numbers you use, the English parts of the United Kingdom may already exceed Germany in GDP per capita. If recent trends continue, the U.K. as a whole could even overtake Germany in gross output by the year 2030. It is perhaps more a sign of England’s high expectations for itself that these outcomes are perceived by many English people as anything other than a story of success.

Tombs in finale: “We who have lived in England since 1945 have been among the luckiest peoples in the history of Homo Sapiens, rich, peaceful, and healthy. Not uniquely so: the lot of the whole Western world has been comparable, and in several countries, slightly better. But for that, too, the people of England can take a share of credit: for their economic and technological labours; for their long pioneering of the rule of law, of accountability and representation in government, of religious toleration and of civil institutions; and for their determined role in the defeat of modern tyrannies.”

The English and their History has won deserved praise in the United Kingdom as the most ambitious single-volume history of the country yet published. It spans an enormous scope of time. It knowledgeably summarizes multiple areas of specialty, some quite recondite. It integrates the newest economic and social research into the political narrative that has too often preoccupied English historians. The only lacuna here is the slighting of the newest realm of British Isles historical research: genetics.

In this century, DNA studies have enabled historians to cast light on long-disputed questions about the British population. When was Britain first peopled, and where did the people come from? How big were the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Viking invasions? How insular has the British population been since the Norman invasion of 1066? These questions have become all the more interesting today as Britain receives its largest immigration influx since, arguably, prehistoric times. Tombs tells the story of the new immigration well. But a book named for “the English” (the people) rather than “England” (the place) might have made more of a place for this new scholarship, which could have provided context for the huge discontinuity of peoplehood that has occurred in England over the past generation.

On the other hand, it seems churlish to complain that the author of 900 pages of clear, brisk, and magnificently researched historical prose left something out. There is no one place where you will learn more about the long past of the nation that, more than any other, has shaped our planet’s language, laws, institutions, and balance of power over the past half-millennium.