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Atlantic Unbound | January 22, 2003
A Certain Kind of Greatness

David Cannadine, the author of In Churchill's Shadow, talks about Britain's reaction to its own decline


In Churchill's Shadow

In Churchill's Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain
by David Cannadine
Oxford University Press
386 pages, $30

this past November, a BBC poll billing itself as the Battle of the Britons asked the question, "Who is the Greatest Briton of all time?" The answer, according to nearly half a million respondents of a possible 1,622,248, was Winston Churchill. He received more votes for this distinction than a poet who has stayed in print for four centuries (Shakespeare), a scientist the Church would have liked to keep out of print altogether (Charles Darwin), and a mathematician who invented calculus and advanced the laws of planetary motion (Newton). More surprisingly perhaps, he surmounted an extraordinary Queen (Elizabeth I) and a beloved military hero (Lord Nelson). The historian David Cannadine explains Churchill's victory in the poll as a matter of sentiment: "There is a sense that Churchill embodied a certain kind of national greatness that we haven't seen since."

According to Cannadine, the theme of national greatness has occupied British minds for some time now. His most recent work, In Churchill's Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain, is a collection of twelve essays concerned with British history in the past two centuries. In the nineteenth, the British Empire reached the high point of its power and influence; in the same century, however, it began its long decline to its present status as a so-called "junior power" in world affairs. The essays of In Churchill's Shadow investigate how a creeping feeling of "vanishing supremacy" was identified and dealt with—be it through defiance, regret, or passivity—from the time of Joseph Chamberlain in the 1870s to that of Margaret Thatcher in the late twentieth century. Between those two prime ministries, Cannadine writes, "unfolded the extraordinary career of Winston Churchill, whose life was lived in a vainly magnificent attempt to preserve Britain's unrivalled Victorian inheritance in an increasingly hostile and post-Victorian world."

Looking both at popular figures in the arts (for instance Noel Coward and Gilbert & Sullivan) and at the prime ministries of various periods, Cannadine examines how the British have coped with history, insofar as history is defined as a former state of stability or splendor that inevitably recedes before one. Perhaps because Churchill, for Britons, is a symbol of former national greatness and a reminder of the days when even God was an Englishman, Britons live "in Churchill's shadow," a contention of Cannadine's that the BBC poll of this past November would seem to corroborate.

For American readers, Cannadine is perhaps the most popular serious historian of Britain. Formerly of Columbia University, he is currently Professor of History and Director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. Born in Birmingham and educated at Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton, Cannadine is a former student of J. H. Plumb, a historian of eighteenth-century British history. From Plumb, in particular, he takes the idea that history should be made accessible to an audience that includes not only fellow professionals but also a broad, educated public. In an effort to reach this audience, Cannadine has made a habit of contributing review-essays of a historical nature to such publications as The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. His success as a historian is no doubt related to his success in reaching readers outside the academic coterie.

Cannadine has written several highly regarded works of major historical scholarship, including The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, Ornamentalism, and Class in Britain. He has published a few essay collections, notably The Pleasures of the Past and History in Our Time. He has also edited a number of books, including a volume of Churchill's speeches and a collection of essays on urban history. He is frequently described as a humorous and entertaining wit, a sort of intellectual counterpoint to the pedant. In describing himself, however, Cannadine is careful to define humor as incidental to his work. "History," he says, "is an enormously serious business."

I spoke with him by telephone on November 26.

—Stephen Barbara

David Cannadine
David Cannadine   

I've asked my editor, so far with dubious success, to title this interview "The Gay Science," after Nietzsche's book. It seemed to me appropriate, given that you've tried to do serious history in a cheerful manner. Tell us, if you would, about this approach to history.

Cheerful manner? I'm not sure that I have, really. I suppose I think if you're going to write history, then on the whole you should write it in such a way that people are going to want to read it; and I suppose it's true to say that I make an effort to do that. P. G. Wodehouse once said that the only epitaph he wanted as a writer was "and at least he took trouble." And I certainly like to think that I take trouble over my prose. I don't think it's, as it were, willfully cheerful, or remorselessly good-humored. I suppose I find the human comedy reasonably hilarious and think that one of the jobs of the historian is to get as much of that in as possible. But I don't have a sense that I'm "playing it for laughs." I actually think that history is an enormously serious business, and one of the ways perhaps of showing that is by not showing it—by writing about it in a fairly buoyant and effervescent way.

I am curious, I think, because of a comment you make in the preface to The Pleasures of the Past. You say, "Some tight-lipped colleagues disapprove of exuberant prose, and dismiss the concern to reach a broad, non-professional audience as little more than self-indulgen[ce]." You go on to point out that these colleagues seem to disapprove of articles you've written for such publications as The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Why write for such publications, and how do you respond to this disapproval of exuberance?

Well, I think that one doesn't respond to the disapproval of exuberance at all. It seems to me that one just goes on being exuberant. I don't see what other response is either appropriate or possible. As far as the notion of writing for The New York Review of Books or London Review of Books is concerned, I am in agreement with G. M. Trevelyan—that history is both an academic discipline, and also a part of a broader public culture; that there is a general public interest in where we've come from and where we are. It seems to me that historians have an obligation to address that audience and satisfy that interest, and I think that's something that an increasing number of historians do in fact feel.

Tell us about your influences as a historian. Lawrence Stone and Jack Plumb are influences, I know; how about A. J. P. Taylor, and others?

It is partly a matter of when I grew up: I was born in 1950, and in a sense it was a lucky time to be born, because the years when I began to read and acquire an education coincided with a period when a remarkable array of extremely talented British historians were probably at the peak of their powers and influence. Lawrence Stone would be one. Jack Plumb would be another. A. J. P. Taylor would be another. Eric Hobsbawm would be another. Asa Briggs would be another. It's an astonishing gallery of figures who in every case wrote books of serious substantial scholarly significance but who also wrote in a style that was accessible and who believed that they ought to reach a broader audience. It was very difficult growing up at that time and reading their sort of books not to feel that this was the right way to do history and that when my generation had our go we'd try to do the same thing.

To what extent do you try to keep politics out of your historical writing and inquiry? I recall that in one of your essays you criticize Gertrude Himmelfarb's "rightish" perspective, which you imply colors her view of things.

Well, a recent reviewer of In Churchill's Shadow said, and I thought it was quite a perceptive remark, that I keep my political cards quite close to my chest. On the whole I don't see history as the place for personal crusades of a political kind, and I try in the work that I do and in the books that I write to keep them guessing, as Vaughan Williams once remarked when somebody said he'd composed a new symphony very different from the one immediately before. I think there's a lot to be said for that as a strategy. For instance, some people have read my big book, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, as a savage indictment of a parasitic class whose demise I have welcomed and delighted in. Others have read it as an anti-Thatcherite lament for the disappearance of public-spirited decent grandees who she shuffled off the stage of history in a rather unceremonious way. And indeed the book can be read in both those ways. I think that historians are often quite hard to pigeonhole and I certainly would take pride in claiming that to be true of me. Another example: I've written pieces on Churchill which some people think are very critical and defame a national hero, but I've also written pieces on Churchill that are very admiring and that explain why he was a national hero. My view is that the historical process is a very complicated thing, and the older I get the more I'm convinced that it's the purpose of politicians and journalists to say the world is very simple, whereas it's the purpose of historians to say, "No! It's very complicated." So I find single, party-line views of the past to be inadequate. On the whole what I try to do in the history that I write is to both make it accessible and yet also give a sense of the complexity and contradictions of things. And that doesn't sit easily with a very simple, politically partisan position.

One thing, in particular, you've discussed in your writing is the Anglophilia many Americans have, the obsession with Lady Di and Prince William and the like. How do you account for it?

Well, I'm not sure it's for me to account for that. Whether Anglophilia is the same thing as the worship of Lady Diana—I don't know. There is obviously a sense of shared interests, especially between East Coast America and England, or Britain. I think that there is still a kind of strange fascination, a sort of Masterpiece Theatre fascination, with the British countryside and with what is called the British class system. But one has to couple that with the fact that the United States did, after all, throw out the British monarchy and abolish formal titles. So, as usual, it's never quite as simple as at first sight it appears. It may well be that American Anglophilia, far from being a lament for a world that's lost, is merely a sort of historical recreation. So I think one has to think about American Anglophilia in quite a complicated and varied way.

Let's talk about In Churchill's Shadow, a collection of essays about Britain's confronting of its decline from a world superpower and empire to its present status. I wondered why you chose the title—that is, why you chose Churchill in particular. On your own admission, the empire was declining since the time of Joseph Chamberlain in the late nineteenth century, was it not?

Yes. I chose the title partly because any book with the name Churchill on the front is likely to sell better than any book without the name Churchill on the front, so I'm told. (But these are vulgar considerations which one shouldn't really admit to.) Also, it seems to me beyond any question that Churchill is the most extraordinary and most extraordinarily interesting figure produced in Britain in the twentieth century. And the two biggest essays in there are the pieces on Churchill's oratory and Churchill and monarchy, which I derived huge pleasure from writing. Also, most of the essays which follow have in some sense or other a kind of Churchillian connection. There's a slight element of contrivance about that, but no more than in most collected books of essays. So in a rough way I thought it worked.

There is also a broader issue that I wanted to get at, which is that to this day I think Britain does still remain in Churchill's shadow. We've just had a poll here about who is the greatest Briton of all time, and Churchill won by quite a margin. I think there is a sense that Churchill embodied a certain kind of national greatness that we haven't seen since. Whether those views are right or wrong is debatable, but I don't think there's any doubt that that's what is felt.

From the archives:

"The Medals of His Defeats" (April 2002)
Our author takes the Great Man down a peg or two—and still finds that Churchill was a great man. By Christopher Hitchens
Recently we had an article by Christopher Hitchens in the magazine, giving the revisionist verdict on Churchill. In your own writings you've been doing something similar—showing how in many ways Churchill was a failure by his own measures, in that he did preside over the "liquidation of the British Empire." And in other ways he was clearly out of touch and outmoded. So, also with reference to this poll you mention, do you think the veneration he's acquired is largely sentimental?

Well, Churchill, of course, is very complicated. There's a marvelous cartoon called "The Two Churchills" drawn by David Low when Churchill was defeated at the general election of 1945. It has Churchill the leader of humanity sitting on top of a podium, enjoying the plaudits and the acclaim of the free world, whose liberty he has arguably done more than anybody else to preserve. And there is Churchill the disgruntled party leader, way way down below the podium, who has behaved so badly at the general election of 1945. And Churchill the leader of humanity looks down serenely on the disgruntled Churchill, the leader of the opposition, and says, "Cheer up, they'll soon forget you, but they'll always remember me." It's a rather wonderful cartoon, because it's both insightful and moving. Churchill was in every way a larger than life figure—that, I think, is incontrovertible. His faults were on a large scale, and his virtues were on a large scale. In a sense, that was known by his contemporaries, and to the extent that revisionism is reminding us of that, it's simply getting us back to where most people would have been in 1935 or probably even 1940. He was a great man; Churchill at his best was an extraordinary and rather wonderful figure. Roy Jenkins concludes in his recent biography that Churchill was probably the most extraordinary human being to occupy 10 Downing Street. And the competition for that accolade is quite strong. But it's also certainly true that Churchill, like any great figure, lived against the background of his own times. I think Churchill did see his life's work as preserving Britain's greatness and the greatness of the British Empire, and I think by the end of his life he knew he'd failed. But that seems to me cause for neither gloating nor pleasure, but for a recognition of the limitations to what all of us who live life can realistically hope to do.

One thing I found especially interesting in your new book is the way you look at popular icons, James Bond and Gilbert & Sullivan and such, and show how these figures are also part of this confronting of Britain's identity. Would you share with us some of the things you've learned, looking at such icons?

Well, Fleming is, of course, a figure for whom Churchill was the ultimate hero, and Fleming certainly did live in Churchill's shadow in that sense. His father in fact had known Churchill quite well. And certainly, there were a variety of things that interested me about Fleming and Bond. First of all, the fact that the books are very different from the films, and I think much more interesting than the films. But also that Fleming is this curious amalgam. In one sense he was a great believer in what Mrs. Thatcher calls "Victorian values." He genuinely regretted that the Welfare State, as he saw it, was undermining them, and felt that that was the reason for Britain's decline from a greater world that had prevailed, he thought, in the days of his youth. But on the other side Fleming was also seen as the champion of a permissive society and sexual immorality and high consumer spending. I thought the ambiguities of Fleming's position were rather interesting, the way he was both a figure looking back to an earlier era of Spartan virtues and yet was also seen by many people as the embodiment of the kind of degenerative modes of behavior which explained why the earlier era of greatness had gone. I thought that made him a very resonant figure for his time, and a more interesting and complicated figure than he's often given credit for being. But also it was enormous fun to reread the Bond novels, which actually are quite a good read. Fleming did write rather well.

The novels, certainly. I felt I was open to the charge of not having done my homework, though, as I didn't see the new Bond movie this weekend.

Well, the Bond movies are a very interesting phenomenon, but they are not the same as the novels. There are no jokes in the novels, for example. And Bond was not a very nice man. This sort of madly self-mocking throwaway-lines-style which the films have cultivated now across forty years is totally different from the original mode. Also, the books, as it were, remain the same, but the films keep changing. The books were published from 1953 to 1966, but the movies have been filmed over a forty-year span. If one wanted to chart a whole variety of changes in relations between genders, relations between Britain and America, or America and Russia, then the Bond films over the last forty years are a very good way of doing that. But that's not what the books are about.

One of the questions you've taken up, especially in The Pleasures of the Past, is the role of monarchy. Given the realities of modern-day Britain, why is the monarchy still popular, or even existent?

Well, it's a complicated question, monarchy. Very complicated. I suppose one of the reasons monarchy's still here is that you have to think what it would take to get rid of it. Parliamentary legislation would be one option; I don't think anybody's going to advocate that. Secondly, the crowds rise up and storm Buckingham Palace and drag them all off to the guillotine; I don't think that's going to happen. Thirdly, the royals might decide they've had enough and pack up and the Queen retires to Sandringham to breed horses; I don't think that's going to happen. Whatever the latest crisis is we're always told, "It's the end of the House of Windsor"—I have lost count of the number of times that has happened now, in my newspaper reading lifetime. But the House of Windsor hasn't disappeared, and it probably won't. It usually takes enormous traumas to get rid of monarchies; historically that's always been true. For instance, overwhelming defeats in and around World War I toppled the Russian, German, and Austrian monarchies. At the moment there doesn't seem any likelihood of that. So I think part of the answer is, it's here because it's here. One shouldn't underestimate, especially in this country, the enormous power of inertia.

Does it also have a certain economic power? Perhaps you don't agree with this, but it seems to me that the monarchy has been marketed to the public quite successfully at times.

I suppose it's marketed itself well in the sense that it's widely seen as an integral part of national life. People think the Queen does a good job, and so on. I'm not sure beyond that that it's all that deliberately marketed. But I do think that there is a serious and rather interesting historical question about the monarchy, which is that when the present Queen came to the throne, Britain was still, arguably, an imperial nation. What has happened in the fifty years since is that Britain has changed dramatically. It's no longer a great power, it's become a post-imperial nation. I think that the job facing the monarchy is to downsize the imperial monarchy to be more appropriate to the downsized, post-imperial nation that Britain now is. It's Victoria's reign in reverse, in a way. I think the long-term perspective on the Queen's reign will be that that's what's been going on.

Related to this, you have an essay in In Churchill's Shadow called "The Palace of Westminster as the Palace of Varieties," in which you address the difference between what the palace once meant and what it means now. Considering its imperial origins, it has to be looked at with a certain amount of irony, you say.

One of the points I intended to make about the Palace of Westminster is that it is one of these rather interestingly British things where the public appearance of it remains unaltered. That is to say it has the same profile on the London skyline that it had 140 years ago. But actually almost everything else to do with it has changed. The number of people who vote has changed, the people in the House of Commons have changed, the people in the House of Lords have changed, and the relation between the monarchy and the House of Lords and the House of Commons has changed. But the building stays the same, so somehow it looks as if nothing's changed at all.

How do you think that the current prime minister, Tony Blair, has dealt with the question of Britain's decline?

I think it's too soon to know. He's the first prime minister to have been born in the present Queen's reign, so there is a sense in which a different generation is now in charge. He does belong to a generation for whom imperial Britain is something that has gone, and for whom Europe is something to be embraced, rather than feared, because the Second World War for him is history, not memory. Beyond that, he remains concerned as all prime ministers since Churchill have been about how to position Britain vis- à-vis both the United States, with whom there are very strong ties of a certain sort, and Europe, with whom there are very strong ties of another sort. In a way he's struggling with the same set of issues as previous prime ministers. But I think the perspective he brings to bear on them is certainly that of someone for whom Britain's history in the first half of the twentieth century is much less personal than it was for his predecessors.

When I visited London this summer some of the newspapers were referring snidely to Blair as "Bush's poodle." It was a sentiment that seemed to have some popular hold.

Well, I think that's just the latest example of this tricky balancing act which British prime ministers seem destined to have to live with—of dealing on the one side with what we still persist in calling Europe, and on the other side with the United States. And depending on how that's going, you're either the poodle of Brussels or the lackey of Washington, and there don't seem to be many other options.

As a final question, I wondered if you'd clarify for us this idea of relative decline, because Britain seems fairly prosperous now and may be for some time to come. Could you tell us how Britain's waning has been different from the slide into barbarism and obscurity normally conjured up by this portentous word, decline?

I think it is important to notice that by various criteria Britain has declined. It no longer rules as much of the world as it did a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, and if ruling the world is a criterion of power then Britain isn't as powerful as it was. It no longer has a navy that dominates the waves in the way it did; it's no longer the preeminent economic power in the way it was until probably the 1870s.

On the other hand, if one takes the standard of living of ordinary Britons, if one takes life expectancy, if one takes nutrition, if one takes height or education, or whatever, then actually life for the majority of Britons, with all its continued shortcomings, is significantly better in 2002 than it was in 1902. So the decline is relative to other nations—in particular, America. But Britain has not declined in the sense that life for most people has gotten worse; on the contrary life for most people has gotten better. And one could take the view, therefore, that if that's decline, we should have more of it.

What do you think? Join the conversation in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Stephen Barbara, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, was an intern at The Atlantic this fall. He is working as a freelance writer in Connecticut.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.