Review: “The English and their History” by Robert Tombs

englishThe English and their History by Robert Tombs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Over the course of 900 pages, Cambridge historian Robert Tombs lays out the stunning history of a people, the English, who have had an outsize effect on the world. From pre-history to 2014 A.D., Tombs tells a succession of gripping stories that will entrap experts and amateurs alike.

If Tombs’ sprawling book has a theme, it is the upending of revisionist theories of English history. Neo-revisionism, I suppose you could call it. A typical passage might state that, on the whole, England bore no more responsibility than other nations (particularly Spain, Portugal, and later the United States) for the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and did more than any of those nations to end it — contra the revisionist narrative proffered by historians of the left.

Tombs holds up various previous historical ideas up to the light, and in his modest, incredibly well-researched way, finds them wanting. The “Whig version of history” fares particularly poorly. In this enduringly popular genre of historiography, as popular among American progressives today as it was for 18th-century English whigs, history is a story of rampant progress from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from ludditism to technological nirvana. This paradigm necessarily makes the past look pretty black, to make the gray present look good by comparison–and Tombs methodically dismantles this by showing how the past and present (or the past and the more recent past) were not as different as the Whig narrative maintains, and that it is damaging to believe otherwise.

The opposite of Whig historiography, at least in Britain, is “declinism,” the largely post-1945 phenomenon of British journalists and historians writing off Britain as a world power, or even as a major force in Europe, due to much-publicized failures like the Suez crisis, deindustrialization, and (more recently) the fairly disastrous British contribution to the Iraq war. Tombs dismantles this narrative with equal quiet fervor, pointing out pesky facts that industrial decline (which no one can deny), happened just as quickly under the woman who is supposed to have doomed British industry (Margaret Thatcher, 1.9% yearly) as it later did under a man who by party affiliation at least was diametrically opposed to her policies (Tony Blair, 1.8% yearly).

The British Empire, subject at various times to both Whig and declinist narratives, gets a fairer, middle-ground treatment here. In fact, that is the enduring value of Tombs’ book. Unlike most academic historians (notably, in my limited reading, Piers Brendon), it is impossible to pigeonhole him as a man of the Left or the Right — he skewers them both with quiet gusto when they need it, and praises them in turn. He does this without suspending moral judgment — some things are certainly right, and others are certainly wrong, and some people belong in one camp or another for advocating such and such.

Tombs covers the English wars of religion evenhandedly and even gives Cromwell a fair hearing. However, at one point, he says something to the effect that the motivations of some English politicians of the early 19th century were difficult for us to understand because they harbored a fervent evangelical faith “nowhere in the modern world, except perhaps in the deepest reaches of the American Bible belt.” Tombs’ own book, much later, gives the lie to this statement by briefly mentioning the vibrant revival of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in London itself due to (largely black) devout Christian immigrants from the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

If you would learn about English history, I can’t think of a better place to start. Tombs’ book is more than the sum of its parts. It is the history of a people that is written with such evenhanded clarity that even its method, to say nothing of its well-researched conclusions, has implications for the study of history.