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Book Review: The English and Their History (Robert Tombs)

This book is a massive history of the English, written by an English expert on France, Robert Tombs.  Somehow, against the odds, it manages to be sprightly, interesting, and, most of all, generally upbeat about the past, present, and future of England.  Tombs rejects the idea of “Whig history,” not because English progress does not exist, but because the past was rarely as bad as we often think, making any progress less dramatic than it may appear.  He offers rational, yet clear-eyed, hope for a bright future—one not destined to be good, but certainly with a better than even chance of being so.  Thus, this book is a counterweight to recent narratives of English decline (such as 1999’s The Abolition of Britain, by Peter Hitchens), and a book that all pessimists should read.

While The English and Their History is a straight chronological exposition, with six parts (each with a thoughtful concluding summation essay), Tombs makes explicit that four “memory themes” give it additional structure:  the aftermath of the Norman Conquest; the Civil War; Empire; and the modern “sense of England and Britain as nations in decline.”  He recurs to these events and their interpretation in their own time, as well as by later generations, to compare and contrast the behavior of Englishmen over the course of a thousand years.  Tombs’s goal is therefore to tie events together in the reader’s consciousness, not in service of some ideological end or overarching grand theory about the English, but through these memory themes.  This framework is quite successful, though of course the nature of any such history is that the author must pick only a few events in any given period, and discuss them, for the most part, in a relatively superficial manner.  This book is therefore not a reference work, and has to be read in its entirety to obtain substantial value from it.

Tombs begins with a brief overview of England before it became England, then starts his formal narrative around 600 A.D., with Pope Gregory the Great sending the monk Augustine (not of Hippo) to convert the English, beginning to be recognized as a people, “from their Germanic heathenism.”  Of course, these English were polyglot and not only Germanic; as Tombs is at pains to emphasize, the early ethnic development of the English is both obscure and complex, and further roiled through the time of the Norman conquest.  (Thereafter, though, the English were most definitely a people of England; it is completely a myth that “England has always been a nation of immigrants,” at least until the recent past.)  Christianity began the rebirth of England, after the troubles and decline in the post-Roman world, bringing back literacy and beginning to temper the violence that characterized this warrior society.

The book zooms through the first thousand years of English history quite rapidly.  Tombs covers Alfred through Cnut; then Hastings and the Normans.  As to the latter, Tombs notes that the Normans, like many conquerors, preserved local institutions that worked for their purposes, especially ones involving local justice and control—but that many of those, in particular involving central control and widespread political participation, differed already from Continental customs, forming the basis of the modern structural gulf between England and the Continent.  The Normans were also incredibly dynamic, among other things engaging in a massive and expensive building spree, much of it still visible today.  Nonetheless, the Normans were conquerors, with all that implied both for the existing elite and the existing common man.  From this era derives the recurrent theme in English history of the “Norman yoke” in opposition to the ancient rights of the English, a template that can be, and has often been, imposed on later events having nothing to do with Normans.

Next come the Angevins/Plantagenets, Henry II and Thomas Becket, Robin Hood, and so on.  Ironically, for most casual readers, this far-away period is among the best known in English history—who really knows or cares much about, say 19th Century English politics, on which Tombs spends much more time?  Far more fun to talk about Sherwood Forest.  But it’s not all the Sherriff of Nottingham—Tombs, among many other interesting points, notes that England was at this early period, and more or less continuously thereafter, a very wealthy country, with a diversified economic base and not generally subject to the same degree of destructive wars as the Continent.  And politically, England was a society with a “stable, ordered hierarchy, in which all knew and accepted their position. . . . To serve a superior—above all, the king—was honourable.”  Social mobility was very low, yet there was no underclass, and resentment and agitation focused on simple justice, such as the rebel Jack Cade’s slogan, “Every man should have his due”—by which he did not mean redistribution or a reordering of society.  “Society was a dense network of communities and associations, which gave it great resilience.”  Tombs also emphasizes that “It is a much later myth—largely a product of politicized seventeenth-century history—that English medieval society was chronically lawless, marked by extreme oppression, violence, exploitation and rebellion.”  In fact, medieval English life was pretty good, on balance.  Homicide rates were low by modern standards—much lower than, say, most of Africa and South America today.  Food was plentiful and varied; justice was competent; and the government didn’t bother the average person.

As he moves forward, Tombs expands his focus to England’s neighbors, to the extent they were important to the English and their development.  The Hundred Years War comes and goes.  (Tombs notes that “Henry V in France was joined by every able-bodied peer—there were not many ‘gentlemen in England now abed’ on St. Crispin’s Day, at least not among the higher orders.”)  The Black Death also comes and goes—“Yet if society was shaken, it did not collapse.”  But society changed, of course, despite the efforts of the King and the elite to keep things the same.  Some changes were low-key, such as (failed) sumptuary laws.  Some changes were dramatic, either instantaneously or over time—the Peasant’s Revolt, the end of serfdom and a general increase in social mobility.  GDP per capita in 1500 reached levels “equivalent to China and India in the 1990s,” and did not drop precipitously as population increased, showing the first signs of resistance to the Malthusian Trap (and lending credence to the theory that the Industrial Revolution occurred in England in part due to unique cultural factors).

It wasn’t all good, of course.  The Wars of the Roses roiled what had been a mostly peaceful internal scene, and featured such dubious lowlights as the Battle of Towton in 1461, supposedly the bloodiest battle ever fought in England, with reputable scholars calculating that around 1% of the entire English population died in the battle itself.  This exception aside, though, Tombs notes that English wars were almost always less vicious than Continental wars (and he seems to think Towton is exaggerated as to its bloodiness, though he does not elaborate).  Moreover, “there was never prolonged general disorder even during the Wars of the Roses,” and at no point did social and political structures ever disintegrate—so “the people of England in the 1400s—surely shockingly—were richer and safer than in many countries during the 2000s.”

The next major section covers subsequent fresh divisions in England, both the Reformation and most especially the Civil War.  The Tudors take the stage, and the Continent and its own struggles take a larger role in English history.  The road to civil war was long, winding, and not inevitable.  In fact, in the early 17th Century, England was again stable and safe, with an extremely low murder rate and little political intrigue or violence, and nominal religious strife, yet what strife there was descended into war.  Tombs rejects any simplistic or unitary explanation for the Civil War, and notes the wrenching effect it had on many communities as well as the constantly shifting coalitions and the relatively restrained violence.  Soon enough, the English were back to the Restoration, though “It was the Civil War that created the Whig-Tory divide moulding our deepest political identities, and it also bequeathed a sectarian bitterness that long enlivened and envenomed political culture.”

That’s about the first third of the book, until 1660.  From then until the 20th Century, most of the history is of politics and culture, with a strong subtext of foreign wars, especially the Napoleonic, and extensive discussion of the beginnings and development of Empire, its arc being the arc of much of English history over the past 250 years.  Many bon mots of the famous appear, my favorite being Horace Walpole’s dismissal of the Society of Dilettanti, established in 1734, as a club for which “the nominal qualification . . . is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk”—although a close second is Johnson’s dismissal of the Earl of Chesterfield’s famous letters of advice to his son as embodying “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.”  The politics of this era I find dull, but your mileage may vary.  Certainly, if you want to learn about Robert Walpole, the Hanoverian kings, John Wilkes, and the Pitts, you will learn a lot here.

Tombs shows the expansion of England, first to being an “Atlantic nation” and then to becoming a global Empire (even as it lost the United States along the way).  He examines the Industrial Revolution, noting the already-high levels of literacy, education and wealth among the English of all classes, and rejecting the idea that foreign demand, or slavery, was particularly relevant to Britain’s explosive economic growth.  Yes, English wages didn’t rise all that much initially—because they were already high relative to world standards, and then they proceeded to take off.  Tombs views Dickens as the mirror of his time (as he earlier examines Shakespeare for related, though not identical, purposes), and focuses on the beginning of various forms of social welfare legislation, about which he says a great deal in the second half of the book, along with other forms of social unrest and reform.  On the other hand, Tombs clearly thinks that the picture we have of England as covered entirely with “dark, satanic mills” is too negative, and that the 19th Century was the apogee of England in many ways, with increasing wealth, health, population, power, political participation, and social reform.

Here, and throughout the book, Tombs does an excellent job explicating various religious movements, their interactions, and their critical impact on the society as a whole—at this later stage, especially as they were the drivers of social reform and poor assistance.  Maybe related, the hand of government was both extremely light and extremely competent, with “perhaps the smallest central-government machinery every found in an industrial society.”  Most government was conducted on the local level, embodying the principle of subsidiarity—although it was far from laissez-faire in certain areas, notably sanitation and factory working conditions, in which central laws were quite aggressively enforced, for the time at least.

Similarly, Victorian England was not bad at all—it was pretty good, in fact, and most of what we think of as stereotypically “Victorian” is a false stereotype.  “Victorians were probably less prudish than Americans and in some ways (for example, the freedom given to young women of all classes) more permissive than the French.”  (Tombs in numerous places in the book notes that English law, from earliest times, gave vastly more legal rights to women than generally believed, and that informal rights of women, in practice, were greater still.)

Other topics come and go, each covered with verve and interest, if not in extreme depth.  These include Ireland and Scotland; the role of sport in Empire; changes in crime and criminality (a frequent, if unheralded, theme in this book, and seemingly used as a proxy for the civilized nature of the English through history); the campaign against slavery; the campaigns for global free trade (more for the benefit of the globe and peace than for Britain, Marxist scholars be damned).  In this latter part of the book, as announced up front, Tombs focuses on Empire.  Nothing is particularly new, but it is all pulled together well, with fascinating statistics:  “The Colonial Office numbered 113 clerks in 1903—half the UK Ministry of Defence’s press office today—to oversee an empire that consisted of over 100 separate political units (not including some 600 Indian princely states).”  Like the United States for a few brief years in the 1990s, in the 19th Century was functionally a global hegemon that was in practice invulnerable.  In the nature of things, this hegemony eroded over time, for many reasons, presaged by problems in India, the Boer War, and other rumblings.

Which, of course, culminated in the disastrous 20th Century—disastrous for the world, and most especially disastrous for England.  Tombs covers World War I, again with fascinating and illuminating tidbits:  “The preliminary bombardment for the third battle of Ypres (1917) lasted nineteen days, using 321 train-loads of ammunition totaling 4.3 million shells—a year’s output of 55,000 munitions workers, costing £22m (almost the whole army budget in 1914).”  “Men were not constantly in the trenches. . . . Siegfried Sassoon—‘Mad Jack,’ winner of the Military Cross, warrior, poet and protestor—spent less than a month at the Front.”  The inter-war period passes; World War II arrives, bringing with it, and in its wake, enormous social upheaval and change (as war always does, and typically not for the better).  Here, the only possibly controversial part of Tombs’s analysis is his firm contention that area bombing was extremely effective in bringing the war to a close, something that has long been in dispute.

Tombs notes the end of Empire, with its mixed benefits and costs for both the mother country and its former colonies, and the start-stop accession of Britain to the EU, which he treats as tortured yet inevitable because needed to stem what the ruling class otherwise saw as a certain decline to irrelevance (he wrote prior to Brexit, and does not seem to have contemplated that England could ever leave the EU).  Here, as elsewhere, Tombs thankfully eschews agonized navel-gazing about alleged societal guilt, a topic that seems to interest him very little.

Finally, Tombs addresses, with a mostly mildly negative answer, whether the period since World War II has been “An Age of Decline?”  He acknowledges that the nearly universal perception is that it has been such an age.  He begins by adducing figures showing how United Kingdom GDP per capita has, as with the rest of the West, continued to grow exponentially.  This is a bit of a red herring—there is little doubt that the UK is much wealthier today even than a few decades ago.  The prophets of decline complain not of poverty of pocket, but poverty of culture and morality, and many probably regard wealth as part of the cause of decline, rather than a sign of strength.  To be fair, though, it’s not that Tombs thinks that modern liberal democracy is all that awesome; in fact, the reader senses a certain jaundiced view of the modern English political elite in particular.  It’s just that Tombs thinks that decline is overstated, just as frequently the unpleasantness of medieval life is overstated.  This is not to say that Tombs refuses to take stands and issues namby-pamby “on the one hand, on the other hand” analysis; quite the contrary.  He’s just more willing to see the silver lining than a lot of more ideologically driven authors.

In this last section, Tombs spends some time on an area that I have never really focused on—the difference between the UK “constitution” and the American Constitution.  Of course, the UK has no constitution—it has the common law, and for at least the past few hundred years, has operated under a doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy.  “When it is said that the United Kingdom has no constitution, it really means that no entrenched fundamental text defines and limits the powers of the various branches of government, above all the legislative power of Parliament.”  By Americans, at least, this has often been treated as a distinction without a difference, which effectively means pointing to the generally parallel set of liberties accorded citizens in both countries, and implying that this is the necessary result.  But, of course, given the fundamental differences in the underlying structures, this is either a mere coincidence, or only the result of close parallels of culture, such as use of the common law, which have actually diverged over time.  (And, of course, the parallels are somewhat exaggerated—for example, freedom of speech in Britain has never had anything close to the American level of protection.)

The supremacy of Parliament in England until very recently was on the path to elimination, since accession to the EU meant that English courts began to treat EU law as supreme, and, less visibly but perhaps even more perniciously,  resulted in “causing [judges] to apply broad principles, balancing ‘competing values,’ and making ‘value choices’ in the Roman law tradition, rather than invoking precedent, scrutinizing the precise wording of legislation, or interpreting ‘the will of Parliament’ as sovereign, as in the Common Law approach.”  With Brexit, the formal subordination of Parliament to the EU bureaucracy will presumably end; and with luck, the common law will be restored (although the common law is only as good as the society from which it is generated, so perhaps this is a vain hope).

Americans tend to recoil from the idea of Parliamentary supremacy, addicted as we are to the theory of formal division of powers, with what is commonly regarded as the core component of judicial review of legislative acts, supposedly needed to effectuate the guarantees of the Constitution, especially as regards minority rights.  But this fails to appreciate that what we actually have today in the United States is not divided powers, but judicial supremacy, where the legislative role for all important social and cultural issues, as well as for many other critical matters ranging from governmental structures such as administrative law, judicial creations such as immunity for government officials, and even military operations, are dictated by the federal courts acting as a super-legislature.  The vast majority of these legislative diktats are devoted to advancing left-wing causes and principles.  Conservatives both do not control the courts and, to the extent they have power in some areas, are usually (foolishly, in practice) philosophically opposed to this method of government.  Legislative supremacy, or even putting the legislature back on an equal footing with the judiciary, would be a huge improvement over what the United States has now, which is in effect a judicial tyranny.

But back to England.  In his discussion of alleged English decline, Tombs covers cultural changes, especially from 1960 onward, in some detail, including the wholesale destruction of moral structures, led by the Establishment, most of all the clergy itself.  Following, if not consequent, was an explosion in criminality unparalleled in the entire history of England (again, Tombs seems to use this as a proxy for much of his cultural analysis, a thermometer of sorts).  He covers Wilson and Thatcher, as well as Tony Blair, concluding with a chapter titled, probably at least partly ironically, “Things Can Only Get Better, 1997-c. 2014”), touching on the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the uncertain and unevenly spread costs and benefits of massive increases in immigration.  And he ends with an excellent summary about what “Englishness” is, going back to the words of Robert Manning, a Lincolnshire monk of the early medieval period, who wrote of the “felawschip” of “Inglysch.”  The characteristics of this, Tombs believes, include linguistic homogeneity; “a flattering self-image of ancient freedom,” and several other key characteristics.  It is worthwhile to read the book simply in order to read this essay with understanding—while I don’t agree with everything Tombs concludes, this essay may be the best concise analysis of England that I have seen, and I have seen a lot.  And it caps a book that serves equally well a reader who knows little, and a reader who knows a lot, about England.

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