Book review: A history of the English-speaking peoples
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a strange book. It purports to be a continuation of Winston Churchill’s work of the same title, which ended at the end of the 19th century. I haven’t read Churchill’s work, so I can’t compare it with that, but the point of view of the author seems to be set at the end of the 19th century; I can only describe it as “neojingoism”. It’s the kind of outlook I could imagine my grandfather having, if he’d been alive today, and not experienced any of the intervening period since the beginning of the First World War. Perhaps one could also call it neo-Edwardian. It reminds me of the song, I think by Flanders and Swan:
The English, the English, the English are best
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.
And that is the viewpoint that permeates the whole book.
In spite of this quaint anachronistic approach, however, the book is quite well written, and for the most part, not boring, and at times entertaining. At least, since the author makes his own point of view obvious, one is forewarned about some of the biases. There are quite frequent asides for sermonettes on the virtues of capitalism or the English-speaking peoples, or pointing out the vices of lesser breeds who don’t share the virtues of the English.
Roberts rightly deplores the use of hyperbole in describing atrocities committed by English-speaking peoples. I must say I agree with him about the too-easy flinging about of terms like “Holocaust” and “genocide” for events that are nothing of the kind, and that the over-use of such terms diminishes the seriousness of the events that such terms were coined to describe. But Roberts spoils his argument by his own exculpatory descriptions, when he says (on page 312f), “However bad the late-Victorians might have been it is a gross error of judgment to compare anything they might have inadvertently done to the deliberate Holocaust against European Jewry in the 1940s.” It’s the “might… inadvertently” that gives the game away. The message is clear: they couldn’t have done it, because they were English, of course, and even if they did do it, they did it in a fit of absence of mind.
Roberts describes in considerable detail the horrific injuries caused by the poison gas Saddam Hussein used against Kurdish insurgents, but glosses over the injuries caused by the atomic bombs dropped by the English-speaking people on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (justified, of course, since they were English-speaking). And not a word about the response of the English-speaking peoples to insurgents in Fallujah.
Towards the end of the book (p. 636) he posts a disclaimer: “It is emphatically not that the English-speaking people are inherently better or superior people that accounts for their success, therefore, but that they have perfected better systems of government, ones that have tended to increase representation and accountability, while minimising jobbery, nepotism and corruption.” Unfortunately, however, in the other 647 pages he seems to be trying to create the impression that it is precisely because of their innate superiority that the English-speaking peoples have done what they have done.
One of the other curious things about the book is that when dealing with Commonwealth participation in the two world wars, South Africa has been almost entirely written out of the story. There is mention of Australia, and New Zealand, and the place Gallipoli in WW I holds for them. There is mention of Canada and Vimy Ridge. There is mention of the West Indies and Eire. But not a word about South African troops, of Delville Wood or the sinking of the Mendi. This omission is so consistent that it sticks out like a sore thumb.
All history is selective, and historians select and emphasise the points that seem most important to them, and give less emphasis to other points. But this is not merely a matter of less emphasis; it seems to be a conscious and deliberate exclusion, and one wonders why.
The book is hardly a history, in the sense of a coherent narrative. There are occasional illuminating stories about particular historical incidents, but little to connect these with others. Huge chunks of history are skipped over, and anyone reading this to get a view of an era is likely to get a very distorted picture.
Throughout the book the author seems to be wanting to have his cake and eat it. He argues that realpolitik is more important than occupying the moral high ground, but then says that realpolitik IS the high moral ground, if its practitioners are English-speaking, of course. So, for example, he says of the detente policies in the Cold War in the 1970s:
Detente had anyhow meant very different things in the East and the West. The West saw it as a way of lowering tension, ‘in the hope that it might disengage from the dreadful and even apocalyptic tests of strength it was inflicting on the rest of the world’. By contrast, in 1976 Leonid Brezhnev stated, ‘Detente does not in any way rescind, nor can it rescind or alter, the laws of class struggle. We do not conceal the fact that we see in detente a path towards the creation of more favourable conditions for the peaceful construction of socialism and communism.’
But where is the contrast? It is clear that both sides saw it as a breathing space that might create the possibility of getting what they wanted relatively peacefully without Mutually Assured Destruction. Brezhnev’s words could be paraphrased to precisely express the attitude of the West: ‘Detente does not in any way rescind, nor can it rescind or alter, the laws of the free market. We do not conceal the fact that we see in detente a path towards the creation of more favourable conditions for the peaceful construction of capitalism and the market.’
And in the 1980s it was the West, under Reagan and Thatcher, that resumed the arms race — something that Roberts clearly approves of, since they were English-speaking and Brezhnev was not.
Towards the end, the “history” label wears very thin indeed. It is an undisguised political rant. The author says very little about what happened, and a great deal about why it was right that it should have happened the way it did (if the English-speaking people were responsible). The contradictions multiply. It is a good and noble thing to speak the truth to power, unless that power happens to be American, Then it becomes anti-Americanism, which is, in the author’s view, a Bad Thing.
So reading the book gives me the queer anachronistic feeling that a contemporary of my grandfather (who served on the British side in the Anglo-Boer War in an irregular unit called Loxton’s Horse) had fallen asleep on 31 December 1900 and, like Rip van Winkle, woken up a century later with his Victorian-Edwardian jingoism intact, and decided to write about the previous century from that point of view.
It’s like a parody of a parody. There are several books that parody the simplistic history of school history trextbooks. There was an English one called 1066 and all that and a South African one called Blame it on van Riebeeck. The latter noted that in the 19th century in the Eastern Cape there were nine Kaffir Wars, and that these wars all had Causes and Results. And it tabulated the wars with their causes and results:
1st Kaffir War – Cause: the Kaffirs
2nd Kaffir War – Cause: the Kaffirs
and so on for all nine.
And yes, there were school history books in the 1940s and 1950s that took that approach.
But Roberts is writing a book for adults, yet adopts the same kind of simplistic approach. In any war that the English-speaking peoples were involved in, there are no nuances, there is no ambiguity, there are Causes — the non-English-speaking people (the Boers, the Germans etc), and there are Results: the English-speaking people won, and saved the world for democracy, capitalism, and realpolitik.