Sunday, 27 July 2014

The State knows best…of course, it doesn’t!

Where does the responsibilities of the State end and those of the individual begin?   From Plato and Aristotle through to John Rawls and Robert Nozick, this has long been one of the central questions of political philosophy.  Nozick, for instance, argued in favour of a minimal state, ‘limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on.’ When a state takes on more responsibilities than these, he argued, rights will be violated.  Others take a more positive, expansive and interventionist role for the state suggesting that it is only the state that has the coercive power to defend the rights of individuals against those who seek to limit those rights.  It is the defender of the ‘common good’—something generally undefined—and this justifies its restriction of individual rights for the benefit of society as a whole.  Individual rights are justified only where they do not do harm to others—the archetypal view of John  Stuart Mill in his On Liberty published in 1859—but also increasingly where they do not threaten the hegemony of the state.  Far from being the defender of democratic principles, though it will always argue that it is, the state is increasingly technocratic in tone—the notion that the state knows best—and anti-democratic in emphasis calling for political transparency on the one hand while denying it on the other.  It is becoming in Hobbesian terms, ‘the leviathan’.
Across the gamut of things that affect the individual—personal morality, health, education and so on—the state now takes the view that it knows best and seeks to regulate individuals’ lives effectively emasculating individual choice.  Take, for instance, the issue of students taking time off school during term time.  Recent regulations now make this not only unacceptable but, because head teachers can now imposed fines of parents who do so, can result in individuals having a criminal record if they refuse to pay the fines and are taken to court.  The justification for this is that students should be in school learning and not enjoying early holidays so parents can escape the exorbitant increases charged by travel companies during the school holidays.  This then appears, at least in the eyes of the Department for Education, to result in the poor standing of British students in the global tests such as Pisa, an argument that I find completely unconvincing.  Just how many students were taken out of school for holidays and when?  In my experience, this practice was most prevalent in the last week of the Summer term and then only affected a small number of students.  In 2004, we conducted a survey in my school and found that, of 1,300 students, only 21 were absent because of holidays in the final week of the Summer term.  Now, you may argue, that this is too many and why can’t parents use the six week break to go on holiday but if the alternative is pulling your kids out of school for the last week or no holiday at all then the question is whether a break with all the family together is more important than what is often a fairly relaxed last week of term. 
Of greater concern in tightening up the rules is that what would in the past have been seen as an acceptable absence is often no longer seen in that light.  As a result, students have been refused permission to attend family weddings, funerals, visits to terminally-ill grandparents  and even denied permission when their doctors have said they need a break.  This has placed parents in the unenviable position of either accepting the schools’ decisions or doing what they feel is in their families’ interests and paying a fine.  To be fair it also places head teachers in the often invidious position of having to decide whether to apply the letter of the rules or risk seeing their absence rates go up—a cardinal sin as far as Ofsted is concerned.  The state appears to have taken the view that it has the right to determine what is best for the family when the evidence suggests that students do no lose out by missing lessons in school.  Let me pose the question…a student misses a week of lessons to go on a school trip to Paris to study Art so no Maths, English, History and so on for that week but that’s not an unexplained absence, while if a student misses a day’s lessons to attend a family funeral it is, so does the state really know what’s best?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Massacre of the Men in Grey Suits: how not to reshuffle your Cabinet!

With less than a year until the next General Election, it was inevitable that the Prime Minister would reshuffle his Cabinet.  Like Harold Macmillan in 1962, David Cameron has gone for a substantial revision of his top team giving it a more euro-sceptic and media-savvy focus.  Gone are many of those moderating middle-aged men in grey suits who have dominated both Cabinet and junior government posts and in come younger ministers, including a significant number of women.  Some of those dropped from the Cabinet, such as Sir George Young and Ken Clarke, are in their seventies and it is not surprising that they have stood aside from their often arduous ministerial posts.  Others, including Owen Paterson—whose lamentable performance during the floods earlier this year makes one wonder why he was still in post anyway—David Willetts, Alan Duncan and Damian Green are two decades younger but have decided that life on the backbenches after 2015 or life beyond the hallowed halls of Westminster beckoned. 
William Hague
Several senior ministers are staying in post: George Osborne, and Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Iain Duncan Smith.  William Hague has decided to leave parliamentary politics in 2015 to spend more time with his writing—apparently a history of Foreign Secretaries is forthcoming--and, of course, his family and has left the Foreign Office but will act as de facto deputy Prime Minister and play a central role in the campaign for a second Conservative government.  His is an understandable, if unexpected, decision giving him the flexibility and time to do other things.  With Philip Hammond now in the Foreign Office, after his stint at Transport and Defence, political experience has replaced political experience but with a more euro-sceptic edge. The move of Michael Gove from education to become Chief Whip and his ‘enhanced role in campaigning and doing broadcast media interviews’ plays to his strengths and also removed him from his increasingly toxic position at education.  Nicky Morgan, his replacement, however, has barely two years’ experience in government.
So David Cameron has gone for youth over experience and has boosted the number of women who sit in Cabinet: I suppose it’s ‘Cameron’s cuties’, an echo of ‘Blair’s babes’.  The problem with this is that while individuals such as Ken Clarke are recognised by the electorate, people like Liz Truss, Jeremy Wright and Nicky Morgan are—whatever their abilities—generally not.  Yes, they have a year for the public to get to know them and their promotions are, at least in part, because they are good communicators. But there is a problem.  An increasing proportion of those who vote are over 55 so you have to ask how will the reshuffle go down with the ‘grey vote’?    Well, if you’re 60 and have just been moved aside to make way for younger people in the workplace, not very well at all.  It reinforces the view that experience really doesn’t count for much and that all that matters is youth and appearance—substance does not matter.  So is the reshuffle an unashamed electoral ploy to appeal to the younger voter?  Perhaps yes, but if that is the case then it’s doomed to failure.  Making your Cabinet appear more cuddly may not be the way to go.  Whether we like it or not—and this is something that David Cameron has rightly rejected—is that many people over 70 still remain suspicious of women in top jobs and in some cases have an intense antipathy to it.  It’s not something I agree with at all but it remains an electoral reality and an electoral risk, though one to my mind absolutely necessary to take. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

A Conclusion: What was the ‘Rum Rebellion’?

The ‘Rum Rebellion’ had nothing to do with rum.  Almost no one at the time of the rebellion thought it was about rum. Bligh briefly tried to give it that spin to smear his opponents, but there was no evidence for it and he moved on. The label was conferred some fifty years after the event by William Howitt[1], a writer with teetotal sympathies and popularised by H.V. Evatt as the title of the series of lectures he delivered at the University of Queensland for its 150th anniversary.[2] Officers of the NSW Corps had monopolised the rum trade in the 1790s, but this ended years before the rebellion, with the arrival on the commercial scene of successful former convicts such as Simeon Lord and free traders like Robert Campbell. The name seems to have persisted partly due to the power of alliteration and partly because it has allowed left-leaning writers to blame the event on Australia’s proto-capitalists. Neither was it really a ‘rebellion’. Contemporaries thought of it as a mutiny or military insurrection though it might more accurately be described as a coup d’etat in that, once the NSW Corps had seized power by arresting Bligh, it was its leaders who ruled the colony and, in the case of Paterson and Foveaux refused to reinstate Bligh, until replaced by Macquarie.

With Macquarie’s inconclusive investigation in 1810 and the ambivalence of the court martial findings on the basic cause of the mutiny, there has been a diversity of theories as to why it occurred and have polarised into two distinct and divergent perspectives.  At one extreme, historians argue that the rebels had been granted large tracts of land that they successfully exploited in their own interests and that Bligh’s policies threatened their wealth.  John Macarthur, a former officer of the Corps who had become one of the wealthiest men in the colony, is cast as a conniving puppet master and Bligh’s personal defects are played down.  This interpretation appeals to those who have faith in government enterprise and an egalitarian inclination to support, as Bligh did, the small farmers of the settlement on the Hawkesbury flood plain.

At the other extreme, the primary focus is on the part played by the officers of the NSW Corps in providing much of the entrepreneurial drive in trade and agriculture that was necessary to enable the colony to succeed.  Bligh’s policies threatened that success. His was a static vision of a government-dominated society serviced by yeoman farmers that starkly contrasted with the dynamism of Sydney-based commerce.  Adherents to this approach emphasise the defects in Bligh’s character and policy and play down the greed and cunning of the rebels. Certainly those involved in the coup were quick to put their spin on events. A picture of Bligh being pulled from beneath the bed where he had hidden for two hours was possibly produced and put on display within hours of the event. It was part of a campaign to brand Bligh a coward and reduce support for him in the colony and in Britain. This seems to have been at least partly successful. Following the rebellion, the NSW Corps was withdrawn, Johnston was cashiered and Macarthur had to stay out of the colony for many years for fear of prosecution had he returned. Yet the outcome could have been far worse for the rebels, but for the antipathy that existed towards Bligh in England at the time of Johnston’s trial in 1811. The perspective appears also to have been the judgement of the only systematic contemporary investigation of the events, the court martial that simply cashiered Johnson, a punishment universally regarded as exceptionally lenient.

Both perspectives are plausible because the available contemporary evidence consists largely of assertions by those with a vested interest in the outcome, perhaps inevitable with an event that polarised a small community.[3]  Three issues are important when assessing this event.  First, any explanation of why the coup occurred can look like justification or condemnation.  Secondly, it is important not to project today’s values backwards to judge the corruption of the officers.  Early nineteenth century British politics and public administration was, by today’s standards, profoundly corrupt and the early Sydney colony was no different. Finally, this was an age in which conduct was defined by the code of honour to which all gentlemen had to subscribe. This code is expressed through the tradition of duelling that was already evident in colonial NSW and that provides part of the explanation for the military coup of 1808.

The coup was the result of a range of factors including various aspects of commercial self-interest.  The traffic in rum was of little if any significance, except to some of the non-commissioned officers.  Much more important, amongst multiple causes, was the conflict between real estate developers and the public interest over the exploitation of prime urban land near the water.  The tension over urban leases was one of a number of conflicts in which Bligh sought to reverse practices permitted by his less resolute predecessors.  He made only three land grants in 18 months and issued no leases; he pardoned only two convicts in 18 months; he cracked down on profiteering and enforced import restrictions.  His policies undermined the wealth and the prospects of that part of the local elite with access to capital.  On a number of occasions he deployed his authority over the rudimentary judicial system to attack those he opposed and intervened directly in court cases to achieve his ends.

This kind of untrammelled executive power was unacceptable to ‘free-born Englishmen’.  Government by whim or caprice in the exercise of an absolute discretion was tyranny, typical of Continental nations and an anathema to the English. Jeremy Bentham maintained that military rule breached the Enlightenment tenet of liberty since there was no separation of powers to prevent the executive becoming excessively powerful and that the colonies reflected the spirit of French absolutism rather than British constitutionalism. Broad discretionary powers may have been necessary for NSW governors to deal with convicts, but when applied to free settlers and emancipists, they challenged the dominant Lockean ideology of eighteenth century Britain and the principles of the rule of law and provided the civic discourse of early Sydney.[4] Bligh’s conduct may have been acceptable on a ship where a culture of authority created an expectation of unquestioning and immediate execution of orders.  However, such conduct was unacceptable when applied to free subjects, who made up the majority of the 7,000 persons in the colony.  Indeed there were serious doubts, privately expressed by Bentham but known to some settlers, about whether, in the absence of express parliamentary authority, the Governor could lawfully exercise such authority over free men and women at all.[5]

The sense of personal security of citizens, indeed the existence of social order, is determined in large measure by the extent to which people can arrange their personal affairs and their relationships with associates, friends, family and neighbours on the assumption that basic standards of propriety are met and reasonable expectations are satisfied.  All forms of social relationships, including economic interaction, are impeded by the degree to which personal and property rights are subject to unpredictable and arbitrary incursion, so that people live in fear or act on the basis of suspicion, rather than on the basis that others will act in a predictable way. The rule of law provided the central legitimising discourse of eighteenth century England.  It was firmly established in Australia by the experience of the coup itself and, perhaps more significantly, by the experience of government under a military regime. Bligh had united a number of disparate interests.  His removal took away that unity. 

The absence of a clearly legitimate authority enabled those with a grievance to seek vengeance and anyone with access to power to abuse it.  After the coup, the sense of personal security was lost to a substantial degree and the rule of law compromised and, on occasions, set aside. Later, the courts appeared to operate more normally and fairly. However, throughout the two years between the deposition of Bligh and the arrival of Macquarie, the colony was controlled by an illegal government.  Every appointment, including to judicial office and every governmental decision was invalid.  Personal and property rights were institutionally insecure and the residents of NSW welcomed the restoration of legitimate authority under Lachlan Macquarie. In accordance with his instructions, he invalidated the appointments and the decisions of the rebel administration, including appointments to and decisions by the courts. Completed court orders were not reopened on the basis of necessity, perhaps most poignantly applied in the case of the invalid death sentences that had been carried into effect. Nevertheless, some redress was available for the past illegal exercise of governmental power.  One of those banished to the coal mines sued successfully for false imprisonment.[6] The rule of law was emphatically restored.


[1] Howitt, William, Land, labour, and gold: or, Two years in Victoria: with visits to Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land, 2 Vols. 1st ed., (Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans), 1855, p. 118, 2nd ed., (Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts), 1858, Vol. 2, p. 78.

[2] Ibid, Evatt, H.V., Rum Rebellion:  A Study of the Overthrow of Governor Bligh by John Macarthur and the New South Wales Corps remains useful because, although partisan in favour of Governor Bligh, it was written by an eminent Australian lawyer. Ellis, M.H., John Macarthur, 3 editions, (Angus & Robertson), 1955, 1967, 1978 is partisan in the opposite direction. A more balanced account is Fitzgerald, Ross and Hearne, Mark, Bligh, Macarthur and the Rum Rebellion, (Kangaroo Press), 1988.

[3] This is particularly evident in the correspondence in HRA, Series I, Vol. 6 where Bligh, Johnston, Foveaux and Paterson and pro- and anti-Bligh factions placed their positions on the record.

[4] See ibid, Neal, David, The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony, pp. 92-94, 97-98; Braithwaite John, ‘Crime in a Convict Republic’, Modern Law Review, Vol. 64, (2001), p. 11;  ibid, Gascoigne, John, The Enlightenment and the Origins of European Australia, pp. 39-44;  Krygier, Martin, ‘Subjects, Objects and the Colonial Rule of Law’, in Krygier, Martin, Civil Passions: Selected Writings, (Black Inc), 2005;  Thompson, E.P., Whigs and Hunters:  The Origin of the Black Act, (Pantheon), 1975, pp. 265-266;  Hay, Douglas, ‘Property, Authority and the Criminal Law’, in Hay, Douglas et al, (eds.), Albion’s Fatal Tree:  Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England, (Pantheon), 1975, pp. 17-63;  Cole, D.H., ‘‘An Unqualified Human Good’:  E.P.Thompson and the Rule of Law’, Law and Society Review, Vol. 28, (2001), p. 117.

[5] Alan Atkinson, ‘Jeremy Bentham and the Rum Rebellion’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 64, (1), (1978), pp. 1-13, at p. 1.

[6] Ibid, Kercher, B., Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters:  The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, p. 40.

Monday, 7 July 2014

‘The Thirsty Sex’

This was, for instance, evident in increased levels drinking by women described in contemporary newspapers. Concerns about women drinking was not a new problem: ‘If a woman is out drinking all day long, the home is neglected’.[1] The problem appears, at least as far as the authorities were concerned, to have been exacerbated by the war. Although women probably accounted for between 25 and 30 per cent of all pub patrons in before 1914, most came from the working-classes. During the war, novel drinking habits began to emerge with an unprecedented increase in the number of upper working- and middle-class women who patronised pubs. The Aberdeen Journal reported: ‘Having more money in their hands than usual, there were only too many ready to help them to spend it in the wrong way.’ [2] In November, Carnarvon magistrates restricted the hours during which women could purchase alcohol.[3] The following year, Theophilus Simpson, a member of the county magistrates, expressed his shock in the Manchester Evening News at counting:

…26 women enter a licensed house in ten minutes, with 16 coming out who he had not seen enter…Some people said women have a right to spend their money as they liked; they might as well say that they had a right to sell themselves if they like.[4]

In 1916, the Liverpool Echo reported a debate of the Bootle Licensing Magistrates during which Captain Oversby said: ‘In the opinion of the committee, the great increase in the number of women visiting public-houses during the past year has demanded drastic treatment.’ A number of different measures were discussed to stop women visiting the public houses, including a refurbishment of all public houses: ‘All licensed houses to be provided with clear plate-glass windows; partitions, snugs and other obstacles likely to facilitate secret drinking, be done away.’ a member of the Flintshire Police Committee described women as ‘The Thirsty Sex’ two months before the war ended. [5] The scale of the problem, even if it applied to only a ‘small minority of the soldiers’ wives’, and its impact was made clear in a report produced by the Dundee Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1918: the number of women drinking in 1915 was reported to be 275 and 175 soldiers’ wives or 55 per cent; in 1916, the respective numbers were 260 and 172 or 66 per cent; and in 1917 263 and 189 or 71 per cent.

In many cases the Service allowance to soldiers’ wives was larger than the ordinary labouring man’s wide was accustomed to receive from her husband…the result [of drinking] was neglect of the children, and abandonment of parental responsibility, and not infrequently unfaithfulness to the husband at the front. [6]

In the early-twentieth century beer, wine and spirits were relatively cheap and consumed in large quantities.[7] In the outbreak of war, drink was one of the main political issues in Britain was and convictions for drunken behaviour regularly exceeded 200,000 per year.[8] Drinking places provided a focus for the community.[9] By 1830 a measure of social segregation had developed and by 1860 no respectable urban Englishman entered an ordinary public house.[10] Private, as opposed to public, drinking was becoming the mark of respectability. Drinking was also a predominantly male preserve and on paydays pubs were often besieged by wives anxious to get money to feed and clothe their children before it was drunk away.

Job opportunities in alcohol: A women brewer securing the lid of a barrel of beer

Growing control over licensed premises predated the war at least in part motivated by concerns about women drinking with calls for the government to take action to keep women out of bars, for publicans to stop serving them, and even for changes to the design of pubs, to discourage female drinkers.[11] The 1908 Licensing Bill, with the enthusiastic support of Lloyd George a long-time supporter of the temperance movement, sought to limit the number of licensed premises in each local authority area and one of its provisions included the banning of women from working behind the bar. Unlike the suffrage movement that called a truce for the duration of the war, temperance reformers saw it as a call to arms and there were immediate calls from some for the introduction of total prohibition. It was believed that military efficiency would be enhanced by abstinence. Many prominent public figure including King George V, Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener endorsed wartime pledge to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the war as a means through which the whole population, should they take the pledge, could contribute to the war effort. British teetotalism, therefore, was seen as a crucial weapon to be deployed against beer-drinking Germany. [12]

It was not uncommon for pubs to open between 5.00 am and midnight. At the end of August, the Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Act gave licensing authorities the power to curtail drinking hours. The legislation allowed pubs to be open for a maximum of six hours per day with a compulsory afternoon break but it was never applied universally. Rising concern about drink impeding the war effort prompted the government to commence a new policy of regulating selective areas through the Liquor Traffic Central Control Board (CCB). Created in May 1915, the CCB addressed insobriety with radical ideas that transformed virtually every aspect of drinking--from hours, liquor strengths and increasing alcohol taxes to retailing and social customs, for instance banning the buying of rounds (the ‘No Treating Order’) in 1915. Shorter, broken licensing hours ranked as one of the key changes.[13] Arrests for drunkenness, already down one-quarter in 1915, decreased another two-thirds over the next two years. Still weaker beer at comparably higher prices in 1918 cut drunkenness by almost a further two-fifths. When the war ended, arrests were less than one-fifth the level of 1914.[14] Between 1914 and 1916, although alcohol consumption had decreased by 17 per cent, actual expenditure had increased by 24 per cent but largely down to higher taxation.

 

Crispin Street, Stepney in c1916

The CCB protected women from discriminatory policies that some authorities had introduced in 1914 to banish women from licensed premises after 6 or 7pm. This appealed to a government that dreaded the revival of the pre-war violent strife with the women’s suffrage movement especially after the NUWSS reacted with outrage to at an attempt by the Chief Commissioner of Police in London to bar women from buying alcohol before 11.30 am. Concerns about female insobriety took second place to threats to public harmony. Despite the alarm expressed by local newspapers, there appears to have been a waning of the stigma attached to women drinking in public. Their large numbers, coupled with far fewer men drinkers and more women running pubs for husbands away at war, also helped to make the pub more respectable. This did not prevent affronted local magistrates seeking to divest women of newly-attained drinking rights, a process that accelerated in the final years of the war, as part of a strategy to restore pre-war gender segregation.

Hostility against women drinkers reflected a north-south divide. It was strongest in ports and industrial areas of northern England, regions most committed to preserving existing drinking habits. This was less the case in southern England where respectable women had traditionally found less opposition to drinking in pubs. The issue, like that of ‘Khaki fever’, was one of female independence—one social, the other sexual—and both threatened patriarchal authority. Drinking alcohol in pubs defied established norms and women were regarded as flagrantly challenging the gender status quo. Female drinkers, whether respectable or not, were seen—much as those campaigning for women’s suffrage before the war—as feckless, disorderly and unpatriotic and, consequently, not only unfit to use licensed premises but also unfit to have the vote.


[1] ‘Teignmouth Inn’, Western Times, 12 February 1914, p. 2. ‘A Plague Spot: Clarendon Hotel License Opposed’, Nottingham Evening Post, 9 March 1914, p. 5, ‘the landlord was charged with harbouring women of immoral character…The women were behaving in a more unbecoming manner, dancing ragtime and smoking as if they were men.’

[2] ‘Drinking among Wives of Soldiers’, Aberdeen Journal, 25 November 1914, p. 3. See also, ‘Drinking amongst Women’, Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 3 November 1914, p. 4, ‘Drinking and Women’, Manchester Evening Post, 7 November 1914, p. 2.

[3] ‘Women’s Drinking Hours’, Liverpool Echo, 18 November 1914, p. 8.

[4] ‘Soldiers’ Wives’, Manchester Evening News, 5 April 1915, p. 4, see also, ‘Manchester Morals’, Manchester Evening News, 11 December 1915, p. 5.

[5] ‘What Becomes of the Beer’, Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 5 September 1918, p. 2.

[6] ‘The Dundee Liquor Problem. The Care of the Soldier’s Wife’, Evening Telegraph and Post, 25 February 1918, p. 3.

[7] Burnett, John, Liquid pleasures: a social history of drinks in modern Britain, (Routledge), 1999, provides an excellent overview.

[8] Nottingham Guardian, 2 May 1914. ‘The Flying Inn’, Nottingham Evening Post, 21 May 1914, p. 4, suggested that a ‘general diminution of drunkenness reported throughout the country…’

[9] Holt, Mack P., (ed.), Alcohol: a social and cultural history, (Berg), 2006, provides an overview.

[10] Jennings, Paul, The local: a history of the English pub, (Tempus), 2007, Haydon, Peter, The English pub: a history, (Hale), 1994, and Kneale, James, ‘‘A problem of supervision’: moral geographies of the nineteenth-century British public house’, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 25, (1999), pp. 333-348.

[11] Donnachie, I., ‘World War I and the Drink Question: State Control of the Drink Trade’, Journal of the Scottish Labour History Society, Vol. 17, (1982), pp. 19-26, Gutzke, David W., ‘Gender, Class and Public Drinking in Britain during the First World War’, Histoire social/Social History, Vol. 27, (1994), pp. 367-391.

[12] Yeomans, Henry, ‘Discussion Paper: Providentialism, The Pledge and Victorian Hangovers: Investigating Moderate Alcohol Policy, 1914-1918’, Law, Crime and History, Vol. 1, (1), (2011), pp. 95-107.

[13] Carter, Henry, The Control of the Drink Trade: A Contribution to National Efficiency, 1915-17, (Longman, Green and Co.), 1918, pp. 136-148.

[14] Wilson, George B., Alcohol and the Nation: A Contribution to the Study of the Liquor Problem in the United Kingdom from 1800 to 1935, (Nicholson & Watson), 1940, pp. 432, 435-436. See also, Nicholls, James, The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England, (Manchester University Press), 2009.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

What is a historian?

I’m not sure whether it’s envy or snobbery or simply a desire to maintain their historical hegemony that leads ‘academic’ historians to lay waste to the work produced by ‘popular’ historians.  Sir Max Hastings appears to have borne the brunt of this in recent months with the publication of his highly readable and eminently successful—in terms of books sold—history of the outbreak of the First World War.  Yet it has been dismissed as ‘broad-brushed and judgemental’ in a review in the Times Literary Supplement and of failing to take account of the research that has, in the last half century, deepened our perceptions of the war.  Christopher Clark, author of Sleepwalkers published two years ago, went further saying that Hastings ‘is not a historian.  He is a man who writes about the past.’  In an excellent review in The Spectator on ‘First World War, the battle of the historians’, Simon Heffer examines the ways in which historians have written about the war have changed and why.  When discussing popular history he writes:
‘In taking our history more seriously, and demanding from historians evidence that prevents the presentation of fact from being recast as simple assertion, we have moved on from the Arthur Bryant school that still sets the model for populist history.’
While there is much about Bryant that I find distasteful—his pro-appeasement views and admiration for Nazi Germany in the 1930s highlighted by Andrew Roberts in his Eminent Churchillians who described him as ‘ a supreme toady, fraudulent scholar and humbug’—and the overtly patriotic stance of his writings, I was perhaps fortunate to have been brought up reading his King Charles the Second, first published in 1931 and his three-volume biography of Samuel Pepys, perhaps his best works, rather than his somewhat vacuous general histories.  J. H. Plumb was equally critical of Bryant arguing that his failure to achieve professional recognition was his lack of intellect.  Although professionals historians were frequently negative about his best-sellers, Bryant's histories were explicitly praised by prime ministers Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson, who awarded him a knighthood and made him a Companion of Honour in the 1960s, and Callaghan and Thatcher.  Despite this he was remarkably successful selling over two million copies of his forty plus books, many of which are still in print, and he was a columnist for the Illustrated London News for almost half a century.  But was he a historian and what does that actually mean?
Although being a historian has become more sophisticated, its primary characteristics have not really changed since Herodotus and Thucydides—it is a recounting by the historian of what happened in the past grounded in contemporary sources and  it should be communicated to an audience orally or in writing.  More problematic is the view that historians produce a ‘true account’ of the past.  In reality, this is never possible and interpretation is a third characteristic of being a historian—of course, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ interpretations, a case not of whether you agree with a particular historian’s views or not but of the degree to which those views are based on a close analysis of the available sources.  While assertion and polemic have long been a feature of historical writing—historians from Bede to Macaulay have all been guilty of it—but that does not necessarily make them ‘bad’ historians.  Their literary populism is the key to their success and explains why we still read Bede and Macaulay and don’t read other historians.