Thursday, January 22, 2015

Simon Schama. History of Britain II: The Wars of the British 1603-1776 (2001)

     Simon Schama. History of Britain II: The Wars of the British 1603-1776 (2001) A shorter time-span, a fatter book. Schama has lots more sources to work with than for Volume I, and here and there yields to the temptation to pile on the details. This makes the arc of the plot harder to follow. Schama shows that the civil wars of the 1600s led fairly directly to the constitutional reforms that gave us a monarch subject to law, and a sovereign Parliament.
The British Parliamentary system separates the roles and powers of Head of State and the Head of Government. It took three centuries for that system to reach its present form, Schama interrupts his story at the beginning of the American Revolution, when Americans still insisted that they were British, and so were entitled to all the rights and privileges of the British in the home-country. It was this demand for political and economic equality with Britain that was refused by Westminster (with a strong support from the King, who still had an active role in government). It’s interesting to speculate on the consequences of that equality being recognised. Would we now have a Queen residing in Baltimore, perhaps?
     As in Volume 1, Schama shows that whatever the social and economic pressures on the decision makers, they did have decisions to make, and those decisions did determine the next round of problems to solve. I think he could have contrasted the paths taken more strongly with the alternatives and analysed why they weren’t taken. We do, after all, make choices according to the values we take for granted. It’s those values, and even more the assumptions about human (and non-human) nature that guide the evaluation of choices, and it’s in that sense that “historical currents” determine history. But the results always include the unpredictable. Understanding where decisions went wrong comes slowly, sometimes two or three generations later, by which time a new set of unconscious assumptions guide the new decision makers.
     In short, we can’t win. But we can muddle through, as Schama’s tale shows. The Cromwellian revolution, the Stuart Restoration, the installation of  the houses of Orange and Hanover, were reactions to immediate problems seen in the light (or rather, shadows) cast by the past, made more complex and contingent by the personal desires and feuds of the actors. They were not actions taken as part of a long-range program of liberalisation, although that was, in the end, their main effect. The Whigs’ reading of British history as steady progress towards personal and economic freedom was right after all, albeit as often despite the actors' explicit wishes as because of them.
     A good read. ***

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