The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.
>> Quotes on Society
>> Quotes from The Enemies of Society
>> Quotes on America
>> Quotes on Israel
>> Quotes on Britain
>> Quotes from The Offshore Islanders - a History of the English People
>> Quotes from Ireland: A Concise History
>> Quotes from The Renaissance
When Jesus Christ preached in Palestine two
millennia ago, the distinctions between rich and poor were painfully visible.
The rich were plump and well-clad, warm and clean, scented and groomed.
The poor were thin, in rags, filthy and stinking.
Now all that has changed. The "poverty line" has to be revised upward every year. The officially "poor" now have cars, often own homes, take holiday trips and possess all the appliances judged indispensable. For the first time in history, plumpness and obesity are signs of poverty. The rich are lean, dieting on salads and often refusing to eat meat. They may still spend a fortune on clothing, but the results are not obvious. Clever mass production and marketing mean that a smart girl with taste, though she only works in a drugstore, can dress as elegantly as a Rockefeller or a Rothschild. In advanced countries (and in a growing proportion of the Third World) central heating, hot running water, fresh milk and fruit are now taken for granted. It takes less than a decade for today's luxury to become a universal necessity.
- from Forbes magazine
The study of history suggests that the sum
total of intolerance in society does not vary much. What changes is the
object against which it is directed. Those who shape the conventional wisdom
at the top are always anxious to censor unorthodoxy, thus demonstrating
their power and consolidating their grip.
- article in "The Spectator" (1987)
The urge to distribute wealth equally, and
still more the belief that it can be brought about by political action,
is the most dangerous of all popular emotions. It is the legitimation of
envy, of all the deadly sins the one which a stable society based on consensus
should fear the most. The monster state is a source of many evils; but
it is, above all, an engine of envy.
- from ???
We have to face the ugly fact: Internationalism
- the principle of collective security and the attempt to regulate the
world through representative bodies - has been dealt a vicious blow by
Mr. Chirac's bid to present himself as a world statesman, whatever the
cost to the world. France is a second-rate power militarily. But because
of its geographic position at the center of Western Europe and its nominal
possession of nuclear weapons, which ensures its permanent place on the
U.N. Security Council, it wields considerable negative and destructive
power. On this occasion, it has exercised such power to the full, and the
consequences are likely to be permanent.
- article in "The Wall Street Journal" during the Iraq crisis
It is a curious fact about human nature that
many people actually seem to want to believe in an approaching catastrophe.
In the Dark and Middle Ages - indeed right up to the seventeenth century
- religious seers would always collect a substantial following if they
predicted the end of the world, especially if they gave a specific date
for it. When the date came and went, and nothing happened, human credulity
did not disappear. It re-emerged promptly when the next persuasive prophet
mounted his soapbox. The ecological panic of our times is driven by exactly
the same emotional needs. Indeed it is yet another example of how, during
the twentieth century, the declining religious impulse has been replaced
by ... secular substitutes, which are often far more irrational and destructive.The
religious impulse - with all the excesses of zealotry and intolerance it
can produce - remains powerful, but expresses itself in secular substitutes.
- "The Perils of Risk Avoidance", National Review (1984)
Nothing appeals to intellectuals more than
the feeling that they represent 'the people'. Nothing, as a rule, is further
from the truth.
- from "Birth of the Modern"
We have lived through a terrible century
of war and destruction precisely because powerful men did usurp God's prerogatives.
I call the 20th century the Century of Physics, inaugurated by Einstein's
special and general theories. During this period, physics became the dominant
science, producing nuclear energy and space travel.
The century also brought forth social engineering, the practice of shoving large numbers of human beings around as though they were earth or concrete. Social engineering was a key feature in the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, where it combined with moral relativism - the belief that right and wrong can be changed for the convenience of human societies - and the denial of God's rights.
To Hitler the higher law of the party took precedence over the Ten Commandments. Lenin praised the Revolutionary conscience as a surer guide for mankind than the conscience implanted by religion
- Reader's Digest, "The Real Message of the Millennium," Dec 99.
The demographic projections for Europe tell
a dismal tale. I remember telling an international conference on European
culture, held in Vienna 40 years ago, that Continentals should stop boasting
about it and put their pricks where their mouths are by raising the birthrates.
I used colourful language to stress the point and provoked fury. Alas,
nearly a generation later my warnings are proving only too accurate. Even
if the EU expands to include Russia, the USA is on course to overtake it
in population, let alone GNP. By 2050 the ratio of pensioners to active
workers will more than double, jumping from 24 to 50 per cent. Europe is
falling behind in advanced sectors. 74 per cent of the 300 leading information
firms are now American, one reason why America wins so many Nobel prizes
and continental Europe so few.
- from a Spectator column in November 2004
Let me assure readers I am totally without
prejudice. I do not prejudge. I have formed my dislikes on the basis of
long experience. I tried explaining this once to James Baldwin, who complained
to me that it was sheer race prejudice and homophobia which made people
dislike him: "No, James, it is not prejudice, it is actual experience of
how awful you are." He said, "What experience have you had of prejudice?"
I replied, "Listen, old sod, if, like me, you were born in England red-haired,
left-handed and a Roman Catholic, there’s nothing you don’t know about
prejudice." At this point he stumped off in a rage.
- from a Spectator column in December 2004
It is worth remembering that Hitler was voted
into office, quite lawfully and constitutionally, by what was then the
best-educated people in the world, and that he and his Nazis always scored
higher ratings among the educated young, and among university students
and graduates — and professors — than among the population as a whole.
As Hitler is still demonised rather than allowed to emerge as a historical
character to be studied, we hear little of his gifts... (yet) it was precisely
Hitler’s gifts which made him so dangerous and so uniquely evil.
- from a Spectator column in January 2005
"Most people are resistant to ideas, especially
new ones. But they are fascinated by character. Extravagance of personality
is one way in which the pill can be sugared and the public induced to look
at works dealing with ideas."
"The cruelty of ideas lies in the assumption that human beings can be bent to fit them."
- from "The Intellectuals"
The truth is, language is the most democratic
of all institutions. People determine how they speak themselves, and they
are driven by simple self-interest.
- from "The Spectator"
My grandfather used to say, "Learn to like
art, music and literature deeply and passionately. They will be your friends
when things are bad". It is true: at this time of year, when days are short
and dark, and one hardly dares to open the newspapers, I turn, not vainly
either, to the great creators of the past for distraction, solace and help.
- from a Spectator column in January 2005
I gave up writing novels in my mid-twenties,
when I was halfway through my third, convinced I had not enough talent
for fiction. Sometimes I wish I had persisted. There is one particular
reason... I have published, I calculate, about 800 essays without using
one for exorcism. It works in poetry, especially to expunge the pangs of
loss — witness Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ and Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, and most
of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ — indeed nearly all Housman’s verse was exorcism.
It can be made to work, I suppose, in non-fiction. I suspect there is exorcism
in some of Ruskin’s prose, and Carlyle’s. But fiction is the ideal medium
for killing painful memories. The most excruciating emotional torture in
Thackeray’s life — prolonged, too — was his hopeless passion for Mrs Brookfield,
ending in heartbreak, bitterness and bad temper on the part of her unpleasant
husband. But he cured himself by putting it all into Henry Esmond. Gustave
Flaubert wanted to forget about his ten-year on-off affair with Louise
Collet. So he wrote Madame Bovary, which did the trick and also proved
to be by far his best novel because, unlike Salambo and Bouvet et Pécuchet,
he had lived it. I think Anthony Trollope tried to deal with his illicit
and unspoken love for the American girl Kate, not once but several times
— she flickered in and out of at least three novels — but the fact that
he had to repeat the dose shows it didn’t work... Dickens was the great
exorciser of emotional ghosts. One reason why David Copperfield was his
favourite book was that it was a vast exercise in slaughtering his most
painful memories of childhood. By recreating his father as an unforgettable
comic hero in the shape of Micawber, Dickens triumphantly blotted out of
his consciousness the fact that John Dickens was a hopeless and embarrassing
- writing in The Spectator (Feb'08)
# THE ENEMIES OF SOCIETY
No consideration should ever deflect us from the pursuit and recognition of truth, for that essentially is what constitutes civilization itself. Truth is much more than a means to expose the malevolent. It is the great creative force of civilization. For truth is knowledge; and a civilized man is one who, in Thomas Hobbes' words, has a 'perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge.' And so it is; for the pursuit of truth is our civilization's glory, and the joy we obtain from it is the nearest we shall approach to happiness, at least on this side of the grave. If we are steadfast in this aim, we need not fear the enemies of society.
The events of this century should remind us that the hopes of mankind almost always prove illusory, and that we have only a limited ability to devise permanent and equitable solutions to problems which spring from human nature. Violence, shortage amid plenty, tyranny and the cruelty it breeds, the gross stupidities of the powerful, the indifference of the well-to-do, the divisions of the intelligent and well-meaning, the apathy of the wretched multitude - these things will be with us to the end of the race.
Hence civilization will always be at risk, and every age is prudent to regard the threats to it with unique seriousness. All good societies breed enemies whose combined hostility can prove fatal.
The virtue we should cherish most is the courage to resist violence, especially if this involves flying in the face of public opinion which, in its fear, and in its anxiety for peace, is willing to appease the violators. Above all, violence should never be allowed to pay, or be seen to pay.
Democracy is the least evil, and on the whole the most effective, from of government. Democracy is an important factor in the material success of a society, and especially in its living-standards. But of course the essence of democracy is not one-man-one-vote, which does not necessarily have anything to do with individual freedom, or democratic control. The exaltation of 'majority rule' on the basis of universal suffrage is the most strident political fallacy of the twentieth century. True democracy means the ability to remove a government without violence, to punish political failure or misjudgment by votes alone. A democracy is a utilitarian instrument of social control; it is valuable in so far as it works. Its object is to promote human content; but perhaps this is more likely to be secured if the aim is rephrased. As Karl Popper says, the art of politics is the minimization of unhappiness, or avoidable suffering. The process of avoiding suffering is greatly assisted by the existence of free institutions. The greater their number, variety and intrinsic strength, and the greater their independence, the more effective the democracy which harbours them will be. All such institutions should be treated like fortresses: that is, soundly constructed and continually manned.
Free institutions will only survive where there is the rule of law. This is an absolute on which there can be no compromise: the subjection of everyone and everything to the final arbitration of the law is more fundamental to human freedom and happiness than democracy itself. Most of the post-war democratic institutions have foundered because the rule of law was broken and governments placed themselves about the courts. Once the law is humbled, all else that is valuable to a civilized society will vanish, usually with terrifying speed. But the rule of law is essential, not merely to preserve liberty, but to increase wealth. A law which is supreme, impartial and accessible to all is the only guarantee that property, corporate or personal, will be safe; and therefore a necessary incentive to saving and investment.
Always, and in all situations, stress the importance of the individual. Where individual and corporate rights conflict, the political balance should usually be weighted in favor of the individual; for civilizations are created, and maintained, not by corporations, however benign, but my multitudes and multitudes of individuals, operating independently.
Beware of those who seek to win an argument at the expense of the language. For the fact that they do is proof positive that their argument is false, and proof presumptive that they know it is. A man who deliberately inflicts violence on the language will almost certainly inflict violence on human beings if he acquires the power. Those who treasure the meaning of words will treasure truth, and those who bend words to their purposes are very likely in pursuit of anti-social ones. The correct and honourable use of words is the first and natural credential of civilized status.
Trust science. By this we mean a true science, based on objectively established criteria and agreed foundations, with a rational methodology and mature criteria of proof - not the multitude of pseudo-sciences which, as we have seen, have marked characteristics which can easily be detected and exposed. Science, properly defined, is an essential part of civilization. To be anti-science is not the mark of a civilized human being, or of a friend of humanity. Given the right safeguards and standards, the progress of science constitutes our best hope for the future, and anyone who denies this proposition is an enemy of science.
- from "Ten Pillars of Society"
Throughout history, the attachment of even the humblest people to their freedom, above all their freedom to earn their livings how and where they please, has come as an unpleasant shock to condescending ideologues. We need not suppose that the exercise of freedom is bought at the expense of any deserving class or interest — only of those with the itch to tyrannize.
# AMERICA & THE AMERICAN PEOPLE
The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures.
There were many great men in Lincoln's day ...yet Lincoln seems to have been of a different order of moral stature, and of intellectual heroism. He was a strong man... without vanity or self-consciousness - and also tender... he invariably did the right thing, however easily it might be avoided. Of how many other great men can that be said?
"It is more important that we should show
ourselves honest, brave, truthful, and intelligent than that we should
own all the railways and grain elevators in the world. We have fallen heirs
to the most glorious heritage a people ever received and each of us must
do his part if we wish to show that this nation is worthy of its good fortune."
There can be no doubt that Roosevelt believed every word of these sentiments and did his best to live up to them.
Though a time of great plenty, it was not an era of greed. When Andrew Carnegie wrote, "The man who dies rich, dies disgraced," he was not engaged in empty sloganeering. The Scottish immigrant spent more than $350 million on charitable causes, including millions for the construction of more than 2,800 public libraries. Nor was Carnegie alone among "robber barons" in using private fortune for public good. It was Colonel Jim Fisk who came to the rescue of Chicago after its great fire of 1871. Likewise, railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman heaped generosity upon San Francisco following the infamous earthquake of 1906. Leland Stanford, Daniel Drew, and Cornelius Vanderbilt - derisively labeled "robber barons" by the denizens of academia today - all gave more than their surnames to establish famous centers of learning.
The administration of Woodrow Wilson was one of the great watersheds in American history. It was Wilson who first introduced Americans to big, benevolent government.
One of the deepest illusions of the Sixties was that many forms of traditional authority could be diluted without fear of any consequences.
The declining dynamism of the US economy observable in the 1960s and 1970s was very much a regional phenomenon largely confined to the Northeast, the old manufacturing core, the ‘smokestack industries.’ Beginning in the 1920s, encouraged by the New Deal’s state capitalism, and hugely accelerated by World War Two, was the rise of America’s 'Pacific Economy'... The shift of America’s centre of gravity, both demographic and economic, from the Northeast to the Southwest, was one of the most important changes of modern times.
Ronald Reagan’s essential achievement was to restore the will and self-confidence of the American people, while at the same time breaking the will and undermining the self-confidence of the small group of men who ran what he insisted on calling the 'Evil Empire' of Communism.
It could be argued that the growing reluctance of gifted men and women to become candidates for national office explained the presidency of Bill Clinton.
America is still the first, best hope for the human race. Looking back on its past, and forward to its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity.
- All from "A History of the American People"
Alexander Hamilton was a genius - the only
one of the Founding Fathers fully entitled to that accolade, and he had
the elusive, indefinable characteristics of genius. He put American public
finances on a sound basis, which they certainly were not until he came
to the Treasury. And that was very important, because it was always on
the cards that the United States of America might go the same way as the
Latin American republics, into a morass of inflation, deficit financing,
state bankruptcy and all the consequences which inevitably follow from
those evils. America didn't do that.
Alexander Hamilton realized that an infant state has to be nice to the rich, because if it is nice to the rich, then the rich are nice to it. And he was prepared to reimburse in full - and this was people who held United States currency bonds; and this was grumbled at by other people in Congress and so forth - but he got the people with the money, including the people with the money power in London, which was very important, to back the infant American state. And that's one of the reasons it succeeded. And if you look around the world today, you find of the hundred new nations which have come into existence since the end of the Second World War, probably 75 percent of them have gone down the drain financially because they weren't nice to the rich. It's a horrible thing to have to say, but it is the essential wisdom of a young nation. And Alexander Hamilton had that wisdom.
"Nobody who has five times been elected governor
of a state like Arkansas can possibly be an honest man."
- commenting on Bill Clinton
"Whatever else the re-election of Bush signifies,
it was a smack in the face for the intelligentsia. In America they were
all at it, from old Chomsky to that movie-maker who looks like a mushy
jumbo cheeseburger. Today, I suspect, the intellectuals are impotent because
so many of them are no good. In America it is a sign of the times that
their leader is the mobile cheeseburger."
- writing for "The Spectator" (Nov'04)
The United States, in a lawless and dangerous
world where the U.N. cannot impose order — in fact sometimes makes disorder
worse — has become a reluctant authority figure, a stepfather or foster
parent to a dysfunctional and violent family. As such, it is resented and
abused, all the more so since it wears the uniform of its role, the ability
to project military power in overwhelming strength almost everywhere in
the world. The fact that, in logic, America's critics may be grateful to
a nation which, in the past as in the present, has been essential to their
liberty and well-being by resisting and overcoming totalitarianism, or
suppressing threats to civil society by terrorism, makes no difference
to the resentment; may even intensify it. The people among whom anti-Americanism
is most rife, who articulate it and set the tone of the venom, are the
intellectuals. They ought logically to hold America in the highest regard,
for none depend more completely on the freedom of speech and writing which
America upholds, or would suffer more grievously if the enemies against
whom America struggles were to triumph and rule or misrule the world. Indeed,
many of the most violently anti-American intellectuals benefit directly
and personally from America's existence, since their books, plays, music,
and other creations enjoy favor on the huge American market, and dollar
royalties form a large part of their income. You might think that some
of these intellectuals — British, French, German for instance — who have
been particularly abusive of the U.S. would renounce their American royalties.
But not one has done so.
- from "Hating America, Hating Humanity", in "National Review" (Aug'05)
# ISRAEL & THE JEWISH PEOPLE
In the last half-century, over 100 completely
new independent states have come into existence. Israel is the only one
whose creation can fairly be called a miracle. It could even be argued
that Israel is the most characteristic single product, and its creation
the quintessential event, of this century.
Certainly, you cannot study Israel without traveling the historical highroads and many of the byroads of the times, beginning with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. That great watershed between an age of peace and moderation and one of violence and extremism set the pattern for all that followed, and marked a turning point as well in the fortunes of Zionism.
The violence bred by the searing years 1914-18 also decisively changed the moral climate of Europe, again with fateful results for the future Jewish state. In the wake of the war, extremist regimes seized power and ruled by force and terror - first in Russia, then in Italy, and finally in Germany. The transformation of Germany from the best-educated society in Europe into a totalitarian race-state was, of course, determinative. Although the anti-Semites of Central Europe had always treated Jews with varying degrees of cruelty and injustice, up to and including murderous pogroms and expulsion, it was only with Hitler that actual extermination became a possible program. The outbreak of World War II provided the covering darkness to make it not just possible but practical.
In 1948, the Haganah, Israel's defense force,
had 21,000 men, as against a professional Arab invading army of 10,000
Egyptians, 4,500 in Jordan's Arab Legion, 7,000 Syrians, 3,000 Iraqis,
and 3,000 Lebanese - plus the "Arab Liberation Army" of Palestinians. In
equipment, including armor and air power, the odds were similarly heavy
against Israel. Revisionist historians (including Israeli ones) now portray
the War of Independence as a deliberate Zionist land grab, involving the
use of terrorism to panic Arabs into quitting their farms and homes. They
ignore the central fact that the Zionist leaders did not want war but rather
feared it as a risk to be taken only if there was absolutely no alternative.
That is why in 1947 the Zionist leadership had accepted the United Nations
partition scheme, which would have given the nascent state only 5,500 square
miles, chiefly in the Negev desert, and would have created an impossible
entity of 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs. Arab rejection of this scheme
was an act of supreme folly.
Of course the Jews fought heroically, and performed prodigies of improvisation: they had to - it was either that or extermination. No doubt they fought savagely, too, on occasion, and committed acts that might appear to lend some coloring to the revisionist case. But as a whole that case is historically false. It was the Arab leadership, by its obduracy and its ready resort to force, that was responsible for the somewhat enlarged Israel that emerged after the 1949 armistice, and the same mind-set would create the more greatly enlarged Israel that emerged after the Six-Day War of 1967. In another of the paradoxes of history, the frontiers of the state, as they exist today, were as much the doing of the Arabs as of the Jews. If it had been left to the UN, tiny Zion probably could not have survived.
Britain is European only geographically,
for emotionally and politically the English Channel is wider than the Atlantic.
The British do not regard Americans as foreigners but as family (irritatingly
so at times).
- from The Wall Street Journal
Scanning the newspapers
and absorbing with a mixture of incredulity and indignation the enormities
they report, I conclude that what England lacks today is, quite simply,
- from The Spectator
In the Sixties everyone
hailed the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s office and the result of
the Lady Chatterley case as the final end of official censorship. In fact
there is now more censorship in Britain than at any time since the early
19th century, if not before, and it is increasing rapidly. The old law
on blasphemy is now discredited and is obviously not being enforced...
But the new law replacing it will be much more severe on every aspect of
religious comment and many other matters.
- from 2005 Spectator article "The Inexorable March of Censorship in New Labour Britain"
A systematic onslaught
on everything decent and sensible in modern life... obsessed with the sadism
of the schoolboy bully, the mechanical, two-dimensional longings of a frustrated
adolescent, and the crude snob cravings of the suburban adult.
- from an entry in LM Starkeys's "James Bond: His World and Values" (1966)
Margaret Thatcher famously asked "Who governs
Britain?" as unions struggled for power. By 1980, everyone knew the answer:
Thatcher governs. Once the union citadel had been stormed, Thatcher quickly
discovered that every area of the economy was open to judicious reform.
Even as the rest of Europe toyed with socialism and state ownership, she
set about privatizing the nationalized industries, which had been hitherto
sacrosanct, no matter how inefficient. It worked. British Airways, an embarrassingly
slovenly national carrier that very seldom showed a profit, was privatized
and transformed into one of the world's best and most profitable airlines.
British Steel, which lost more than a billion pounds in its final years
as a state concern, became the largest steel company in Europe.
By the mid-1980s, privatization was a new term in world government, and by the end of the decade more than 50 countries, on almost every continent, had set in motion privatization programs, floating loss-making public companies on the stock markets and in most cases transforming them into successful private-enterprise firms. Even left-oriented countries, which scorned the notion of privatization, began to reduce their public sector on the sly. Governments sent administrative and legal teams to Britain to study how it was done. It was perhaps Britain's biggest contribution to practical economics in the world since J.M. Keynes invented 'Keynesianism', or even Adam Smith published 'The Wealth of Nations'.
- Time Magazine : People of the 20th Century
"I am by nature a conservative with a strong
radical bent. I don't know whether that makes any sense to you. My instincts
tend to be conservative. I may say that as a young man, I was almost a
socialist. But my instincts tend to be conservative, but I often go for
radical solutions. That's one reason, for instance, why I like Margaret
Thatcher so much."
- from a Booknotes interview
Labour today is so deeply anti-creative,
so organically and instinctually lacking in any positive impulses, that
it actually likes banning things or people, for its own sake. It's motto
is: accentuate the negative. To ban, to boycott, to embargo, to exclude,
blacklist, close down, shut up, silence, censure - these are the things
which now come naturally to it, perhaps the only things it really knows
how to do.
- from a 1986 article in "The Spectator"
Ireland is sure to do the opposite of anything
- Paul Johnson, discussing EU policy, in "Forbes Magazine"
# THE OFFSHORE ISLANDERS
"Lords and Commons of England — Consider
what nation it is whereof you are and of which you are governors: a nation
not slow and dull but of quick, ingenuious and piercing spirit; acute to
invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point
that human capacity can soar to."
- John Milton, "Areopagitica"
The English are a huge force for good and evil: producing, with relentless energy and fertility, new ideas and men of dauntless courage to thrust them on society; rich, also, in instincts of decency, imperious in asserting the moral law, remorseless enemies of injustice, avid for philanthropy, profoundly anxious to refashion the globe on lines of purity and reason; but also, simultaneously, blind and prejudiced, clinging desperately and often violently to the past, worshipping unreason in a thousand ways, uniquely vulnerable to the corruptions of class and snobbery and xenophobia, cruel by indifference and conservative by tradition.
The story of the English is an instructive one, for others as well as themselves... a backward island gently washed by the tides of Continental cultures; its separate development rudely forced out by the tides of colonisation; independence seized, repeatedly lost, at last firmly established within a complex racial mould; the intellectual divorce from the Continent; the expansion overseas; the cystallisation, within the island, of an entirely new material culture, which spreads over the Earth; the moment of power and arrogance, dissolving into ruinous wars; the survival and the quest for new roles... there is nothing in it which in inevitable; but nothing purely accidental either.
The literature of English history is enormous and constantly increasing... How can any one person hope to familiarise himself with such an enormous output, let alone master it? Yet it would be a tragedy if writers of history were to allow themselves to become, like the physical scientists, the inhibited prisoners of available knowledge, and accept ant-like roles in a huge, impersonal industry, which no one mind felt capable of surveying as a whole. As one brilliant young historian has wisely observed, "History does belong to everyman: that is a strength, not a weakness." The people have a right to be taught their history in a form they can grasp. If this is acknowledged to be impossible, then the labours of professional historians seem to me to be largely futile, self-indulgent and self-propagating exercises in mere antiquarianism. A certain ruthlessness is required, a willingness to accept the responsibility of making choices and forming judgements, a readiness to select, discount and discard... To write general history it is necessary to make choices, almost on every page. This I have done, without bravado but also without fear and if I am often wrong, I have the comforting words of a distinguished Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, who has observed that there are times "when a new error is more life-giving than an old truth, a fertile error than a sterile accuracy."
Much historical research tends to obscure, rather than reveal, the truth; or, most depressing of all, to suggest that truth cannot be finally established, often on matters of outstanding importance. Just as astronomers seem unable to agree on the salient point of whether the universe is expanding, contracting, or standing still, so historians constantly reveal new areas of doubt, or violent disagreement, on points which had once seemed clear. Thus: the Roman city was a failure in Britain; it was a substansial success. The English population rose in the early 14th century; it fell dramatically... Similar black and white constrasting verions, held with angry tenacity and backed by massive documentation, envelop the nature of the Tudor monarchy, the origins of the Civil War, the loss of American colonies, the politics of George III's in England, and the origins and chronology of the industrial revolution, to menion only a few vital aspects of English history. Sometimes historians meet in seminar to debate their disagreements, not, as a rule, to much purpose. The layman can only survey the battlefield and make up his own mind about the honours of victory.
Every age rewrites the history of the past in its own terms. We each have only one pair of eyes to see, and they are modern ones... The writing of history, as Professor E.H. Carr puts it, is a "dialogue between the present and the past."
I object strongly to the drift away from English history, which is part of a wider movement away from European and North Atlantic history. Virtually all the ideas, knowledge, techniques and institutions around which the world reolves comes from the European theatre and its ocean offshoots; many of them came quite explicitly from England, which way the principal matrix of modern society. Moreover, the West is still the chief repository of free institutions; and these alone, in the long run, guarantee further progress in ideas and inventions. Powerful societies are rising elsewhere not by virtue of their rejection of western word habits but by their success in imitating them... What ideas has Soviet Russia produced? Or Communist China? Or post-war Japan? Or liberated Africa? Or, for that matter, from Latin America, independent now for more than 150 years? It is a thin harvest indeed, distinguished chiefly by infinite variations on the ancient themes of violence, cruelty, suppression of freedom and the destruction of the individual spirit. The sober and unpopular truth is that whatever hope there is for mankind - at least for the forseeable future - lies in the ingenuity and the civilized standards of the West, above all in those western elements permated by English ideas and humbug. To deny this is to surrender to fashionable cant and humbug. When we are taught by the Russians and the Chinese how to improve the human condition, when the Japanese give us science, and the Africans a great literature, when the Arabs show us the road to prosperity and the Latin Americans to freedom, then will be the time to change the axis of our history.
In the year AD 410 Britain ceased to be a Roman colony and became an independent state. The inhabitants of the offshore island - or rather the settled lowlands of it which we now call England - shook off the shackles of a vast European system, which tied it politically, economically and militarily to the Continental land-mass, and took charge of their own destinies.
During the period of Caesar's conquest of Gaul, the British kings and their advisers watched with growing anxiety the rapid approach of a great Continental military power. For the first time a political society existed in Britain capable of opposing a cross-channel invasion, and therefore able to formulate a conscious policy towards the Continent. But it was also aware of the definite material advantages of Roman civilization, and realised that its growing prosperity depended in great part of cross-channel trade and contacts. How could it get the best of both worlds - that is, exploit the opportunities offered by an expanding European culture and market, without risking incorporation, and thus exploitation, in the political and military system of the land-mass? That is the fatal question which has always confronted the inhabitants of lowland Britain. It has never received a final answer, and perhaps no final answer is possible.
Arthur's [circa 475-537] real achievement was that he delayed, indeed for a time reversed, the progress of Germanic settlement. This had important consequences, for it prevented the British from being exterminated in, or wholly expelled from, the lowland area. It is true that British culture disappeared almost completely.
When William dismissed his mercenaries in 1070, nearly all returned to France… The probability is that the Continental settlement did not involve more than 10,000 people - and perhaps as few as 5,000 out of a population of well over a million. England simply acquired a new ruling class.
From the middle of the 12th century until the middle of the 19th, the external history of England is very largely the history of Anglo-French enmity. Sometimes the hostility is expressed in open war; sometimes in diplomacy or commerce; sometimes in all three simultaneously.
One might say that much of the history of England has been a conflict between xenophobia and avarice, with the latter, in the end, getting the upper hand. The irresistible force of the English desire for war meets the immovable object of the refusal to pay for it. The English love to inflict violence on foreigners; happily they love money more. (p116)
King Henry II (r. 1154-89) was motivated
(in his punishing schedule of administrative and judicial undertakings)
only in a superficial degree by personal ambition. What made him a great
and characteristic English statesman was a passionate regard for public
order; and it was to this that the English people responded. No race on
earth has such a consistent and rooted hatred of unauthorised violence.
Extremely violent by nature and instinct, their political capacity for
self-knowledge has always placed the highest premium on the control and
subjugation of these terrible forces within them.
From Anglo-Saxon times to the present, English history is the long record of the struggle for self-mastery, the remorseless, often unsuccessful, attempt to release themselves from the drug of violence. It has been, on the whole, a remarkably successful struggle; but for this drug there is no such thing as a wholly successful cure, and constant vigilance will be needed so long as the English race lasts. At any rate, Henry II was unusually well attuned to this English preoccupation. He had violent instincts himself; equally, he was a passionate self-disciplinarian.
[From The English Reformation pp145-167]
The one clear result of the Peasants' Revolt was to delay the Reformation in England by 150 years. The kings, Lancastrian, Yorkist, even Tudor, took on a new role as the custodians of religious orthodoxy. Fear of economic and political subversion sent the ruling class back to the old, discredited altars... The English eventually approached the business of changing their religion, if that is a correct description of what happened in the middle decades of the 16th century, in a characteristically haphazard and confused manner, and were later to congratulate themselves on the constitutional propriety with which it was done, and the admirable compromise which they eventually evolved. Yet the breach with Rome, and indeed the three centuries of growing hostility to the papacy which preceded it, had comparitively little to do with religion as such; its principal dynamic was anti-clericalism, which was itself a form of English xenophobia... The Becket affair made it clear that henceforth two powers, one national, the other international, would be in a permanent state of tension and often of conflict, with public opinion inevitably moving in support of the national position.
In view of the claims of clergymen to a separate caste status, their enjoyment of between a quarter and a fifth of the wealth of the country, and their lack of a recognisable role in society: they were parasites and were seen to be parasites, and public opinion at all levels of society could be easily marshalled against them... The Church was in part the architect of its own destruction. Powerful prelates had never hesitated to misuse Church property, and even to grab it, with the barest show of legality, for their own purposes. Cardinal Wolsey was merely the last of a long line of ecclesiastical confiscators when he suppressed a number of small religious houses to found his Cardinal College (now Christ Church) at Oxford. There was nothing new about the dissolution of the monasteries: it was the culmination of a long English tradition, inaugurated with the approval of the Pope... The case against the regular clergy was not so much that they were corrupt (though some were) as that they were idle: about 8000 men and women sitting on one-eighth of the country's wealth.
The English were perfectly capable of combining
doctrinal orthodoxy with rabid anti-clericalism, though they were equally
capable of favoring heresy if they thought it would suit their purposes...
Most of the English, in so far as they took any interest in religion, were
Anligcans, as they always had been. They wanted an English Church, run
by Englishmen. They did not object to a link with Rome provided the Pope
did not interfere, especially in appointments and finance. They thought
there were too many idle, dissolute and criminal clergymen, and objected
strongly to the fact that some of them were foreigners. The public took
a prejudiced view of clerical behaviour... London juries hated clergymen
even more than Welshmen.
...On the other hand, there was, and had been for nearly two centuries, an important and active minority working for radical reforms of doctrine and organisation in the Church. They represented a streak of heterodoxy (Pelagianism to Lollardy) in England which went right back to the earliest days of Christianity in England... Thus, when the breach with Rome came, a very ancient English tradition, maintained admittedly only by a minority, was available to supply doctrinal nourishment.
...One of the reasons why the Reformation was successful in England was that there was absolutely nothing new about it. All its elements — anti-clericalism, anti-papalism, the exaltation of the Crown in spiritual matters, the envy of clerical property, even the yearning for doctrinal reform — were deeply rooted in the English past. The breach with Rome, like the 1914 War, could have come at almost any time. The elements had been there for decades; only a spark was needed.
Oddly ebough the divorce was the one issue
on which Henry did not have public opinion behind him. It is a curious
fact that English kings who quarrel with their wives always forfeit the
general sympathy... Yet Henry was undoubtedly right to seek a divorce.
As he saw it, in the light of recent English history, the provision of
a male heir who would have communal backing for his title to the throne
was essential to stable government, and was thus a necessity of State.
It was intolerable that this vital national interest should be jeopardised
by the actions of a foreign power, motivated not primarily by spiritual
considerations, but by the needs of its own foreign policy. Any self-confident
English king would have taken the same line. Moreover Henry believed, and
may have been right to believe, that his marriage to Catherine was genuinely
invalid... In 1527, Catherine, seeking to defend her marriage to Henry
declared that she had never slept with Henry's elder brother Arthur. But
she should have said so in 1503, and the original bull (of papal dispensation)
would have been issued on a different basis. Hence the "technical impediment
of public honesty", as Wolsey pointed out. Henry's argument from affinity
was never strong; and it was weakened still further by the fact that he
proposed to marry the sister, Anne Boleyn, of a women with whom, on his
own admission, he had sexual relations: this also constituted a barrier
on grounds of affinity: if his marriage to Catherine was invalid then so,
for the same reason, would be his marriage to Anne. Whether he would have
won his case if he had followed Wolsey's line of attack is, however, doubtful,
Pope Clement could not afford to grant the divorce because he could not
risk offending Catherine's nephew, the Emperor Charles V.
...Henry was saved by the frivolity and decietfulness of the Pope... Clement was dishonest in his actual handling of the case; it was this aspect which swung the English ruling class, not initially in favour of the royal divorce, behind Henry. A significant episode took place in London, when Cardinal Campeggio, the legate, acting on secret instructions from Clement, adjourned the ecclesiastical court set up to settle Catherine's divorce. The evidence of Clement's duplicity then became manifest even to the far-from-active brain of the Duke of Suffolk. He crashed his first on the table and said: "...There was never a legate nor cardinal that did good in England."
Most Englishmen understood the international
implications of the Reformation no more clearly than the Duke of Suffolk.
though, like him, they sensed them instinctively. But the two cleverest
men in England, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, for the point. They saw
it as a historic choice in foreign policy, no less than in religion...
More was a European, Cromwell an English nationalist... To More, England
was not an island but part of a great Continental community; it could not
cut itself adrift by a unilateral act; it was bound to European Christendom
by an indissoluble spiritual treaty... It was nothing to him that a majority
of the English people accepted separation; this was something no one nation
could determine for itself. The supranational authority of the community
overrode national self-interest. More, in fact, explicitly denied English
sovereignty: "This realm, being but one member and small part of the Church,
might not make a particular law dischargeable with the general law of Christ's
holy Catholic Church, no more than the City of London, being but one poor
member in respect of the whole realm, might make a law against an act of
More can thus be presented as adumbrating modern internationalist doctrine, in which nations voluntarily relinquish portions of their sovereignty to provide a common fund of authority for such organs as the United Nations or European Economic Community. But equally he can be seen as upholding an ancient and ramshackle structure, whose reality had never corresponded to its ideals, and which was now breaking up under ths stress of nationalism... The current of the times was against More. His European Christendom was a mirage. Continental Catholicism was not an international community, operating by a consensus or majority vote, but the helpless prize in a power-struggle between emergent nations. In 1534 orthodox Christendom was coterminous with the interests of the House of Habsburg, whose head was identified with Spanish imperialism.
...Cromwell saw this well enough. He lacked More's academic background, but he knew far more about what was going on in Europe... He had negotiated with courts and popes. He knew Europe from the inside, and he knew it to be the world not of Christian unity, but of Machiavelli... Cromwell never wavered in this view: England must come first. Her Church must reflect her needs... The King in Parliament was supreme, the ultimate arbiter of the national destinies... As he put it in the statutes he drafted: "This realm is an empire" — that is, it acknowledged no superior but God... Cromwell, as well as More, stood in a great English tradition; and his was the majority one. But most Englishmen lacked his clarity. They simply felt in their bones, like the Duke of Suffolk, that foreign prelates had no business interfering in English affairs. The crash of the Duke's fist was thus the real beginning of the English Reformation.
The Reformation was a typical piece of English
conservatism, conducted with the familiar mix of muddle, deviousness, hypocrisy,
and ex post facto rationalisation. Henry was never quite clear in his own
mind whether he wanted an actual change in religion, though there is evidence
that in his last years he was moving in that direction... He had no plan
of action, moving from one expedient to another... On the other hand...
it may be that Cromwell, one of the ablest men who ever served the Crown,
was far more deliberate and systematic in his methods than his master,
Henry, or than appears at first sight. Cromwell was a parliamentary manager;
it was on his advice that the Refomation was carried through by Parliament,
in the most punctilious and thorough constitutional manner, providing the
Crown with a massive overkill of statutory weapons for present and future
use against Romanism... Cromwell's explanation was no doubt that Parliament,
itself the national repository of anti-clericalism, was the best guarantor
of the permanency of the breach with Rome. And so it proved. After the
Reformation Parliament, it became impossible for the Monarch (irrespective
of personal religious views) to decide such matters in a parliamentary
context. It was very significant that Queen Mary had to go to Parliament
to get Henry's laws reversed: and on certain matters it declined to do
so. Mary could not really put the clock back without destroying Parliament
and operating a personal tyranny... Parliament's sovereignty in spiritual
matters had thus been formally acknowledged even by a fanatically Catholic
queen. After that the Elizabethan settlement was simple and obvious.
...This political underpinning of the Reformation was reinforced by the creation of a huge vested interest in its permanency. But the end of Henry's reign, the bulk of the monastic lands had passed into the hands of private individuals... giving the propertied classes a direct, financial interest in the dissolution. After 1545, there were very few wealthy or influential Englishmen who did not have a personal stake in the Refomation.
It was Queen Mary's own actions which killed Roman Catholicism as the majority English religion... The English were not fanatical about religion, and regarded execution as a fair professional hazard for those who were. But what struck contemporaries was the sheer scale of Marian persecution. There had been nothing like it seen in England before. It had the flavour of Continental excess. Over three years, Mary burnt just under 300 people, including 60 women. Moreover, these public killings were concentrated heavily in the opinion-forming areas: London and the Home Counties... Mary must take prime responsibility for the burnings. Her husband, Phillip II, was against the policy; so was his ambassador in London, Simon Reynard, who said that at least the executions should be carried out secretly. But the English, including Mary, felt that to hold executions in public was a guarantee of liberty. As late as the 1860s, public executions were defended (e.g. by Palmerston) on the grounds that to give the executive the right to put people to death in secret would open the door to tyranny... The killing sickened even some of Mary's strongest clerical supporters, and long before her death it was evident to all that her policy not only had failed but had inflicted grievous damage on her cause. The hatred her persecutions aroused became an important fact of English history for a very long time. They cofirmed to most English people that their anti-foreign, anti-papal views were not just prejudices but rooted in a sound instinct for self-preservation... Until Mary's reign there was a real prospect of a multi-religious community emerging in England. By her death this was no longer possible.
The problem which faced Elizabth on her accession
was how to bring to an end the violent oscillations in the State religion,
to de-escalate the rising frenzy of doctrinal killings, and, if possible,
to take religion out of politics. By temperament she was agnostic. To her,
religious belief must be subordinate to the needs of public order and social
decorum... She agreed with the Duke of Norfolk when he told her: "England
can bear no more changes in religion. It hath been bowed so often that
if it should bend again it will break." ...She took the view, shared by
the overwhelming majority of her subjects, that doctrine was not a thing
that any sensible person would kill or be killed for. She hated capital
punishment by instinct and reason. It seemed to her monstrous to kill a
man for his beliefs alone; only four people were executed for heresy in
her reign, none of them Catholics... As for private views: "I seek not
to carve windows into men's souls." What she was looking for was a lowest
common denominator of agreement on religious matters, underwritten by statute,
upheld by the State, and accepted by the public as reasonable. What she
would not tolerate was anyone who strove to upset such a settlement by
force; that was treason, because it was aimed at the tranquility of the
realm, and was certain to lead to bloodshed. Thus Elizabeth was forced,
with the greatest reluctance, to turn first against the Catholics and then
against the Puritans. She did not want to persecute anyone; but both groups,
in the end, left her with no alternative... There is no evidence that the
English Catholics, as a group, wanted to expel their Queen. Most of them
did not care a damn for the Pope; they never had done. What did they care
for was the mass, and certain other spiritual comforts of the old religion.
They were, like the genuine Protestants, a minority group, and Elizabeth
would have been prepared to give them minority rights. But the papacy,
by excommunicating Elizabeth, and by instructing English Catholics to depose
her, branded them with treason... The Catholics could not logically plead
that they still served the Queen without renouncing the Pope; they were
either bad Catholics, by papal definition, or bad Englishmen... The English
are not particularly logical, but they saw the logic of this problem clearly...
The Elizabethan persecution of Catholics was thus justified by the needs
of State and public security... Elizabeth preferred fines and imprisonment
to execution; she killed on average no more than 8 a year... But she could
not save the English Catholic community; at her death only about 10,000
were still prepared to publicly declare themselves Romanists.
...The threat to Elizabeth from the Puritans was far greater, and she was in the end obliged to take it seriously. English Puritanism was born among the Marian exiles of the 1550s; it was thus an alien import... The Puritans, like the Roman Catholic extremists, believed that religion was the only important thing in life, whereas most Englishmen thought it was something you did on Sundays. They were influential out of all proportion to their numbers because, like the Communists in our own age, they were highly organised, disciplined, and adept at getting each other into positions of power. They were strong in the universities... They oozed hypocrisy... They did not believe in free speech. They believed in a doctrinaire religion, imposed by force and maintained by persecution... They were the mirror-image of the Counter-Reformation... They privileges the Puritans claimed for themselves they would certainly have denied to others... Puritanism was the dynamic behind the increase in witch-hunting.
It is against this background of murderous zeal that we must place the achievement of Elizabeth in stabilising the religious system of England on a basis of moderation, common sense and tolerance... It was an enduring achievement, too, for the Elizabethan religious settlement survived all the shocks of the next century, and emerged into modern times roughly the same article... Elizabeth felt that religion was too dangerous an element in the body politic to be safely left to clergymen. It should be the servant of the public, not its master. It should provide comfort in an harsh and painful world, not add to the troubles of society by provoking controversy and division... This was a thoroughly English approach. A man's religion was a matter between himself and God; its outward and organisation were a matter for the due constitutional process of law... The English have never made the mistake of saddling themselves with a written constitution. In the mid-16th century the pressure of the times left them no alternative but to adopt a religious constitution.
The truth is that the English are not, and have never been, a religious people. That it why toleration first took root in our country. There were, to be sure, plenty of religious zealots in England... but all together they never made up more than a minority. It is a matter for argument whether England has ever been a Christian country. The English like to be baptised, to get married in church, to be buried in consecrated ground; they pray in times of peril, they take a mild interest in religious controversy, and like to clothe the State in religious forms. But they are not truly interested in the spiritual life. We must not think of the Middle Ages in England as a religious era. It was a time when the priestly caste occupred a major role in society and in the economy... The Church was a profession... Protestantism was a more meaningful faith than Catholicism for the English, but only for a minority... On the whole it is doubtful whether, at any time in history, more than 50% of the English people have attended Sunday services regularly or paid more than lip-service to their church. This is not true of many other countries. In the United States, even today, well over 50% regularly go to services on sabbatical days. In Scotland, Ireland and Wales it is likely that, until recent decades, observance was the custom of the great majority, and religion played a meaningful role in their lives.
We owe a great deal to this remarkable women. To be sure, Elizabeth presided over a dazzling galaxy of talent, political, commercial, military, naval and artistic. But she herself took all the really important decisions — and non-decisions — of her reign, often against the advice of her ablest counsellors... She was a political genius of a very rare kind, for his inspiration was a sense of tolerance, springing from a warm heart and a cool intellect... She loathed killing and cruelty... As a young woman she had been in that horrible place, the Tower of London, in fear for her life. As a result, she determined to make England a country in which moderate, reasonable people could feel safe — even engage in controversy, provided their only weapons were words. For two centuries the public life of England had been engulfed by a rising ride of political and murder... If the fabric of English society was to survive, the process had to be stopped; and Elizabeth stopped it. What had become a bloody English tradition was firmly extinguished; and it was never really resurrected... Tolerance and a hatred of violence were modern virtues in Elizabeth's age; if they have become English characteristics, some of the credit must go to her. She was a kind person. Though she never slept with a man, there was plenty of love in her heart... Though a lot of the romantic mystique of her court was deliberately contrived to suit her public purposes, there can be no doubt that the warmth which existed between her and her greatest servants was absolsutely genuine... When she said she loved the people of England — and they are not a people whom anyone can easily love — she meant it. The real measure of her achievement is that she was able to express this love in concrete terms, and impart to her people a taste for the new and unfashionable virtues she possessed. So long as the English exist, she will not be "out of remembrance". (p167)
It is a curious fact that the most important
debate in English political history took place not in the House of Commons
but in the 15th century parish church of St Mary in Putney. There, on 28
October 1647, and for the next two weeks, a group of about 40 men met in
informal conclave, and proceeded to invent modern politics - to invent,
in fact, the public framework of the world in which nearly 3,000 million
people now live.
The meeting was officially styled the General Council of the New Model Army, the force which has recently annihilated the armies of King Charles and was now the effective master of the country. (p171)
The ideas flung across that communion table
have travelled round the world, hurled down thrones and subverted empires,
and have become the common everyday currency of political exchange. They
are still with us. Every major political concept known to us today, all
the assumptions which underlie the thoughts of men in the White House,
or the Kremlin, or Downing Street, or in presidential mansions or senates
or parliaments through five continents, were expressed or adumbrated in
the little church of St Mary.
The debates... could only have taken place in England... certain peculiar developments in English history - developments rooted many centuries back, and ultimately resting on the geography of England, and the composition of its people - allowed the thing to happen; and so the world is as it is. (p172)
The ancient Greeks had begun to explore certain entirely new political and scientific concepts when their cities and culture were absorbed in the imperialism of Rome. (p172)
The Reformation in England made explicit a declaration of independence from the Continent which was rooted in a thousand years of political and intellectual development. (p173)
In the century following the 1560s England had advanced from scientific backwardness through a technological revolution - based chiefly on instruments of measurement - and at the outset of the Civil War was technically the most advanced country in the world. (p194)
The closed circle of lawyer and gentry MPs who directed the first phase of the Civil War... found themselves obliged, in extremis, to summon the assistance of a submerged section of the people, and bring them into the political nation in the form of constitutional warriors. Parliament won the war, in the end without difficulty, because in the New Model Army it had enfranchised the people... bringing into play a new class of humble folk who, for the first time in English history - for the first time in world history - were called upon by the State to serve not just with their bodies, but with their mental and spiritual energies, not as cannon-fodder, but as sentient and thinking individuals... it was a giant step forward in the liberation of mankind from darkness. (p198-99)
The physical power of Cromwellian England was based essentially on the new learning. This was a time for talent to manifest itself. To Milton, London was 'a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty', where men were 'reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement'; or as John Hall put it in 1649, England was imbued with 'the highest spirit, pregnant with great matters... attempting the discovery of a new world of knowledge'. Sir Arthur Haselrig, MP, summed up the whole experiment in a phrase: the country was 'living long in a little time'. (p206)
If Cromwell had entered Europe, there can be little doubt that the Continental monarchies would have collapsed like a pack of cards, and that the Catholicism of southern and central Europe would have been torn from its secular foundations... instead. the English concentrated on achieving a cultural, scientific and technological supremacy. (p209)
In 1688 when news of the English revolution reached America, the New Englanders arrested their royal governors, claiming the right of constitutional resistance to an illegal regime, and petitioned Parliament to legalise their acts ex post facto. In a curious way, their behaviour mirrored almost exactly what the Britons had done in 410, and was ominous for the future of what men were already beginning to call the British Empire. (p225)
It is a sad comment on human societies that they can usually be persuaded to accept bribery as a system of government, provided the circle of corruption is wide enough. This became possible in early 18th century Britain with the expansion of the State. But if the circle was large, it still had very definite limits, and excluded whole categories of people: one might argue that it broke down at the end of the 18th century because, with the growth of population, the area of exclusion became intolerably large. But it also excluded whole nations. Thanks to the Act of Union, Walpole found it desirable to bring Scotland into the system, for the votes it exercised in both Houses of Parliament were valuable and worth buying. But Ireland was rigorously excluded, its own parliament was emasculated and, of course, it had no votes to offer at Westminster. Rich and poor, Catholic or Protestant, the Irish resented the unfairness of it all... but Ireland lay under the shadows of English guns. With America it was a different matter. America, too, had no votes to deliver at Westminster; she, too, was largely excluded from the spoils systems, but America was 3000 miles, and six weeks, away from the sources of English authority. This made a crucial difference, especially when, for a brief moment, England lost absolute control of the sea. (p226)
When Americans argued that it was intolerable that flourishing cities like Boston or Philadelphia should have no voce in Westminster, the English establishment retorted that neither did Manchester, Birmingham or Sheffield. But this cut absolutely no ice in America. The truth is, the Americans could not be accorded constitutional rights without granting them to the vast, unrepresented multitudes in England itself; this would make the spoils system, and so the 'balanced constitution', unworkable, and bring about a return to anarchy. The English ruling class had to choose between stability and empire; and much as they valued both, they chose stability, as they were again to do in the mid-20th century. (p228)
The United States was thus the posthumous child of the Long Parliament. (p228)
By the 1780s, the English had acquired, through the accident of geography and the merit of their own efforts, a unqiue conjunction of advantages: a free, though oligarchic, political constitution, and all the elements of an economic revolution. Only two other countries, the United States and the Netherlands, had a non-authoritarian system of politics; and no State whatever, except England, had the physical means to produce an unaided and self-sustaining acceleration of economic growth. England was the one dynamic element in a static universe. (p240)
For half a century, foreign observers had been conscious of the connection between political freedom and economic prosperity in English life. In the 1720s Voltaire had noted in 'Letters from England': "Commerce, which has enriched the citizens of England, has helped to make them free, and that liberty, in turn, has expanded commerce. This is the foundation of the greatness of the State." England was an open society. There were no barriers between the classes, at least in legal terms; Englishmen enjoyed absolute equality before the law. In 1679, the English had acquired the right of Habeas Corpus; in 1701 life security for judges. Juries were not accountable to the State for their verdicts, and accused men were innocent until their guilt was established to the satisfaction of courts beyond the reach of the executive. Freedom of speech, subject to closely defined laws of treason, was absolute; and freedom of publication, except in the theatre, was qualified only by the risk of subsequent prosecution, the equivalent of the presumption of innocence in legal terms. There was no professional police force, and only a tiny army subject to annual parliamentary vote. The civil service, even including the highly-efficient postal, customs and excise system, was minute, and most of those who composed it were immune to dismissal. England was the minimal State: no such has ever existed, before or since. (p240-1)
In the 19th century we witness a great intestinal struggle among the English between the native forces of reform and reaction, light and darkness, a struggle which was ultimately inconclusive, because if reform eventually triumphed, it did so only after the expenditure of irreplaceable energy, and after delays which were to prove disastrous. (p240)
The English industrial revolution of 1780-1820 is the great watershed in the history of mankind. It liberated the body, as the Reformation had liberated the mind. (p268)
(Below quotes taken from external article: "America to follow in Britain's footsteps?")
In 1870 England was universally regarded as the strongest and richest nation on earth, indeed in human history.
The English aroused little affection. In general, they were cordially disliked... it was only to be expected that a wealthy, fortunate and successful country like England should arouse envy and criticism; so long as such feelings were confined to words, and tempered by respect, or if necessary fear, there was no cause for concern.
England operated from motives of self-interest, which happened to coincide (by the disposition of a benign providence) with the long term interests of the civilised world, in fact of the entire human community. England was moving in the direction of progress and pulling the world along in her wake...
Exactly 100 years later ... the English are still criticised ... but the tone is no longer envious or indignant, but rather impatient and admonitory... The arrogance of the English has gone, and with it their self-confidence... Such historical transformations have occurred before, but never with such speed and decision... What went wrong? How did it happen? Who is to blame? When did progress cease to move at an English rhythm? The answer is really very simple. It is the old story of hubris and nemesis. (p317)
Until the 1830s, England was the only industrialised country... Britain was then in a position to apply the new industrial processes to military technology in a manner denied to the world beyond, and to achieve an overwhelming supremacy in the use of firepower over nay nation or groups of nations... It never seems to have occurred to the English even to consider the possibility of exploiting the new industrial power they had created to achieve and maintain a world hegemony of advanced weapons. (p280)
In the middle decades of the 19th century, England became the workshop of the world; and in the process, helped to create rival workshops throughout it. In the 1850s Britain produced two-thirds of the world’s coal, half its iron, more than half its steel, half its cotton cloth, 49 per cent of its hardware, virtually all of its machine tools. (p281).
The industrialisation of half a dozen major economies took place by courtesy of British tools, patents, industrial know-how and skilled personnel; and it was largely financed by British capital. By 1840 Britain had £160 million invested abroad; by 1873 nearly £1,000 million. During this period international trade multiplied five times over, and passed the £2,000 million mark. The railway-steamship age created the modern world-market economy; the English device of the gold standard was generally adopted, and centred on London as the financial pivot of the liberal international trading system. For the English, it was the highwater mark of their fortunes relative to the rest of the world. English ideas, institutions, attitudes, tastes, pastimes, morals, clothes, laws, customs, their language and literature, units of measurements, systems of accountancy, company law, banking, insurance, credit and exchange, even - God help us! - their patterns of education and religion became identified with progress across the planet. For the first time, the infinite diversities of a hundred different races, of tens of thousands of regional societies, began to merge into standard forms: and the matrix was English. (p281)
The decade 1870-80 was a key one in the history of the world, and from it tragic events flowed momentous consequences, not least for the English... the world was going England’s way: hence the almost crazy optimism of the 1850s and 1860s. (p327)
By 1889, free trade as a world system was dead. The Continental industrialists, alarmed by the end of cheap food for their workers, and seeing governments bend to the pressure of the farming interests, sent up their own yelps of fear; and they, in turn, got tariffs on imported manufactures. This of course, angered the American: they had never really abandoned tariffs, and their system of government was peculiarly susceptible to protectionist demands from powerful lobbies. In 1890 they erected the McKinley tariff structure, and this provoked further Continental retaliation.
The retreat from free trade left Britain isolated... It had taken more than a century for Adam Smith’s doctrines to win acceptance and implementation. By 1875, however, they were the supreme orthodoxy. Free trade was traditional... It was what England was all about. Abandon free trade, merely because some frightened foreign governments had lost faith in it?.. No leading politician of either party was prepared even to contemplate such a proposal. The depression of the 1870s exposed the English public mind at its worst: drugged by a dogma which had once enshrined empirical truth. (p330)
In a practical sense, the English imperialist spasm [c.1875-1914] was an attempt to escape from Britain’s economic difficulties, an easy alternative to tariffs, and still more, to the distasteful business of becoming an efficient manufacturing nation.
Gladstone had the rare capacity to admit error without losing faith in his judgment. (p313)
(Appendix II: Cromwell and Ireland)
Ireland had been the grave of English military reputations. It did not destory Cromwell's: his operations there were masterly and highly successful. But it has proved the grave of his moral reputation. There is no doubt that he took the view (shared by Spenser, Bacon and Milton) that the Irish were culturally inferior and their subjection necessary. In 1649 he believed the Irish would be used to overthrow the Revolution... Yet at one point there was a distinct possibility that the native Irish might cooperate with parliamentary forces in opposing the Irish Protestant royalists... But under pressure from the Catholic clergy, acting on papal instructions, the Irish turned against the New Model... It is a curious fact that in 1651, when General Monck sacked Dundee, he killed as many people as Cromwell in Drogheda, and with far less military justification; yet the episode is rarely mentioned.
# IRELAND: A CONCISE HISTORY
The English presence in Ireland arose from the failure of Irish society to develop the institution of monarchy. The Irish, of course, had kingship; too much of it indeed. In Ireland the high king reigned but did not rule.
The effect of the penal legislation and the manner in which it was enforced was to create the modern Irish problem, as it existed until the 20th century: a landless Catholic peasantry governed by a legally exclusive Protestant ruling class, with a small predominantly Protestant middle class sandwiched in between, and a multi-class Protestant enclave in Ulster. The separate communities were divided not only by religion but by race and, not least, by culture: they learned different poetry, sang different songs, celebrated different victories and mourned different calamities.
By the time Arthur Young made his tour of Ireland in the 1770s, many Englishmen, if they thought about Ireland at all, saw government policy there as indefensible. It is significant that Dr Samuel Johnson, though a vigorous defender of English rights in America, could not bring himself to defend them in Ireland.
By accepting the union (with Great Britain in 1800) the Protestant Ascendancy necessarily relinquished the leadership of the nationalist movement to the Catholics and in a few years they found themselves transformed into a colonial ruling class. Thereafter, it was the Catholics who stood for an independent parliament, and the Protestants for union... effectively forfeiting its right to lead the Irish nation. By reneging on its bargain, and be delaying Catholic emancipation for nearly 30 years, the British government turned Catholics away from union and made the Catholic Church the central depository of Irish nationalism. These were irremediable errors, which set in motion the tragic but logical process of modern Irish history.
Irish freedom, said Daniel O'Connell, was not worth the shedding of a single drop of English blood.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Ireland, by comparison with her past, was becoming a relatively prosperous country, thanks to the 'killing Home Rule with kindness' policy... for the first time Ireland became a net beneficiary of the union... all of the ancient non-political grievances of Ireland had been remedied.
As the First World War proceeded and changed its object, and became (in Allied propaganda) a crusade for the self-determination of peoples, Alsacians, Lorrainers, Poles, Czechs, Finns, Yugoslavs - even Arabs - the notion that the Irish could conceivable denied their liberty began to seem increasingly absurd, and the rising, therefore, as part of the spirit of the times, noble even.
Terence O'Neill, like the IRA, underestimated the power of sectarian feeling on either side of the religious dividing line. He believed in sweet reason; indeed, he once described himself to me as 'an 18th century politician trying to govern a 17th century country.'
If there is one lesson the history of Ireland teaches, it is that military victory is not enough.
The fundamental misconception to which even the more enlightened British statesmen and pundits have clung: that if only Britain gave Ireland justice, prosperity and wise government, the British connection would be accepted by her people. Alas, it is of the essence of wise government to know when to absent itself. Britain has learned by bitter experience in Ireland that there is no substitute for independence.
British-Irish relations are not so much a matter of human choice as of geographical determinism. 'God hath so placed us together unavoidably', to use a phrase of Milton's... there will never be a time when British will be able to remain indifferent to events in Ireland. To that extent, Britain will always have an 'Irish problen'; and, a fortiori, Ireland will always have an 'English problem'.
Despite all the clashes between the English and the Irish, which necessarily form the substance of such a book as this, we must remember that there is also a great unwritten and largely unrecorded story of Anglo-Irish relations: a story of countless friendships and innumerable intermarriages, of shared enthusiasms and dangers, mutual interests and common objectives. We have the same language and literature, the same legal tradition and parliamentary matrix. Whatever happens in the future, we can be sure that Irish and English will always have more to unite them than divide them.
# THE RENAISSANCE
The past is infinitely complicated, composed as it is of events big and small, beyond computation. To make sense of it, the historian must select and simplify and shape. One way he shapes the past is to divide it into periods. Each period is made more memorable and easy to grasp if it can be labelled by a word that epitomizes its spirit. That is how such terms as 'the Renaissance' came into being. Needless to say, it is not those who actually lived through the period who coin the term, but later, often much later writers. The periodization and labelling of history is largely the work of the 19th century. Although the Italian elites of the time never used the word 'Renaissance', they were conscious that a cultural rebirth of a kind was taking place, and that some of the literary, philosophical and artistic grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome was being recreated... If the term has any useful meaning at all, it signifies the rediscovery and utilization of ancient virtuesl, skills, knowledge and culture, which had been lost in the barbarous centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, usually dated from the fifth century AD.
Cultural rebirths, major and minor, are a common occurence in history. Most generations, of all human societies, have a propensity to look back on golden ages and seek to restore them. When Alexander the Great created a world empire in the fourth century BC, his court artists sought to recapture the splendour of fifth-century Athenian civilization. So Hellenistic Greece, as we call, witnessed a renaissance of classic values... The Roman empire was never quite so self-confident as the Republic, subject as it was to the whims of a fallible autocrat, rather than the collective wisdom of the Senate, and it was always looking over its shoulder at a past that was more worthy of admiration, and seeking to resurrect its qualities. The idea of a Republican renaissance was never far from the minds of Rome's imperial elites.
The Greeks were inventive, and produced some scientists and engineers of genius, and the Romans were able to build on their work to carry out projects on a scale that is often impressive even by today's standards and appeared superhuman to medieval man. But there was something suspect about Roman monumentality. It was built on muscle-power rather than brain-power. The forts, the roads, the bridges, the enormous aqueducts, the splendid buildings, were put up thanks to a conscript or servile multitude. Considering the wealth of the Roman Republic in its prime, its technology was minimal, barely in advance of Athenian Greece, and confined largely to the military sphere. Even in the navy, the Romans made pitifully little use of sail-power, preferring oars rowed by galley slaves. Technology stagnated.
Medieval Europe had no such luxury in the use of manpower. The Black Death, in the mid-14th century, by reducing the population of western Europe by 25 to 30% made labour scarcer still. There were strong incentives to improve labour-saving machinery and develop alternative sources of power to human muscles. Some of the medieval inventions were very simple, though important, like the wheelbarrow.
The background to what we call the Renaissance was a cumulative growth and spread of wealth never before experienced in world history, and the rise of a society in which intermediate technology was becoming the norm, producing in due course a startling revolution in the way words were published and distributed. But this does not mean the Renaissance was an economic, let alone a technological event. Without economic and technological developments it could not have taken the form it did. But it must be grasped that the Renaissance was primarily a human event, propelled forward by a number of individuals of outstanding talent, which in some cases amount to genius.
We can give all kinds of satisfying explanations of why and when the Renaissance occurred and how its transmitted itself. But there is no explaining Dante, no explaining Chaucer. Genius suddenly comes to life, and speaks out of vacuum. Then it is silent, equally mysteriously. The trends continue and intensify, but genius is lacking. Chaucer had no successor of anything approaching similar stature. There is no major poet in 15th-century English literature.
The Renaissance was the work of individuals, and in a sense it was about individualism. And the first and greatest of those individuals was Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante was a Florentine, appropriately because Florence played a more important role in the Renaissance than any other city. He also embodies the central paradox of the Renaissance: while it was about the recovery and understanding of ancient Greek and Latin texts, and the writing of elegant Latin, it was also about the maturing, ordering and use of vernacular languages, especially Italian.
Before Dante, Tuscan was one of many Italian dialects and there was no Italianate written language that was accepted throughout the peninsula. After Dante, however, written Italian (in the Tuscan mode) was a fact. Indeed, Italians of the 21st century, and foreigners who have some grasp of Italian, can read most of the "Divine Comedy" without difficulty. No other writer has ever had such a decisive impact on a modern language.
It was the very competitivesness of the independent Italian cities, and the regimes and rulers who strove to bolster their power with the embellishments of scholarship and art, that gave the Renaissance its thrust. It was one of the few times in human history when success in the world's game — the struggle for military supremacy and political dominion — was judged at least in part on cultural performance. Often cultural patronage was the homage that vice paid to virtue.
One can probably learn more about Renaissance art from a detailed study of the industrious Verrocchio's shops that from any other single institution. The sop and its back-studios and outhouses were full of equipment of every kind, including plaster models of actual heads, arms, hands, feet and knees, which Verrocchio had made by a secret process of his own. These were used by himself and his assistants for sculpture and painting alike. Knowledge of the Verrocchio studio takes us behind the scenes of Renaissance art and shows how its high standards were based on intense discipline, careful preparation and a ruthless use of every mechanical aid that human ingenuity could devise. Behind this, in turn, was a passionate desire to make money aswell as to produce the highest art.
To the ordinary citizens of Florence, or any other town in Italy, architecture was visually far more important than any other art, let alone writing. They might not penetrate to the treasures housed in the palaces, but they could see them from the outside, and they were familiar with the churches and the cathedrals... Building, even more than public sculpture, was a matter of civic pride.
The Greeks learned not only to portray the human body as it is seen, but to present it in realistic action, and in the context of its surroundings. By foreshortening and other illisionistic devices, they contrived to conquer pictorial space. The Romans inherited their knowledhe and skills and in their friezes were see examples of the effective use of linear and aerial perspective, foreshortenings and other tricks. In what we call the Dark Ages, this form of sophisticated illusionary art disappeared, and its techniques were lost. Artists reverted to the primitive visual technology of aspective art. However, enough survived of illusionism, in the Byzantine world and in Italy, for artists to note it and in due course to imitate it.
In addition to the forces of technological change in the world of painting, there was a further fact, more properly belonging to the history of ideas, that was of immense importance in giving the Renaissance its peculiar dynamism. This was the notion of progress. It is of the nature of humankind to wish to improve things and to better out condition, and all societies have possessed this wish to some extent. But some societies make it a cardinal principle of existence, while other put different considerations first. The ancient Egyptians did not seem to be interested in progress. By contrast, the Greeks sought self-improvement and set targets to be attained. They infected the Romans, certainly under the Republic. But under the empire, the authorities became more concerned with order and stability than with advantageous changes. That had a deadening effect on their economy and it also in time affacted the arts... From the 14th century onwards, and especially in Italy, the notion grew that modern men should not only learn all that the ancients had to teach in the days of Rome's glory, but should build on that knowledge to reach even higher standards of knowledge and writing, of architecture, sculpture and art.
As the cult of the individual artist spread, emerging from medieval anonymity to a blaze of personal fame, so the competition sharpened. It was a race within generations and between them.
Art was branching out in different, sometimes rival and even contradictory directions. The new freedom conveyed by knowledge, to place realistic figures in convincing space, allowed individual artists to developed their own personalities with an energy and imagination that had been impossible before 1420.
The "Camera degli Sposi" is an authentic presentation of 15th-century court life, as the painter Mantegna actually witnessed it. There are no tricks about the figures. We see actual faces of real people — 15th century Italians of the urban, courtly breed, whispering and hiding their thoughts, making honeyed speeches, dissimulating and orating, boasting and cutting a 'bella figura', strutting for effect and feigning every kind of emotion. As in all Mantegna's work, one learns a great deal because, though a master of illusionistic devices, he always tells the truth.
Although Leonardo's interest in the human body was paramount, as befitted a Renaissance humanist-artist, his huge range of other preoccupations — with weather and waves, animals and vegetation, machines of all kinds but especially weapons of war and fortifications, all of them expressed in elaborate drawings as well as expounded in his "Notebooks" — meant that his time and energy were thinly spread. His priorities were unclear. No one can say for sure whether he regarded painting an easel portrait like the "Mona Lisa", or the "Last Supper" wall-painting in Milan, or designing an impregnable fortress, as the things he most wanted to do, or was most worth doing.
The general effect of the "Last Judgment" is to make most people think seriously about what is likely to happen to them when they die, and though they may not accept Michelangelo's version of the likely events, they are wiser for having studied it. That is exactly the effect he sought to achieve.
We see in Albrecht Durer a man who had acquired the true Renaissance perspective: the rejection of medieval art as false; the need to examine the work of antiquity both in practice, but studying its survivals, and in theory, by reading the texts; the concentration on the human form, and its exact representation by scientific study; and the mastering of perspective.
By the end of the 1520s Renaissance ideas
and forms of art were being recreated or adapted in most parts of Europe
and even in the New World. By 1500 literary humanism was a pan-European
movement, and where humanist books penetrated, Renaissance art was sure
to follow soon. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Italy had not exactly been
tranquil — there had been periodic and often highly destructive fighting
between the leading cities for local and regional hegemony — but there
had been comparitively little interference from abroad. It was during this
period of Italian independence that urban life flourished and prospered
and the Renaissance took hold. However, in September 1494, Charles VIII
of France, at the invitation of the Duke of Milan, entered Italy with an
army to conquer the Kingdom of Naples, and brought Italy's political isolation
to an end. Thereafter, Italy was rent by two ravenous foreign dogs, Valois
France and Habsburg Germany, until 1558... From the perspective of history,
we can now see that the Florentine Renaissance came to a climax in the
quarter-century before the French invasion, when it was truly a city made
for artists. The loss of Italian self-respect that the constant foreign
invasions produced, and the periodic impoverishment of large parts of the
countryside, had their inevitable consequences.
By mid-century, the absolute predominance that Italy had once exercised in the arts was passing, as France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and even England began to acquired cultural self-confidence. Thus at the time when the ideas of the Italian Renaissance were spreading with increasing speed all over Europe, the source itself was burning low.
In many ways the ideals of Renaissance times are part of our permanent cultural heritage, as are the matchless works of art and the enduring monuments those rich and fruitful times produced.
# QUOTES ABOUT PAUL JOHNSON
"Undaunted by big subjects, undeterred by
tough questions, unmuddled by vast quantities of material... he can make
a coherent story out of the most sprawling subject. He writes of a past
which is always relevant. His work is peopled with lively portraits and
peppered with enlivening lives."
- Felipe Fernanzez Armesto, "The Times"
>> Quotes from Paul Johnson's 20th century
epic "Modern Times".
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