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Top people’s tale of England itself

22 November 2011

Stephen Tomkins on old-fashioned history plus the Thatcher era


A Short History of England
Simon Jenkins
Profile Books £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

THERE have been many “histories of England”, written by such great historians as T. B. Macaulay, G. M. Trevelyan, and A. J. P. Taylor. Each one tended to include all the peoples of Britain under that name when their story seemed relevant or interesting, and exclude them when it did not. We are a com­plicated ménage; so that is under­standable.

Today, however, English identity has become too much of an issue for such imprecision; so the story that Simon Jenkins carefully tells is that of the English nation, from the Anglo-Saxon incursions into Britain to the present day.

It is not a controversial history. Although there are themes that are clearly important to him, such as the dangerous and essentially un-English nature of government centralisation, and a polemical epilogue, the main concern of the book is simply to tell the story: to give readers a sense of where Eng­land has come from, where it has been, and where (other than off the coast of France) it is.

There is a clear bias: of the 16 centuries covered, the last takes up nearly a third of the book. The chapter on Margaret Thatcher is the most interesting, perhaps because there is more breathing space in this than in earlier, brisker chapters; perhaps, also, because it is the one section of the story which we are not used to reading in a history text­book.

It is a surprisingly conventional — even old-fashioned — history. Essentially, it tells the stories of kings and ministers and wars rather than those of the people. The 18th century, for example, is, in Jenkins’s telling, the story of George III, Walpole, and the Pitts, and their foreign campaigns, while popular movements such as Evangelicalism, abolition, and republicanism feature as minuscule footnotes to govern­ment policy, at most.

There is, of course, a limit to what you can cover at the rate of five years per page, but I found myself yearning for more of a sense of the England that was being ruled.

The book is a welcome contrib­ution to the English search for them­selves, but we will find the answer in the story of our people, and not only in that of its rulers.

Stephen Tomkins is contributing editor of Ship of Fools (www.shipoffools.com), and deputy editor of Third Way magazine.

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