J D Davies

The Rise of Historyism

It was a very bad week for politicians and History. Or, to be exact, it was a bad week for History because of politicians’ inability to stop distorting it to serve their own ends. Take David Cameron’s big speech to the Conservative conference, for example. ‘This is the country that … defeated the Nazis…and fought off every invader for a thousand years.’ Great for getting delegates to their feet, but risible as historical analysis. Fought off every invader for a thousand years? As I tweeted shortly afterwards, tell that to Richard III and James II. ‘Defeated the Nazis’? Umm…I think the Russians might have something to say about that, Dave. But when it comes to rewriting History, the PM isn’t in the same league as his great rival, Boris Johnson. ‘Not since 1789 has there been such tyranny in France!’ thundered the mop-topped Mayor of London about the policies of President Hollande, thus simultaneously ignoring the fact that there wasn’t really a ‘tyranny’ in France in 1789 (The Terror, which is presumably what you had in mind, Boris, started in 1793) and the entirety of the German occupation during World War Two, which was debatably just a tad more tyrannical than the raising of a few tax rates by a bespectacled technocrat with a slightly tangled love life. Now, it’s possible to forgive Boris on the grounds that it’s his usual jokey hyperbolic style and, after all, it’s not his period, inter alia, but unsurprisingly his rant didn’t exactly go down too well across the Channel, and it’s symptomatic of the way in which politicians think they can get away with serving up sloppy History to serve their own dubious ends. (Before anyone accuses me of party political bias, I should add that Labour and Lib Dem politicians are just as guilty. Don’t get me started on Ed Miliband and ‘One Nation’, for example…) Of course, we Brits have no monopoly on this – all American presidential candidates, including the current crop, are quick to press their own versions of their national past into the service of getting them elected, no matter how much they have to distort it to do so, and much American political discourse is fundamentally moulded by differing interpretations of a document written in 1787.

I spent the past week in Scotland, working on the plot outline for ‘Quinton 5’ and various other ideas for new books. There, the independence debate is cranking up nicely, despite the referendum date being two years away. Whatever the eventual outcome, this is clearly developing into a classic case study of the manipulation of History by two ferociously antagonistic sides – just read the comments on any political or historical story on any Scottish newspaper’s or TV channel’s website for depths of vitriolic unpleasantness unknown even on the comments pages of the online version of the Daily Mail. The nationalists’ appeal to what might be called the Braveheart version of Scottish history is being countered by the unionists’ appeal to ‘Britishness’, mustering to their cause such events as the Olympics and the forthcoming centenary of World War I. But a potential weakness of the unionist strategy is revealed in the latest blog from the always interesting Eagle Clawed Wolfe. It seems that at Carlisle Castle, the English Heritage guides have been told not to talk about the Border Reivers for fear of offending Scottish visitors. This is a case of ‘don’t mention the war’ writ large, and ludicrously so: the existence of the Reivers has much to do with why Carlisle Castle is there at all, so omitting it from the castle’s story is very much a case of Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. (And history, or elements within it, should offend – just as other elements should move, entertain and inspire.) As the Wolfe rightly points out, there are no such qualms on the other side of Tweed and Solway, where the Reiver history is celebrated – and, it might be added, where the history of conflict with England is part of the national psyche to an extent that is simply inconceivable south of the border, except perhaps in certain quarters of the BNP and English Defence League. One trivial but telling example: many Scots football fans fly flags adorned with the slogan ‘Bannockburn 1314’. When was the last time you saw the flag of St George adorned with ‘Culloden 1746’, or, at England-France fixtures, ‘Agincourt 1415’, ‘Trafalgar 1805’ or ‘Waterloo 1815’?

Of course, one could turn this argument on its head and say that it proves the Scots generally have a stronger sense of their own history than the English, even if it is a distinctly slanted one – and arguably, the Irish have an even stronger sense than either, or rather ‘senses’, given the two rival traditions which both depend for their mythologies upon distinctly myopic views of Irish history. (And yes, I’ve deliberately omitted my own countrymen, the Welsh, from this analysis; a subject for a future blog when Britannia’s Dragon is about to see the light of day. But I might go to the next Wales-England match with a Red Dragon flag adorned with ‘Bryn Glas 1402’ and see if anybody knows what it’s all about…) No doubt historically literate English football fans – and surely there must be some, somewhere? a few?? one??? – could argue with some justification that a flag bearing the names of all their country’s great victories would probably be too big to get into the ground. But surely a sensible, non-triumphalist acknowledgement of past conflict is better than Carlisle Castle’s precious and utterly wrong-headed policy of ignoring it. Ultimately, ignoring leads directly to ignorance, and ignorance breeds the sort of dangerous manipulation of history practised by cynical politicians and those with more dubious agendas. Indeed, with racism and sexism now regarded as increasingly unacceptable, maybe this ‘historyism’ is rising to replace them – that is, the use of shakily-founded throwaway historical references deliberately to offend or to employ a distorted view of the past to promote a prejudiced view of the present.


Many Scots claim to have learned their history from the novels of Nigel Tranter, and I spent last week staying very close to Aberlady, where Tranter lived in his latter years and where he wrote his books as he walked along the coastal footpath that began at what he called ‘the footbridge to enchantment’. Every time I visit the bridge and the adjacent memorial cairn to him, my mind boggles both at his working method (if I tried it, I’d keep bumping into people or stumbling in rabbit holes) and his sheer productivity – he wrote well over fifty historical novels, all of which I’ve read and still have on my shelves, covering the whole span of Scottish history, as well as twelve children’s books, ten westerns, and about twenty non-fiction books. True, his novels are uneven – the later ones tend to be quite weak and repetitive, his sex scenes are always hilariously bad, and his one attempt at ‘naval’ fiction, The Admiral (about James IV’s naval commander Andrew Wood), had late 15th century cogs and caravels possessing roughly the handling characteristics of modern warships. True, his historical interpretation is invariably old fashioned, distinctly nationalist and often hopelessly romanticised. But Tranter described his vision of Scotland, particularly medieval Scotland, quite brilliantly, and many Scots claim to have learned their history from the man often regarded as ‘Scotland’s storyteller’. Perhaps that’s one of the problems with English history. Historical novelists now tend to stay within their ‘comfort zones’, which they’ve researched to the nth degree (‘I’m Roman’ was heard more than once at the Historical Novel Society conference the other day). Bernard Cornwell is a rare exception, but even he has concentrated on three or four fairly narrow chronological periods, and only on military history. Where is ‘England’s storyteller’, the equivalent of Nigel Tranter, who can produce an attractive, popular narrative across pretty much the whole span of the country’s history, embracing the political and social ‘big pictures’ as well as the battles? Or is that simply too big an ask for any author?