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Making History Now and Then

Review by: Tristram Hunt, University of London

David Cannadine, Making History Now and Then: Discoveries, Controversies and Explorations, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

In the Appendix to David Cannadine’s compelling new collection of essays, there is a helpful account ‘On Reviewing and Being Reviewed.’ ‘The prime purpose of any review should be to evaluate the book, the author and the subject,’ he writes, before going on to remind the reviewer to ‘read the book; place the book; describe the book; judge the book.’ One can but try.

Chair of the Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery, Commissioner of English Heritage, professor at both the universities of Princeton and London, Professor Sir David Cannadine is without doubt one of the leading minds of the Anglo-American world. His enormous sweep of historical interest, from the English aristocracy to social class to monarchy to the life of Paul Mellon to the British Empire, is a testament both to his intellectual capacity and remarkable industriousness.

But he has never been the type of scholar to seclude himself in the Ivory Tower. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was amongst the most prolific and polemical of essayists using the pages of the London Review of Books to critique the state of the British heritage industry, the failings of the Prince of Wales, and the nature of the British-American ‘special relationship.’ Since then, he has sought to further the place of history in public life with a more behind-the-scenes approach by serving on the myriad array of institutions and committees which subtly dictate the political and civic fabric of modern Britain.

Making History Now and Then accounts for his time doing so as Director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, both writing history ‘and (in a minor way) actually becoming part of it’ between 1998-2008. Guiding Cannadine’s work during these years as a public intellectual, academic entrepreneur and historical scholar was Vaclav Havel’s dictum that ‘any society that is alive is a society with a history.’ And Cannadine wholeheartedly concurred with Havel’s belief, ‘that in any society which claims to be alive and well, sane and flourishing, and open and democratic, such past-and-present dialogues are not an optional extra, but are a vital component of individual self-awareness and of collective well-being.’

For much of the book, Cannadine is encouragingly optimistic about the state of history in Britain given the ever greater number of students, teachers, and university courses. Intellectually it also seems to have rescued itself from the slough of post-modernism and found a new voice in public debate. Yet in its very professionalisation, he sounds a warning. As university professors are compelled to churn out ever more texts to no obvious purpose, faced with a mushrooming teaching load, and systematically underpaid, the institutional grind of history is at risk of undermining the discipline’s broader calling as a humane subject focused on generating ‘proportion, perspective, reflectiveness, breadth of view, tolerance of differing opinions, and thus a greater sense of self-knowledge.’

Many of the essays are similarly taken up with the history of history: what and why succeeding ages have found compelling about the past. Or as he puts it, ‘the ways in which history is being made (meaning written and practised) in the present and in which history has been made (again meaning written and practised) in the past.’ One of the most glittering of these exercises in historiography is Cannadine’s account of the changing reputation of the industrial revolution during the 20th century. With both clinical precision and great readability, Cannadine charts how the Webbs and Hammonds condemned the capitalist barbarity of industrialisation, to be succeeded by the more sympathetic Keynesian interpretation of W.W. Rostow, followed by American economists concerned with Third World development, and then in the 1980s the post-industrialist histories of Nick Crafts and others. Each age denouncing the shibboleths of the past generation as present politics are fought out over past history.

Cannadine offers a similarly compelling account of the interpretative fortunes of the history of Parliament, monarchy and Empire. Each of these essays is a highly rewarding chronology of intellectual change that helps to open up new avenues on the topic. Rightly, Cannadine is particularly keen that the history of the British monarchy is taken out of the realm of caricature and invested with proper analytical rigour. ‘We cannot too often remind ourselves that throughout most of the human past, peoples, tribes, nations and empires have organized themselves, or have been forcibly organized, on the basis of royal rule and monarchical regimes,’ he writes. ‘If, then, we are to come to any settled understanding of the ancient, medieval and early modern history of Europe, to say nothing of the longer-term history of the majority of the globe beyond, we have to recognize the importance of kingship.’

Cannadine’s work is equally rewarding in his concerns about the Americanization of the study of British imperialism. Rightly, he takes to task that large body of American academic opinion which believes it has an unique objectivity about the British colonial past even as the United States continues to deny its own imperial agency. Just as damaging as this misguided hubris is the US university fetish for cultural history, in the process ignoring the potential insights from a richer reading of social, economic, religious and ideological histories of Empire. ‘Yet what the history of empire most urgently needs,’ he concludes, ‘is not to be approached in the stark and adversarial alternatives of “good or bad” or (literally) “black or white”, or “colonizer or colonized”, but with a greater recognition of nuance, complexity, ambiguity, paradox and contingency.’

The essays in this collection display exactly that. There are further rich accounts offered on the 20th century transformations of the Last Night of the Proms as well as the current state of British identity as explored through the state of history writing. What Cannadine manages so engagingly is to place the debates and controversies of the past firmly within contemporary discourse. His ambition on taking over as Director of the IHR was to marry the scholarly and the public worlds. This lucid, provocative and intriguing compendium shows he succeeded with aplomb.

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