“The day of small nations has passed away; the day of empires has come.”
Simon Schama is university professor of art history and history at Columbia University and the author of histories and art histories, such as his 1995 Landscape and Memory and his two works on Dutch art and culture, An Embarrassment of Riches and Rembrandt’s Eyes. He also writes regularly for newspapers and was once art critic for the New Yorker. More recently, Schama became a television writer and commentator as well.
The Fate of Empire is the third and final volume in his History of Britain, following At the Edge of the World? 3500 B.C.-1603 A.D. and The Wars of the British: 1603-1776. Schama’s text is erudite, vigorous, enjoyably cynical, and enlivened by telling anecdotes (I had not heard the amusing story about Sidney Webb, whose head was so out of proportion to his body that his wife-to-be recoiled in horror from the first full-length photograph she ever saw of him and told him that it was his head alone she had agreed to marry) and captivating profiles of such offbeat but strangely important individuals as engraver Thomas Bewick and pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Schama excels in drawing connections between cultural movements and political developments—connections that might have been overlooked or understated by historians less interested in the arts. He provides excellent sketches of the character and oeuvre of such figures as Wordsworth and Hazlitt—whom he calls (controversially, to my mind) the “greatest essayist in the English language” (what about Charles Lamb?)—and shows how the activities of such luminaries colored and even helped to produce contemporary political developments. In a particularly succinct example, he summarizes admirably the literary and cultural antecedents of Benjamin Disraeli’s accession to office:
Disraeli’s way had been prepared for him by the romantic rhetoric of Edmund Burke; the massive popularity of the novels of Sir Walter Scott; the nostalgic “troubadour” history paintings like Paul Delaroche’s Lady Jane Grey; Pugin’s mind-bogglingly profuse interior for the House of Lords; the neo-chivalric canvases of the pre-Raphaelites; the Christian paternalism of the old Poet Laureate Wordsworth and the Arthurian idylls of the present incumbent, Tennyson. Disraeli was Carlisle with a smile; Charles Dickens with a white silk handkerchief.
Throughout Schama’s work, dates are treated as less important than linkages and impressions, for which the book is none the worse. As Schama promises in his preface, “No one will be in any danger of confusing The Fate of Empire with a text book.”
Schama’s generally elegant prose is not above demotic touches. In The Wars of the British, the author describes James I of England as “a sexually active gay” and describes the multiple incarcerations of George Fox in distinctly unacademic terms: “When [Fox] attempted to warm himself by lighting straw in one of his cells, his gaoler p-ssed on the fire to put it out and threw sh-t on the prisoner from a gallery above.”
Unfortunately, various minor errors (e.g., “precipitous” when “precipitate” is meant, and “gender” instead of “sex”) obtrude, and there are irritating expressions such as “intuited” (what is wrong with “sensed”?), and odd lapses. For instance, Schama lists and describes such various Indian conveyances as the palkie (a native-borne litter) and the hackery (a bullock cart) but does not think it necessary to describe a tonga (a light four-wheeled cart for four persons). Otherwise, the flaws stem more from Schama’s political stance—decidedly left—than from any lapses on his editors’ part.
We should not blame Schama for having an agenda. (What historian does not?) He candidly admits that his history is “frankly interpretative.” Napoleon was at least partly right when he asked, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” And I find Schama’s political views more plausible—and palatable—than do many conservatives of my acquaintance, the British Empire being one of the few things about which I have never felt nostalgic. (I believe we should disband the Commonwealth and gradually shed the remaining “Dependent Territories,” too.)
The empire dissipated resources that would have been better spent at home, wasted countless lives, earned Britain enemies all around the world, and has bequeathed Britain big government, delusions of grandeur, and a massive immigration problem. (Being an ex-imperial power does put a country at a moral disadvantage when it comes to immigration: How could Britain refuse entry to the natives of countries that she had invaded and exploited?) I agree with many on the left that the empire should never have been—although it was surely an inevitable development for strategic reasons, given the fact that our European rivals were busily building up empires of their own, with a view, presumably, to ruling us eventually. Certainly, this was the belief of such reluctant imperialists as Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, under whose governments the empire expanded—but only as a reaction to foreign ambitions or to rescue some half-baked private British expedition that had got itself into trouble. Schama, who seems to agree that the empire ought never to have existed, has the good sense not to repine.
Schama’s views are interesting in part because he is selective in his prejudices and does not simply subscribe to the left-wing package deal. For all of his manifold criticisms of the British Empire, he is more Anglophile than Anglophobe. No one who hated Britain could write that,
in Orwell’s fugitive Golden Country nature, love, freedom and history are all ravelled up together. Some before him called such a place of hopes and blessings “Jerusalem.” And some of us, obstinately, think we can still call it Britain.
Schama clearly agrees with Orwell that orthodox leftists were, and are, wrong to despise patriotism.
He opposes devolution for Scotland and Wales and decries the fact that modern historians of Britain “invariably come not to praise it but to bury it.” He has no kind words for the Soviet Union. He possesses a degree of Euroskepticism: “Our place at the European table ought to make room for [Britain’s historical] peculiarity, or we should not bother showing up for dinner”—although the comment seems to conflict with earlier remarks, and Schama’s distrust of Europe is rooted in a left-wing detestation of “the gold-card benefits of the inward-looking club of white restaurant-goers and villa-renters, bonded together by some imagined notion of cultural sophistication,” and the “chilly white purism of Euro-nationalism.” He disagrees with postmodernists such as Edward Said:
Although the . . . orientalists have become a byword for cultural imperialism, the stubborn fact remains that they were the first and only generation of the British in southern Asia who had the capacity and sympathetic enthusiasm to understand the culture in which they had planted themselves.
No thoughtful right-winger should entirely discount Schama’s remark that Margaret Thatcher’s various governments perpetuated “a deep rift in Britain’s social geography.” Those of us who do not believe in giving a blank check and an entirely free hand to big business will not be shocked by his caustic dismissal of the famous Scottish financial house (which still exists) as hypocrites who inveighed against footbinding but sought to expand the opium trade. His championing of Mary Seacole over Florence Nightingale may irritate those of us who are used to hearing her name only in the mouths of ignoramuses in inner-city primary schools for whom the West is always the worst, but we should try to overcome such visceral reflexes. In fact, Schama makes a strong case that Seacole was more effective than Nightingale; perhaps she should replace Nightingale as the emblem of the Royal College of Nursing.
Such views, however, make Schama something less than entirely congenial company. Although he does not believe in Whiggish historical inevitability or manifest destiny, The Fate of Empire is stamped by a presumption that the conservative elements were more wrong than right, while the radicals were more right than wrong.
Although Schama is too clever to follow any faction wholeheartedly, his overall philosophy is clear from such sentences as “[The Fabians] were to make a modern, just and compassionate industrial society, without violence and without the sacrifice of freedom. There have been worse ideologies in the modern age.” In The Fate of Empire, he occasionally fires off salvos at the radicals, but more for their personal failings or “racism” than for their utopianism. Throughout the History, he is overly concerned with such modern manias as “racism,” which sometimes leads him into anachronisms—
“black Africans, whose welfare had definitely not been uppermost in the minds of those who had written Magna Carta or the Petition of Right” (as if black Africans could or should have impinged on the horizons of Englishmen of those periods)—and skewed judgments:
The most shaming thing that can be said, perhaps, of British politics in the age of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee is that those radicals like Sir Charles Dilke and Joseph Chamberlain, who were most eloquent on behalf of the underclass in Britain, should also have been most ferocious in their conviction about the manifest superiority of the white race and the self-evident altruism of the British Empire.
Schama calls Enoch Powell’s famous 1968 speech a “paranoid rant,” presumably akin to the earlier “racist ranting” of the British planters in Burma. He is also obsessed with slavery, which, in The Wars of the British, he calls excitedly the empire’s “original sin; a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its even-tual abolition can eventually wash away.” Arguably, he lays too much emphasis on what is merely an incidental part (if an exceedingly unpleasant one) of imperial history—especially since he has already conceded that everybody else, including black Africans, was engaging in slavery, too.
The whole History is marred by such prissiness, which hinders Schama’s understanding of those whose politics he does not approve. I also did not appreciate Schama’s gratuitous attack on one of my favorite books, H.V. Morton’s In Search of England (1927). Yes, it may be syrupy in parts, but it is also charming, and nations need myths to survive. Man cannot live on bile alone.
Schama also fails to draw certain rather obvious parallels between the politicians of the past and the politicians of today. It is possible that the BBC, which published the book, removed some contentious material to avoid annoying their ideological fellow travelers (and paymasters) in the government, but it is more likely that Schama (like most people) sees things better far off than up close. He criticizes the present politically correct mania for Western guilt and historical revisionism (“Nor should Britain rush towards a re-branded future that presupposes our shame-faced repudiation of the past”) but does not see that the present government is busily trying to put Britain through a cultural cleansing process. What he writes about the Lloyd George era certainly has contemporary resonance:
[T]he Prime Minister rarely deigned to put in an appearance in the Commons, presiding instead from Downing Street over a regime of flashy cronies. It was rule by dinner party; its weapons the artfully targeted rumour, the discreet business sweetener, the playfully or not so playfully threatening poke in the ribs. Honours were up for sale; insider commercial favours expected.
Nonetheless, either Schama does not see the similarities or he believes discretion to be the better part of valor. He decries Palmerston’s “world bettering,” while seeming not to consider that Messrs. Blair and Bush may be trying to do something rather similar. Is the present drive to export democracy, human rights, and abortion-on-demand really all that different from previous drives to export “civilization” to benighted natives?
David Cannadine has compared Schama to Macaulay. The comparison is not entirely appropriate, as Schama shares neither Macaulay’s overweening confidence nor his bombast. There is no certainty, merely a kind of wishful thinking, in Schama’s vatic aspiration:
Might the English language, or at least Ameringlish, liberated from its role as the language of imperial sovereignty, have a future, after all, as the solvent of sectarian conflict—an agent of modernization without mastery, whether in Bombay or Bradford?
And there is a clutching-of-straws quality about his plaintive
Just suppose that, instead of the cruel but just fate of empire being the punishing disintegration of the nation that engineered it in the first place, its reward for surviving that process was actually to make something positive . . . a multiracial Britain [that] actually took pride in what Colin MacInnes . . . called “its mongrel glory.”
Such pious hopes are, of course, infinitely preferable to confident Macaulayesque predictions and less likely to rebound on an author. As a vision of the future, however, they seem unlikely to galvanize anyone.
Nor is Schama, in his noncontemptuous attitude toward non-Europeans, similar to Macaulay, who once wrote,
I have never found [anyone] distinguished by their proficiency in the eastern tongues who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.
Schama tends to overcompensate in the other direction. In The Wars of the British, he dissects mercilessly all British myths and traditions; he does not, however, extend harsh scrutiny to African “ancestral wisdom . . . knowledge of religion and obeah healing,” all of which he seems to take absolutely at face value.
As far as Schama is concerned, the heroes of 20th-century, end-of-empire Britain were George Orwell and Winston Churchill. These are very good choices, and the author does a fine job delineating the chief characteristics and contributions of these men without being blind to their shortcomings. Schama is, however, some-what contradictory about Churchill. On one hand, he can say, “Looked at from the viewpoint of 2002, almost all of Churchill’s positions . . . seem prophetic or optimistic.” On the other, however, he says that the Churchill of the 1920’s had taken some “absurd positions,” such as his support for Mussolini and his opposition to socialism. He does not dwell on Churchill’s well-known contempt for Indians and Africans (calling Indians “stinking Babus” and Chinese “Chinks” would surely constitute “racist ranting” by any modern standard), his opposition to colored immigration, his belief in eugenics, or his plainly antisemitic diatribes concerning Bolshevism. Reading between the lines, it seems that Schama admires Churchill chiefly because “British Jews would not be rounded up at Wembley and shipped to Auschwitz. To some of us . . . no trivial thing.” This is a very good reason, but I cannot help but wonder what else Winston Churchill and Simon Schama would have had in common.
Schama also disagrees with Churchill’s expressed belief that British national survival was dependent on the empire’s survival. This, of course, begs the question: What is Britain without the empire? Can Britain really hold together now, after decades of massive immigration and state-sponsored multiculturalism, with her institutions declining in importance and prestige, with West-minster’s power passing to Brussels, with devolutionary pressures growing on the Celtic fringes and regionalization being promoted within England? The fact that Schama merely skims over the history of postwar Britain, as if his interest in the whole project ended with Churchill, implies that he may secretly believe that the British game is over.
At any rate, he has no answers other than to hope that Britain does not become like postcommunist Yugoslavia and that we can all just magically get along together—in a Britain shorn of her empire, her traditions, her very reason for existence. Of course, no one can reasonably expect an historian—or anyone else—to provide such answers. But we can hope, and cultivated, broadminded historians are probably better qualified than anyone else to propound solutions. As a fair-minded man with Britain’s best interests at heart, Schama must have wondered if and how Britain is to survive. National identity needs to be based on something more substantial than some vague freedom based on the rule of nonspecific law. British history is—or should be—a great deal more than just “the shaking loose of peoples from their roots.” Otherwise, how exactly does Britain differ from America?
[A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire 1776-2000, by Simon Schama (London: BBC Books) 576 pp., $40.00]