Norman Davies. The Isles: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. xliii + 1222 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-513442-1.
Reviewed by Keith Robbins (Vice-Chancellor, University of Wales, Lampeter, Wales, U.K)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2000)
Capturing Insular Space
Fresh from coping with a continent in his magisterial study of Europe, Norman Davies now tackles an equally daunting task -- a comprehensive history of his own country. He is only too aware of the risks entailed in such an undertaking particularly since he freely admits that while himself a British citizen and a professional historian he has no claim to special expertise in the British historical field. His reputation, of course, was initially made as an authority on the history of Poland. Moreover, although it appears that he has put chapters in front of specialists in particular periods of British history to gain their advice he has not been content to summarize what might be taken to be the reigning consensus. His intention, rather, has been to escape from what he calls "the professional game" and engage directly and personally with "the established record of the past." The result is a challenging, stimulating and sometimes irritating volume, and one suspects that Davies would himself have been irritated if he had been thought to have produced a bland and comfortable book in which his readers would have been at ease.
The books takes further that scrutiny of the nature of "Britain" and "Britishness" which has been going on for several decades now that the old Anglocentric straitjacket is, as Davies puts it, bursting at the seams. In itself, work by Linda Colley, Hugh Kearney, Rees Davies and this reviewer, amongst many others, is an illustration of the extent to which present political preoccupations can often determine historical agendas. The work which has so far been published would appear to confirm that the old Anglo-framework of insular history will no long suffice. We are now looking at "a pattern of islands" with inhabitants who share "multiple identities": identities which can sometimes conflict as much as they can be beneficially reconciled. No one can tell what the end of this current process of constitutional change will be, but the establishment of a Parliament in Scotland, an Assembly in Wales and a hoped-for Assembly in Northern Ireland, together with a British-Irish Council ("Council of the Isles") which brings together, for as yet limited purposes, representatives from all the legislatures of "The Isles," is an indication that developments are taking place which would scarcely have been conceivable half a century ago. No mention has been made of an English Parliament as part of this process for the simple reason that there isn't one. Whether there ought to be one and, if so, whether it is compatible with the effective functioning of a UK Parliament, remains one of the unresolved and possibly unresolvable issues. These developments are directly addressed in the final pages of the book, but in a sense they inform it from the very beginning.
Davies describes himself as belonging to a minority which holds that the break-up of the United Kingdom may be imminent. Writing long-term history, as he puts it, results in the overwhelming impression that all states and empires are ephemeral. The United Kingdom is one of the oldest states of Europe and there is no reason why it should survive indefinitely. Davies has doubted whether the UK would live to see its three hundredth birthday in 2007, though he now seems to think it may stagger on for a little longer. Incidentally, since in earlier pages, quite rightly, he has been at such pains to distinguish "the United Kingdom" from "Great Britain" it is worth pointing out that it is only "Great Britain," not the present ^ÑUnited Kingdom" which may achieve this tercentenary. Such inevitability as Davies sees in this process of dissolution stems from his conviction that the United Kingdom was created to serve the interests of Empire and that, since a British Empire has evaporated in the space of his lifetime, there is no further reason for its existence. There is truth in this contention, but not the whole truth. Additionally, the existence of the European Union provides an opportunity for all sorts of communities -- excluded in the era of the supposedly national sovereign state -- to have their own place in the sun. One may hope that this will be the case but oddly, in his zeal to show the frailty of "Britishness," he does not bring the same degree of critical detachment when talking about "the Welsh" or "the Scots." Their identity seems to be thought unambiguous and firm whereas an equal degree of frailty might be discerned. Anyway, it follows, he thinks, that gloom about "the decline of Britain" is misplaced and that even if Britain does break up all that is really valuable would remain -- though he doesn't give much attention to what might be lost. It is no accident that confronted with the admitted difficulties surrounding the word "British" he abandons it completely in his title. Other islands around the world might find the use of the definite article somewhat presumptuous!
It may seem odd in a review of such a long book to dwell on its coda, but it is a coda which determines the structure of the book as a whole and delineates its underlying themes and arguments. Along the way, old problems and issues are looked at from fresh perspectives as we see and understand more fully the complex pattern of insular relationships now once again dynamic within "the Isles." The very fact that he brings to that history a mind soaked in centuries of "European history" gives him a vantage point which too many writers on "British history" have not possessed. By the same token, however, the fact that he is not a "British specialist" does mean that there are a disconcerting number of slips and errors in this account, many small in themselves, which somewhat undermine one's confidence from time to time. Nevertheless, such errors apart, this is a richly challenging book, even if, like this reviewer, one thinks there is more to be said for ^ÑBritishness' than Davies allows.
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Keith Robbins. Review of Davies, Norman, The Isles: A History.
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