Back by Popular Demand: Newman, Baddiel and The Whig Interpretation of History.

This will seem incredible, but at least one commentator on Harry’s Please appears to want to read a blog post on this subject rather than on the other alternative I was considering, namely something on the fascist and homo-erotic subtexts to Wilbur Smith novels.  Doing this instead has the advantage of regurgitating some my reading for an upcoming conference presentation and getting me out of having to read any Wilbur Smith novels again.

First of all, what is the Whig Interpretation of History?  The term was first used by Herbert Butterfield his 1933 book, ‘The Whig Interpretation of History’.  Essentially, Butterfield cautioned that historians too frequently failed to examine the past under it’s own terms, and instead imported their own present concerns into their explanations of the past.  In his own words, it involved ‘… the tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’  What Butterfield was referring to was the habit of enormously influential 19th century English historians such as Macaulay or Trevelyan to assume when discussing earlier British history that progress towards 20th century standards of liberalism was desirable and even inevitable.  They wrote as if events and people in the past could be evaluated and judged according to how ‘progressive’ or ‘obstructive’ they were to the application of Whig principles.  These were at the core of the political objectives of the parliamentary ‘Whig’ faction in British politics after the English Civil War, and opposed by the ‘Tory’ faction associated with defending royal power (both ostensibly named by their respective opponents after gangs of Scots and Irish bandits).

Whig principles began in establishing parliamentary supremacy over the arbitary power of the royal prerogative in the constitutional development of Britain from the Glorious Revolution onwards.  They were defended as traditional British political ‘liberties’ throughout the Hannoverian period, and were then extended through the process of parliamentary reform and social improvement from the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832 to the present.

In academic terms, this process can be called ‘teleological determinism’ – selectively determining the importance of historical events by reference to a known conclusion.  I can’t resist observing in passing that that one reviewer for a history journal objected my use of the term on the grounds that they didn’t know what it meant.  See below for a more detailed exploration of that particular dynamic, but related problems in terms of historical inquiry can also be more easily understood in concepts such as ‘anachronism’ or just simple hindsight.  Butterfield’s point was that this led to a process of selection, rationalisation and simplification to form a narrative which hindered a more accurate and complete understanding of the past

My argument against this draws heavily from opaque memories of an undergraduate paper I wrote on this subject more than twenty-five years ago, but I gambling that this should still be sufficient to bluff my way past any social scientists reading this.

Firstly, Butterfield’s remedy for the problem of Whiggism doesn’t work.  This was an immersion in a more detailed investigation of the past, which would thus suspend the reflex to simplify.  To my mind this meant an avoidance of the simplification and generalisation necessary in explanation.  Otherwise anybody expected to discuss the development of Viking kingship in 800-1000 AD would need to master every relevant detail.  Without any yardstick for establishing such relevance being set out by Butterfield, we’d all be too busy researching the construction of clinker-built longships and the interchange of ecclesiastical personel between Denmark and the Danelaw to deliver any responsible summary on a subject as complex and esoteric as Viking kingship.  No simplification means no evaluation, and therefore no useful explanation as a result.

Secondly, everybody can be a Whig.  Butterfield acknowledges the problem is a broader philosophical one, yet appears to ignore the fact such a philosophy of history is almost innate to humankind in our need for historical explanation.  It was therefore practiced by policy-makers at the time as much as by subsequent historians.  In other words, the actions of Whig politicians in the Restoration and Hannoverian periods were influenced by their own adoption of the Whig interpretation of history at the time.  To appropriate a flawed Marxist concept for a minute as an illustration, the invocation of ‘false consciousness’ does little to explain anything when that consciousness and not Marxist theory influences human behaviour.  The heroic efforts of time-travelling Marxist historians using whiteboards and dry-markers to explain to members of the Whig junto why they were really an intermediate stage of temporary bourgeois supremacy between the feudal and communist eras would have been be greeted with justifiable incredulous derision.

That a historian might decide that Whiggish teleological determinism is unacceptable becomes an ahistoric or anachronistic judgement itself when such Whigs saw themselves as operating in the light of progress towards a particular Whiggish conclusion.  The irony is that the labels of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ swiftly became increasingly malleable during the 18th century on these grounds.  Bolingbroke, an early 18th century Tory who made the journey to full-on Jacobite before re-ratting back to moderate Tory, understood this when he tried to construct a moderate Toryism which could undercut the Whig supremacy of Walpole in the House of Commons by accepting key Whig achievements in the 1688 constitutional settlement.  This was even more pronounced in the fact that ostensible Arch-Tories such as Lord North and even George III could be rationally understood to be operating within, rather than challenging, the original Whig settlement of parliamentary supremacy over the monarchy.  Although that concept could prove understandably difficult for some Whigs – from Burke to Jefferson – to understand at the time.

In their case the Whig context they operated within might be a lot more restrictive than the social and political circumstances a liberal 20th-century historian would find themselves inhabiting, but it was real enough.  Such understandings were extended into the 20th century, as Churchill’s decision-making during the Second World War was clearly influenced, or at least informed, by his own Whiggish historical understanding.

Building on the preceding point, the acceptance of a Whig understanding of history could even be seen to extend into the historical understanding of contemporary Tories.  Notable examples would be the great flagships of Whig history such as the passage of the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholic Emancipation, and the Great Reform Act of 1832.  In all three instances (the first two extending suffrage and civil office-holding to dissenters and catholics, the last to reform representation in the House of Commons by eliminating corrupt pocket constituencies used for patronage and parliamentary influence by major landowners) the measures involved demanded some acceptance of their necessity by the Tory establishment.  Indeed, in the first two cases the measures were actually passed by a reactionary Tory government.  This acceptance varied from the principled moderation of people like Huskisson to the despairing tactical retreat in the face of radical demands for reform of Peel and even Wellington, but the key point is that even the Tories, in the form of their comprehension of the need to manage an otherwise unstoppable tide of mass popular resentment, didn’t just understand the Whig constitutional settlement of 1688 to be an end in itself (as Lord North or George III did), they also perceived a Whiggish progression at work in events which they needed to get on the right side of.  Even when they passionately disagreeed with it, they saw the necessity of acting in a context defined by the Whig Interpretation of History.

Finally, there is the Spinal Tap dimension to the defence of the Whig Interpretation of History:  ‘What’s Wrong with Being Sexy?’  Or, in this case, ‘What’s wrong with being a Whig?’  Frankly, Whiggism has has a much higher value on a Benthamite utilitarian scale than most other political ideologies, and it is a matter of material benefit to all that we don’t live in a Jacobite divine-right monarchy or that Whig principles in general have become the dominant if unarticulated force in British social and political life.  This is evaluation itself, like Whiggism, can be called subjective, but it remains objectively true according to any reasonable external utilitarian measure.  Progress towards liberal ideals may not be inevitable given the reaction of human agencies against it, but there are reasonable, rational and understandable reasons why the majority of people accept and support it – not just as a current state, but as an ideal to work towards which provides criteria to judge the success of policies in the present.  Whiggism in constitutional history and political culture in general did finally succeed, and it is not in itself ahistorical to seek to explain how it did so, provided a rigorous historical methodology is adopted to do so.  Even the freedom to critique Whiggism is, in the end, a necessary product of the triumph of Whig history.

Butterfield’s book was influential, but was ultimately eclipsed by more rounded yet tedious works by G.R. Elton and E. H. Carr even before the social scientists were let out of their cages and the plagues of Marxists and Post-Modernists were unleashed on the philosophy of historical inquiry in the sixties and seventies.  But Butterfield’s work ultimately fulfilled a more important purpose than simply challenging the existing philosophical basis of contemporary historiography in the thirties.  I refer, of course, to the essential dimension of internecine, ego-driven and puerile conflict conducted by academic historians against one another.  In this case, Butterfield’s principal contemporary target was Louis Namier’s British parliamentary history, and Butterfield’s book can be seen as a waspish and lightweight polemic aimed at Namier and his thesis; or in Butterfield’s words, historians who ape the ‘top hat and and pontifical manner’ of nineteenth-century gentlemen.  To gain an idea of the intellectual gravitas involved in such exchanges, I refer the reader to the rigorous academic discourses contained in Newman and Baddiel’s classic ‘History Today’ sketches.

Baddiel:        I was reading an interesting piece the other day…

Newman:     No you weren’t. You can’t read, and you can’t afford a book.

Baddiel:     Well, actually it was a piece by yourself. A rather fine piece in the Historical Inquirer. I was very impressed by it.

Newman:     Oh? Were you? Thank you.

Baddiel:     I was particularly moved by the section on page 35 about the advancement of Scottish Radicalism. I’d like to read from it if I may.

Newman:     I’d be honoured.

Baddiel:     {makes nonsensical noises like Donald Duck etc} Your best work I fear.


The Limits of Nationalist Bigotry

Growing up in rural north-east Scotland in the 1970s taught me a lot about nationalist bigotry.  The first thing it taught me is that it didn’t matter where I came from, or what I considered my national identity to be.  Although I considered myself to be British, this was not permitted as a response to questions about my national identity in the playground.  Instead, the English accent originally inherited from my parents and the fact that they were English made me English.  Whether I considered myself to be English or not.  As it happens, my family all considered themselves British, but this was not a permitted response to the interrogation.  It quickly became apparent that you could only be English, or Scottish.  And if they didn’t consider you to be Scottish according to the normal ‘blood and soil’ tests of national identity (where you were born, where your parents were born), you were a foreigner.  And if they regarded you as ‘English’, according to the same standards (as I was, despite being born in Asia), you immediately inherited the mantle of the ancient enemy in a competitive nationalist folklore defined by conflict between the virtuous Scots who were always fighting the perfidious English – Bannockburn in 1314, Culloden in 1746, etc, etc, ad nauseam.

In some respects this wasn’t an exceptional experience.  I grew up in a rural area being transformed by immigration related to the North Sea oil boom, and some of this resentment was fuelled by economic frictions.  These were triggered by an influx of relatively affulent external population into a conservative rural environment, and as a result points of contention such as increased house prices or a sense of displacement from tradtional norms would have been present regardless of nationalism.  What made this exceptional from my admittedly subjective experience, was the level of venom and vitriol involved and the pervasive nature of the problem.  The nationalist bigotry I (and other members of my family) experienced amounted to good-natured ribbing, grumbling comment, insult, outright verbal abuse and on more than one occasion, physical assault.  Being targeted as a result of nationalist labelling which I had no control over was distressing enough.  But what really determined my visceral hatred of it was the manner in which it was tolerated and accepted by otherwise decent people.

The most obvious example of this was being told that somehow it either wasn’t happening, or if it did we were exaggerating it, or even if we weren’t  exaggerating we must have somehow deserved it as a consequence of our own behaviour.  It took a while for me to realise the sense of denial involved in this ‘blaming the victim’ dynamic – as a small child exposed to this you really do question whether you are experiencing anything remarkable, wrong or undeserved when even the family doctor and otherwise friendly neighbours believe it’s nothing to complain about.  Later I understood that it’s a fairly classic experience for anybody undergoing such prejudice even if my experience wasn’t on the same scale as other people’s experience of  racial or sexual abuse.  The critical point was that I soon realised that this denial, practised by otherwise responsible and decent people, was a cultural and not an individual phenomenon.

The extent to which this relied upon history, or a justification constructed upon a certain historical interpretation, was one of the main motivators for me to become interested in history, an interest that (much later) culminated in me becoming a historian.  That interest allowed me to go to unversity, while my experience led me to try and go to the university furthest away from where I grew up as humanly possible within the UK.  Another relative took this a stage further and emigrated after making it clear that he would never live in Scotland again – a view he holds to this day.  Although I had plenty of good experiences as a child, and valued both the countryside and the friends I made in the North East, my first-hand experience of nationalist bigotry there was a formative one which was only confirmed by my (limited) personal experience of Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties.  I could see in those places the logical outcome of the attitudes I had experienced, and I didn’t (and don’t) want that for Scotland.  That might sound excessive, but I’m old enough to remember Alex Salmond speaking at SNP conferences using language about ‘British occupation’ lifted straight from the Sinn Fein speechwriter’s textbook.

Friends and colleagues involved in the ‘Yes’ campaign assure me that that sort of negative nationalism is long in the past.  I believe they don’t share it, but they never seem to consider that my British national identity does not depend upon rejection of any other national identity – even if it has identified the Irish, French and Germans as the ‘other’ it defined itself against in the past – whereas theirs does.  The grounds for that are almost always a distorted reading of history which ignores the historical context of the time.  Bannockburn certainly ensured that Scotland avoided the absorbsion into medieval England experienced by Wales, but either way the country was run by, and for, an Anglo-Norman aristocratic elite.  Culloden certainly involved the massacres of Clansmen by British soldiers celebrated by nationalist belief, but all it decided was whether an Italian Catholic dilettante or a German Protestant curmudgeon sat on the throne.  Reading modern concepts of nationality, and nationalist competition, into history is an abuse of the past to service the politics of the present; an abuse which, more quickly than people might suspect, often ends up in legitimising violence.  When I heard Bosnian Serb farmers explaining why their Bosniac Muslim neighbours were deceitful supremacists who had historically repressed the Serb majority, despite the fact that those neighbours had always been friendly and helpful to them as individuals, I could hear the voices of my childhood explaining why being called ‘English pig’ was nothing to take offence over, or why Scottish independence was the only way to end historical repression by the English like me.  Or the voices of Irish farmers, explaining why the local criminal godfathers ordering locals at gunpoint to drive diggers loaded with explosives into vehicle checkpoints to blow themselves and British soldiers to pieces was a regrettable but inevitable outcome of eight hundred years of oppression by the British like me.

But if the past holds no veto over the present in my view, the referendum campaign in the present demands something more from independence than the indulgence of nationalist mythology.  An independent Scotland requires more than a warm and fuzzy glow of self-righteous nationalist vindictation to succeed, and this is the area where, in my opinion, Scottish nationalism fails as a practical proposition.  I don’t have any particular interest in the economic arguments as it happens.  The golden goose of North Sea oil and the Barnett formula have long been used as sticks by both sides in this debate but national identity is, ultimately, an irrational construct.  Frankly, I do most nationalists the justice of assuming that they would be prepared to pay higher taxes to achieve their goal no matter what revenue and independent Scotland receives from oil, and in return I believe my British national identity has significantly more going for it than simply bribing a sullen and resentful Scots minority to stay on board by means of a south-north flow of capital within the UK.  But it does puzzle me that an ideology and political campaign built upon secession from Britain has to cling to such British totems as the pound sterling and the Queen.  In the case of the pound, the ‘Yes’ campaign appear outraged by the fact that independence works in both directions, and in that event the Rest of the UK will be able to say ‘No’ to currency union.  Still waiting to hear about Plan B on that one, I think.  And, if they do say ‘Yes’ to currency union, you can’t claim any meaningful level of independence from the hated Westminster when if your financial policy is determined by the Bank of England.

What this means to me is that the ‘Yes’ campaign are arguing not for independence, but psuedo-independence; ‘The flag over the town hall will change, but everything will stay pretty much the same.  Except for being better, obviously’.  This is an argument which strangely lacks the confidence relentlessly projected by the ‘Yes’ campaigners.  Maybe they dimly perceive the limits to which a political ideology ultimately based on nationalist bigotry can take a country.

In the meantime, and as a result of my formative childhood experiences, I will not only take great pleasure in voting ‘No’ in September, I will also continue to enjoy being both British and Scottish to annoy Scottish, English and Irish nationalist bigots.

Back from the Dead with Blair

Just like Tony Blair, I’m back from a lengthy absence due to external commitments just as further controversy explodes – this time over the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq.  Well, actually, the controversy isn’t really about that and is, as usual, about debating the merits of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Actually, it isn’t really a debate about that either, as the ‘illegality’, immorality and catastrophic consequences of the 2003 invasion are now firmly fixed in popular belief.  So instead of a debate about what should be done to deal with events in 2014, we are faced with yet another round of public demands for a show trial followed by tearful admission of guilt for crimes against the people by a contrite Blair.  It’s just so annoying for some that he seems to be unwilling to follow the script.

The problem with all this is is evident in the media expectations associated with the Chilcott inquiry.  Either it will exculpate Blair, in which case it will be a ‘whitewash’, or it will reveal the ‘truth’ which of course has already been determined by the commentariat to be that Blair is a war criminal responsible for kowtowing to the most unpopular reactionary simpleton of a US President in history, and committing Britain to the greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez on the basis of self-evident lies.

This of course is precisely the course followed by commentary on the previous five (or is it six?) inquiries into the decision to invade.  The fact that this represents an assumptive judgement and excludes any evidence-based examination of that judgement goes without question.  But then we all prefer to have our prejudices confirmed rather than challenged.

Encouragingly, Blair’s essay on the current Iraq crisis and his appearance on the Andrew Marr show at the weekend show no sign of capitulation to the dogma of what John Rentoul accurately refers to as ‘Blair-rage’, but there is little sign of the media letting their favourite bone go.  Here’s how Blair saw the same issue within the context of the media pressing for ministerial resignations in his first term:

When they have decided to go for someone, they start with the story.  That story may or may not be true, but it is then embellished.  If resistance is met, they just up the pressure until the frenzy is the journalists’ equivalent of the screaming abdabs.  If resistance continues, they basically say: right, we will continue running this story until the person resigns.

Or, in this case, confesses their guilt and throws themself on the mercy of the braying mob.  Although this would certainly satisfy a real public desire for vengeance against the villain of the received wisdom, it also means we’re denied any sensible examination of the policy options as the Pavlovian exploitation of the Iraq dogma crowds out objective debate.  See the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ at any time between 2003 and now for examples.  This might have been understandable ten years ago, but it is painfully self-indulgent now and leads to a policy void when dealing with current events that demand a response now.

That void might have been addressable but for Cameron’s failure to properly study the Blair handbook on political manipulation; understanding only the facile attractiveness of soundbite politics and the doomed need to de-nastify the Tories at a time of increasing Euroscepticism amongst his core constituency, he missed the necessity of preparing the ground for taking unpopular and hard decisions, such as that over the use of force in national interest.  Hence his Libyan intervention policy, opting for low-risk air strikes for a low return in local political influence to assist the construction of a functioning Libyan state; or even more pertinently his failed approach to Parliament to approve intervention in Syria.

And that’s the key issue for us now.  The ISIS invasion of Iraq is a product of Syrian non-intervention, a non-intervention which ignored the successful results of Anglo-American intervention on behalf of the Kurds in 1991 in favour of an erroneous received wisdom about 2003.  ISIS have certainly been able to capitalise on Sunni alienation from an Iraqi government dominated by Shia sectarianism in a post-Saddam Iraq.  But that sectarianism is a failure of democratically elected Iraqi politicians pandering to Shia majoritarianism, and not a failure of western agency since the US withdrawal in 2011.  Meanwhile, as Blair points out, Assad continues to give us an objective lesson in what happens after the Arab spring meets a B’aathist dictator whom the west flinches from deposing.

On that subject, has abybody seen the Syrian Body Count website to quantify the cost of our policy there?  Or doesn’t that meet the criteria required for us to feel good about our non-interventionism in the same manner as the Iraq Body Count website relentlessly and justifiably quantified the cost of intervention in Iraq?

I don’t have any problem acknowledging that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or more correctly, post-invasion policy) inflamed ethnic and sectarian conflict within Iraq to near-catastrophic levels; I do wish the peddlers of the received wisdom could reciprocate by acknowledging the similar consequences of non-intervention in Iraq under Saddam and now in Syria.  Finally accepting that there is no ‘smoking gun’ to prove their favourite thesis of Blairite mendacity would also be helpful when confronting events unfolding seven years after Blair’s departure from No.10 Downing street.  Endless re-runs of the hysteria surrounding the failure of the Hutton inquiry and every inquiry since to confirm their prejudices just doesn’t cut it.