It took a couple months, but I recently completed “The English and Their History” by Robert Tombs, a professor of history at Cambridge. It is 899 pages of that history, plus a hundred pages of notes – so he didn’t skimp.
Understanding the history of England is key to understanding the modern world. This statement is not intended as an assertion of cultural superiority or defense of imperialism, but simply a fact. English influence is so pervasive as to go unnoticed, starting with the language this sentence is written in, but extending to such commonplaces as sandwiches, soccer (or football), and styles of formal dress. The global trade-based economy is essentially an English innovation, with contributions from others around the world.
And, yes, the book is specifically about the English. The terms “Britain” and “British” are used often enough, but they are not interchangeable with “England” or “English.” The Welsh and Scots are certainly important in the history of the Isles and the world (hello, Adam Smith), but they all speak English and fall under a monarchy with English roots – and, in any case, the English were always the most populous and wealthy of Albion’s inhabitants. So Tombs chose to write a book about the largest nation in Europe without its own state. If the notion of an independent English state seems laughable, that simply reflects how well the English have integrated historically with their neighbors (at least, the non-Irish ones) to form the idea of a greater Britain.
The roots of England’s traditions and outlooks are also vital to understanding the American Revolution, why it fundamentally differed from the French Revolution, and the subsequent development of American political traditions. The English always fancied themselves a free people from time immemorial. The monarchical state was always too small to manage local affairs across the island, so locals took on public duties themselves. While showing deference to the crown, they also asserted their rights against it, as expressed by such documents as Magna Carta. The American rebellion was viewed by both American revolutionaries and English conservatives such as Edmund Burke as a reassertion of the colonists’ historic rights as Englishmen, not a creation of anything new. The French Revolution, on the other hand, had little use for the past, seeking to uproot all tradition, from the monarchy to the church to the calendar, and in so doing create a new idealized world (so now I’m reading Burke’s “reflections” on the revolution across the channel).
In addition to being informative, Tombs also provides a great read that keeps the reader engaged. Despite a litany of kings, MPs and religious dissenters across the centuries, it flows together in a neat continuity. Occasionally I start a history book and can’t finish because it’s simply so bad – this is not that book.
One part that most impressed me is I cannot characterize Tombs as a Tory, Labourite, Liberal, Fabian, UKIPer, or time-traveling cavalier, roundhead or Whig. As a foreigner, I probably missed some cues a native would pick up on (certainly most references to British TV went over my head), but I don’t think there were many. He offers copious criticism of the past, but also explains why certain decisions were made or how English actions fit in the context of the contemporary world. While the pictures isn’t rosy, it is almost always rational and never judgmental.
England has been a lucky country throughout its history, and its history is lucky to have such a fine chronicler.