At last. Clio, Muse of History, has entered the fray. She has Proclaimed. Her judgement has, of course, been handed down via the agency of her representatives on Earth, Historians. 300 of them. (Collective noun: a “parcel.”)
No, really. 300. It brings a tear to the eye. And yet we must also admit a delicious undertow of low comedy in this story published yesterday (25 May) in The Guardian. It’s all very evocative of comic fiction, something closer to, say, Tom Sharpe than PG Wodehouse.
You can understand why the ringleaders handed this to The Guardian: intellectually, it’s one of the softest targets in publishing. But you’d like to think they’d have gone with this option even if had been a tough ask, just for the comedy value of seeing Niall Ferguson disporting himself in the pages of a newspaper he affects to hate.
That aside, it’s a wonderful example of The History Game: that glorious piece of back parlour tomfoolery, where you insist on owning the future because you, sort of, in a flimsy, academic sort of a way, think you own the past. I’ve been collecting some of its sillier manifestations on a Pinterest board. (And I will get round to posting my anthology of history quotations, I promise.)
The truth is that I love it all, the sillier the better. And I identify with many of the leading lights here. Even though it’s intellectually shallow, sometimes shockingly so, History is a hugely important artform; and many of its practitioners are terribly charming. (Though at this point you’re perfectly at liberty to pause for a quiet moment or two while you reflect on the fact that George Osborne studied History.)
I’ve read and hugely enjoyed at least two of Ferguson’s books and at least one of Gardiner’s. Schama not so much. But I feel a little bit let down. Especially by Ferguson. I’d always taken him for a shrewd operator. Don’t know why, maybe something to do with his TV persona. But there you have it.
So I suppose the nub of my complaint here is a feeling that Ferguson’s evocation of Our Island Story by Henrietta Marshall was particularly inept. He’s actually doing down the whole tradition of Whig History here, particularly surprising because in some respects he’s the pre-eminent Whig Historian of our current era. I think we can all agree that you can be a Whig and, just about, pro the EU. (See below.) But you don’t have to trample all over a perfectly valid tradition to do it. Do you?
Of even more interest, though, is the wonderfully interesting side-issue he opens up. The question he begs. Because, actually, the frisson he creates by mugging Marshall makes you realise how insignificant the whole Island People notion, as a compelling piece of mytho-poetic rhetoric, has been so far in the Referendum debate. I thought it would be somewhere up there front and centre. Perhaps Ferguson had been assuming that too, and had done his homework accordingly.
And if that were the case, you could hardly fault his reasoning; because Island People imagery should be, one might imagine, particularly potent, evoking as it does not just William Shakespeare and the famous speech in Richard II but also Winston Churchill’s The Island Race, a popular abridgement of his peerless four volume history of Britain. It’s the 20th Century’s pre-eminent example of Whig History and it makes Ferguson’s efforts read like adolescent scribblings.
Brexiteers should be brandishing it in the faces of their opponents.
Inexplicably, they’re not. Or if they are, I’ve missed it.
So, yes, let’s be charitable. Perhaps Ferguson has been girding his loins for a skirmish that hasn’t really materialised. Perhaps, having become bored waiting for battle to commence, he’s getting his retaliation in first.
On the other hand, it might have been wiser to keep his powder dry.
The Island People may yet attempt to make themselves heard.