There’s a reason Andrew Roberts’ muscular new book resonates with President Bush
Hip hip hooray for anglophones
There’s a reason Andrew Roberts’ muscular new book resonates with President Bush
It was the President of the United States who recommended A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 to me. He was making a bit of social chit-chat as I and a couple of others were leaving the Oval Office last year, and he asked me if I’d read Andrew Roberts’ new book. For a world-renowned moron, President Bush is (from my limited acquaintance) far more widely read than many of his detractors. I don’t just mean feeble types like the marketing department of Ontario’s Lakehead University, whose advertising used a photo of Bush as a warning of the terrible failure that awaited those too dim to enter the groves of Thunder Bay academe, or simplyaudiobooks.ca, whose Toronto billboards likewise brandished a picture of Bush over the slogan “Don’t read enough?” Compared to, say, powerful congressional committee chairmen, the President reads plenty, especially books on history and global affairs. My advice to Maclean’s after the next U.S. election is to fire me and pitch the gig to Dubya.
You don’t have to read far into Roberts’ volume to appreciate why it resonates with this particular commander-in-chief. On page six, we find another head of government of a global superpower, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. Speaking at the dawn of the 20th century, Britain’s prime minister remarks:
“England is, I believe, the only country in which, during a great war, eminent men write and speak as if they belonged to the enemy.”
Indeed. And, as Roberts adds, “In fact, the phenomenon was to recur throughout the English-speaking peoples over the coming
decades, and in some engagements—such as at Suez and in Vietnam—opposition from a vociferous domestic minority was to doom their enterprises far more than foreign opponents.”
He’s certainly right about Vietnam, but my eyebrow arches skyward when it comes to Suez. It was surely neither domestic opposition nor Egyptian enemies that doomed the enterprise, but explicit and fierce American hostility to British action. Short-sighted hostility, one might argue, that led in part to the creation of the fetidly “stable” Middle East that plagues the world today. But that’s one of the pleasures of Roberts’ book: muscular polemical prose that cheerfully invites an argument about something or other on almost every page. It is, of course, a sequel—to Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, whose four volumes concluded in the year 1900. Roberts feels, reasonably enough, that it’s a shame to end the story without an account of the Anglosphere century.
Which raises the question of what he means by “the English-speaking peoples.” I have both the London and New York editions of this book. The British jacket bears four flags— the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the Southern Cross and the Maple Leaf (surely it should have been the Red Ensign). By contrast, the American jacket replaces that coali-
tion of the willing with a scene of postwar jubilation in Times Square, and the only flag to be seen is that of Old Glory. Roberts’ New York publishers would appear not to be entirely on board with his view of the great anglophone family and, at least for promotional purposes, prefer traditional notions of American exceptionalism. The author, on the other hand, subscribes to something closer to the Churchillian idea of a Britannic family with America as the prodigal son, but a son nevertheless and the greatest of all:
“Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no one will bother to make a distinction between the British Empire-led and the American Republic-led periods of English-speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries. It will be recognized that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common—and enough that separated them from everyone else—that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately.”
If you step back, this seems obvious. Of the three great global conflicts of the 20th century—the First, Second and Cold wars— who called it right every time? Germany: one out of three. Italy: two out of three. France: well, let’s not even go there. For a perfect hat trick, there are only those nations on the front
of Roberts’ London edition. There is a distinction between the “English-speaking peoples” and the rest of “the West,” and at key moments in human history that distinction has proved critical. Europe has given us plenty of nice paintings and agreeable symphonies, French wine and Italian actresses and whatnot, but, for all our fetishization of multiculturalism, you can’t help noticing that when it comes to the notion of a political West—a sustained commitment to individual liberty—the historical record looks a lot more unicultural and indeed (given that three of the four nations on that cover share the same head of state) uniregal. Roberts provides a good summation:
“Although they are ancient states, many of the constitutions of European countries are very young indeed, far younger than those of Britain’s constitutional monarchy (1688-9), America’s democracy (1776), Canada’s responsible government (1848) or even Australia’s Federation (1900). By contrast, the French Constitution establishing its Fifth Republic was only promulgated in 1958, Germany’s Basic Law was passed in 1949... Italy’s was adopted in 1949 • • • and Portugal’s became law in 1976...”
Or, as I like to say, the U.S. constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian and Spanish constitutions, it’s older than all of them put together. The entire political class of Portugal, Spain and Greece spent their childhoods living under dictatorships. So did Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel. We forget how rare in this world is sustained peaceful constitutional evolution and, to be honest, it’s kinda hard to remember when ¡2 the principal political party of our own demented Dominion peddles non-stop Canada Day 7 smiley-face banalities about how “we are such ¡Ü a young country” (Paul Martin)—which, aside \ from being obvious tripe, gives us the faintly o creepy air of a professional virgin. “The Eng7 lish-speaking peoples did not invent the ideas x that nonetheless made them great,” concedes
Roberts. “The Romans invented the concept of Law, the Greeks one-freeman-one-vote democracy, the Dutch modern capitalism...” But it is the English world that has managed to make these blessings seemingly permanent features of the landscape.
As Roberts sees it, the story of the 20th century is one of anglophone democracies defending the planet against what he calls four assaults: “The First Assault: Prussian Militarism 1914-17,” “The Second Assault: Fascist Aggression 1931-39,” “The Third Assault: Soviet Communism 1945-49” and “The Fourth Assault: Islamicist Terrorism and its De Facto Allies.” In between come periods of complacency (“The Wasted Breathing Space: 1990-II September 2001”) and loss of faith (“The Long, Dismal, Drawling Tides: The 1970s”), but in the end the good guys always step up to the plate.
Of course, to point out such things is not terribly English, which may explain why this book has had some sniffy reviews in the mother country: “Everyone’s Perfidious, Bar Albion And America: Andrew Roberts has written a most unEnglish book, says Tim Gardant” (The Observer). The proponent of such a thesis risks sounding like the old Flanders and Swann song:
“The English, the English, the English are best.
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.”
But Roberts is shrewder than that: he understands the enervating temptations of what he calls “permanent guilt” and “the politics of the pre-emptive cringe.” Canada is an instructive example: we are a solid presence in the first half of his story, yet all but entirely absent from the second. The only one of our politicians post-Trudeau who rates a mention is a passing reference to Paul Martin’s rejection of missile defence, and the only mention of Trudeau is a snide aside about his youthful enthusiasm for Maoist China. We are a wealthy G7 nation of 30 million people but
chose under the cover of Trudeaupian narcissism to embrace global irrelevance. Our cousins across the ocean marked the dawn of the 9/11 era by selling off the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The whole lot, gone. Britain itself seems unable to rouse itself from a fatalistic three-legged danse macabre with Europe and its Islamifying cities that may yet mire it in the Continental pathologies it managed to avoid in the 20th century.
“Ah, the Anglosphere,” Australia’s Alexander Downer, my favourite foreign minister, said to me last year, when the subject of Canadian troops in Afghanistan came up. “There are really only five of us.” But, in their present political sensibilities, Canada is semiFrench, Britain is semi-European, and New Zealand is semi-bananas. The next volume of this story will be an interesting read. M
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