IT’S A funny sort of time to be publishing an all-encompassing history of England, even a “short” one. I mean, how do you sum up at the end? The old histories that stopped around 1945-50 could at least conclude that we’d won the war and gained the Welfare State, even if we’d lost the empire.
But what can we say in a history which ends around 2010? Simon Jenkins concludes that England has been a “successful” country, and that Parliament has been the central force through most of our history. But then he concedes our assembly may be losing its grip on the nation, so actually ends with a Kipling poem about Magna Carta, which predates even Parliament.
Jenkins has no such problems with his conclusions in the earlier part of his book; he is thoroughly decisive in saying, for example, that Elizabeth I was our greatest monarch.
His is a distinctly old-fashioned approach to history, with the personality or even the appearance of a monarch or prime minister getting at least as much attention as the economic state of the nation they ruled. Indeed, some of his assertions (on the immediate causes of the First World War, for example) seem to me to reflect popular mythology rather than historical study. Also, it’s noticeable he seems to give more space to Thatcher and Blair than Gladstone or even Churchill.
But then, all historians are stronger on some periods than others, and covering so many centuries is always a challenge. This is a very well-written, readable book and, if you haven’t read much on our history, or feel a bit shaky on some areas and could do with a brief summary, then I can – with some reservations – recommend it.