Towards a Global History of Britain
Gregory A. Barton, October 2012
British history in the United States is in a self-diagnosed crisis. Reading the lamentations of British historians on H-Albion can be as depressing as reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. British history is in a crisis because of the scarcity of jobs, the internal fights between the theory-based 'new imperialists' and the more empirical Oxbridge school of imperial historians, and the general decline in humanities funding and support. The old conceptions of 'domestic' and 'imperial' history, which once seemed vast, can no longer explain the past's global interactions and our inherited, hybrid identities. Thematic job offerings often replace those that once went to British history. Departments used to have room for German, French, and British historians, but now often conflate them all under the single search for a "European" historian. British history, where it once ruled, as did the empire itself, "over palm and pine," has seemingly handed the baton to other fields.
British historians in Australia face a similar problem. Thematic and European hires have largely cut into opportunities for British historians, though it is interesting to note that thematic hires, such as in trans-national and environmental history, sometimes offer an umbrella to shelter those who specialize in British domestic or imperial history. Although no published statistics are available, British historians in Australia have remarked that no university in this country has hired a British historian—specifically titled as such—since 2008. While British historians in the United Kingdom may have a safe base, those in the former British Empire all seem to be having difficulties convincing their universities to hire a specialist in British history. For a number of reasons, British history seems to be a topic the former areas of the empire—from the United States to Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and Hong Kong—can not live with on the old terms. But neither, if they want to make sense of their past, can they live without it.1
Historians predicted the current problem over a decade ago. A self-appraisal by the North American Conference on British Studies in 1999 implored British historians to better engage Britain and the world:
[We need] …an historical transformation that transcends national boundaries, a world-incorporating phenomenon that is at once political and social, economic and cultural, technological and intellectual. Historians of Britain—or more particularly of Britain in relation to the rest of the world—are as well prepared as anyone to understand the course and character of this global process…. One challenge is to demonstrate that British history can speak to the issues that preoccupy American society and push American education in new directions—that it offers important insights into… the varied concerns that shape our sense of the world."2
The Stansky Report also pointed out that an outdated obsession with "Marxist paradigms" partially explains the decline of British studies in the United States.
While this is true, and while the end of the Cold War has certainly lessened interest in the battles for and against Marxism, we have, however, inherited the successor ideologies from those battles. These ideologies have undermined British and world history because they lack both the rigor and the interests of the earlier debates. Too often British historians engage in critiquing and nagging the past, cursing as they walk by the cemetery, revealing less about the past and rather more about the lens and the "reading" of the author. Do we expect to attract students, readers, and funding when we present the past as an example of unparalleled evil compared to the wisdom of current trends? Historians' inability to find wisdom or value in the past—which is why most students and popular audiences come to British history—further fuels declining interest in the field.
A new approach is needed if we wish to solve the crisis in British history. Debates about America's obsession with theory and criticisms of imperialism and Britain's obsession with empirical, rose-tinted studies of imperialism are tired, old battles that only a few practitioners of "new imperialism" or "orthodox imperialism" care about. How the world became so deeply influenced by the West, how an imperial synthesis arose—without cardboard victims and cardboard heroes— is what interests most readers of British history in India, China, the Americas and Europe. History is too messy to churn out an oversimplified narrative of heroes and villains. Students and readers understand that the past is also about themselves and their culture. They know that a litany of complaints about the past is not motivated by a desire to understand either the past or the world at large. They know they are not getting the whole story.
The rise of the British World concept attempts to solve this crisis. It is a shared model of history that accepts not only the blame and praise of the past, but recognizes the views of many people around the world who claim different interactions with Britain. Studying Britain and the world reinvigorates the study of domestic history by positioning it globally, as advocated by Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins in British Imperialism and Andrew Thompson in The Empire Strikes Back. After the dust of the Cold War and its leftover "isms" are cleared away, historians can get back to the job of talking about how and why the world is configured as it is. We can seek threads of unity in a world of immense diversity and vitality—the silver thread that now runs through a globalized world where difference is held together by a shared past of interaction. The recent creation and growing popularity of The British Scholar Society and the journal Britain and the World are testaments to this trend—the success of both is predicated upon the growing number of scholars who seek to understand the British past on its own terms, rather than vilifying or glorifying it.
The British World model presents an understanding of the change in the modern age that better fits the historical evidence of elite transformations, trading patterns, and cultural exchange that gave rise to a single global culture. One of our distinguished guest lecturers at The University of Edinburgh asked the question, "What is this world that Britain claims for its own?" It is a fair and penetrating question. The answer is that the British World conception does not claim the world as its own as much as most of the world claims the political, cultural, legal, economic, and professional structures that largely derive from Britain. Historians of imperial history have begun to converge in agreement that an imperial synthesis of formal and informal empire arose in a pattern recognizable today as globalism. The interaction between Britain and different parts of the world happened in almost every region of the globe and formed new elite groups and intermediaries that transformed global society.
Britain and the World represents an optimistic approach to world history. It is an argument. And like world history and area studies, it is resurgent because it is relevant. It answers a central question: Why is West so deeply embedded in the world? It offers a model to answer that question by tracing the cultural and political formations that crystallized when European ideas about nature and society—spearheaded by Britain in the modern era—connected regional systems of interaction into a global emporium. While this has been laid out carefully in a series of introductions to the Britain and the World journal (free online), not everyone associated with The British Scholar Society accepts this argument. The British Scholar Society is a big tent. In fact we excel in every variety of historical endeavor—from political to cultural history, with all approaches in between. But we all share a similar passion for uncovering those sections of world history that interacted with Britain in a significant way. Moving towards a global history of Britain clears the way for historians to get back to the job of talking about the past because it explains the globalized world we live in today.
Gregory Barton is a Research Fellow at The Australian National University. He is editor-in-chief of the journal, Britain and the World, and an editor of the Britain and the World book series with Palgrave Macmillan.
2. Peter Stansky et al., "NACBS Report on the State and Future of British Studies in North America (1999)," 1999.