A World Without End
Jonathan Clark, editor of a major new history of the British Isles, considers what effect the intellectual currents of our own time have had on the way historians write.
All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’ So wrote the British politician and classicist Enoch Powell in his strangely insightful biography of his inspired Birmingham predecessor Joseph Chamberlain, published in 1977. These words were widely remembered, since their bleak realism contradicted still-widespread assumptions that political careers are high-minded stories of cumulative achievement: the greater the ‘statesman’, the greater the achievements.
Today we ask whether we must say something similar about historical writing itself. Never has so much history been written; never has its shelf-life been so short; never have its goalposts been so frequently moved; never have historians complained more of the lack of a single national debate on central themes; never has there been less agreement about what is to be explained. The sense of cumulative research yielding reliable and durable results has been undermined. Instead, historians seem to be people whose best skills are in shooting down the theories of other historians.