The Longman-History Today Awards 2013

Paul Lay | Published 21 February 2013


This year’s Longman-History Today Trustees Award was given to Pevsner Architectural Guides, published by Yale University Press. The award recognises a person or organisation that has made a major contribution to history. The guides began life as The Buildings of England and were the brainchild of Nikolaus Pevsner, one of the extraordinary generation of Mitteleuropeans who made their home in Britain before the outbreak of the Second World War and so enriched their adopted country during the postwar years. In 1945 Pevsner persuaded Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, of the value of the project and the first volume was published in 1951. Yale University Press took over the project in 2003. Sixty years on the guides, numbering more than 80 volumes, cover every corner of the British Isles and now encompass Britain’s great cities and Ireland.

The award was presented to the publisher of the Pevsner Architectural Guides, Sally Salvesen, by the Editor of History Today, Paul Lay, at a reception held on January 9th at the Royal Society in London, a venue whose staircase is, as Pevsner no doubt knew, the only work in Britain by the Nazi architect Albert Speer (the building, on Carlton Terrace, served as the German Embassy from 1936-39). Read Jonathan Meades' consideration of Pevsner’s achievement.

The Longman-History Today Book of the Year, with a prize of £2,000, went to Bill Schwarz for Memories of Empire, Vol I: The White Man’s World (Oxford University Press), the first in a three-volume study of the relationship between Britons and their imperial past. Two other books were highly commended: Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (Knopf), which is reviewed along with the winner at the bottom of this article; and Glyn Parry’s The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee (Yale University Press), which was reviewed in our September 2012 edition. The judges were Professor Jeremy Black of Exeter University, History Today Reviews Editor and social historian Juliet Gardiner, Professor Miri Rubin of Queen Mary University of London and Paul Lay.

Among the other awards was the Longman-History Today Historical Picture Researcher of the Year prize, given to a researcher who has done outstanding work to enhance a text with a creative, imaginative and wide-ranging selection of images. This year the prize and cheque for £500 was awarded to Pauline Hubner for her work on The Great Builders  (Thames & Hudson), edited by Kenneth Powell, an examination of 40 of the most influential figures in the history of architectural engineering. Roger Moorhouse was highly commended for his work on Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms (Allen Lane), as was Louise Thomas for her contribution to Gay Life Stories (Thames & Hudson) by Robert Aldrich.

The Undergraduate Dissertation Prize, worth £250, is given by History Today in association with the Royal Historical Society. This year’s winner, from a very strong shortlist, was Frederick Smith of the University of Warwick for his ‘Discerning Cheese from Chalke: Louvainist Propaganda and Recusant Identity in 1560s England’, an extract from which will appear in a future edition of History Today. The judges – Professor Mark Cornwall of Southampton University, Dr Adam Smith of University College London and Paul Lay – thought it ‘a very sophisticated and ambitious piece of work, which combines excellent text analysis with a clear and engaging theoretical framework. It boldly challenges existing historiography in trying to reassess the impact of Louvainist propaganda as a vehicle for reasserting Catholicism in England in the first decade of the reign of Elizabeth I.

Judges of this year’s book awards, Juliet Gardiner and Jeremy Black, review the winning book of the year, by Bill Schwarz, and another highly commended title from the shortlist, by Andrew Preston.

The White Man’s World
Bill Schwarz
Oxford University Press   584pp   £35

In June 1951 the Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee proposed to Parliament that there should be a statue erected in London to Jan Smuts, the long-serving Afrikaans prime minister of South Africa, who had died the previous year. Winston Churchill and Clement Davies, leader of the Liberal Party, endorsed the suggestion, but it proved contentious and the shilly- shallying continued for several years. It was not until November 1956 that a statue to the man who had been described at his memorial service as ‘one of the greatest members of the British Empire that has ever lived’ was unveiled. At that very moment Anglo-French forces were preparing to withdraw after a bungled attempt to reclaim the Suez Canal, an event that has come to symbolise the collapse of Britain’s imperial ambitions, the final seal on the country’s decline from superpower status.

In his long-gestated, ambitious, provocative and accessible book (precisely the qualities we look for in awarding the annual Longman-History Today prize) The White Man’s World, the first instalment of a trilogy, Memories of Empire, Bill Schwarz examines what the Empire meant to Britain’s idea of itself and suggests that the loss of that Empire has inverted and reconfigured that meaning with profound social and cultural consequences, which persist today. The white man at the apogee of Empire represented the effortless superiority of the born- to-rule, of the authority implicit in muscular masculinity, subduing nature and natives. Post-Second World War decolonisation produced confusion, a lack of confidence, a sense of a lost identity, a compass no longer set true. In this period it was the ‘unappeased memories of Britain’s past’, Schwarz argues, that drove Britain’s new racial policies.

In support of his thesis Schwarz buys smart new brogues (the book takes a few diversions into the personal and particularly into explications of his methodology) and goes to visit Enoch Powell, nearly 20 years after the Conservative politician had dilated on the future of a Britain swamped by black immigrants in his notorious ‘rivers of blood speech’ in Birmingham. The historian finds the politician unrepentant – ‘I am struck by my sobriety’, he claims – yet distinctly uneasy. All around him Powell notes disorder and subversion, ‘insolent acts’ perpetuated by ‘enemies within’, which, unable to name, he groups under the heading ‘The Thing’, and starts a file into which he slips reports of the ‘destruction of authority’, the unravelling of Britain.

Schwarz is convinced that this perception of disorder and the high level of popular support for Powell following his Cassandra-like speech (after which he received as many as 100,000 letters, most in support and for which Edward Heath sacked him) owes a considerable debt to the ‘political-cultural effects of the end of Empire “at home” in the domestic society itself’. He charts the deep-rooted construction of the understanding of Empire and its governance in order to comprehend the cultural and social effects of its loss on British society.

His project is to establish the link between an imperial past and the metropolitan present. And key to this is ‘whiteness’, which indicates an obvious binary difference, bestowing an iconic status on the coloniser carrying the ‘white man’s burden’, of ruling and thus ‘civilising’ the non-white natives. This authority would be inverted in the years of decolonisation back home, as a letter sent from one of his constituents to the MP John Profumo in 1960, some eight years before Powell’s speech, indicates: ‘There is the utmost danger of this country being so swamped [by black immigrants] that we shall not be masters in our own land.’

Schwarz builds his rich and detailed argument by devoting chapters to the so-called ‘white man’s countries’, the new colonies of South Africa, Rhodesia and Australia, set up at the start of the 20th century. The whole is a story carried by a compelling range of individuals, colonial administrators, politicians, writers as varied as Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Henry James and Nadine Gordimer, as well as James Buchanan and G.A. Henty; and finishing with Roy Welensky and Ian Smith, last-ditch resisters both against black majority rule in their countries. However, despite the fact that there is a Raj-like photograph of a slain Indian tiger on the jacket, India – which is probably what most people thought of when they thought of Empire until the ‘winds of change’ blew through Africa, figures marginally.

The White Man’s World is an important book; a major contribution to interrogating the view that in general Empire had little impact on the British public – other than for trading and emigration opportunities – by showing how deeply formative its often imagined memory, symbols and myths are for our world today.

Juliet Gardiner


Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith
Andrew Preston
Alfred Knopff  815pp   £37.50

This study of how religion has influenced American foreign policy is one of the most interesting books I read in 2012, not least because of its intellectual ambition, reaching back to look at the religious roots of recent developments.

Preston, who teaches American history at Cambridge, begins his investigation by looking at the Iraq war of 2003. He points out that historians of American religion have devoted little attention to diplomatic history, while diplomatic historians have failed to offer a systematic account of religious factors in US diplomatic history. In bridging this gap, Preston does not present a simple account as he outlines the diverse elements of religious commitment and thought affecting American policy. Far from their being any identikit element, religion contributed to liberal as well as conservative, pacifist as well as militant and isolationist as well as internationalist strains. The ethics of war highlighted the debate. Thus, in 1940-41 advocates of both neutrality and intervention deployed religious morality in the service of their cause. The Second World War itself provided a way for Christian conservatives to re-enter the mainstream. For example, Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), America’s leading Pentecostal, asked a war bond rally in Los Angeles, which raised over $150,000 in a single hour: ‘How many of you would like to see Hitler covered with boils from head to foot?’ She added: ‘Well, I would’.

The Cold War offers much if read as a religious struggle and a raft of elements, not least the militant anti-Communist Catholicism of the Kennedy interest. There was also the tension between conservatives, who presented themselves as fighting godless tyranny, and liberals who were far more ambivalent about such ideological commitments. As Preston notes, the Vietnam War was to create fresh tensions within American religion, not least within the Catholic bloc. Cardinal Spellman presented the war as a matter of America’s moral duty. That President Diem was a devout Catholic was also highly significant. Indeed, Preston could have said more on this point. He is also interesting on the development of what he terms Christian Zionism and his linkage of this to foreign policy.

This is a timely, as well as a scholarly, and well-written book, which is deserving of the widest possible audience.

Jeremy Black


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