Paul Johnson’s A History Of The English People

In his prologue to the 1980 edition, Johnson wrote:

* A third objection to this book is that, in its exclusive preoccupation with the English, or rather with the peoples who have occupied the land we call England, it presupposes that history is Anglocentric, and is therefore irrelevant in an age when the centres of world power have shifted elsewhere. Many modern historians, notably Professor Geoffrey Barraclough in his admirable book, History in a Changing World, have urged that we should abandon the habit of writing history based on the assumption that a particular race is the sole active agent. Such advice has been widely followed. One American scholar notes sadly the decline of English historical studies in the United States in a period when the subject has to fight hard for a toe-hold in curricula in which students are invited to study such topics as the dynamics of Soviet power, under-development among the African peoples, the renascence of Moslem culture, or parliamentary institutions in Asian countries, and when English history has been dropped altogether from the curriculum of most schools.

Now I object strongly to this drift away from English history, which is part of a wider movement away from European and North Atlantic history. Virtually all the ideas, knowledge, techniques and institutions around which the world revolves came from the European theatre and its ocean offshoots; many of them came quite explicitly from England, which was the principal matrix of modern society. Moreover, the West is still the chief repository of free institutions; and these alone, in the long run, guarantee further progress in ideas and inventions. Powerful societies are rising elsewhere not by virtue of their rejection of western world habits but by their success in imitating them. What ideas has Soviet Russia produced? Or Communist China? Or post-war Japan? Where is the surge of discovery from the Arab world? Or liberated Africa? Or, for that matter, from Latin America, independent now for more than 150 years? It is a thin harvest indeed, distinguished chiefly by infinite variations on the ancient themes of violence, cruelty, suppression of freedom and the destruction of the individual spirit. The sober and unpopular truth is that whatever hope there is for mankind – at least for the foreseeable future – lies in the ingenuity and the civilised standards of the West, above all in those western elements permeated by English ideas and traditions. To deny this is to surrender to fashionable cant and humbug. When we are taught by the Russians and the Chinese how to improve the human condition, when the Japanese give us science, and the Africans a great literature, when the Arabs show us the road to prosperity and the Latin Americans to freedom, then will be the time to change the axis of our history.

* The English responded to strong central government, invested with majesty and colour, and operated by a self-confident will. Henry VIII’s last speech to Parliament was an astonishing performance. His government had nothing to report but failure, but the King subjected the assembly to a magisterial harangue, in which all sections of the community were in turn soundly rebuked for their shortcomings. He contrived to give the impression that the nation was entirely to blame for any evils which had befallen it, and that it was exceedingly fortunate he was still prepared to remain at the helm and protect it from the worst consequences of its folly. The speech was heard in breathless admiration, and was never forgotten by all those present. Many of them, we are told, actually wept
tears of love, penitence and gratitude.

This gift of royal showmanship Henry passed on, in all its plenitude, to his dazzling daughter Elizabeth. To be sure, she supplemented it with an enviable range of qualities and accomplishments: a subtle intelligence, industry and self-discipline, prudence and deliberation, a warm heart and a virtuous mind. But without it she could not have
kept her throne, let alone given a divided, weak and desperately vulnerable nation the strength which comes from unity and a common purpose. No woman had ever presided successfully over a medieval court, whose function was to associate the chief landed proprietors with the business of government, and determine a fair division of its
spoils. Their animal energies found natural expression in violence, whether civil or international; such energies could only be diverted into more useful channels by the cynosure of the throne, whose authority sprang from its tenant’s ability to epitomise and transcend the ruffianly virtues of a military aristocracy. A woman’s sex was thus a daunting handicap. Elizabeth’s political genius consisted in turning it into an asset. She did not attempt to disguise her sex; on the contrary she emphasised it. In her great speeches, she always reminded her hearers that she was a woman. But she was a woman sui generis. They could turn her out in her petticoats, she said, and she would make a living anywhere in Europe. She had a woman’s body but ‘the heart and stomach of a king’. She was careful not to say ‘of a man’. She was not an emancipationist ; she did not believe in woman’s liberation. She did not seek to play a masculine role, and so injure the men she had to control in their pride. The English had burnt Joan of Arc for precisely that mistake.

Elizabeth vaunted her sex. Her weapons were an astonishing wardrobe, a collection of jewels which even the popes envied, false hair, paint and powder, and the universal knowledge that behind these trappings lay a resolute and imperious spirit which it was perilous to challenge. Elizabeth did not need men, unlike her wretched half-sister Mary, and her still more unhappy cousin Mary of Scotland. She was chaste by choice, and virtuous by policy and inclination. The mystique of her court – the cult of the Faerie Queen, the sexual favourites, the pretend love-affairs, the political minuets she danced with the popinjays who surrounded her – was an elaborate and calculated exercise in royal diplomacy, designed to replace the licensed gangsterism of masculine chivalry by a non-violent system which a woman could manipulate. It seems to us in retrospect shameful that this noble and virtuous queen, whose intelligence soared above her courtiers’, and whose ability and sense of responsibility rivalled that of even her most devoted and accomplished advisers, should have felt it necessary to demean herself to this masquerade. But there was no other way.

* The truth is, the English had a particular order of priorities in the way in which they invested their brain-power, and industry certainly came low down the scale. The elite education system was geared to produce, above all, politicians, lawyers and churchmen.* It inculcated habits of thought peculiarly well adapted to these professions. It deliberately and systematically encouraged the ablest young men to aspire to be prime ministers, lord chancellors, archbishops. And, within the limitations of its terms of reference, it was conspicuously successful.

It is no accident that England was able to move from oligarchy to democracy, and then to social democracy, without revolutionary violence – the only country in the world to do so. It is no accident that England had, and has, the most stable political system of any major country. Equally, England acquired, and in time dismantled, the
largest empire the world has ever seen, with the minimum of bloodshed. The English created, and still maintain, a uniquely resilient and efficient judicial system, distinguished both for its fairness and its dispatch. They have contrived to avoid religious warfare, and to confine doctrinal battles to the realm of scholarship. None of this came about by chance.

It reflects the extent to which the English were prepared to invest their abilities in these particular fields of endeavour, and in the institutions which dominate them. To become a Member of Parliament, Anthony Trollope correctly observed, was the height of ambition of every decent Englishman. This helps to explain the vigour and flexibility of English political life. The same remark could not conceivably have been made in the United States or Germany. In neither was politics a uniquely attractive and honoured career, absorbing a regal share of the best
brains in the country. And the consequences were, and indeed are, evident. The German nation, then and now the best educated in the world, industrious, dutiful, splendidly organised and equipped, twice surrendered itself to political imbeciles who led it to disaster.* America, also, has under-invested her talents in politics: this explains her long failure, from 1900 to 1941, to accept the world democratic leadership which her physical power made desirable, and her very indifferent performance since she has reluctantly shouldered the task. Much of what happened in, and to, Germany, much of what is now happening inside America, and to her efforts overseas, is the consequence of a particular set of priorities in the allocation of &lite human resources.

The history of modern Japan reflects a similar choice. The English put stability and non-violence before industrial performance: and they got what they paid for, no more, no less. The price they paid in wealth has been a heavy one. When Lord Birkenhead was negotiating with both sides of the coal industry in 1921, he remarked that he would have thought the miners’ leaders were the stupidest men in the country, had he not had occasion to meet the owners. What did he expect? He himself, to use Lord Beaverbrook’s phrase, was ‘the cleverest man in the kingdom’.

As such, he would never have contemplated going into the coal-mining industry. Naturally, and inevitably, he sought the glittering prizes in the law and politics; a century before he might have aimed, equally, at Lambeth Palace. The English education system was not designed to produce a happy and prosperous coal industry: it scarcely taught the miners how to read and write, and to the owners it gave, at best, a modest fluency in dead languages.

In the light of this, it is not surprising that the English, confronted by growing evidence that they were no longer the world’s leading industrial power, sought redress and relief not in an economic solution but in a
political one. They did not use the State to become more efficient. They used the State to enlarge the area in which their inefficiency would matter less. In short, they invented modern imperialism.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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