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New Left Review 5, September-October 2000

The historian of Machiavelli and Gibbon—New Zealand originator of a ‘new British history’ framed beyond Anglocentrism—looks at Tom Nairn’s After Britain. Is the United Kingdom really fated to disintegration, or absorption into Europe?



While publicists, some of them from what used to be the Left, have been celebrating the triumph of consumer capitalism and the end of history—that is to say, the death of the sovereign political community and the history it has made for itself—historians have been engaged in a reconstruction of ‘British history’. What this amounts to is an examination of the histories of the peoples inhabiting the archipelago as they have shaped these for themselves and shaped one another. The term ‘British’ sets up an emphasis on the English-dominated state and kingdom that has dominated these several histories, seeking to control and unify them, but the ‘new history’ recounts this story in ways calculated to problematize it. [1] For the reconstruction of British history, see Glenn Burgess, ed., The New British History: Founding a Modern State 1603–1715, London 1999; and a bibliography up to 1998 in American Historical Review, 104, 2, April 1999, p. 491, notes 2 and 3. Most work in this field so far has been done on the early modern state-building period, c. 1530–1830; but Nairn cites the exception, Laurence Brockliss and David Eastwood, eds., A Union of Multiple Identities: the British Isles, c. 1750–c. 1850, Manchester 1997. Whether there has been such a thing as ‘British history’ is contestable; but the disposition—if you like, the bias—of this approach is towards supposing that the contest continues and is not over yet.

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J. G. A. Pocock, ‘Gaberlunzie’s Return’, NLR 5: £3

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