The British Problem, c.1534-1707: State Formation in the Atlantic Archipelago, Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill (eds.), (MacMillan £42.50 hb, £13.50 pb). Uniting the Kingdom?:The Making of British history, Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer (eds

Published in Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

There is a spectre haunting Irish historiography, one more ominous perhaps than revisionism or nationalism—the spectre of the ‘British Problem’, carrying with it the threat of another colonial impulse. Still reeling from Anglocentrism, scholars now have to face Britocentrism. Introducing Paddy and Mr Punch, Roy Foster assured his readers that his focus on English rather than British connections with Ireland ‘does not indicate a cavalier disregard of Scotland and Wales; rather, that “England” carries a historical charge, an implication of attempted cultural dominance, an assertion of power, which is not conveyed to an Irish ear by “Britain”’. Surely this is not the case. Nationalists, and sometimes even Unionists, now will more readily refer to ‘the Brits’ than ‘the English’. The current Northern Ireland question is a British problem, not an English one. Cultural history, history that deals with language and literature, inevitably employs ‘English’ as a blanket term, but the institutions that are arguably the most prominent marks of colonialism in Ireland are the crown and the army, and the monarchy and the military are British rather than English. Thus any approach to modern Irish history which concentrates exclusively on connections with England is bound to be partial, in the double sense of piecemeal and partisan.
I begin this review of new work relating to the recent focus on the so-called ‘British Problem’ with Foster because he is a central figure in revisionism, and, as J.G.A. Pocock makes clear in his contribution to the collection edited by Bradshaw and Morrill, the preoccupation with varieties of Britishness is part of the revisionist debate. One notable and controversial strand of revisionism is its stated opposition to nationalism. This presents a problem for historiography since most histories tend, however subtly, to be national histories. It makes for anti-nationalism of a specific kind. In the name of countering something called ‘Anglocentrism’, the histories of Scotland, Wales and Ireland are conscripted into a British narrative that can at times resemble a magnified version of that which it seeks to supplant. Thus Bradshaw and Morrill’s collection ‘seeks to transcend the limitations of separate English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh histories by taking the archipelago centred on the islands of Britain and Ireland as a single unit of study’.
The British Problem is the place where revisionism meets internal colonialism and where the over-production in the historiography of the English Civil War is dealt with by letting the overspill be soaked up by Scotland, Wales and Ireland. What Marx said about the English Revolution going deeper were it not for the displacement of social tensions onto Ireland, with Cromwell’s conquest, may equally well apply today. At a time when English historiography should be concerning itself with interrogating varieties if Englishness, it is still looking for scapegoats abroad.
Pocock made his famous plea for a non-Anglocentric British history, ‘the plural history of a group of cultures situated along an Anglo-Celtic frontier and marked by an increasing English political and cultural domination’, in a lecture delivered in his native New Zealand in 1973. Pocock is one of the chief architects of this broad perspective, but it has other analogues. Pocock argues for an ‘Age of the Three Kingdoms’ that would comprise the entire early modern period. This could be used to argue for long-term causes of the English Civil War—a term that Pocock wishes to retain—while opening up those causes geographically.
If the British Problem, by virtue of its incorporation of a Celtic dimension into an Anglocentric narrative, entails the possibility of a repetition of the original colonial project, that is, of expansion and appropriation, it is also a timely antidote to a lot of Anglo-American scholarship on the period that tended to gloss over or minimise the parts played by Scotland and Ireland in English history. Before the advent of the British Problem, the complexities of British history were seldom foregrounded. This can be easily illustrated by reference to a work published in 1972, the year before Pocock’s plea. Lawrence Stone, in The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642, offers a classic instance of the old Anglocentric position. Stone devotes a brief passage to ‘two chance events’ that sparked off civil war in England. One was the death of the moderate leader-in-waiting, the Earl of Bedford, the other was the ‘Irish Rebellion’. Both ‘chance events’ are dealt with summarily under the heading of ‘The Triggers, 1640-42’. This is English historiography before the ‘British Problem’ was acknowledged:

With hindsight one can see that the Irish situation had been becoming more and more explosive for a decade, but to contemporaries the rebellion, with its accompanying massacres and the loss of all English control outside the port towns, came like a bolt from the blue. Its timing could not have been more unfortunate, since the plain need to crush it made necessary the resurrection of central power in its most extreme and dangerous form, an army. Ever since the collapse of the government in 1640, there had been a vacuum of power, a situation which, had it not been for the Irish Rebellion, might have been allowed to continue for some time until the political crisis had been settled. But now there arose the necessity of raising an army, and therefore the question of who was to control it.

The Ulster Rising was neither a ‘chance event’, nor ‘a bolt from the blue’. Its origins went back much further than a decade, and ‘the plain need to crush it’ was not universally felt. Indeed, one could argue that the singular achievement of the short-lived English Republic was the subjection of Ireland. If Ireland gets short shrift as a cause of the ‘English Revolution’, Stone’s treatment of Scotland is no less dismissive. Here is how the first British monarch is presented:

As a hated Scot, James was suspect to the English from the beginning, and his ungainly presence, mumbling speech and dirty ways did not inspire respect. Reports of his blatantly homosexual attachments and his alcoholic excesses were diligently spread back to a horrified countryside.

Presumably the ‘horrified countryside’ that James was spoiling with his ‘dirty ways’ was English. This kind of history, however radical it styled itself, was always embarrassingly English-oriented.
Ireland is inevitably the most politically fraught component in the new British history, since the terminology itself is problematic. Indeed, one could argue that the British Problem represents, on one level, a way of turning round the ‘Irish Problem’, in order to interrogate the other constituent parts of the British state. It is not surprising then that the most challenging work on this topic comes from those Irish historians who, while aware of the advantages of a wider perspective, are also wary of its overweening tendencies. In the Bradshaw and Morrill collection this scepticism comes through in a series of compelling essays. From different standpoints, Brendan Bradshaw, Ciarán Brady, Hiram Morgan and Jim Smyth provide committed but qualified accounts of the role of Ireland, and they do so generally without lapsing into the language of ‘borderland’, ‘Celtic Fringe’, or the anomalous ‘British mainland’ that characterises the new Britocentrism as much as it did the old Anglocentrism, keeping intact the outmoded core-periphery model that the British Problem, at its most pressing and sceptical, promises to overturn.
In keeping with this inclination to tug at the roots of Britishness from an oppositional viewpoint, Bradshaw tackles ‘the origins of the British Problem’, examining its advent through a detailed analysis of Tudor Reformation policies in Wales and Ireland. Bradshaw’s closing lines neatly sum up the way in which the current historiography endeavours to domesticate its most recalcitrant domain. Bradshaw speaks of ‘the catastrophic history of Ireland down to the Treaty of Limerick, 1691, in consequence of the unique strategy eventually adopted by the Tudors to secure the assimilation of their intransigent peripheral dominion, conquest and colonisation; a solution which in the event served only to transform the English Crown’s medieval Irish Problem into the British Problem that continues to bedevil the Atlantic Archipelago’. Hiram Morgan also appears to concede the liminality of Ireland when he speaks of ‘the British periphery’, suggesting that the centre of Britishness lies in England. Paradoxically, the most volatile crucible of British identity discernible today is located in Northern Ireland. Morgan, notwithstanding the language of peripheralism, actually undertakes a remarkable decentring of the British state. Once again, like Bradshaw, the purpose is to get behind type modern state formation to look at underlying impulses. What Morgan uncovers is the extent to which English policies were driven by self-interest. Parallels could perhaps be drawn with the new allegedly non-Anglocentric scholarship. Morgan contends (echoing the Scots historian, Roger Mason) that English concerns ‘are best described as Anglo-British because they were all determined from an Anglocentric viewpoint and predicated upon English interests’.
Ciarán Brady develops a sophisticated argument around the dilemma of England’s Irish viceroys in the century between the declaration of kingly title and the Ulster Rising, caught between the contingency and provisionality of governmental activity and the long-term constitutional questions raised by Ireland’s awkward status. Brady concludes with a statement that reinforces the difficulty successive viceroys experienced:

Charged with the task of defending England’s interest in a kingdom that they had yet to construct, the repeated failure of the stratagems they devised to transcend such opposing imperatives offers only testimony to the fact that the fluid and fissiparious states of Ireland could never be fitted into the complex conceptual structure of the multiple British monarchy.

Jim Smyth, in a lucid presentation of the obstacles looming at the limits of the period, reinstates the centrality of an understanding of imperialism in order to appreciate the British Problem in its Irish context. Smyth acknowledges the ‘rhetorical force’ of the claim that Ireland was a kingdom rather than a colony, but insists that by the end of the seventeenth century Ireland, Anglicised at a terrible cost, ‘had been reduced to a querulous outpost of the English Parliament’s empire’.
An exemplary feature of the work of these Irish historians is their ability to see the ‘big picture’ without reproducing the opposition between margin and metropolis that scholars whose work centres on England invariably adopt. Moreover, Irish historians are likely to be self-critical whenever they tackle the ‘British’ dimension. Nicholas Canny’s work is especially apposite in this respect. In his chapter in Uniting the Kingdom  Canny sounds a note of caution for the whole enterprise, though he says he ‘would prefer to be labelled with the modern-sounding tag of “Brito-Sceptic” rather than with the tired nineteenth-century label of “Nationalist Historian”’. Canny offers five fairly telling criticisms of the new historiography. It applies mainly to political history, rather than social and economic history, reinforcing a split perhaps unique to British history; it excludes Europe and implies a necessary unity between Ireland and Britain; it serves as a means of expanding knowledge of a pivotal period in English history; it emphasises coherence over fragmentation and difference; and it calls for a demanding level of scholarship since to be in control of all the sources means having a working knowledge of the Celtic languages as well as English and Latin (The last point is perhaps the weakest, since most of us get by, like Shakespeare, with a little Latin and less Greek, and may even struggle with English).
It is worth remembering that Ireland was a lordship or colony of England for four hundred years while Scotland enjoyed relative autonomy. Scotland’s place within British history is different from Ireland’s, but no less problematic. In her preface to Castle Rackrent, written on the cusp of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, Maria Edgeworth predicted that Ireland would lose its separate identity in the process, but it is one of the ironies of history that it was Scotland that sank from view. An Anglo-Scottish union that had started life with the mutual carve-up of Ireland led to an Anglo-Irish Union that resulted in the diminution of Scotland. Thus when Bishop D’Arcy declared in 1917 that ‘the British Empire is an Irish Empire as well as an English Empire’ he touched on a deep historical truth. The concern with Britishness as a problem can be used in positive ways, in order to show that Britain is no more historically homogenous than Ireland by underlining the distinctiveness of Scotland and Wales. Irish historians have not always paid attention to these differences, since it suits a certain nationalist history, just as it sits comfortably with a certain revisionist history, to flit effortlessly between the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ without distinguishing between the two. As a Scottish academic who has worked for the past ten years on English views of Ireland in the Renaissance I have always been sympathetic to work on the British Problem, both as a useful corrective to previously Anglocentric positions, and as an ideal opportunity to re-inscribe Scotland into Anglo-Irish history. My own approach to authors such as Bacon, Milton, Shakespeare, and Spenser has entailed the exploration of multiple kingdom contexts in their writings. I therefore welcome these new works, but reading them together I’ve emerged feeling closer to Canny than any other critic, as a Brito-sceptic. There is much that is promising and provocative in this historiography, but there is also a new danger in this new labour, the danger that the old Anglocentrism merely enlarges itself as a Britocentrism, leaving Europe outside, and conveniently forgetting the links between the first British Empire—Great Britain—and the second—Greater Britain. It is arguably the loss of the latter that has compelled historians to look inward in the guise of widening their lens.
There is a risk that ‘Anglocentrism’ simply becomes a euphemism for colonialism and imperialism and unionism. Indeed, what is needed is a history of culture and Empire that takes religion seriously. ‘The strength of empire is in religion’, declared Ben Jonson. There remains a pressing need for a British history that confronts the vexed issue of religion. It is something that Irish historians have always, and for obvious reasons, placed at the heart of their work. David Hempton’s book is salutary here, for he shows just how far the success of Anglicisation within the British state was bound up with religion and culture. Both are arguably linked to the question of ideology, and ideology does not always get taken seriously enough in high political history, which is where the new historiography originated. The British Problem will have more relevance and impact when it comes down from its political high horse and confronts popular culture and society. This is where the new historiography, as part of revisionism, may find fresh difficulties, for if the deconstruction of oppositions is its ultimate aim, then that between high and low is the hardest hurdle to overcome. It means bringing class back into the equation, and that’s something that traditional political history has tried to avoid. The displacement of class struggle underpinned colonialism, so it would be appropriate if the renewed critique of colonialism which the British Problem could be harnessed to effect, brought class back into the frame, because on one level the British Problem is class. This is not to suggest that economics matters more than ideology, but that an understanding of the workings of ideology is essential to an awareness of the ways in which, historically, class conflict has been regionalised and reoriented. It is fitting that Hempton concludes by pointing to the French Revolution as the event that prompted the return of religion to the spheres of social reform and cultural identity, for it is in the intricacies of class and nation rather than in the grand narrative of state formation that the most fruitful labour of the new British history may be located. That means not ‘transcending nationalism’, as some desire, but treating it in all its complexity and diversity.
That Anglocentrism dies hard is evidenced in the fact that of the nineteen contributors to the Grant/Stringer volume, fourteen are English-based, two reside in America, two work in Ireland, and one in Wales, and there is generally a strong Oxbridge presence in the field. So the focus may have changed, but the focal points remain largely in place. As a footnote to this review it is perhaps worth pointing out a troubling omission in the caption to the cover of the Bradshaw/Morrill volume, which depicts a knight clutching a decapitated human head while standing on an overgrown lizard. The caption reads: ‘St George (England) trampling the Celtic dragon underfoot’. There is no mention of the head. Perhaps it’s time to accord less space to Anglo-Celtic mythology and more to the suffering and trauma engendered by Britishness.

Willy Maley


Copyright © 2017 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568