A Useful History of Britain-The Politics of Getting Things Done-Michael Braddick Oxford: University Press, 2021Hardback, 254 pp. ISBN 978-0198848301. £20

“But history is neither watchmaking nor cabinet construction. It is an endeavour toward better understanding.”

― Marc Bloch

Marx “Men make their history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

Karl Marx

“There is an ancient, evolutionary-liberal epigram: Every people gets the government it deserves. History, however, shows that one and the same people may, in the course of a comparatively brief epoch, get very different governments. The secret is this, a people is comprised of hostile classes, and the classes themselves are comprised of different and, in part, antagonistic layers which fall under different leadership; furthermore, every people falls under the influence of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes. Governments do not express the systematically growing “maturity” of a “people” but are the product of the struggle between different classes and the different layers within one and the same class, and, finally, the action of external forces – alliances, conflicts, wars and so on.”

Leon Trotsky

It is not an understatement to say that Mike Braddick’s latest book is not an easy read or, for that matter, easy to review. Written for an academic rather than general audience, Braddick appears to go out of his way to make his History of Britain difficult to read. The book is not set chronologically but jumps all over the place.  

As Simon Jenkins writes, “Braddick’s abandonment of chronological narrative and his academic abstractions can be hard to follow. He races back and forth from the Ice Age to gross domestic product and from the Vikings to Covid-19. We return to Stonehenge three times and the Roman empire at least four. Chapter headings such as “Organisational Capacity and the Changing Limits of the Possible” can make it hard to know quite where it is that we have dipped our toes. I like such sweeping generalisations that econometrics is “the new Christianity”, though I am not sure where it gets us.”

Braddick is a gifted historian, and his work is usually well worth reading, but this book is really hard work. From the first page, it is hard to gauge Braddick’s historiography, and the book’s title does not help. It appears far too much a concession to an empirical way of thinking and a philosophical outlook uniquely British. I doubt any European historian, male or female, would be caught dead with such a title to their books.

A major disappointment is Braddicks tackling of revolutions. Both bourgeois and proletarian hardly get a mention. The bourgeois revolution of the 17th century, Braddicks speciality, hardly warrants a mention.

Braddick appears to be heavily influenced by the French historian Fernand Braudel[1] who championed the idea of the longue durée. As “Simon Jenkins writes “, Michael Braddick is a true Braudelian. He is a historian not of who, what and when but of how and why. From Stonehenge to Brexit and Danegeld to coronavirus, his concern is for the setting of history, its intellectual and physical environment, and “the capacity of British people to use political power to get things done”.[2]

I am sure that Braddick would acknowledge that Braudel had strengths and very deep-seated weaknesses. As the Marxist writer Ann Talbot writes, “If Braudel’s approach to history has its strengths, it also has disadvantages. These relate to two areas-historical change and socio-political history. Braudel was a conservative historian who, although living in a country whose name was synonymous with revolution, was averse to change, particularly sudden changes of a revolutionary character. He attempted to develop a form of socio-economic history that did not rely on Marxist concepts and stressed continuity rather than change.”[3]

While raising his cap to certain Marxist concepts, Braddick is not Marxist. On page 10, he uses the following quote from Karl Marx “Men make their history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis, they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language. Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795. In like manner, a beginner who has learnt a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he has assimilated the spirit of the new language. He can freely express himself in it only when he finds his way in it without recalling the old and forgets his native tongue in using the new.”[4]

One would like to say that Braddick’s use of Marx guides the whole book, but that would be a lie. It is hard to understand why he used the quote in the first place because the historiography of this book is a million miles away from Marxism. While many reviewers have said that Braddick’s book opposes previous nationalist readings of British history, it appears to be a “deconstruction”, not just of British history but also of the discipline of history itself, as he seems to dispense with many historical concepts that historians have developed in the last three centuries.

[1] www.oxfordreference.com

[2] Ideas made us: The resilience, so far, of our political institutions. Aug. 20, 2021

TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6177-

[3] Europe Between the Oceans by Barry Cunliffe- ww.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/10/book-o09.html

[4] The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte(Braddick uses only part of the quote I reprint it in full)

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