Wednesday, May 14, 2014

G.M. Trevelyan - English Social History

George Macaulay Trevelyan's English Social History is a classic work. Finished in the years leading up to World War Two it reflects the time in which it was written. By its very nature it is a sweeping history, so sometimes it misses detail in favour of general statements and broad assessments.

While it is a social history, it is not socialist history, nor even history from below. By social, Trevelyan seems to mean anything that effects the broadest social structure and practice of everyday life. This means he is as happy to talk about kings and queens, as he is about ploughmen and factory workers. One of the weaknesses though, is that Trevelyan concentrates on the former at the expense of the later. The reader will quickly note that many chapters are named after the era of particular great men.

Trevelyan sums up his approach in the introduction:

"The Puritan Revolution and the Restoration were social as well as political events. But, on the whole, social change moves like an underground river, obeying its own laws or those of economic change, rather than following the direction of political happenings that move on the surface of life. Politics are the outcome rather than the cause of social change. A new king, a new Prime Minster, a new Parliament often marks a new epoch in politics, but seldom in the life of the people."

Unfortunately this is, to my mind, a completely inadequate approach. Seldom do new PMs, or Parliament mark new epochs in British History, and social change has its own laws, but is completely linked to the politics and economics of the time. Trevelyan here, and elsewhere in the book, implies that social change occurs gradually, and in fact he frequently suggests that England is unique for not suffering the convulsive change that marked some countries. Indeed, without any tongue in check, Trevelyan claims that

"Village cricket spread fast through the land. In those days before it became scientific, cricket was the best game in the world to watch, with its rapid sequence of amusing incidents, each ball a potential crisis! Squire, farmer, blacksmith and labourer with their women and children came to see the fun, were at ease together and happy all the summer afternoon. If the French noblesse had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt."

Such sweeping (and ridiculous) claims would, it seem, at first to mean that this book has no value to the student of history. But I would suggest the opposite. Firstly, while Trevelyan reflects the opinions of a particular class he is also an extremely knowledgeable, readable and entertaining writer. The book is filled with figures, poetry and source material that will help the reader get an excellent over-view of English history and its key periods.

But this aside, the reader of English Social History is constantly reminded of Trevelyan's main thesis. For the author English history has been one of a long, gradual development until the 20th century. And the pinnacle of this history was threatened by German Fascism. While Trevelyan is too honest a historian to pretend that there haven't been periods when ordinary people have been poor, or the ruling class engaged in repression, the general historical trend has been one of progress and economic improvement. This is Trevelyan suggests because it just wouldn't be English to do anything else.

"The worst horrors of failure, of unemployment and of unprovided old age were not suffered by the poor in England to the same extent as in the continental countries... The scandal and danger of such congregations had alarmed the Tudor and Stuart governments; the Poor Law was meant to prevent them, and did prevent them... That is one reason why there was never anything like the French Revolution in our country and why through all our political religious and social feuds from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the quiet and orderly habits of the people, even in times of distress, continued upon the whole as a national characteristic."

Indeed, class struggle in England has only served to make those taking part realise it is pointless. So Trevelyan writes of the 19th century trade union struggles that,
"The harsh discipline of the strike and lock-out taught the two parties to respect each others strength and understand the value of fair negotiation."

It is almost as if strikes, protest and workers' movements achieved nothing at all - perhaps the vote, trade union rights, the right to strike, or improved pay and conditions, came only through negotiation? Indeed so good has been the development of English capitalism and the associated military strength, that Trevelyan sees its benefits spread across the globe. "On the whole our supremacy in the oceans and along the shores of the world was used in the nineteenth century on the side of peace, goodwill and freedom. If it were to be destroyed, mankind would breathe a harsher air"

This will have been news to those who suffered in the colonies, as their economies were geared towards making profits English capitalists. But this last quote betrays the purpose of his book. England is, in this authors' view, uniquely positioned because of its national character, and its history, to bring justice and democracy to the world. As the book was published, this was under-threat, and everyone had to rally to the English flag to protect England's uniqueness and prevent the world breathing a harsher air. That English capitalism had been polluting the air of millions of people in the name of profit and the free-market for decades is lost on Trevelyan.
History isn't as simple as Trevelyan thought, and England certainly wasn't as unique as he dreamed. So while there is much in this book that modern readers will find useful and enjoyable, it is also sadly flawed.

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