History in danger, Malcolm McKinnon

The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History
J G A Pocock
Cambridge University Press, $60.00 approx, 
ISBN 139780521850957

J G A Pocock’s The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History is a rich and scholarly exploration of a subject – the nature of British history – that has been a preoccupation of Pocock’s for over 30 years. The book was indeed anchored to the 30th anniversary of Pocock’s 1973 lecture, “British History: A Plea for a New Subject”, which was the J C Beaglehole memorial lecture to the New Zealand Historical Association’s conference in Christchurch that year.

The other 15 essays were written at various dates between 1991 and 2004. This collection therefore has the advantage, even in the age of Journal Storage, of bringing together an otherwise widely dispersed body of work, but it does involve a fair amount of repetition. The time-pressed reader is advised to concentrate on the 2003-4 essays, which were written for this volume.

In 1973 Pocock was preoccupied with the prospect of New Zealand being written out of British history as it was being written out of Britain’s world (with British entry to the EEC), and he considered ways in which “New Zealanders certainly, but at the same time anyone else concerned, might re-assess British history as a shared possession”.

Thirty years later this still seemed to Pocock a more fruitful approach to New Zealand history than the principal alternative on offer, the nationalist historiography that he identifies most closely with Keith Sinclair. Arguably by 2003 he need not have worried. Pocock does acknowledge Peter Gibbon’s New Zealand Journal of History article of that year, “The Far Side of the Search for Identity: Reconsidering New Zealand History” (initially a 2001 lecture), which queried the nationalist model. And indeed the notion that New Zealand historiography should be informed by and inform the preoccupations of the wider world was by then set to be a new orthodoxy – New Zealand scholars were active in the “British world” conferences, the first held in 1998, while the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies was into its fourth year of publication.  

But the new British history was also intended to regenerate British history viewed from the centre – Britain itself. Parts two and three of this book, titled “The Three Kingdoms and the English Problem” and “Empire and Rebellion in the First Age of Union”, focus on the worth of approaching the 16th to 19th century history of England, Scotland and Ireland – and in particular England – informed by the history of the whole archipelago and places beyond, including the American colonies. Space does not permit a full exploration of the essays in these parts of the book, but they reward a close read. They present a subtle exploration of the ways in which England and English history both encompass and can be
illuminated by a wider British history. The 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals – that made England an empire which could not share its sovereignty, and therefore gave a particular course to its engagement with Scotland and later the American colonies – is the starting point for Pocock’s argument.

Pocock can rightfully claim to have played a central role in initiating this approach to British history although it has developed in directions he didn’t anticipate when he formulated it. As editor Glenn Burgess (who carefully identifies himself in the introduction as “neither English, nor British but a New Zealander”) explains in his introduction to The New British History: Founding a Modern State 1603-1715 (1999), that history has tended to become “not Atlantic and oceanic, but European, terrestrial and continental”.

Part four of The Discovery of Islands – “New Zealand in the Strange Multiplicity” – turns to New Zealand and the settler empire, with papers addressing issues of Maori-Pakeha relations in the context of Pocock’s “British” history. Part five – “Britain, Europe and Post-modern History” – returns to Britain, looking at it in relationship to the movement and practice of European unity, to postmodernism and to globalisation.

Some of the material in these essays revisits the historiographical issues traversed in parts one to three; it is Pocock’s contemporary preoccupations that provide the new stimulus. As so often, it is dislikes and anxieties, not likes, that energise; no bad thing either. At the nub of Pocock’s anxieties (I don’t think it’s an unfair term) is what he sees as a threat to sovereignty and history – indeed, chapter 14, written in 2003, is entitled, “Sovereignty and History in the 20th century”. For Pocock, there is “an association between sovereignty and historiography; a community writes its own history when it has the autonomous political structure needed if it is to command its own present.” Ergo, without that structure, that independence, what will happen?

What indeed? If I say that on this Pocock is a pessimist and I am an optimist that may explain why I don’t share his apprehensions even though I see the force of his arguments and also like his approach. I like his prose style, with its many allusions, often Biblical and classical; I like his attentiveness to words and his sense of geography, his readiness to throw aside the Mercator map of the world (giant Greenland, shrunken Brazil) and ask the reader to “take a globe in your hands … rotate it until the islands of New Zealand are at the centre of the hemisphere you face.”

But back to the anxiety about sovereignty and history. Pocock explores this in four arenas: global, European, British and New Zealand. For Pocock, global capitalism and postmodernism are twin threats to sovereignty and the history which the latter permits and indeed requires. Globalisation to him is a “state of affairs in which the conditions of human existence [are] manufactured only by markets, and over which the conscious decisions of human beings in political associations had neither power nor authority.” That definition may seem remote from “postmodern” but not to Pocock, who defines the latter (while recognising that it has other meanings too) as “a set of conditions under which human identity is so far absorbed into a global economy and culture that the formation of political societies employing sovereignty to determine their histories appears obsolete, impossible or dangerous.” When Pocock cautions us to mistrust “those for whom the deconstruction of identities and communities seems to have become a programme; they may not know who they are working for, but I think I do”, the “employer” is without a doubt global capitalism.

This will come as a surprise to many postmodernists, who see capitalism as enemy not ally. For me, it’s too pessimistic about both societies and postmodernism. It overlooks the capacities of communities for agency, as when the New Zealand electorate voted for MMP in 1993, and for scholarship to be selective, as when it uses postmodernist insights to enrich other enquiries, as indeed Pocock has done himself.

But there’s more. Pocock’s second arena of anxiety is a place – Europe. Scepticism about the European project recurs through the book and through the decades. In 1973 he refers to the “obvious absurdity” of the claim that the English “were at heart Europeans all the time”. In 2000, having reached in his argument “that point at which one is regularly instructed … that English history is to be studied in its ‘European context’ ”, he adds that “there seems little point in bowing down before this idol”. For Pocock, Europe, far from being a bulwark against global capitalism, as many of its promoters have seen it, is as likely to be serving the “needs of a global economy … always desirous … to destabilise existing human relations in order to commodify new fictions.”

I think this critique of Pocock’s is based on a misreading of the European project, which is as much about making as ending history and is politically creative rather than suffocating – or at least holds out that promise. Pocock also overlooks the magnetism of the idea of Europe beyond its borders, well captured in the final pages of Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005). In an unprecedented and unexpected way, Europe has come to represent a set of practices, ideas and values that resonate not just inside the union but through its peripheries – the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa.

Pocock’s third arena of anxiety about sovereignty and history is that of challenges to the British state from within. Pocock argues that alongside what he describes as an “invective” about Britain’s European future, has lain another invective which proclaimed the breakup of Britain and sought to use the proposal to write “British history” as the convergence of a number of national histories as a means of bringing that convergence to an end. What was remarkable about this programme, as it affected British history, was that an ideology of nationalism – Scottish, Welsh and at a distance Irish – was being used to project the break up of a multinational state by ideologues who claimed that the nation state was obsolete.

This is also pessimistic. It’s true that the disconnection between national identity and the state in the United Kingdom is marked – Welsh and Scottish overwhelmingly identify as such rather than as British, and the English appear now to be following suit. But I suspect this will demonstrate not that the British state has come to an end but that its mechanisms for accommodating variation have altered. Maybe it will be recognised that the difference between such patterns of variation and those expressed by Bavaria or Texas in relationship to Germany or the United States are ones of degree, not kind.

Finally, Pocock has sovereignty – and therefore history – anxieties in respect of New Zealand, which stem from both without and within. The former anxiety is about the power of global capitalism, which we have already encountered. It is an anxiety that was deepened for Pocock when he visited New Zealand in May 1991 and saw at first hand “policies of privatisation which amounted to the forced sale of national assets in the hope of attracting new investment capital, a subjection of national sovereignty to international market forces.” In respect of the internal setting, while for Pocock  “by far the most interesting development in New Zealand historiography has been the growth of Maori-centred narratives which relate the history of conflict and interchange between two identities”, he enters a caveat: “the history of the Pakeha is not reducible to its repression of the tangata whenua. They have done other things besides that.” Linking the two threats, he reminds the reader that “it is an altogether destructive experience once one lies under the imperative to surrender one’s achieved identity to the first comer with a stronger accusation of guilt or greater purchasing power.”

Again, I would frame these developments differently. Pocock relates the late 1980s and early 1990s economic crisis to New Zealand’s failure to find “new markets of outlet” in the aftermath of Britain joining the European Economic Community, but few economists would make that linkage. And privatisation arose from a number of factors of which attracting investment was only one. Others were dealing with a large deficit in public spending; high inflation and high unemployment; and the belief that assets would be more productive in private (domestic or international) ownership. The notion of Pakeha history being no more than a history of repression of Maori has undoubtedly had rhetorical force and has been an influence in historiography, but other kinds of Pakeha history are written and historiographical debate over the notion of Maori as victim is vigorous.

It’s possible that all these issues look different in 2008 than they did even as recently as 2003 or 2004. But, in fact, every now and then Pocock does allow for optimism – “it is reasonable … to predict, and even to recommend, a continuing dialogue, or family quarrel, between the political and the post-political, the modern and the postmodern, the historical and the post-historical.” Is it possible even to relish the challenges rather as one might revel in a cold shower? As he says in his final sentence, “history in danger may be dangerously capable of continuing itself.”


Malcolm McKinnon is a Wellington historian.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category