As the British political establishment rushes blindly toward the Gadarene cliffs of Brexit, movie theaters are awash with films portraying the days when the country stood alone against the might of Europe—movies like Dunkirk, Churchill, and Darkest Hour. Meanwhile, Brexiteers paint an alluring picture of a golden future that will revive the greatness of Britain’s past, above all the days when the United Kingdom was an imperial superpower that dominated the world. Before publication, the title of David Cannadine’s book was changed from The Contradictions of Progress to Victorious Century; with its new title, the book is now surfing high on this wave of nostalgia.
“For much of the time,” Cannadine writes of his chosen period, “it was an era of national greatness, global reach and imperial aggrandizement, which in our devolved, downsized, post-imperial, post-Brexit Britain, is experientially unknowable and imaginatively all but irrecoverable.” In those days, Britain led the world politically and economically, in an age that was very “unlike our own diminished times and limited horizons.” In Victorious Century, Cannadine underscores the central myth of Brexit: that Britain has always been wholly unlike other European nations. The Victorians, he asserts, were right to think that their country was “unique, exceptional and providentially blessed.” Indeed, the book barely provides comparisons with other European countries at all, thus implicitly confirming the thesis of British uniqueness even where it is not really sustainable.
Of course, Cannadine is too good a historian not to realize that there was a dark side to all this, in terms of social inequality, poverty, and exploitation at home and, at least early on, the “toleration” (as he puts it) of slavery in the British Empire. Indeed, pointing such things out is characteristic of his approach, which involves putting forward one argument but then qualifying it by propounding an opposing argument in the next paragraph, so that the reader frequently ends up not knowing what the author really thinks. But Victorious Century says hardly anything in detail about the economic problems and social inequalities that beset Georgian and Victorian Britain; most of the book is devoted to telling the story of the political efforts to overcome them. Misery and deprivation appear not in their own right, in any descriptive or analytical treatment, but, in the main, merely as the objects of legislative reform.
This is because the book’s understanding of historical method is resolutely old-fashioned, as insular in its approach as it is in its selection and presentation of facts. For, in defiance of all the developments in historical method that have taken place across the world over the past half-century, Victorious Century is centered on high politics, to the virtual exclusion of everything else. The ever-shifting political alliances and alignments are narrated in bewildering and frequently tedious detail, as we go through a seemingly endless series of British cabinets, most of them filled with carefully identified but justly forgotten aristocrats, and the various laws they steered through Parliament.