‘Historians’ like Jacob Rees-Mogg only have one character in mind: themselves | Sam LeithMay 17, 2019
“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” Winston Churchill is widely, and wrongly, believed to have said. He said something similar, though, and it’s a notion that has been enthusiastically taken up by the politicians of today.
For the most part, they do so in their well-indexed, mostly unread and soon-remaindered memoirs, all of which bear the invisible subtitle I Told You I Was Right. We can confidently expect David Cameron’s For the Record – whose publication has been announced for September – to be such a one. But the craftier among them – those for whom naked self-justification would look a bit, well, naked – turn instead to writing proper books. You know, substantial works of history that show off their hinterland, their intellectual range, their bottom, and which also invite the reader to draw flattering parallels with the career of the author. These are the fancy book-length equivalents, you could say, of Mark Francois’ yapping interventions on what we can learn about Brexit from the second world war.
It has given many of us great satisfaction, then, to see Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book in this vein kicked mercilessly about the park by reviewers. AN Wilson, in The Times, wrote that Rees-Mogg’s “staggeringly silly” The Victorians consists of “a dozen clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions about 19th-century characters”, which “claims to be a work of history, but is in fact yet another bit of self-promotion by a highly motivated modern politician”.
Wilson’s prime complaint was that the past is clumsily conscripted to serve the present: “Peel’s decision to abolish the corn laws […] becomes a parable about the European Research Group’s patriotic decision to face down the Tory wets”, Lord Palmerston is recruited as a Brexiteer, and the constitutional lawyer Albert Dicey gets a chapter because he was keen on referendums. The Guardian’s Kathryn Hughes agreed: here was “biography as manifesto”. “The real purpose […] of The Victorians is to reflect Rees-Mogg back to himself at twice his natural size.”
The other notorious recent example was Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor, in which Churchill’s life was served up yet again – the special sauce this time being that he was intended to remind us flatteringly of a certain other maverick Tory politician with the gift of the gab. “The reader,” John Kampfner wrote in the Guardian, “is invited to see the two men as supreme orators, literary masters and slayers of spineless Conservatives and perfidious foreigners.” Philip Hensher said that “it’s impossible to read this book without drawing fairly direct comparisons between its author and its subject” – tartly noting an index entry that said “Habits resembling Bertie Wooster figure, p.122” and asking: “Really, Boris? Really?”
And there is the problem. Historians strive to understand the past, not to shape and instrumentalise it in service of the present. Hughes wrote of Rees-Mogg that his real problem was “that you really can’t just set your own present-day concerns over the historical past and expect things to line up neatly”. Kampfner, on Johnson, agreed: “Time and again Johnson returns to Europe. He tries hard but struggles to reconcile his own views with his research into his subject.”
This is not to say that politicians can’t or shouldn’t write history; nor, indeed, that the history they write shouldn’t illuminate their current ideas. The first book Weidenfeld & Nicolson published was a monograph on the coal industry by a then Labour backbencher called Harold Wilson. Lord Hattersley has written well-regarded works of political history and lives of John Wesley and Lloyd George (though most after leaving the Commons).
Jesse Norman – described by Simon Heffer as “one of only three or four genuine intellectuals on the Tory benches in the House of Commons” – has published substantial books on Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. Of course these can in some sense be read as cheerleading for the author’s politics, or elucidating political traditions of which they approve; but in neither is the reader nudgingly encouraged to see Smith as a sort of bewigged foreshadowing of Norman, or Wesley as a Hattersley Street Preacher.
We can perhaps indulge those politicians who save it for the novels. Churchill, Disraeli and (again) Johnson all put their politics into fiction. Vince Cable included some party-political digs in his thriller Open Arms, and Edwina Currie’s bonkbuster A Parliamentary Affair rewarded rereading after her own dalliance with John Major became public knowledge. And Bill Clinton co-wrote a thriller with James Patterson that, as the Washington Post noted, offered a “fabulous revision of Clinton’s own life and impeachment scandal … Rather than shrewdly avoiding military service, President Duncan is a celebrated war hero. Rather than being pleasured in the Oval Office by an intern, Duncan was tortured in Iraq by the Republican Guard. And rather than being the subject of innumerable rumours about extramarital affairs, Duncan was wholly devoted to his late wife and now lives in apparent celibacy.”
But books presented as serious history, written in their authors’ spare time at a frightening clip, relying on schoolboy memories and a thin scattering of secondary sources, and aiming to serve a present-day political narrative … well, those will pretty much get the reception from proper historians that you’d expect. Wiser counsel comes from Julian Barnes in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. History doesn’t repeat itself, he writes. “History just burps, and we taste again that raw onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.”
• Sam Leith is literary editor of the Spectator
Source of this (above) article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/17/historian-jacob-rees-mogg-boris-johnson-politicians