Robert Tombs’s new book is not long: 165 pages of argument, unadorned by maps or images. But brevity is good, and we pick it up expecting much insight, because its predecessor was so wonderful. In The English and Their History (2015), Tombs, a scholar of French, not English, history, boldly saw the wood where specialists saw only the trees. Surely, he said, England should have a history of its own. The election had just signalled that England-and-Wales might soon be a separate polity for the first time since 1707.
Tombs delivered a timely and gripping investigation of this land, so filled with marks of continuity, yet prone to occasional, apparently inexplicable, bouts of implosion. England was ‘normally peaceful and well governed; but if things went wrong, they went terribly wrong.’ His new book is even more urgent because things are indeed going terribly wrong. A serpent has entered the garden of England, engendering a unique fracture within us: ‘The Brexit controversy did not expose a previously unrecognised gulf between two nations: it opened one.’ Tombs intends, say his publishers, to show how we can ‘come together again to build a new settlement’.
We settle down with ears pricked up. But the first thing we hear is a jangle in the title: do ‘the British’ inhabit an isle, singular? Try getting that one past the DUP. Never mind. Tombs is fast out of the blocks, delighting again with brisk dismissals of our national myths. Island fortress? Only recently: ‘Until Nelson’s time, the island’s history was one of innumerable raids and invasions, at least nine of which since the Norman Conquest have overthrown governments.’ By page 24 we are already at the end of the second world war. The following 30 pages argue memorably that our entire ‘political class’ post-1945 were simultaneously delusional and pusillanimous: delusional about the EEC offering a last chance to strut the Great Power after Suez, pusillanimous about our ability to go it alone.