Modern history

A written constitution is no defence against authoritarian government

No one can accuse Linda Colley of shying away from big subjects. This one is as big as they come — nothing less than an exploration of the origin of written constitutions. It is built around two ideas. One is that the development of national constitutions has to be studied globally, not nationally. Only then can consistent patterns emerge. The other is that there is a consistent pattern. The great generator of written constitutions, she argues, is war. The argument is that war requires an exceptionally high degree of social organisation which makes a formal constitution desirable, perhaps even necessary. The Gun, the Ship and the Pen is a remarkable

The Special Relationship was never very special

I have a book of essays from 1986 by a group of British and American scholars called The Special Relationship. The editor, Professor Roger Louis, was advised to give it another title. The director of Chatham House, the late David Watt no less, called it ‘rhetorical nonsense’. Yet, as Louis noted: The ‘Special Relationship’ would not go away. Indeed it haunted the discussions. Eventually it was referred to as the ghost, ever present yet elusive, derided by some but acknowledged by all. Thirty-four years later the ghost is still floating around. Ian Buruma’s new book is the latest attempt to exorcise it. I suspect that it will be no more

The Big Three who ended the Cold War

Historians argue endlessly and pointlessly about the extent to which the human factor rather than brute circumstance determines the course of events. History, geography and economic reality always constrain personal freedom of action. But within these limitations the individual can make a decisive difference. Britain’s war would have taken a different turn if Halifax rather than Churchill had become prime minister in May 1940. Archie Brown’s thesis is that the Cold War could have ended quite differently— much later and perhaps much more bloodily — had it not been for the fortuitous combination of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1997 Brown published The Gorbachev Factor, a pioneering