Monday, 17 December 2012

Historians: ponder your meanings!


Sometimes it's difficult, being a historian. No, I don't mean the meetings, the paperwork, the politics. There's no need to get the violins out.

What I mean is the methodology.

Here's a good example for you - hopefully it'll serve as a little parable for early career colleagues and the like, because I hope it's an instructive case. In my new book (yes, you can buy it on Amazon), I quote the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (PM between 1957 and 1963) (above) to show how awed British politicians often were by what I call 'the Scandiavian example'. As he put it while visiting the country in the early 1960s:

Norwegian 'applied socialism' is of a fairly moderate kind and the Government is, in many respects, not unlike our Progressive Conservative Government... [but] I think both Sweden and Norway present the policies which Mr Gaitskell seeks vainly to impose on the British Labour Party. If he were to succeed, they too would win power and hold it for a long time.

Except that I didn't read on properly for - or among - my notes. I've just read Peter Catterall's splendid published volume of the Diaries, and I've been nudged to say that I should have put that quote in a wider context. You know what? I confess that I couldn't read his handwriting, spidery at best (and impossible at worst, due to a First World War wound). So I didn't catch the next bit, which you'll feel (as I do) changes the meaning more than a little:

The unattractive side of the Norwegian 'affluent society' is its increasingly Pagan character. Christianity (they have a Lutheran church) is openly despised, and a sort of vague, materialistic agnostic creed flourises... My speech at the Round Table dealt with this (in a passage about 'How to Fight Communism') and caused quite a sensation...

So a rumination about success becomes one about the hollowness of secular 'progress'. Hands up - I should have noted the disapproval along with the approval (though I make this clear with other examples elsewhere). I'm not perfect. What a shock, eh?

Now, this isn't to embrace historical relativity - to indulge in the 'historical facts are what historians happen to chose' haw-hawing of E.H. Carr's misguided What is History? 'Facts' aren't just what is churned out in the books-and-articles sausage machine. They existed; they exist. But they are in flux, and they are subject to historians eyesight, stamina and archival nous.

Thought you'd like to know.

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