Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’ project, and the project
officer Danny Millum will be speaking to Sir John Elliott about his
experience of and views on changes in the discipline and in the academic
profession of history.
Sir John, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
Sir John Elliott: Yes. I got a scholarship in modern languages (French and German) to go to Cambridge in 1948. I went up there after military service in 1949, and decided before arrival that I would rather study history than modern languages. I felt I had enough knowledge of French and German to be able to read reasonably fluently in those languages, and I’d always had a certain attraction to history and to historical and biographical reading; and so, on my arrival at Trinity College, I asked if I could switch to history.
I went through the standard three-year course at Cambridge, which, looking back on it, was actually a very good one – although there was a heavy insistence on the constitutional and political history of Britain from the beginning to the end. This was complemented by a great emphasis on economic history, which was something totally new to me, and quite a lot of European history, both medieval and modern.
So those three years gave me quite a good overview – for all the deficiencies of a conventional treatment of the subject – of the European and British past. And at the same time, by having to look at texts and constitutional documents in a Special Subject one was trained in a certain degree of precision, which came in very useful in the future.
PO: So you were learning skills as well as dates and information?
JE: I was, without realising it. And I did well enough in the History Tripos to decide that perhaps it was worth going on and attempting research, as I’d got interested in Spain and the Spanish past. In my first year as an undergraduate, in my first long vacation, I went with a group of undergraduates round the Iberian peninsula for six weeks (in a grand tour as it were, sleeping rough), visiting a large number of cities and towns. I was very impressed by the country, and I was impressed, too, by the Prado Museum. I’ve always had a great interest in painting, and I was particularly struck by Velázquez’s portrait of the Count-Duke of Olivares, the famous Spanish statesman of the 17th century at the moment of Spain’s decline, and decided that I’d like to do something connected with his period in office.
I put this to Herbert Butterfield, who was the Professor of Modern History at that time in Cambridge, and whose lectures I’d attended, and he was very excited because he thought it was high time that we had some historians of Spain in the British Isles. In addition, the people who taught me in Trinity encouraged me to get away from British history and do something a bit more continental or cosmopolitan. I’d been very fortunate in my teaching – for instance, I’d been taught medieval history by both Steven Runciman and Walter Ullmann. So I decided to plunge in and do something on the history of 17th century Spain.
At that time there was really no systematic training, or even any thought of training, for graduate students and so I simply plunged in. I partly chose Butterfield as my supervisor because he knew nothing about the subject, and I thought this was a positive advantage, that I could do my own thing. I knew I had a shrewd supervisor who would keep a general oversight over my work, and when I went off to Spain I would write to him and tell him what I was doing (and he had great insights and could see what the next stage of problems was likely to be, which I found helpful), but it was very much a hands-off supervision.
And I still think in the light of that experience there’s something to be said for being flung in at the deep end of the swimming pool as long as one can keep one’s head above water.
I did have serious problems because of the disappearance of many of the 17th century documents I was hoping to look at. In addition, the Spanish archives were difficult to work in, in spite of the kindness of many archivists. I was very much on my own and I had to switch the direction of my work after discovering that the Olivares documents I wanted were not where I expected them to be, and so I decided to go to Barcelona and work on the Catalan rebellion of 1640 against the government in Madrid.
There I found myself caught up in Catalan society in the early 1950s during the repressive period of the Franco regime.
There was a group of historians there led by a very charismatic figure, Jaume Vicens Vives, perhaps the outstanding historian of the 20th century in Spain, certainly among those dealing with the early modern period. And he’d formed a little group of young Spanish scholars who were busy demythologising the history of Catalonia. I found this intellectually very exciting.
So I did have points of reference there, and made many friendships, and began to realise the significance of suppressed nationalism (and nationalism in general) and look at the effects of that in the Catalonia of the 1950s. And I very much sympathised with the Catalan population, while at the same time I was trying to demythologise some of their history, which was very much cast in terms of heroes and victims. So I learnt an enormous amount from that experience.
But at the same time there were other influences on me, which were really quite considerable, in particular that of Braudel and the Annales School. I called on Braudel on my way to Spain for my second year of research, which I spent entirely in Spain (in the first year I was still learning Spanish). I dropped in on him in Paris and he was very much against my subject and wanted me to concentrate on the financial history of period. And indeed I did read an enormous number of financial documents, but I wasn’t convinced by his arguments and decided to take my own route.
But what I think Braudel did – he published his great history of the Mediterranean in the reign of Philip II in 1949 – was to give me a vision of total history, however difficult to achieve, and the need to combine political, social, economic, cultural history, if possible, in one whole. And I think this was terribly important in my intellectual formation.
This became still more important because I was working on the history of Spain, where historians – native Spanish historians – had very much been thinking in terms of the uniqueness of Spain. And because of my training in European history and my reading in the work of Braudel and of the Annales school in general (Lucian Febvre in particular, and his study of the Franche Comté, was highly important for my work on Catalonia) I was always trying to find parallels between Spanish experiences and the experiences of early modern Britain, early modern France and so on.
I’ve always tried to keep in mind the big picture, which I believe is one of the biggest contributions of Marxist or marxisant historians to the historiography of the twentieth century. For all the flaws in the Marxist approach – and I could never accept the determinism that one finds even in Braudel (perhaps because of the influence of Butterfield I was always impressed by the role of personality and contingency in the development of historical events) – I was very aware of the interactions, imitations and parallel developments resulting from what in many respects were similar social and economic backgrounds.
PO Talking of your approach there, looking for comparisons – do you think that’s become more prevalent and a more common approach to history since you were starting to write on Spain in this period?
JE: Marc Bloch made a famous speech at the Historical Conference in Oslo in 1928 on the value of comparative history, and though I don’t think I knew that article at that time I began to realise that comparative history challenged exceptionalisms. We all have our own exceptionalism – British exceptionalism, or American, or whatever it may be. So I was very conscious from the beginning of the possibilities of a comparative approach, but I think there are so many technical problems involved in writing comparative history that it’s not for the young or for the graduate student, it seems to me.
And I’ve gradually moved in that direction over the course of my historical career, partly because I was having to put Spain on the map for an Anglo-American audience, whose knowledge of Spain was based on a series of very traditional stereotypes, such as the Black Legend. I had to make the history of Spain accessible to the Anglo-American world, and comparison is one way of doing that.
All the time my work was leading in a comparative direction. For instance I was later asked to give the Trevelyan lectures at Cambridge, and I decided – I was working at that time on my biography of the Count-Duke of Olivares – that it would be valuable to compare Richelieu and Olivares as two rival statesmen of the same period.
And I’ve moved on, and got interested in other subjects, and in wider subjects. Finally in 2006, after many years of thinking and writing about it, I tried a sort of grand sustained comparison of British and Spanish colonial America over three centuries.
But technically there are a lot of problems involved in comparative history. You never know if you’re getting the comparisons weighted rightly, you’re bound to dominate one literature better than another. But I do see it as one of the ways forward for the future. I think it is a very important approach.
PO: And you talk about having to put Spain on the map for Anglo-Americans. Again, would you say that since that time other people have now arrived in that area and to an extent it is more on the map?
JE: Well to some extent my own pupils contributed an enormous amount. People like Geoffrey Parker for instance have made major contributions. My first group of students came out of my lectures in Cambridge on early modern Europe – they were not specifically on Spain.
That’s apart from my very first course ever, when I was a sort of volunteer lecturer, and that produced the volume Imperial Spain, which I think helped to create an interest among a younger generation about the possibilities of Spanish history.
Any historian who gradually establishes his or her reputation and standing is bound to gather research students, which is what I did while I was in England in the 1960s. I was first of all a lecturer at Cambridge until 1968, when I was appointed to the chair of history at Kings College London, and I spent five years there. I had only one or two graduate students during that time.
Then I moved across the Atlantic in 1973 to join the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which is purely a research institute. I was able there to devote myself to the things I wanted to do, which was writing a political biography of the Count-Duke of Olivares, and develop other interests, in particular in the history of Spanish art of my period, and art and culture in general. Technically one wasn’t allowed to teach at the Institute in Princeton, but I was able to select a graduate student every year to come and work as my research assistant, and I deliberately picked young Spaniards where I could, because I thought it was so important to get them out of Spain and give them a chance to see Anglo-American scholarship. And that again I think was a very fruitful approach.
PO: You mentioned there that while you were working at Princeton you were also interested in art. You wrote a book with an art historian Jonathan Brown, is that right?
JE: Yes that’s right. A Palace for a King
PO: On Philip IV?
JE: Philip IV’s pleasure palace, it was built for him in the 1630s.
PO: I was wondering whether you think that this sort of interdisciplinary approach has become more acceptable since the time that you produced the book?
JE: I think there’s much more collaborative history than there was when I started. But again, collaboration is very difficult. Fortunately I got on extremely well with Jonathan Brown, and I learnt a lot from him about the methods and techniques of art historians. I think he learnt a lot from me about the historical context. But actually writing a book together, merging one’s paragraphs and one’s style and so on is quite complex. It’s a great challenge – it’s the book that I most enjoyed writing actually. It was enormous fun because you’re learning so much as you go along. And we worked together in the archives in Spain looking for documents, and that was very exciting too.
But I still feel that unless you can do a real blending of personalities (which I think happened in our case) the trouble with collaborative history is that it produces collaborative volumes and you lack the sense of one directing mind, and it all too easily descends into anthology. It does demand a particular kind of personality, and the willingness to forego – there were certain things that I wanted to put into the book to which he said ‘No, you can’t’, and vice versa. You have to be willing to accept that there’s a lot of give and take in the enterprise.
PO: Are there any other successful examples you can think of?
JE: Off the cuff I find it very difficult, and I don’t know enough about the relationships between joint authors to be able to say anything about that [added subsequent to this interview: A good example of successful collaboration would be Robinson and Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians].
PO: OK. Well instead I want to go back to another point that you raised earlier on. You mentioned Past and Present, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that journal and about its significance in the development of the discipline?
JE: Past and Present got going in the early 1950s, and was clearly going to be a lively journal, particularly for the early modern period, given that people like Christopher Hill were on the board. But it was tarred with the Marxist brush, and indeed very strikingly I remember that the Institute for Historical Research refused to take it for many years. When I published in 1961 my article on the decline of Spain it still wasn’t taking it at that stage. So I thought that, just to irritate the directorship, I would give them an offprint of my article, so that they’d have the trouble of cataloguing it separately. Fairly soon after that, of course, they did take it.
And it has been, I think, the most influential journal in early modern history of my lifetime. I was approached by Eric Hobsbawm about the possibility of my joining the board in 1958, and I was very dubious. The problems were that it had a limited circulation, and that the Marxist label, with its subtitle ‘A Journal of Scientific History’, put a lot of people off.
I was therefore really rather against accepting the invitation when he came to see me. But then I was telephoned by Lawrence Stone, who had also been approached, and who at that time was in this country. He felt that perhaps we ought to try and make a go of it, if we went in under certain conditions. So Lawrence Stone, Trevor Aston and I agreed to join in 1958, and, for instance, the subtitle was dropped.
So in a sense we brought in other attitudes and approaches to the board of the journal. And I enormously enjoyed it. I served on the editorial board for 40 years before I was retired off at the age of 70, and learnt a lot, because it’s very much a collective enterprise. At that early stage we all read all the articles that came in, and there would be really strong debates about individual pieces at our board meetings, sometimes very polemical debates, as there were some strong personalities on that Board.
But we gradually established ourselves. We were sometimes called country cousins of the Annales, and Past and Present always remained rather British in its approach and a good deal more pragmatic than the Annales in its great days, which are now alas over.
Intellectually I thought it was very exciting. It was a learning experience for me, but I like to think I contributed something. I mean that if, for example, I published an article on the decline of Spain then other historians working on Spain across the world might submit articles. So we gradually built it up, and it has been one of the great success stories of the 20th century.
It’s very difficult for any journal to maintain itself at the cutting edge of a discipline and I think that in the 60s and 70s in particular we were at the cutting edge. Since then, of course, history itself has moved in other directions. Annales after all, took a cultural turn at the time when the historical profession in general was taking more of a cultural turn. Social and economic history had lost much of its intellectual excitement. Economic history in particular had become more technical, and therefore economic historians to some extent were more marginalised by the 80s and 90s than they were in my time, when there was, I think, much more dialogue. All these changes affect a journal, and it’s very difficult to remain always on the cutting edge.
I think we have adapted quite well. We have taken more extra-European history, which is important, but we’ve always had (as well as an emphasis on British history) a strong continental emphasis, and to a lesser extent, because it’s been difficult to attract articles, an extra-European emphasis too.
PO: Having talked more specifically about your subject areas and your interests, and the institutions that affected those, I thought we could move to a more general focus now, and ask you a couple of questions about the profession, or the discipline in general. And I wanted to start off just by asking you from your perspective (and obviously you’ve worked both in this country and in the United States) how you think the pressures on academics have changed during your career?
JE: Well I think the pressures have increased enormously. There was always at Oxford and Cambridge in particular a very heavy teaching load. I was doing an enormous amount – I was doing around 16 hours of individual teaching in my college, plus three lectures a week, and then beginning to take graduate students in the early 60s. I was finding it pretty heavy going, and that was one of the reasons I decided to leave Cambridge in ’68 and look for a different job. I didn’t expect the pressures to be different but I think that it’s always good to move around in one’s career if one possibly can, and get a new intellectual environment.
Then in London I was permanent head of a department of history at Kings for five years. And by the end of my time there in ’73 I could see the writing on the wall. There was growing pressure on the universities from government regarding admissions, and pressures were beginning as regards syllabus and performance.
And so when I was approached by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton to move across the Atlantic I was desperately anxious to write a number of books which I hadn’t had the opportunity to write. I just managed to complete my textbook on Europe in the second half of the 16th century, Europe Divided, in that time in London, and I’d done the Wiles lectures on The Old World and the New, but I very much wanted to get back to the Count-Duke of Olivares and his period, and really expand my horizons. For that reason, knowing that in Princeton I would have no teaching obligations at all – it was simply a research institute – and would be able to invite scholars from across the world as visiting fellows, I felt it was an opportunity too good to be missed.
And so we moved there in ’73 and stayed until 1990 when I was offered the Regius Chair in Modern History in Oxford, when I thought it would be interesting to come back and see what was going on in this country. I was pleased to come to Oxford, which I didn’t know, as opposed to going back to Cambridge, which I did know.
I found my seven years in the Regius Chair a very interesting experience. Trevor-Roper when I was appointed said that holding the Regius Chair is great fun, but I think it was much more fun in his time than it was when I got to it. There were an enormous number of committees, a great deal of administration, and we had to confront the whole problem of the Research Assessment Exercise, which meant a lot of cracking the whip which I didn’t particularly enjoy.
The faculty was on the whole very supportive, but there were one or two exceptions – people who would have absolutely nothing to do with the exercise, and even refused to put forward the names of their publications. So it wasn’t easy, and I was very aware at that point of how much the pressures had grown.
They’ve grown across the British university world, but in Oxford there was and is an enormous commitment to individual teaching, or teaching in very small numbers, and a real interest in the intellectual development of undergraduates. At the same time as there was a growing pressure to publish, and publish to a deadline – which I think is a disaster, and has been an intellectual disaster – there have been more and more graduates coming to the university. So you have to juggle your undergraduate teaching, your graduate teaching, the demands of research and publication, plus the enormous number of committees which collegiate universities demand. And this I think imposes enormous strains. I had seven years in the post and that was really enough.
PO: Alright, that’s all very interesting, and I think as well that covers to a certain extent what I was going to ask you next. You alluded to the fact that there were more and more graduates coming into the system there, and I wondered what differences you found between your own experience as a graduate student, your experience when you were first taking graduate students before you went to the States, and then subsequent to that? Would it be possible to compare those changes over time?
JE: Well as I said, there was absolutely no background training or professional training really. For instance, I went and found an expert in calligraphy in Cambridge, who was able to teach me a little bit about Spanish handwriting in the 16th and 17th centuries, but I did that on my own – one was just expected to make one’s own way.
When I got my own first graduate students in the early 60s there were enough of them for me to treat them as a group and I would have seminars in which they would present their work. I think I kept a much tighter control over them than Herbert Butterfield ever exercised over me. I probably demanded too much of them. I expected them all to get through in three years and they all did.
PO: That’s quite a modern approach in a way
JE: It is rather a modern approach. But they all had to learn Spanish if they didn’t already know it, and they were tremendously committed and managed to achieve this. And I’m very proud of the results.
One of the things which I think has happened is that, because of the time pressures now, English students who are entering the graduate world are refusing to learn foreign languages, because they know it’s effectively going to take a year out of their lives, unless they work enormously hard, as I think mine did. And therefore far too many of them are being channelled into British history, where there are no posts.
Also the tendency is to take manageable subjects. Perhaps I was lucky with Spanish history – there were so many enormous subjects with great potential. For instance I lectured on the Spanish road from Milan to Flanders, along which the Spanish army would march in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Work hadn’t been done on it, so somebody like Geoffrey Parker was able to take that as a subject.
Similarly I suggested to Richard Kagan, an American student who came to work with me, that he should look at the universities and the bureaucracy – the education of the Spanish bureaucracy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And he met enormous problems because Spanish archivists would say to him ‘Either you can study universities or you can study bureaucracy but you can’t study both’. So in a sense, one was carving out new subjects, and that was exciting, both for the students and for me.
I think it may be more difficult now, particularly in British history, because of the amount of work that’s been done. Even Spanish history is much more crowded than it was when I had an open field, and my students had an effectively open field in the 60s. And so this means very often segmenting into smaller and smaller subjects, with – I’m afraid – a narrowing of vision, as well as a new parochialism as a result of the inability to master foreign languages to the right level.
This I think is one of the most serious problems for the future, the unwillingness and the lack of time and incentive to learn foreign languages – although the incentive really is there because that’s where the posts are.
PO: And without the foreign language obviously you can’t look at the original sources can you?
JE: No of course you can’t. Absolutely out of the question. But I’m very struck by this, if we’re looking at the future of the profession in this country. For instance, my last graduate student was a German, who came to work with me here on a Spanish theme.
PO: And that was in?
JE: That was in 1995 or thereabouts. And he came to work with me on a Spanish subject, duly got his doctorate, and put in for a job at Liverpool in early modern history, which was advertised. I think he told me that of the six short-listed candidates five were continental Europeans. He got the job. But it’s indicative of what’s been happening to European history in this country, and this I think is a disaster because I believe that one of the great contributions of British historians of the 20th century to history and the historical profession has been their willingness to look beyond the British Isles.
So you have experts in Italian history like Denis Mack Smith, or Spanish history like Raymond Carr, or in German history, or in Central European History like my successor Robert Evans (who in fact was a pupil of mine in Cambridge). And I’m concerned as to whether we’re going to go on being able to do that, or whether we shan’t be becoming more parochial as a result of the inability to master foreign tongues.
PO: I think in a previous interview you said that as we move closer to Europe, and with the European Union expanding, and with ideas of nationalism or even Islamic fundamentalism being historical questions, that these are important issues that historians ought to-
JE: Absolutely – engage with. And that’s very important. And that’s another development which I think has not been positive in my lifetime, although it’s had certain positive effects as well – the whole trend towards rather nit-picking revisionism. The old big picture often presented by Marxist or marxisant historians began to be eroded by a new generation, and I think the result all too often has been a narrowing of focus, a fragmenting of the discipline. And my whole life I’ve been trying to save the big picture and promote its virtues and its importance.
I think at this moment we may be seeing a shift back to something rather larger, as against microhistory, and revisionist mini-history. There has been a growing realisation of the importance of a wider framework, and that framework may be pan-European, it may be Atlantic history, or increasingly, global history.
This does mean studying many societies simultaneously, which I think is tremendous, but again it demands a degree of precision and knowledge, and an ability to dominate a literature which is growing exponentially. There’s so much more to read of secondary sources than there was when I started. I could master more or less what had been written that was worth reading about 16th and 17th century Spanish history in the course of the two or three years while I was writing my thesis. You can’t do that anymore.
So although I welcome the move towards global history and non-European history, I think there is a danger of our losing the kind of precision that was instilled into me as a student – studying texts very closely, and so on. One can float in the stratosphere, and that’s not much more useful than very narrow history in many ways. The whole problem, I think, is to find a balance between the different demands of precise local history and more regional and national history, as well as trans-national history, and trans-Atlantic history, which is what I’ve been trying to do in the last few years of my life as a historian.
PO: And is there anyone particularly that you can see that’s managed to achieve this balance that you talk about?
JE: I think it’s very difficult to single out names. I mean there are people who are terribly good, like Christopher Bayly in Cambridge for instance, who I think are managing to bring together these different communities. But he again is a mature scholar by now. It’s quite difficult to launch into these things when one’s young, and carry it off successfully.
As I say, I think we should all be looking for connections and comparisons, both the similarities and the differences (and that’s very important). I think that’s a way to keep oneself intellectually alive and abreast of the profession.
PO: Sure. I suppose that leads onto another question that I was going to ask you, in the sense that one of the problems of writing very specific microhistories is that they tend to have a small audience , and a lot of historians have been concerned about the fact that history needs to reach a wider audience. Now obviously beyond the sort of broad comparative histories you’re talking about are the more popular activities if you like of historians – whether it be through the medium of television, or whether it be through serialisations in newspapers. And again in terms of the project that we’re concerned with here I was wondering if I could ask you what you thought about the relationship between academic and popular history and whether that has changed at all?
JE: Well I think there’s enormous public interest in, and demand for, certain kinds of history. Sometimes it’s a romantic theme park kind of history, sometimes it’s a genuine interest in one’s own genealogical or local background, and I think that’s enormously to be welcomed.
My view is that historians ought to engage with the public where the possibilities exist. I think one of the ways in which it can be done is writing well, and I’ve always insisted on the importance of style and accessibility in writing. I think that the narrative approach, which was very much out of favour in my early years as a historian, has now rather come back. I’ve always tried to narrate chronologically because it’s one way of drawing your audience in. Precisely because I was dealing with an audience that was not likely to be interested in the history of Spain I had to reach out in that particular way, both in terms of style and by narrating where possible, because I think that’s the easiest way to draw a reader into a book.
As regards television history, it obviously has enormous potential for reaching an audience, though I think that to some extent its opportunities have not been made the most of. When you think of the impact of A. J. P. Taylor’s lectures on television I don’t think that all this historical reconstruction and so on has necessarily been very beneficial.
The attempt to re-enact events of which one has no pictorial record has given a false sense of the simplicities of history when I think that one of our duties is to show that this is a complex subject. The past is complicated, there are many ways of looking at it, and although in some ways I was impressed by Simon Schama’s ability to convey the history of Britain I also think he could have pitched it higher and not lost his audience.
I think it’s a real challenge not to let down one’s scholarly standards – that’s not to say that he did so particularly – but not to oversimplify for the sake of keeping an audience. I think people want to be fed, and they want to know how to eat, and you can help them do both at the same time.
PO: In other words you don’t want to underestimate the audience?
JE: You don’t want to underestimate the audience, no. There is real potential there, and I think partly it’s the demands of producers, and partly this feeling that we’ve got to oversimplify in order to be comprehensible or attractive to our audience. I don’t believe this is true.
PO: And do you see this as having changed in your own experience? In the famous A. J. P. Taylor lectures it’s essentially him talking to camera, but have you experienced producers wanting things to be reduced more to soundbytes?
JE: I think so. We’re living in an age of soundbytes. And we’re living in an age which alas is in many ways a-historical. The younger generation think in terms of the present and the future, and they’ve lost a sense of what happened before their lifetimes. They’ve lost any notion of the complexities of the past, and the fact that statesmen were struggling with similar problems in the 17th century as in the late 20th – threats to the unity of a nation state that was moving towards the form of development that it would reach in the 19th century.
I think the main duty of historians at the beginning of the 21st century is to get over the sense, through all the media, through television, newspaper articles etc, that these problems are not necessarily new, that previous generations have confronted them in their own way. There have been certain roads not taken that might be worth having a look at again.
PO: So developments like the History and Policy Group at the IHR, which have attempted to put historians more in touch with politicians and to have more direct influence on policy, are the sort of thing that history and historians should be getting into?
JE: Yes, though there is a danger of being seduced by power. And I think it’s terribly important for the historian to take the alternative point of view to the fashionable one, and present the options.
For instance, the assumption in much of the 19th and 20th centuries was that the centralised nation state was the culmination of a millennium of European history. What we now see as a result of the development of the European Community, of globalisation, of corporate institutions, and transnational corporate institutions, is that the nation state has been put under increasing pressure from above. And at the same time, and partly as a consequence of that, there’s increasing pressure from what you might call the under-represented or suppressed ethnic groups, regions and so on. So we’re getting these pressures on the 19th/20th century nation state both from above and from below.
And it seems to me that it’s worthwhile for the historian – it’s what I tried to do in Spain – to point out that there was an alternative solution put forward and adopted in the 16th and 17th centuries. For instance, the idea of the composite monarchy, in which there’s a great deal of autonomy of one sort or another within an overall structure. This is a difficult game to play, a game that demands for example political coalitions, but it’s possibly worth revisiting the Austro-Hungarian option, which came to be despised with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918, to see if there’s anything one can learn from those earlier experiences.
And that’s the sort of thing that I think historians should be pointing out to politicians at this moment as they grapple with these very difficult contemporary problems. Of course, different ages produce different kinds of problems, but there are certain central problems which continue in new variations throughout.
PO: In terms of comparison again, do you think that there have been times in the past when historians have had the ear of politicians more, or had more influence?
JE: Well there were days when politicians were historians. People like Gladstone or Melbourne knew a great deal of history. And I wouldn’t say that a politician who has historical knowledge necessarily always turns out to be a better statesman than one who doesn’t have any.
Sometimes it’s better, as Tony Blair did with Northern Ireland perhaps, to forget the past, but I do think it can save you from walking into quagmires at certain moments. If you knew for instance, that British had been in Iraq in the 1920’s, and had run into problems there, this might at least make you pause before taking major policy decisions.
PO: Of course. And are there any instances in the past you can think of where this sort of historical knowledge has provided the opportunity for people to think twice? Subsequent to Gladstone, has the 20th century been a period where politicians have generally acted a-historically and without the kind of influences that you think would be helpful?
JE: Well, I think that someone like Macmillan had a real sense of the past. The danger is that they possibly get a deformed sense of the past. I mean, Mrs Thatcher with her Victorian values – it was a pretty narrow vision of the Victorian world. This may have given her a great incentive to do one or two important things, but it also has its dangers.
I think one of the things that it is most important for historians to do is to deconstruct myths, and that when you get nationalist historiography, as in Serbia for instance, casting people in the role of permanent victims, and creating a very narrow focus, that’s really dangerous. It seems to me that our role is constantly to question the orthodoxy of the day.
PO: I think you’ve covered to a certain extent the future of the discipline in terms of what you’d like to see historians doing. I thought I could just to finish ask you what you saw the prospects were for historians and people studying and moving up the profession now in the academic job market in the future? I remember you speaking before in interviews and talking about the tragedy of the lost generation of historians in the 80s with cuts. How do you see the situation now?
JE: Well I think that it is very difficult, and I suspect that some of the people who might have made the best historians are not going into academic life because the monetary rewards are limited, although I think the intellectual rewards are and remain great. I believe that one of the real dangers now is that those who stay in the profession in spite of all the obstacles are increasingly going to be tempted by the United States, which has many more opportunities. I can see us losing another generation. I speak as somebody who did migrate to the States, but at least as one who decided to reverse the brain drain and come back.
It’s tremendous that people should cross the Atlantic, and I think there should be a constant to-ing and fro-ing. I believe it gives one fresh ideas, about syllabuses, about the organisation of academic life – about everything really. And it extends the horizons. But there’s a real danger that our best people may find the grass greener on the other side of the Atlantic and stay there. I think that many of our own jobs will be filled by continental historians, partly because of their linguistic skills, and partly because they know that, for all the problems of British university life, the problems are much greater on the Continent.
PO: Right, so in a sense that’s almost another brain drain.
JE: Another brain drain coming to this country, which again we shall benefit from in some ways. But I will be sorry if we do see this permanent migration of the best minds. You see so many celebrity historians now in the States, and I don’t know how many of them will come back. I mean, the Linda Colleys, the Paul Kennedys, the Niall Fergusons, Mark Mazower and so on. There are a great many very talented historians there who may well feel, often for very good reasons indeed, that that’s where their permanent future lies. Simon Schama is another.
So one’s got to make enough attractive jobs and enough attractive opportunities in this country to keep the profession going. There’s so much talent – I think the general level of history writing in this country is as high as, or probably higher than, it’s ever been in terms of the sheer professional capacity of people. Even literary skills still are pretty impressive as compared with the literary skills of so many North American historians for instance. But I do fear for the future in that respect.
PO: So it’s not a question of the raw material?
JE: No. I think the raw material is there.
PO: It’s a question of the institutional set up, of the status, whether that be monetary…
JE: And the incentives, of one sort or another.
And so I would very much like to see more research opportunities for people moving to other institutions for a year or two. Important initiatives like British Academy fellowships and Leverhulme fellowships are creating some of these opportunities, but we need many more if we’re to keep our best minds.
PO: And would you look to government to provide those then?
JE: I don’t think the government’s going to provide
them. I mean history is very low on the government’s priorities, alas.
No, I think it’s a question of tapping into private wealth at this stage