Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Should the English Civil War Be At the Heart of the National Curriculum?

I believe that few people would argue with the History Today’s editor Paul Lay when he said recently that “The English Civil War, the Civil Wars, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms: call them what you will, they are the most important and perhaps the most exciting period in British history and they should be at the core of the school curriculum throughout the UK”.

I drew this conclusion like Paul not from any experience of teaching apart from being on the receiving end of some. Admittedly I am biased having run a blog for the last three years dedicated to studying the subject. But more importantly as Lay puts it the civil war was such a seminal event not just in British history but world history that every student should have some knowledge and opinion on this event.

I do not wish to get into a beauty contest over this, but I would contend that without an understanding of at least the fundamental issues that caused the war one's opinion of the rest of history after this event is diminished considerably.

Having said that any student worth their salt should be very wary of agendas being set (including mine) when someone such as Lay and others argues the need for a new curriculum. Lay recently said, “I know my history and that it was in the 17th century that the disparate national histories of these islands came together to forge the modern world”.

If Lay means that the English revolution paved the way for capitalism to flourish in England, then I would agree with him. However, a number of more right wing historians such as Niall Ferguson have used the curriculum debate to foster a very right wing agenda which goes as far to defend the historical interests of British imperialism. Ferguson has just called the current British Prime Minister David Cameron a new Winston Churchill.

I do not believe that Lay is among this growing coterie of historians that have this agenda, but he does seem to be at home with a group of historians that have sought to revise previous Marxist historiography of the English Civil War. Just look at his list of his favourite historians that have written about the English civil war, he writes “for decades the 17th century has been the richest seam mined in Britain’s history departments, attracting scholars of the stature of Conrad Russell, Austin Woolrych, Ann Hughes, Kevin Sharpe, John Adamson, Jane Ohlmeyer, John Morrill, Barry Coward, Michael Hunter and many more”.

I have nothing wrong with the list. All are excellent historians and have made or are making significant contributions to the expansion of our understanding of a complex subject. However, the majority of historians contained in this list are in one form or another revisionist historians.

In Lays articles in both History Today and the Spectator magazine you get a glimpse of his ideological leanings as regards the civil war  he says  “In the aftermath of the great conflict we see the birth of Britain and the emergence of today’s party political system; the British Army and Royal Navy comes into existence in recognisable form; the battle of ideas over monarchy and republic provides stimulating argument for the young; the importance of religion — and witchcraft — is emphasised as a prime motive of people’s actions; there is the beginning of the modern financial system with the creation of the Bank of England and the National Debt. Most important of all, though, this is the age when British history runs into that of a wider world to be explored in all its variety by minds prepared for the complexities and contentions of global history by their engagement with the medieval and Early Modern Worlds. Not even our much maligned exam boards can make that annoying”.

For Lay, the prime mover for people’s action during the civil war was either religion or witchcraft. Which to some extent is genuine and a good historian is one sensitive to numerous historical sources  and helps uncover  the social currents that  according to Ann Talbot “brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”

But one political current that Lay and for that matter other revisionist historians have downplayed is the role of economics in people’s actions. In fact, it has become trendy nowadays to completely rule out that the events of the civil war could be better understood with a thorough understanding of the economic changes that helped bring about such a seminal event in English history.

That aside Lay does make this real defence of a systematic study of History, which he says “at its best, calls everything into question. It offers no comfort, no shelter and no respite, it is a discipline of endless revision and argument. It forces its students to confront the different, the strange, the exotic and the perverse and reveals in full the possibilities of human existence. It is unafraid of casting its cold eye on conflict, both physical and intellectual. And there is more history than ever. It is his story, her story, our story, their story, history from above and from below, richer, more diverse and increasingly global. It has no end, as the benighted Francis Fukuyama discovered when the permanent present ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall came crashing down on September 11, 2001. History opposes hubris and warns of nemesis. It doesn’t value events by their outcome; the Whig interpretation of history expired long ago”.

This last bit I do not agree. The Whig interpretation of history whether you agree or disagree with this genre it is alive and kicking in the 21st century. Some of the biggest TV historians such as Tristram Hunt, Simon Sharma exhibit Whig tendencies.  But this is not the main point. Lay’s real beef is with Marxist historiography. Lay blames Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill for using base and superstructure to best understand the civil war. Lay believes that the demise of Marxism has once again brought the role of religion as the primary driving force behind civil war. Lay has the right to his ideology, but the constant attack by revisionists and their apologists is doing an untold disservice to those students who wish to have a multi rather than one-dimensional understanding of the civil war.


(1) Put the Civil Wars back on the syllabus, Mr Gove Paul Lay Friday, 2nd March 2012

(2)This Cosy Portrayal of the Past is no Way to Learn the Lesson of History. T Hunt

Observer 21/11/2010

(3) 'History Today and Tomorrow' by Paul Lay is published by Endeavour Press. www.historytoday.com

(4) Paul Lay -Why the Past is More Important than Ever Posted: 15/02/2012 20:32