Sunday, 22 February 2015
A Critical Review of A People’s History of Scotland- by Chris Bambery Verso, 320pp, £12.99
It is usual for new history books to fall into two broad categories. One is the history book that has no apparent connection to recent historical or political events. The second is a book that is very political and is released to coincide with ongoing historical or political developments. It is the second category that Chris Bambery’s new book falls into in that it is deeply connected to nationalist politics in Scotland.
As the title alludes, this is a history of the ‘ordinary people’ of Scotland. According to one writer it “looks beyond the kings and queens, the battles and bloody defeats of the past. It captures the history that matters today, stories of freedom fighters, suffragettes, the workers of Red Clydeside, and the hardship and protest of the treacherous Thatcher era”.
I have a number problems with this book. To begin with, Bambery never defines what he means by the people. Bambery’s somewhat unrefined thinking lends itself to him making empty generalizations. In the realm of philosophy, these are known as abstract identities. What is wrong with this type of imprecise thinking is that it presents according to David North “inadequate mental representations of reality: The material world simply does not consist of such internally undifferentiated phenomena.”
Bambery promises us “a corrective to the usual history of kings and queens, victorious battles and bloody defeats.” The first hundred pages or so the author struggles to find any of these ordinary people. In fact, the only ordinary citizens he finds were individuals who made the tactical difference at Bannockburn because they were mistaken for reinforcements by the English troops.
Know Your Historian
Bambery’s choice of the genre of people’s history has become popular again. This form of historical study was made extremely famous by the Communist Party Historians Group. The problem is that pseudo-left groups like the Socialist Workers Party which Bambery used to belong to have unfortunately assimilated worst aspects of this genre such as a nationalist outlook.
It is of particular importance when reading this kind of history that the reader knows the politics of the historian or as E H Carr was apt to say “Study the historian before you begin to consider the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the talented undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf, or your historian is a dull dog.
I am not saying that Bambery is a dull dog, but there is a surprising absence of both his politics and of the organization he once belonged perspective on Scottish history. I find this a little strange despite his break with the SWP he does not say anything about their position regarding Scottish history.
Bambery has belonged to some pseudo-left groups in the UK. He began as a member of the now defunct the International Marxist Group he then moved to the Socialist Workers Party. He resigned from the SWP in 2011 having served on their Central Committee and joined International Socialist Group. The SWP lost a significant number of its members to the ISG who were politically active in Scotland.
As far as I can tell Bambery shares much of the SWP positions on the recent independence campaign in Scotland. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) lined up behind the SNP in the Yes campaign, proclaiming separatism as the only basis on which to oppose austerity and militarism. Bambery despite leaving the SWP shares their perspective on Scottish separation.
The ISG’s latest articles go so far as to call for alliances with the SNP, asserting that “the Left will look like a backward break on the movement if it doesn’t initiate the support of the SNP where necessary.”
The IMG alongside the SNP believe Scotland is a classless nation. Bambery ignores the fact that Scottish nationalism and the SNP has always had a pronounced conservative element. "Class antagonism is a thing quite foreign to the Scottish spirit. It was unknown here until it was imported from England.... In Scotland there is no such inherent feeling of a separation between classes."
Like I said above it is important to know the author's politics because in this case it so colors his historiography. While this is not an academic history of Scotland, some of Bambery’s comments are less than precise and in a lot cases his history contains an absence of class-based history. Bambery’s method has very little to do with historical materialism.
Given the sweep of history, you could forgive the author for brevity when it comes to certain periods of Scottish history. But the price he pays is a lowering of a critical analysis of the movements and figures portrayed in the 330 or so pages.
Perhaps not so forgivable is his repeated glorification of myths and invention of traditions that permeate Scottish historiography. His statement neatly captures this flaw in Bambery's approach,
‘Legends will appear throughout this book, and in a way it does not matter if they are real, because a legend can take on a life of its own and so inspire a future generation.’
Bambery seems to have uncritically adopted Hegel’s words when he said: “Every nation has its imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the country’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination.”
The failure to critically examine these legends, or as one writer says “to explore the complex and contradictory relationship between the history and the myth, prevents the book from becoming anything more than a greatest hits of radical – a slippery political term at the best of times – Scottish movements .“ His decision after twenty-three pages to recommend Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart because it gives “a good account of William Wallace’s life.”
Bambery's glorification of Scottish figures from history comes to the fore when dealing with the Scottish enlightenment. It is undoubtedly true that Scotland produced some important people during the Enlightenment period but even these numbers were part of an international fraternity, and many of them never conceived themselves as promoting nationalism. Bambery’s raising them above other European figures is both wrong and will increase nationalist sentiment.
For certain subjects, the use of thePeople’s History Genre genre people’s history or for that matter narrative history is both useful and enjoyable. Bringing to the attention of a wide audience people who history or for that matter historians have forgotten is both legitimate and needed. However, it is not very useful when dealing with very complex historical processes.
Bambery sees Scottish history through nationally tinted glasses. Of its enlightenment figures better and its working class more militant and left-wing. This relentless populism flies in the face of history.
Bambery’s reckless promotion of Scottish exceptionalism tends to whitewash actual historical events. After all, even a leading member of the Scottish bourgeoisie Thomas Johnston was forced to describe the Scottish nobility as "a selfish, ferocious, famishing, unprincipled set of hyenas, from whom at no time, and in no way, has the country derived any benefit whatsoever." Bambery for some reason sought to cover up who Johnston was first describing him as a "19th-century historian" and only later identifying him as “Scotland's most charismatic Secretary of State.”
The English Bourgeois Revolution
Bambery’s nationalist outlook is reflected in the number of historical events that are not even attempted to be examined within their proper international context. Perhaps the most glaring one is Bambery’s attitude towards the English bourgeois revolution. Given the importance of this historical event, it gets strangely microscopic space in the book.
Bambery given his extensive knowledge of the Communist Party’s use of the history from below genre would have known the tendency amongst Communist Party historians and other radical writers to portray radicals such as the Leveller as struggling against foreign invaders.
Ann Talbot writes “serious Marxist criticisms of Hill are that he always maintains an essentially national approach to the English revolution, which he does not place in an international context, and that he has a tendency to romanticise the religious movements of the period and to be too dismissive of their rational intellectual descendants such as Newton and Locke. In part, these characteristics arise from the national orientation of his social class and reflect even in Hill vestiges of the Whig outlook that imagined a peculiarly English political tradition rooted in millennial seventeenth-century visionaries like Bunyan that was entirely separate from Enlightenment thought. More significantly it reflects the influence of the popular front politics and national outlook of Stalinism”. Bambery’s People’s History continues this attitude.
Unfortunately Bambery shares the same outlook as the Communist party. Except his nationalism is not English it is Scottish. In this book, Bambery rejects the theory of the English bourgeois revolution. He puts forward the premise that the revolution was, in fact, a “war of three kingdoms”.
The central premise of this argument is succinctly described by Jane Ohlmeyer when she said: “the English Civil War was just one of an interlocking set of conflicts that encompassed the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century”. I do not know Bambery that well to say that this has always been his take on the English revolution but it certainly was not his former party. It is not in the realm of this article to discuss at any length the extent that the SWP has moved away from the central premise of the English bourgeois revolution, but the fact that Bambery held a revisionist and conservative position on this seminal event is an indicator of the type of dissent that has existed in the last decade inside the SWP.
Scotland as a Nation
The central theme of this book from the first few pages to the last is to give the impression that Scotland from a very early period was a nation slowly making itself through its struggles against oppression. Bambery’s assertion is that ‘freedom was finally won on the field of battle at Bannockburn,’ the concept that Scotland was a nation before 1707 permeates a growing body of work of both politicians, writers and historians alike.
The different strands of Scottish nationalism believe that Scotland was a nation before the 1707 Act of Union. In their book, Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan brag that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe,” this belief that Scottish people have been oppressed for centuries is historically inaccurate and leads to the tendency for workers on both sides to the border to be played against each other.
Bambery plays very fast and loose with this history. It is clear that the Scottish bourgeoisie and aristocracy was in pretty bad shape before 1707. Before Union, the failure of the Darien scheme in the 1690s had a massive economic impact. The plan which was to build a predominantly Scottish trading colony in Panama ended in financial disaster for Scotland’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie.
While it true that large sections of the population opposed the union the bourgeoisie and aristocracy in Scotland clearly saw that their sectional interests were best served by the union.
Writer Neal Ascherson was stating, “It’s a cliché that the Scots ‘punched above their weight’ in the empire, and it’s misleading. They seldom competed directly with the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the ‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company…. Scottish capital was thus a full partner in the expansion of British imperialism. This embraced deep involvement in the slave plantations of the Caribbean and American South.”
To conclude this has not been an easy book to review and given the wealth of history covered and in some cases not included further articles on this subject will appear in the future. I do not feel the need to repeat my many criticisms of this book. I do like the genre of people’s history when it is done well, but Bambery’s promotion of Scottish nationalism dressed up as Scottish history leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
 A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners By David North
17 April 1997
 E H Carr What Is history
 A People's History of Scotland by Chris Bambery
 Hegel 1795 (Berne) The Positivity of the Christian Religion
 T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p180.