What is the collective noun for historians? A symposium, a colloquy, a dispute? However one styles them, there are a lot of historians about at the UK’s Hay-on-Wye literary festival, and it seems a perfect opportunity to pose two questions. Is this decade as tumultuous as it seems — with the multiple disorders of the war on terror, economic collapse, climate change and now, in the UK at least, a political firestorm? And do historians have anything valid to say about this decade, the noughties, or is it too early to begin to make judgments?
Andrew Roberts, media combatant and historian, is in no doubt that these are interesting, perhaps even cataclysmic, times.
“This is a massively tumultuous decade,” he said. “Obviously, 9/11 is going to be seen as the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next in every history book that our children are going to read. And then we have the economic collapse and the sheer sense of fin de siecle that we’ve got right now.”
But he doesn’t factor into this sense of apocalypse the paranoia and paralysis that is currently gripping British politics.
“I don’t think the expenses scandal is going to turn into anything constitutional; it’s just going to be a straightforward election issue, and it might not be as huge an election issue by next May as we think it’s going to be right now,” he said.
Terrorism, radical Islam and nuclear proliferation — especially a nuclear Iran — are the geopolitical keys for Roberts; and he reckons the credit crunch might yet turn into a generation-defining Great Depression.
This big-bang historical theorizing is not shared by Richard Overy, professor of history at Exeter University in southwest England and author of The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars. In the brilliant lecture he gave at the weekend, he talked of the sense of civilization in decay that swept Britain in that period, as a coda to which he points to parallels with our own times and issues a warning not to fall into the same catastrophist trap.
Overy is a very persuasive gradualist.
“I say calm down,” he said. “There are very long-term changes that occur through time that are not going to be much affected by what’s happened this year, that year or the year after. If you look at the whole of human history, not just the last 10 years, human beings are incredibly adaptive and flexible. They cope with whatever is thrown at them. Our image at the moment is that we are negative, state-led people bound to our computers who are going to go down in some huge fireball. It just isn’t the case.”
He argues that governments have used the war on terror for their own ends, deliberately fueling anxieties to get repressive policies passed.
That will play well with the political left. But they may find his views on climate change less attractive: In essence he thinks the jury is still out on the degree to which global warming is manmade.
“There have been a great many times when the climate has got much colder and much warmer,” he said. “You could grow grapes and apricots in eastern England in the 15th century, and that’s nothing to do with industry and cars.”
Richard Evans, regius professor of modern history at Cambridge University, who gave a lecture drawing on the third and final volume of his history of the Third Reich, is largely in agreement with Overy.