If the title appears grandiloquent, it is meant to be. This is not so much a history as a call to arms. Andrew Roberts has clothed himself in the mantle of Winston Churchill and picks up where Churchill left off. The united phalanx of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, he declaims, has saved the world in “one overall, century-long struggle between the English-speaking people’s democratic pluralism and fascist intolerance of different varieties”: Prussian imperialism, Nazism, Soviet communism and now the “feudal, theocratic, tribal, obscurantist” challenge of Islamic fundamentalism.
The English-speaking peoples are invoked against the unreliability of everybody else. This is the sort of history that makes Arthur Bryant read like an academic monograph. Roberts’s message is simple: when the English-speaking peoples stand side by side, history has a happy ending; when they do not, civilization is threatened. The greatest threat has always been the rot within — liberals, churchmen, intellectuals, whose introspection tempts right-minded people to doubt their own moral worth.
This is an exasperating book. Roberts writes with all the popular verve of the best narrative historian. His account is peppered with arresting might-have-beens; if the Treaty of Versailles had dismembered Germany in 1919, would Nazism have taken root? If the Ottoman Empire had not been similarly dismembered, would the Middle East be the mess it is today?
Roberts is eloquent on the great moments of courage and defiance by presidents and prime ministers and by many other now forgotten men — except for Margaret Thatcher, there is scarcely a woman mentioned — in the desperate circumstances of his grand narrative.
He has gathered a wealth of surprising detail: Winston Churchill never visited Australia; in 1945, a B25 bomber flew into the Empire State Building, but it did not collapse. This could have been a fascinating history analyzing the strengths, tensions and ambiguities in the relationships between the cultures of the English-speaking world. However, Roberts has overlaid his narrative with a relentless, coarse polemic that diminishes the argument he seeks to make.
In his pantheon, the only English virtues that count are those that march to the colors of the full-blooded, neoconservative global nationalism of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and US President George W. Bush. Liberal and social democratic values, and much of the US democratic tradition, are swept up into a mocking condemnation of all that has weakened the virility of the Anglosphere’s destiny. Hence the Beveridge Report, published as El Alamein turned the tide of war, introduced the bacillus of the welfare state and Clement Attlee, in victory, destroyed Britain’s hopes of recovery by implementing it. Roberts rightly lampoons those who claim a moral equivalence between the terrors of Mao and Stalin and the abuses of the West. He then uses this argument perversely to shrug off Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. He remains blind to the damage they have caused to the moral credibility of the very values he espouses. At no point does he consider whether the Bush presidency may in itself be an aberration threatening a political culture that has secured the links between liberal democracies across the Atlantic and Pacific.