All the chapters follow the same format. They begin by describing a trip to somewhere in the area they intend to anatomize. Then comes the long exposition, invariably lively as well as informative, of the state’s rise and fall. Finally Davies muses on how and why it failed, often slightly sadly because he’s no moralist but rather a historical polymath with a whimsical taste for poetry and for abandoned loyalties.
It’s no accident that Davies is a Welsh name. Wales, with its long land border and small population, is likely to be the last part of the UK to secede, leaving England to welter in its abandoned factories and class-ridden population, still maintaining the old divisions among the ruins —is your house detached or semi-detached, do you eat butter or margarine? — plus no-doubt some newer ones.
But melancholy isn’t Davies’s style. Rather, he’s an enthusiast for almost everyone who comes within his purview — Poles, Prussians, Estonians, Irishmen — and this is probably because he doesn’t really view them as coming under these headings at all. Instead, they’re inhabitants of this valley or that, poor people as often as not whose ancestors have had to bow down to a wide variety of sovereigns, and sometimes to die defending dynasties to which they owe nothing substantial, merely confusing them, as they have been deliberately led to do, with their homeland, under slogans such as “king and country”.
All Davies’ chapters are revelations, but in this context none more so than the one on the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, birthplace of Queen Victoria’s spouse Albert, and hence producing the direct ancestors of the current UK royal family, already deeply Germanic in its antecedents. “Most of their subjects do not know,” Davies writes, “that [Princess Diana] was the very first person of primarily English descent who” (in the last 300 years) “ever came near the British throne”. It’s a rare instance of an almost spiteful note afflicting the author. I’d prefer to see the UK royals in a different light, that of immigrants, and call them the most spectacularly successful of all recent arrivals.
I can, nevertheless, recommend this book almost unreservedly. It’s granted me hours of fantastic reading. As for general reasons why states fail, a concluding chapter on the subject comes to no conclusion. Instead, it quotes Rousseau. “If Sparta and Rome perished, what state can hope to last for ever?”