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Call For The History Men (March 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Has there been such a domestic-generated constitutional crisis in the last 120 years?


How do you manage a Scottish political campaign and teach at a German university? Hooray for my once-in-five-years academic leave which makes it possible to do so. Only just - by organising seminars as "Kompakts" which take place on weekends, with all the sessions running end-to-end. Intensive study, greater cooperation between the students, takes you through on a high. One of these is, unsurprisingly, on "British politics from the inside" - based on fighting Kirkcaldy for the SNP. As Werner Heisenberg famously proposed, the researcher becomes his research.

Then the point occurred to me: why was I one of a handful of academics actually entering the political arena, while the banks of seats above the blood and sand were crammed with one's colleagues, theorising about the butchery? This has always seemed extreme, particularly in Scotland - at least until recently. We're world-class political voyeurs, not very good at politics, yet love to see others doing it.

Now fully entangled in the business, knocking the doors and pressing the flesh, I sense that something has changed. I have yet to hear "We're aa Labour here, son," (familiar enough for 27 years) and I sense that some sort of seismic shift is going on. Sure, it may not go my way; I may end up back in Tübingen, stuck between the classroom and the Alps. But a story is emerging that needs telling. Has there been such a domestic-generated constitutional crisis since the defeat of Gladstone's first Irish Home Rule Bill, 120 years ago?

It's not just the Scottish issue coming into question, not even the coronation (or checkmate?) of Gordon Brown. Under everything, I get the sense that what has lost its way isn't the Britishness that we're supposed to be obsessed about, but history itself.

The United Kingdom of London, dominating television, radio, advertising, newspapers, has come to believe - in the way most failing elites do - that its own peculiar agenda is that of the rest of the country. I have written elsewhere (see "Bad History" in the current Political Quarterly about the consequences when culture ceases to be critical and changes into a marketable commodity. This is visible in the giant booksheds and commercially souped-up productions like those of Simon Schama and the elevation of big-bucks "trophy historians" into a pseudo-eminence which distorts the discipline.

Leave analysing our present discontents to the experts: the economists, the political scientists? Up to a point. But they tend to trip over their theory. When on song, the contemporary historian has this in his or her favour: we see the whole messy business, subject to "the malice of time, chance, and the rest of the human race". That was the late Simon Raven, political novelist, who knew the lash of "events, dear boy, events" when he felt it.

So, phone for contemporary history man. What we're in for could mature in one of at least three ways. Brown could win in London and Scotland, by maintaining Labour dominance of the Holyrood coalition. He could win in London but see Scotland fall to the SNP. Or an SNP victory in Scotland could make Labour go for an English leader. The first outcome would be a remarkable achievement. The other two suggest a nail-biting period up to the next Westminster elections, and then a full-blown crisis should the Tories win in England and collapse in Scotland. As historians, the actual outcomes are things we're powerless to direct. But detailing them, separating hype from root cause, is essential.

In 1886, as Gladstone struggled to pass home rule for Ireland, the Reform Essayists of the 1860s accompanied the manoeuvres of the MPs with theoretical arguments, of which the most important were A V Dicey's "Law of the Constitution" and his friend James Bryce's "Flexible and Rigid Constitutions". These were not just by political theorists: both men were active journalists, regular writers for the New York Nation. Dicey's unionist "parliamentary sovereignty" was still stalking Whitehall in the 1990s. Bryce was MP for Aberdeen. By the end of his career he would be Irish chief secretary and ambassador to Washington, and his ideas about convention and political culture in federations are still current in debates about the EU.

I started in a small way, keeping a campaign diary for Prof Lindsay Paterson, editor of Scottish Affairs, the academic journal covering Scottish politics and society. He's just received the first tranche, covering February 20 to March 13. Doing this means I can't go back over the text, improving it with hindsight. Then it struck me that it would be valuable if several other contemporary historians joined in, taking beads on the situation and commentaries on it from different positions: from London, from Ireland and Wales, from Europe.

A bit of phoning around showed friends in Oxford, London and Edinburgh who were keen on the idea, and the embryo of a project which would get historians in touch with each other, with other disciplines and with politicians. In view could be an informal conference in the autumn at which the impact of the crisis and its implications could be assessed and projected into the future. I will keep you informed.

Some years back Kenneth Morgan recollected that when Northern Ireland went critical in 1968 James Callaghan (as home secretary responsible for the place) called for the documentation on Stormont-Whitehall relations and got a couple of A4 files. Not an auspicious precedent, and certainly not an alternative to cool-headed analysis.

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