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About this book

Does history matter? Is it anything more than entertainment? And if so, what practical relevance does it have? In this fully revised second edition of a seminal text, John Tosh persuasively argues that history is central to an informed and critical understanding of topical issues in the present. Including a range of contemporary examples from Brexit to child sexual abuse to the impact of the internet, this is an important and practical introduction for all students of history.

Inspiring and empowering, this book provides both students and general readers with a stimulating and practical rationale for the study of history. It is essential reading for all undergraduate students of history who require an engaging introduction to the subject.

Table of Contents

1. Prologue: Britain in Iraq

Abstract
As British troops entered Basra in April 2003, few people in Britain realised that this was not the first time. Nearly 90 years earlier, in November 1914, a force of 5,000 men had captured the city, at a cost of 489 casualties.i The circumstances were very different, of course. The world in which that occupation took place has virtually disappeared. In 2003, Britain acted as a junior partner of the United States in the full glare of world publicity; in 1914, Britain acted alone, and the occupation of Basra was an obscure sideshow in a much wider conflict. The Raj in India was still at the heart of Britain’s global interests, and Iraq mattered because of its place in communications with India. For that reason the campaign was organised from Bombay, using mostly Indian troops. The adversary in Basra was not ‘Iraqi’ or Arab, but the forces of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, Iraq did not yet exist. The British name for it – Mesopotamia – was also a fiction: the country was administered by the Turks as three freestanding provinces, of which Basra was one. So the occupation of 1914 hardly prefigured that of 2003. But the aftermath of 1914 is highly relevant to understanding the situation faced by the Anglo-American coalition from 2003 onwards. Basra was placed under military administration, and British forces gradually advanced northwards, taking Baghdad in 1917. At the end of the war, Britain was the obvious choice to take over the country from the defeated Turks. But instead of exercising complete sovereignty, Britain administered Iraq as a Mandate of the League of Nations and was in theory accountable to the new body. The Mandate continued until 1934, after which Britain withdrew to a position of informal influence, which ended only with the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958.
John Tosh

2. 1 Contending Histories

Abstract
‘There has never been a time ‖ when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day.’1 That statement was made by Tony Blair in 2003 in a speech to the United States Congress. The immediate context was the invasion of Iraq – just completed – and the political need to refute the dire lessons which could be drawn from the history of that country. The speech was widely taken to express the Prime Minister’s indifference towards history. But it also reflected a much more widespread scepticism about the practical benefits of historical perspective. Belief in history’s capacity to understand the present and enlarge its sense of possibilities has never been weaker. The foundations for such a history are poorly laid in school education. The news media draw on historical material only fitfully, and on many key topics not at all. For the most part, the electorate is not in a position to apply historical perspective to the evaluation of current policies and attitudes. The British public, it has been said, suffers from historical attention span deficit disorder.2
John Tosh

3. 2 Other Worlds

Abstract
The year 1649 was an extraordinary moment in the history of England. Charles I was executed; a republic was declared; and the Army tightened its grip on the country. In this atmosphere of revolutionary ferment, radical sects proliferated, their programmes ranging from pacifism to agrarian community living. These maverick groups found no place in Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and after the Restoration they slipped into obscurity. For a brief period in 1649–50, the Ranters attracted attention as the most radical and subversive group. They were itinerants drawn from the urban poor. They proclaimed what amounted to class war against the rich. They advocated free love without the trammels of marriage, and some of them practised it. But the Ranters were not forerunners of the secular hedonism of the twentieth century. First and foremost, they were a religious sect, led by preachers. The rich were doomed because God would come soon ‘to level the hills with the valleys, to lay the mountains low’; free love was consistent with the Ranters’ belief that God was present in all material things and all human beings. The opportunity for new ways of living in the social turmoil of the 1640s was proclaimed in language which upheld the central importance of faith.1
John Tosh

4. 3 Becoming Ourselves

Abstract
When John F. Kennedy was running for president in 1960, he was asked to name his most important single asset. ‘I think that it is my sense of history’, he replied. He went on to explain how vital it was to know how America had reached its present position of global influence, and beyond that ‘to discern what the basic historical forces are that are moving in our own day, which ones we ought to oppose and which ones we ought to support’. For a man immersed in the minutiae of campaigning, it was a thoughtful response, reflecting a sophisticated historical mind. Kennedy saw the world as structured by continuing historical processes, in relation to which his own actions must be shaped.1
John Tosh

5. 4 Parallels in the Past

Abstract
Analogy features prominently in the way people draw on the past, and it is not hard to see why. Analogy makes the past accessible, and it often validates policies or assumptions in the present. In addition, analogies can be pursued with a minimum of effort, as focusing on a specific episode in the past appears to render unnecessary an extensive background or context. Not surprisingly, political issues are often presented to the public in the same way. Thus Margaret Thatcher’s rethinking of the social security system was attacked as a return to the means test of the 1930s, and even as a throwback to the harsh philosophy of the New Poor Law of 1834. The British National Party, like the National Front before it, is routinely portrayed as a recreation of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s. But analogy has a poor press from historians. The notion that we can read off the essence of a situation today from a parallel in the past confounds one of the central principles of historicism – that the process of change and development renders invalid comparisons across time. The present can only be understood in the light of those processes. Invoking our predecessors’ experience as a guide to conduct all too easily overlooks the difference between their circumstances and ours; it also discounts the processes of change and development which have taken place in the meantime. For these reasons, analogy is routinely condemned as profoundly unhistorical by the gatekeepers of the academy. For Keith Thomas, the difference between modern and premodern historical sensibilities is that we study the past in order to experience its difference, whereas our forebears expected it to furnish lessons.
John Tosh

6. 5 The Family ‘in Crisis’: A Case Study

Abstract
Up to this point the application of history to public understanding has been illustrated by means of a rapid succession of briefly analysed issues, in order to demonstrate that historical perspective is an asset across the entire spectrum of public debate. But it is not easy to register all the implications of applied historical thinking from this rapid tour d’horizon. In this chapter the threads of the argument are brought together in relation to a single theme, to demonstrate the different levels at which historical understanding can bear upon a complex issue. The family has been an object of social and moral concern in Britain since the 1970s. During the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, it rose to the top tier of the political agenda, spawning intense public debate. The attention of historians was attracted to this field because official policy rested on assumptions about the history of the family which were manifestly mistaken. But academic scholarship offered more than this. Current research on the history of the family not only served to expose the political appropriation of the past; it also offered historical perspectives which made for a much more accurate reading of the present state of the family – and one which was considerably less negative than the picture presented by the political right.
John Tosh

7. History Goes Public

Abstract
The argument of this book so far assumes that historians have at their disposal the means to reach beyond their academic peers and their students. This proposition must now be put to the test. And because the weight of academic tradition has seriously questioned whether dissemination is feasible or even desirable, it is clear that searching questions must be asked. A gulf is usually said to exist between the academy and popular history, and for good reasons. The questions which interest the academic historian and a general lay readership often seem like oil and water. The language of the monograph is poles apart from that of the TV spin-off or the coffee-table book; and there is a sharp divergence as regards the rigour with which facts are established and arguments sustained.
John Tosh

8. 7 The Citizen’s Resource

Abstract
Historical knowledge has been seen to support the proper functioning of democratic society in a number of different ways. It can be regarded as one of the most effective means by which the idea of the nation is made a reality in the minds of its citizens: as an imagined community, the stories the nation tells about itself define its character and its claim on members; it is one of the strongest foundations of national identity.1 This interpretation is discredited on the general grounds that it smacks of indoctrination, and more specifically because it conflicts with the diversity of approach preferred in a multicultural society. Alternatively, history can be valued as a means of explaining and justifying the combination of civic rights and duties which has been handed down from the past: this programme of citizenship is highly supportive of democratic values, but here too there is a whiff of instrumentalism as the content of history may be adjusted to teach specific lessons. Historians feel more comfortable with a third justification – that history provides training in the rational evaluation of evidence and argument on which democratic discourse depends. This is probably the only perspective on which all historians agree. For some it is the central ground of debate. Yet it amounts to no more than claiming for history a special distinction in aptitudes which are found in other disciplines also.
John Tosh
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