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Artillery Row

J G A Pocock: the Antipodean’s view of Europe

John Pocock defended Britain in its broadest sense

John Greville Agard Pocock, who passed away last week at the grand age of 99, was, in his own words, a fourth-generation colonist, a second-generation academic, and a first-generation New Zealander. But although he was born in London, and spent the majority of his life away from the Antipodes, he never lost the perspective of being one who came from “outside that entity”, that is to say Europe, “yet not belong to another civilisation”. Therein lay the source of much of the originality of his contribution to the history of European political thought, of which he was one of the greatest scholars of the last century.

The descendant of British settlers in the Cape and of Channel Islanders, John Pocock moved to New Zealand with his family as a toddler, and so knew something about islands, a recurring theme in so much of his later work. The New Zealand he grew up in took an almost perverse pride in its oft-unrequited loyalty to the United Kingdom. In later life, he wrote approvingly about how, instead of withdrawing her armies to the Pacific during the darkest days of the Second World War like Australia had done, New Zealand had kept her army in Europe, and thus played a more important role in the final struggle.

His early education was European — Classics, his father’s subject, for “that was the way to become educated and had been for a thousand years”. The Māori figured rather less, although he would return to them repeatedly over the course of his career. But it was History, his mother’s subject, which seduced him. After a glittering academic career in New Zealand, he did what had seemed natural to generations of young New Zealanders before and after him, and went to England, at Cambridge.

There, he fell under the influence of Sir Herbert Butterfield, who steered him toward the history of historiography, or in other words the history of the history of history. Abstruse though it may seem to laymen, it is, as Pocock put it, nothing less than “the history of all the ways in which men have felt committed to their past”. The result was a brilliant dissertation, published as The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (1957), which examined late Elizabethan and early Stuart lawyers’ belief that there existed an “ancient” constitution of England, dating from time immemorial and therefore immune from interference by the king’s prerogative, not unlike how modern academic lawyers insist that judicial review can never be ousted by Parliament.

By then Pocock had returned to New Zealand, there to take up a string of academic posts, interspersed with another spell in Cambridge. There he remained until the mid-1960s, when he was permanently lured abroad, not to England which, given his work and attachments, might have seemed the natural destination, but to America, first to St Louis, Missouri, thence at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he remained until his retirement. 

Pocock became a distinguished representative of that well-known Anglophone archetype, the expatriate New Zealander. He sometimes liked to play the role of the bumbling newcomer, professing to have never watched a game of baseball and the like. He had, he claimed, “arrived in this country too late to ever understand it”.

But it was not long before Pocock made his mark on America. In The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975), he deftly charted the influence of early modern republican thought of Florence, typified by Machiavelli, and of its preoccupation with how to maintain civic virtue against the inevitability of decay, on English republicans and American revolutionaries. The American Revolution and the framing of the republican constitution were, to Pocock, “the last act of the civic Renaissance”.

The Machiavellian Moment was a landmark in the development of the so-called Cambridge school of intellectual history, which sought to study the history of political ideas by placing them in their historical context, a deceptively simple notion which has provoked no end of debate since. But it was the blasphemous suggestion that Jefferson owed more to Machiavelli than to the liberalism of Locke, an honorary American Founding Father, which riled up American academia and stirred up controversies which rumbled on for decades.

Pocock then turned away from American preoccupations, having become tired, he said, of playing “the role of straw man to the American historical profession, which I did not seek and do not think I have deserved”. His new target was the country of his birth. As a product of one of the Britains beyond the seas, or as he called them, “neo-Britains”, Pocock had been, like almost all of his countrymen, shocked at Britain’s readiness to abandon the Commonwealth in favour of the European Economic Community. 

In 1963, he had heard of de Gaulle’s veto of the British application with “grim amusement”, likening it to “the old man’s mistress had thrown him out of the pub, and it served the bastard right”. But in 1973, Britain successfully joined, thus dismissing New Zealand and others as “faithful servants no longer needed, who might now be pensioned off and forgotten”. Nor were the consequences merely economic or political: by this act the United Kingdom had ejected New Zealanders “from Anglo-European history and enjoined [them] to consider themselves part of a Pacific world which has no common history and may never acquire one”. He now belonged “to a people which thought it had a history and is now instructed by others that it has none”.

Four months later, Pocock opened fire, with a lecture with the innocuous title of “British History: a Plea for a New Subject”. Appropriately enough, the opening volley was fired not in Britain, but at the University of Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island. A few years before, Pocock began, A J P Taylor had published an immensely readable history of Britain entitled English History, 1914–1945, in which he denied that “Britain” had any meaning and essentially ignored Scotland apart from gratuitously calling its inhabitants Scotch.

According to Pocock:

The English have been increasingly willing to declare that neither empire nor commonwealth ever meant much in their consciousness, and that they were at heart Europeans all the time. The obvious absurdity of the second part of the claim is no bar either to the partial truth of the first part, or to the ideological assertion of the claim as a whole

He continued:

…if it has been psychologically possible for them to annihilate the idea of the Commonwealth — white as well as non-white — it is not altogether beyond the bounds of possibility that ‘United Kingdom’ and even ‘Britain’ may some day become similarly inconvenient and be annihilated, or annihilate themselves, in their turn.

Pocock called for a new sort of British history, one which would include the “Atlantic Archipelago” that was Britain, Ireland, and the surrounding islands, as well as the outre-mer which was the consequence of centuries of archipelagic expansion. It was a plea against Little Englanders; but it was really an attack on the progressive historians who insisted that Britain had an European history and none other. The latter, to Pocock, were every bit as parochial as the former. They might even be the same people.

Pocock disliked “Europe” (he used the scare quotes around the word freely) as embodied by the political union for many other reasons besides. To him, it was an anti-democratic “empire of the market” (the antipodean social democracy of the New Zealand of his youth never having left him), which denied peoples their independent pasts and therefore their future. And it was incapable of accepting criticism, dismissing any questioning of itself as irrational and archaic. He did not even think that Europe merited the title of continent, but only of a sub-continent of Eurasia. And whereas the Indian one had the Himalayas to delineate it, the Urals are decidedly flat. This idea of Europe, for Pocock, was an ideology before it was anything else.

Pocock retired in 1994 and wrote a fearsome six volume cycle of books on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and of Europe’s multiple Enlightenments. In his final years turned again to New Zealand, which had absorbed the shock of the British betrayal and the identitarian conundrums it posed better than he had perhaps expected. After all, both the Māori and the Pākehā had arrived to that strange land, so unlike the rest of Oceania, by sea at different times, and that counted for something. Almost his last public remark was a laconic response to the Brexit vote, in which he predicted the difficult road ahead.

To the last, Pocock remained the ultimate outsider-insider, which is perhaps just as well. Maybe only those who neither belonged to nor were alien from the charmed circle of Europe could think about its history with such clarity. After all, as Pocock once wrote, “what do they know of Europe who only Europe know?”

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