Not many folk read Thomas Carlyle these days. Although we hear quiet echoes of the Scottish historian and critic in our folk histories of the French Revolution, with his pungent prose, Carlyle's high Victorian style can seem hopelessly windy and overwrought today. But it would be wrong to see Carlyle's collapse into obscurity as a question of style only. The basic assumptions informing his approach to understanding history, society and social change have been hotly contested, not least his argument that "history is nothing but the biography of great men."
In his time, Carlyle was not alone in conceptualising history as a succession of charismatic individual leaders and kings, warriors and tyrants, whose choices shaped the lives of the tongueless legions of the silent dead, who went about their lives in the shadow of these collossuses, shaped but not shaping their fates. Hegel famously described Napoleon as "the world spirit on horseback." As critics from Herbert Spencer onward have pointed out, the great man theory of history is simplistic nonsense. Leaders have their impacts and their influences, for sure, but life is much more complicated, more collective, and agency more socially distributed, than a mighty roll call of caesars and conquerors admits.
In academic history, the approach may be a dead letter, but it remains alive and well in UK political commentary, which tends to personalise successes and failures, focussing relentlessly on personalities and perceptions, conceptualising and understanding politics from the top down, rather than the bottom up. But it remains something of a surprise to discover Martin Kettle, giving us a vintage draught of great man theory in the Guardian, arguing that "To save the union, Britain will have to find its own Abraham Lincoln."
What Britain needs, he contends, is a charismatic uniter, able to articulate a new unionism in a compelling, soulful way.
"What is clear, though, is that someone somewhere in British public life has to make a Lincoln-like effort to inspire the better angels of our own nature and to try, again and again, to halt the current fissiparous abandonment to our worse ones."
"Unless this happens, our house may not stand for long. The chances of that producing a “more advantageous or more satisfactory” outcome are tenuous at best. Who can give believable voice to what needs to be said? It is hard to think of the statesman or woman with the standing to speak for our union. Perhaps an archbishop can attempt it. Perhaps a poet. Where, and who, is our Lincoln?"
The idea that the American civil war was won with words, rather than bodies, blood and Springfield model rifles, is sufficiently daft not to detain us -- but for Kettle to see the challenges for our union in these terms is hopelessly analytically thin and naive. If anything, this emphasis on missing, charismatic leadership can only distract Kettle's unionist fellow travellers from an honest, clear eyed analysis of the complex, deeper problems of British political affect and loyalty which the referendum campaign revealed.
Like the New Labour prophets who told us that Jim Murphy would fix the party's Scottish problems single-handed, the idea that the challenges for the Union can all be answered by a lyrical but homespun Great Emancipator of our own is beyond comic. This is the politics of the West Wing, where the tough, often slow work of social and political change can be done by delivering a splendid speech, as if compelling statements of principle make the world turn. Remind me to ask Barack Obama: how did that work out for you, Mr President?