The Best Kind of Revision: Alan Alport’s Britain at Bay

It is hard to think of a more mythologized world conflict than the Second World War, certainly in the modern era. It forms the foundation of many Western nations’ identities, not only in what they for for but what the fought against and how they did it. As with any myths, however, these seldom wholly stand up to historical scrutiny. Such is the case with Britain as Alan Alport demonstrates in his cutting and insightful Britain at Bay.

Alport opens his revisionist history of the first half of Britain’s Second World War with a discussion not of military history or politics but of literature. Zeroing in on the fantastical works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Alport identifies the British conception of themselves during the conflict as one in line with the Professor’s famous hobbits: peaceable Shirefolk who, while flawed, are almost admirable in their flaws and win the day by keeping a stiff upper lip and muddling through with inspired amateurism. Through a combination of detailed sourcework and good old-fashioned common sense, Alport shoots down not only this myth of identity but many others involving crucial inflection points of the conflict and their own inevitability–or lack thereof. As such, each chapter almost has a dual structure, first relating the history involved before then discussing its historiography, memory, and reality. Appeasement and the collapse of France are particularly well served by this treatment, as Allport’s analysis paints a complex picture of the contemporary constraints and necessities of international diplomacy with both enemies and allies. Similar smaller reappraisals abound, from the welcome reminder that Britain enforced its own undemocratic ethnic and racial hierarchies outside of its home island to the point that the Royal Navy made any German invasion of Britain a near-impossibility to Alport’s consistent reminders that Churchill was never as noble or prescient as he sold himself to be. 

Any weakness in Britain at Bay’s narrative generally come from a minor tendency to oversell his moral reassessment of Britain’s colonial policies, particularly in his earlier chapters. While I appreciated the rhetorical flourish of comparing anti-Catholic riots in Northern Ireland to Germany’s pogroms and ultimate Holocaust, Allport has a consistent problem of first responsibly stating that the two events were not equal in atrocity–before then incomprehensibly stating that Britain still held no moral high ground. This is a critique of degree rather than content, however, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to any student of modern history, whatever their interests. I cannot wait to get my hands on his second volume, covering the end of 1941 to the end of the war, and I can only hope that someday he might write a prequel volume of the interwar years, tying Britain’s global realpolitik from 1919 to 1937 into the themes he discusses so well in Britain at Bay.

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