Andrew Roberts: “Nobody has any excuse for making history boring because it’s not – it’s the most fantastic, exciting adventure story imaginable”

Profile speaks to the recently ennobled historian about his works, the great individuals of history and the importance of a strong historical education. 

Upon walking into the study of Andrew Roberts’s Belgravia townhouse, one is immediately struck by the passion he has for his craft. Containing an extraordinary private collection of historical memorabilia, the room had an air of gravity befitting its owner – or perhaps I should say steward, as they are preserved for future generations – but it was far from a museum. The artefacts clearly provide inspiration for the great tomes written in the study and sold in bookstores internationally.

Andrew Roberts’s true passion for all things historical was immediately evident and the generosity of his welcome equally striking. He was recently ennobled as Lord Roberts of Belgravia – one of King Charles’s earliest appointees to the Lords – but his humility and kindness give him none of the aloofness which one might expect of a Lord.

Roberts’s study consists of reminders of the great men and women of history. His muses are Napoleon, Churchill and Thatcher; these individuals occupy the pages of many of his most celebrated works. He is shortly to release his twentieth book, a testament to his work ethic, this being a man who habitually starts work at 4:30am, appreciating the hours of undisrupted work!

Roberts is best known as a biographer with a revisionist bent, rehabilitating those individuals whom it has become fashionable to condemn. This revisionism should not be mistaken for contrarianism: rather, throughout his career as a historian, he gives little attention to the arguments which have preceded his. When writing a biography, “the first thing to do is to ignore everything that’s gone before, and the second thing to do is to create a chronology…and work out for yourself…the important places to concentrate on.”

His historical approach is grounded in recognising and appreciating nuance: history is rarely clear-cut. Certainly, one’s political views, though important for articles and television, “should never be allowed to infect a serious book.” He engages with the idea of decolonising the curriculum and the broader history of Empire with a well-defined and considered answer. “The decolonisation of the curriculum is ludicrous in a country where colonisation is an important part of our history. Between John Cabot landing in Newfoundland in 1497 and Chris Patten leaving Hong Kong in 1997…there is a precise half millennium of colonisation in which Britain was taking part. To attempt to strip out that part of British history leaves you with Hamlet without the prince.”

The key to teaching Imperial history, though, is “to get people to put their prejudices aside completely and to start again – to have a conversation which doesn’t start from the point of view of either Rule Britannia or Black Lives Matter.” He emphasises that Empire was neither a universally “glorious attempt to spread human rights across the world” nor universally “a question of guilt and blame and oppression and exploitation.” “It’s a fantastically complicated story, and all the more interesting because of that. To ignore the chiaroscuro of Empire is essentially to present a very boring, straightforward and unintelligent attitude towards it.”

“The great men and women view of history is a very important one because it reminds us that individuals do matter. It has a moral imperative behind it.”

Many modern historians reject the ‘great man theory’ of history: that history is determined by the actions of a few remarkable individuals. Roberts unashamedly endorses great man – and woman – theory, whose titans populate his books. “The great men and women view of history is a very important one because it reminds us that individuals do matter. It has a moral imperative behind it, which reminds us that what we do in our lives and the decisions we take and the virtue we try to follow…is what history is all about, because all history is really is the decisions taken by billions of people every day.”

A by-product of the central role taken on by great individuals in Roberts’s work is a focus on leadership. He takes little issue with the propensity of leaders, both successes and failures, to model themselves on past great leaders. He believes that “there’s an apostolic succession of leadership”: Thatcher presented herself as Churchillian; Churchill took inspiration from Napoleon; Napoleon modelled himself on Caesar, who in turn deemed himself the new Alexander the Great. Charisma is not universally demanded for greatness, though: Attlee, who “didn’t concentrate on having personal charisma”, was “a giant of the postwar period.”

Roberts believes that “there are some lessons of leadership that last over the generations and centuries.” This reflects a characteristically nuanced view of history’s role in informing the present and future, particularly when it comes to the military. He praises British High Command for being “historically switched on” and agrees with my assessment that Russia has failed systematically to learn from Soviet military mistakes (“thank God!”). His twentieth book, released on October 5th and one of which he is evidently immensely proud, is Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, written with the eminent US General David Petraeus, of which Roberts showed me a pre-publication copy.

“It’s about conflict from 1945 to Ukraine, and what we try to do in that book is to look to see whether there are lessons of history that can be applied to this monstrous war that Putin has so despicably unleashed on poor old Ukraine, and to work out whether historically there are parallels in any aspects of the war.” They also look forward, considering “The Future of War and…what Ukraine can teach us about [it]. So we try to use history to understand what’s going on in Ukraine militarily…and then we use that to try to look forward into the future and try to work out what lessons we can learn from Ukraine for the future. And I think in both areas…that history is packed with help and guidance and aid.”

Though Roberts believes that political alignment should not influence one’s historical analysis, his work seems to have reinforced his political beliefs, in particular his Atlanticism. He is a strong believer in the Special Relationship, which he considers far from dead, and uses Ukraine to substantiate this argument. “We can see the way in which Britain essentially has acted as point man over Ukraine for the United States on each of the great moments of sending a head of government to Kyiv, sending anti-tank weaponry, high precision weaponry, on sending the Storm Shadow missile.” Moreover, “we still do together provide the basis for the defence of the rules based international order since 1945, and this is something that my and David Petraeus’ book Conflict tries to point out.” It is also clearly a conviction he intends to advance in the Lords.

Roberts’s passion for historical research beyond its pedagogical purposes is obvious. “It’s been a passion of mine all my life” and originates in his charismatic prep school history master, his father’s enthusiasm for history and two outstanding history dons at Cambridge, in particular Norman Stone, who “really changed my view of the world as well as history.” He comments that “nobody has any excuse for making history boring because it’s not – it’s the most fantastic, exciting adventure story imaginable.”

“The British Empire is a fantastically complicated story, and all the more interesting because of that. To ignore the chiaroscuro of Empire is essentially to present a very boring straightforward and unintelligent attitude.”

Yet, he is critical of the British history curriculum, “a disgrace…which jumps far too quickly from the Tudors to the Nazis”, ignoring myriad foundational events for Britain “located amongst the Stuarts, the Hanoverians, the Victorians and so on.” He observes that since popular history is particularly strong on the Tudors and Nazis, “it should be at school and university that you learn about everything in between.”

He sees a strong understanding of history as the “absolute best antidote” to conspiracy theories. “The only way [they can be stamped out] is by shining light on them, and using ridicule, and using logic, and using reason. And luckily, history provides all of these. … It’s the detergent that can get rid of these insane, and very insidious, and very bad for democracy ideas.”  

Roberts is a heavyweight of British historians of the last thirty years: he is a master of his craft and of detail but remains an engaging and popularly celebrated author, discussing grand themes. Like several of his predecessors as biographers of Churchill – notably Roy Jenkins and Robert Rhodes James (and, if one takes a generous interpretation of ‘biography’, Boris Johnson) – he is now a parliamentarian and will take the same passion for historical research and faith in the power of an individual to change history to the seat of British power. At a time of widespread criticism of the calibre of Lords appointees, Roberts stands out as a well-qualified and deserving choice.

Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, by Andrew Roberts and General David Petraeus, was released on 5 October 2023 and can be ordered on Amazon.

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