We asked the world's leading historians a question: what is the single greatest fact in modern political history?
On being asked to name the single greatest fact in modern political history, Otto von Bismarck is reported to have answered: ‘The inherent and permanent fact that North America speaks English.’ Now, as the world teems with incident, event and unpredictability, we asked the world’s leading historians what they think is the single greatest fact in modern political history in 2022.
In my opinion the single greatest fact in modern political history is the triumph of English as the universal language.
— Anthony Adamthwaite, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley
The rise of China is the most astonishing and significant political and economic development of the last few decades – its transformation from an impoverished empire into an industrial powerhouse constructed out of a strange alloy of communism and capitalism, after losing many millions of its citizens in Chairman Mao’s dogmatic experiments.
— David Abulafia, Life Fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
The inherent and permanent fact that China doesn’t speak English.
— Robert Colls, Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University, Leicester
That the digital world remains largely English. Of the top ten digital companies eight are American and they define the world we inhabit. (Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, AT&T, Alphabet [Google], Verizon, Disney, Facebook.) I feel I should be saying something about the rise of China, but I remain sceptical about China’s role in innovation going forward in its current political configuration.
— Ali Ansari, Professor of Iranian History and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews
My view is that the biggest ‘fact’ of current politics is that the Anthropocene Age poses questions that democracy is unable to answer. Democracy in 2022 is driven by very short-term crises and cliques, and is incompatible with the long view, data-driven perspective that could curb consumption and carbon emissions. As currently practiced, it is unable to deliver the change needed to respond to the now inevitable instabilities, resource crises and adverse weather.
— Lucy Delap, Professor in Modern British and Gender History at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge
The single greatest fact in modern political history is the success of the wealthy and powerful in convincing ordinary people that other ordinary people, culturally different to them, are a greater threat to them than the carbon capitalism of the wealthy and powerful.
— James McDougall, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Trinity College, Oxford
The single greatest fact in modern political history is that after the 2019 UK election, while 85% of MPs had gone to university, 65% of them had studied one of politics, history, law, economics, philosophy, or English literature. Yet we have a Parliament now hellbent on destroying access, teaching and research in these subjects within the UK’s world-class higher education sector. Could it be that they are afraid of teaching the populace how to analyse the world, as they can?
— Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage at the University of Edinburgh
It has to be the invasion of Ukraine, whose implications, we are now seeing, run far beyond Putin’s nostalgic dreams, and are expanding all the time, often in unforeseen directions.
— William Doyle, Professor Emeritus of History at Bristol University
The single greatest fact in modern political history is that populism, nationalism and charlatan leadership is increasingly prevalent in the longest established democracies, with or without a written constitution.
— James Raven, Professor of Modern History at the University of Essex
The single greatest fact in modern political history is the loss of 3.5 billion hectares of grassland and forest since 1800, an area which is about 1/3 of the Earth’s inhabitable land.
— Giuseppe Marcocci, Associate Professor in Iberian History at Exeter College, Oxford
The blurring of the distinction between reliable and unreliable sources of knowledge.
— Peter Adamson, Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy at King’s College, London
It is the death of democracy.
— Nora Berend, Professor of European History at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge
The single greatest fact in modern political history is that the old European maritime empires – Britain, France, Spain etc. – have collapsed, while the old overland empires – Russia, China and the USA – remain powerful and, in different ways, dangerous.
— Linda Colley, Shelby M C Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University
The enduring dominance of neoliberal policy norms which began with Thatcher and Reagan in 1980 with broad electoral support, norms which licensed governments to underwrite the expansion of corporate power in society and economy. This antisocial worldview has driven financialisation, inequality, globalisation and untrammelled climate change. Reality has pushed back with the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, economic stagnation, housing stress and homelessness, right-wing populism, war in Ukraine, and the floods and wildfires of global warming. Still in the future from the same cause is competitive artificial intelligence, which could well bring human history to an end.
— Avner Offner, Chichele Professor of Economic History, University of Oxford
The collapse of the classical Chinese empire with its mandarin examination system; the resurgence of the papacy after the French Revolution.
— David d’Avray, Lecturer, Reader and Professor at University College, London
That despite the prophecies of its demise, the nation-state remains the principal unit of political organisation.
— Dr Daniel Robinson, Examination Fellow in History at Magdalen College, Oxford
I will say that the single greatest fact in modern political history is the enduring vulnerability of liberal democracy.
— Gideon Reuveni, Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sussex
The single greatest fact in modern political history is the increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere from 290 parts per million in 1850 to 418 parts per million in 2021.
— Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Cambridge
The combination of demographic trends and global warming: in particular, high birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa seem likely to lead to mass migration to Europe, or to war, famine and disease.
— George Peden, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Stirling
It may sound outrageous but I have been thinking: the year Britain lost the Third World War which it declared on itself in 2016.
— Robert Gildea, Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Oxford
The single greatest fact in modern political history in 2022 is the massive spread of small arms since the invention of proto guns in eleventh-century China and the spread of guns and gunpowder in late medieval and early modern Europe. According to a Small Arms Survey report from 2018, armed forces in 177 countries worldwide now have more than 133 million firearms. More than 40% of these belong to only two countries, Russia and China, and ten countries own more than 70% of all firearms around the world.
— Holger Nehring, Chair in Contemporary European History at the University of Stirling
The single greatest fact in modern political history is the way capital has gained and people have lost freedom of mobility.
— Samita Sen, Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge
The single greatest fact in modern political history is that the idea of a free community of equal citizens, born in the era of revolution, retains all of its rampant appeal and faces all of its regular enemies.
— Samuel Moyn, Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and History at Yale University
It is an interesting question and, looking back, Bismarck looks very prescient. I am not sure what the answer is but I have a nasty feeling it is as follows: ‘All political systems are bad at solving problems that need to be addressed over the course of more than one human lifetime.’
— Richard Vinen, Professor of History at King’s College, London
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