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BOOKS ON BRITISH HISTORY

All reviews in approximate chronological order of period covered

Contents


"Medieval Britain: A Very Short Introduction" by John Gillingham & Ralph A Griffiths

I think that I must have been asleep the week that we covered Medieval Britain in school because I can hardly remember any of it; yet this is an utterly fascinating period. This particular book - a concise but very informative work - covers the years from the Norman invasion in 1066 to the death of Richard III in 1485 - four tumultuous centuries. Throughout most of this period, the histories of England and France were intertwined, often in the form of war, and French was an international language with English not even a national language. By the end of the period, Britain and France were separate nations and English had emerged as a genuinely national language.

In 1066, Britain had a population of a mere one or two million, presided over by no more than 10,000 Normans. The Domesday Book of 1086 showed that about three-quarters the value of the whole country was in the hands of fewer than 200 men and roughly 100 churches, while over 90% of the people lived in the country and earned their daily bread and ale from the resources of the land. By the late 13th century, the population had more than doubled from between one-two million to perhaps over four million.

Then, in 1348 the south of the country was hit by the plague - known originally as "the great mortality" and later as the Black Death - and, at a stroke, the population was reduced by about a third. Plague returned repeatedly and eventually the population of the nation was reduced by as much as a half to two and a half million or less by the mid 15th century. Indeed it is likely that the population level of 1300 was not reached again until the 17th century.

Though modern historians avoid describing this time as the Dark Ages, it was not a easy period for its contemporaries. In the early Middle Ages, Britain had no commercial revolution such as that of 13th century Italy; there were no significant advances in industrial technology; and above all there was no agricultural revolution. Gillingham & Griffiths write: "To those who lived at the time, and many historians since, the late Middle Ages, from c 1290, seemed a dangerous, turbulent, and decadent period". There were the constant wars with Scotland and France (including the so-called Hundred Years War of 1337-1453), the repeated deposing of kings (including the War of the Roses from 1455-1485), and recurrent famine. disease and plague.

Yet, for all this, these medieval times in effect represented the birth of the nation: the uniting of England and Wales, the evolution of a stronger parliament, the emergence of literacy, and the increased use of English.

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"Monarchy" by David Starkey

The British historian David Starkey is an accomplished writer and broadcaster and "Monarchy" is the book which accompanied his Channel Four television series of 2006. It is both immensely informative and very readable. The book is subtitled "From The Middle Ages To Modernity" and actually records the last five hundred years of English and then British kings and queens, starting with Henry VII and concluding with Victoria. It is an account of the slow and often bloody evolution of the oldest surviving political institution in Europe from a situation where the all-powerful monarch was literally regarded as a representative of God on Earth and desperately sought both an heir and a spare to the present position of minimal actual power but still considerable symbolism and support.

Following 30 years of battles which we know as the Wars of the Roses, Henry VII (reign 1485-1509) became the first Tudor king. He was followed by his son Henry VIII (1509-1547) who famously had six wives and, in order to secure his second, took England out of the Catholic Church, founded his own church, and dissolved the monasteries. Starkey asserts "No other monarch had ever been so powerful", but his break with Rome set the scene for centuries of conflict between Protestants and Catholics with monarchs frequently at the heart of the battle of power and ideas.

Three of Henry VIII's children in turn ascended to the English throne, each of which asserted the Royal Supremacy to impose their own religious belief: first, the stridently Protestant Edward VI (1547-1553); then fiercely Catholic Mary I (1553-1558); and eventually the pragmatically Protestant Elizabeth I (1558-1603) who saw off Mary Queen of Scots and the Spanish Armada and reigned over a Golden Age. Starkey explains that "Elizabeth did her best in establishing a Church of England that was Protestant in its doctrines but Catholic in the appearance of its ceremonies and clerical dress".

James I (1603-1625) of England succeeded Elizabeth when he was just 13 months old and, since he was also James VI of Scotland, he was the first ruler of all Britain, although union of England and Scotland would have to wait another century. He was responsible for the King James Bible - "the book which, more than any other, shaped the English language and formed the English mind" - and for the British flag - called the Jack after the Latin form of the name James.

James' son Charles I (1625-1649), through his own ineptitude and arrogance, helped to provoke the English Civil War which concluded with his execution and a short-lived experiment with republicanism under the Protector Oliver Cromwell ("the most powerful ruler the British Isles had known since the fall of Rome") and (for a mere eight months) his son Richard. After only 11 years, the Restoration of the Monarchy saw the arrival of Charles II (1660-1685), who was secretly attached to Catholicism, followed by his brother James II (1685-1688), who was avowedly devoted to the Roman faith which brought him into conflict with Parliament, the bishops and the courts and led to him fleeing into exile.

The daughter of James II, Mary II (1689-1694), now took the throne together with her husband, William III (1689-1702), and in doing so settled the ascendancy of Protestantism as an essential characteristic of the English monarchy. Starkey compares William III's 'conquest' of England with that of William the Conqueror in 1066, since the former was Dutch and the latter French and each transformed the rule of kingship. Indeed Starkey claims: "It was William who created a new kind of English monarchy, with a new relationship between Crown and Parliament, and in doing so transformed Britain from a divided, unstable rebellious and marginal country into the state that would become the most powerful on the planet".

Under Mary II's sister Anne (1702-1714), England became more powerful militarily than France and more successful commercially than the Netherlands. At this point in English history, the House of Stuart gave way to the House of Hanover (”the least able and attractive house to sit on the British throne”) with a succession of four monarchs called George: George I (1714-1727) who had to share power with the first modern Prime Minister Robert Walpole; George II (1727-1760) who was the last British monarch to lead an army in battle; George III (1760-1820) who reigned for an impressive 59 years but suffered periods of madness and lost the American colonies; and George IV (1820-1830) who ate and drank to excess and took frequent doses of the drug laudanum.

William IV (1830-1837) was already 64 when he became king but he was determined to live long enough that his niece could take the throne in her own right and made it with just days to spare. So Victoria (1837-1901) became queen at 18 and served an astonishing 64 years. For the first third of her reign, she was assisted enormously by her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Starkey quotes Benjamin Disraeli who opined that "This German Prince has governed England for twenty-one years with a wisdom and energy such as none of our kings has ever shown".

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"Elizabeth: Fortune's Bastard?" by Richard Rex

Many countries have a 'golden era' in their history and, for England, such a period was that of Queen Elizabeth I. The fourth centenary of her death was in 2003 and this biography - probably the shortest of the year (little over 200 pages of which 40 are illustrations) - was published to mark that event.

The red-headed Elizabeth was born on 7 September 1533. Her father was King Henry VIII and her mother was Henry's second of six wives Anne Boleyn, his first wife (Catherine of Arragon) having failed to provide him with a son who lived and his second confidently (but wrongly) expected to deliver a boy. Since Catholics questioned the legitimacy of Henry's second marriage, in some eyes Elizabeth was the bastard of the biography's title.

Elizabeth had an unusually thorough education for a girl, learning French, Italian, Latin and Greek. Having survived the plotting of the five-year reign of her Catholic sister Mary (although with a short spell in the Tower of London), she herself was crowned queen on on 15 January 1559 aged just 25.

In the early Reformation, a change of monarch meant a change of religion and sure enough Elizabeth re-established Protestantism in a process called 'alteration' but she did so sensitively and without surrendering to Puritanism. Indeed, although she was a devout Protestant, she was not much interested in theological matters and Rex writes: "Elizabeth's own religion has always been something of an enigma" and "She was in religion, as in so much else, decisively ambiguous".

From the beginning, Elizabeth was expected to marry and produce a heir (preferably a male), but famously the 'Virgin Queen' did neither. Indeed she showed what Rex calls "explicit contempt for marriage and childbirth", although he does not doubt either her virginity or her sexuality (she enjoyed the attentions of men, was especially close to Robert Dudley, and contemplated marrying the Duke of Anjou).

This was - in the words of Rex - "an age when religion was the most important issue in the political arena" and, throughout her reign, Elizabeth had to face down plots and rebellions promoted by those supporting the Catholic cause, especially Mary Queen of Scots and the Northern earls. Some 900 men were executed after the rising in the north in 1569, the fear of Catholic plots peaked in 1584 when leading public figures signed the 'Bond of Association', and Mary was eventually executed for treason in 1587.

During Elizabeth's reign, England's great international rival was Spain. After repeated conflicts in The Netherlands and on the high seas, matters came to a head with the planned invasion of England led by the Spanish Armada of 1588. A mixture of English naval skill, prevailing winds and a ferocious storm defeated the invasion and devastated the armada. Rex writes of Elizabeth that "Her appearance at the muster of her forces at Tilbury, when she made her famous address to her troops, was an inspiring moment in the national myth" and he notes that "The defeat of the Armada was the high point of Elizabeth's reign".

The 44 years that Elizabeth was on the throne saw much economic crisis, problems of law and order, and the strains of foreign war, but Rex argues that "What held the country together was a combination of nationalism, Protestantism, and loyalism, focused on the person, or perhaps on the image, of Elizabeth herself".

Of course, Elizabeth was well-served by her advisers, most notably William Cecil who was her chief minister until his death in 1598, and his son Robert Cecil who gradually took over the reins, although in the 1590s the Queen's new favourite the Earl of Essex caused her trouble and grief.

Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603 in her seventieth year, a great age for the time.

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"Oliver Cromwell" by Peter Gaunt

This biography is part of the British Library Historic Lives series which commendably are new (this is 2004,) short (this is 141 pages), and well-illustrated. Gaunt opens his work by emphasizing the significance of his subject: "Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) is one of the most important figures in English and British history, a dynamic leader in the times and transactions of a formative period". However, although the author is Chairman of the Cromwell Association, he freely acknowledges the controversial nature of his subject, while offering a generally sympathetic portrait.

Although we know about Cromwell's happy marriage and fathering of nine children and believe that sometime in his 20s or 30s he underwent a some sort of conversion experience, Gaunt admits that "The story of Cromwell's first forty years is conspicously thin" and "Cromwell passed his first forty years in obscurity". As MP for Cambridge in the Short and Long Parliaments, he consistently supported a stronger role for Parliament in relation to the King.

However, it was the English Civil War of 1642-1646 that made Cromwell. Learning rapidly and showing strong leadership, he won speedy promotion in the Eastern Association army and then in the New Model Army, finishing the war as second-in-command to Sir Thomas Fairfax. Gaunt insists that "... he was the most consistently successful and conspicously dynamic general on either side during the civil wars, a natural military genius". However, he acknowledges that historians are deeply divided over the role that Cromwell played in the subsequent overthrow of the monarchy. Cromwell was an active participant in the trial of King Charles I and signed the king's death warrent, although Gaunt suggests that "Cromwell was a late and hesitant convert to regicide"

This is the only time in history that Britain has been a republic and had a written constitution and, for almost five years, Cromwell served as Lord Protector, while refusing Parliament's offer of the throne. Cromwell's dissolution of the two Protectorate Parliaments has cast him in the role of dictator, but Gaunt rejects "allegations that Cromwell was motivated by the pursuit of personal power and unlimited political authrority". He concedes that "Cromwell's record as Protector was mixed" but concludes that "Cromwell's reputation as Protector ultimately rests not so much on the mixed achievements of his government but on the inherent decency of the man and his regime".

Cromwell was fanatically religious, yet - especially for the times - generally very supportive of religious tolerance. As Gaunt puts it: "Cromwell believed that he had been chosen by God for a special duty and that thereafter God guided and generally favoured him".

The monarchy was restored in 1660 and remains to this day. In 1661, Cromwell's body was exhumed and posthumously hanged and decapitated, but in the 1890s a statute of Cromwell was erected outide Parliament and still stands there, a testimony to his ultimate belief in and advancement of Parliamentary democracy.


Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside
the Houses of Parliament in London

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"The English Civil War" by Maurice Ashley

This year (2002), the Queen Mother died and the Queen celebrated her golden jubilee - reminders of the long legacy that is the English monarchy, but it was not always so. In almost 1200 years, there was one period - the so-called Interregnum of 1649-1660, when this country was a republic and the reason was the English Civil War.

Maurice Ashley's account of this seminal conflict was first published in 1974, but it has recently been reprinted because it combines the virtues of authority and brevity (less than 150 pages).

Like so much of our supposed knowledge of history, the concept of the English Civil War is a substantial over-simplification. It was not an exclusively English affair but involved forces from, and battles in, Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well. Furthermore it was not so much a single conflict as a series of five wars: the First Bishops War of 1639, the Second Bishops War of 1640, the First Civil War of 1642-1646, the Second Civil War of 1648 and the Third Civil War of 1649-1651.

What caused such a constitutional and military upheaval? Ashley tells us that: "This is a topic of continuing controversy among academic historians".

As far as long term causes are concerned, he himself identifies Charles I's financial difficulties, leading to grievances over arbitrary taxation, and the animosity of the Puritans towards the leaders of the Church of England. The more short term causes were sub-sets of these more fundamental issues: controversy over the King's levying of tonnage and poundage and conflict over the innovations introduced by the King in the practices of the Church of England.

Once the Parliamentarians had won the first war, the outbreak of renewed conflict was caused by dissatisfaction with the imposition of Puritanism and the unpopularity of the many county committees. Then, when Charles I was executed in 1649, the unscrupulous methods used by his son to regain his throne led to the third civil war.

What was the social dimension of the cleavage between the Monarchists or Cavaliers and the Parliamentarians or so-called Roundheads (most of them, like the Cavaliers, had long hair)? Ashley is quite clear that this was not a class war and that county histories prove conclusively that it was not a class conflict. Although a majority of peers understandably sympathized with the King, the gentry were divided down the middle.

In modern day terms, the armies involved were not large. At the outbreak of the main conflict in 1642, the Parliamentary leader the Earl of Essex had at his disposal some 15,000 men, while the King commanded around 13,500. When the Scottish army moved into England in 1644, there were about 21,000 men involved. Then, when the Parliamentary forces set up the New Model Army in 1646, the complement was 22,000. However, moving these men around the battle areas was a complicated affair since, in those days, officers had neither watches nor adequate maps.

Like many wars, this was a messy business with the advantage swinging from one side to the other and the focus moving from one place to another. However, there were many set-piece battles. In the first civil war, there was the indecisive battle of Edgehill in 1642, the Parliamentary triumph at Newbury in 1643 which was a turning point, and the biggest battle of them all at Marston Moor in 1644. Most of the time, the King was headquartered in Oxford, while Parliament's hold on the capital London throughout the conflicts and the superiority of its financial resources were crucial to its ultimate success in the civil wars.

History is always enlivened by characters. Certainly the devious and vacillating character of King Charles was frequently an important element in both the wars and the negotiations, while his nephew Prince Rupert proved to be a brave and resourceful commander. On the Parliamentarian side, there were other colourful characters, notably John Pym who was a consistent and vehement opponent of the King until his early death from cancer.

Above all, of course, there was the famous Oliver Cromwell whom Ashley describes as "a born cavalry officer" and "a splendid military organiser" who was "a vehement Puritan" with "a hot temper". After the civil wars, from late 1653 until his death in 1658, he governed as Lord Protector. Ashley is quite clear that Cromwell was "not a dictator". He was "a strong man, a born leader and a tolerant ruler" who permitted Roman Catholics and Anglicans to worship privately in London and allowed the Jews to return to England.

What were the main constitutional results of these civil wars? In Ashley's view, the answers are three-fold:

In the next three and a half centuries, England has had no civil war. Not many countries can say that.

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"Perilous Question: The Drama Of The Great Reform Bill 1832" by Antonia Fraser

Too often, people seem to think that a country can be made into a democratic state overnight by simply creating the basic political institutions of established democracies. What they do not appear to appreciate is that democracies can take a long time to nurture and require much more than the establishment of a few institutions or the holding of an election.

Britain is rightly thought of as one of the oldest and most genuine democracies, but it is often forgotten how long it took to evolve that democracy and how hard were the battles along the way. “Perilous Question” is a fine piece of writing by Antonia Fraser who provides a compelling narrative about the watershed battles around the enactment of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, a period from July 1830 to June 1832.

This was a time literally of revolution. The original very bloody French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 still cast a dark shadow and the French had just experienced a Second Revolution in July 1830 when the Bourbon King Charles X was overthrown. In Britain, that same summer, King George IV died and was succeeded by the 64 year old William IV and the country was awash with demonstrations and riots as result of appalling social conditions.

The Whigs – forerunners of the Liberals – were convinced that without Parliamentary Reform there would be some form of revolution with a change of king or even the abolition of the monarchy. In complete contrast, the Tories – forerunners of the Conservatives – believed that Reform would itself be a major step in the encouragement of revolution.

This was the background to the General Election of 1830 that was at the time a legal requirement of a change of monarch. This was a time when there had only just been Catholic Emancipation but Jews were still not allowed to be elected to Parliament.

The British parliamentary system was, to modern sensibilities, a disgrace. Only around 400,000 out of a total population of 16 million – a mere 3% - had the vote (all male and all requiring a property qualification). Hundreds of the 658 seats in the House of Commons were located in “rotten boroughs”, the most extreme example being Old Sarum which had three houses and seven voters but elected two members, while major conurbations like Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield had no representation at all. There was massive corruption over the selection of candidates and the act of voting (there was no secret ballot).

And then there was the absurdity of the House of Lords with its hereditary peers and bishops, not one of whom was elected.

Polling in the 1830 General Election took place over a month but only about a third of seats were contested. In those days, the lifetime of a Parliament was up to seven years. As Fraser explains, the designation of Tories and Whigs was not always clear-cut, but the election resulted in a Tory Government that was likely to be supported by a majority of about 42. The King’s Speech made no mention at all of Parliamentary Reform and the Prime Minister – the redoubtable hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington - set himself explicity against any kind of reform. Yet a motion from the Whigs, proposing in very general terms the need for reform, was carried by 29 votes.

This provoked a change of Government with the Whigs assuming power for the first time in a quarter of a century under the leadership of Earl Grey (in those days, Prime Ministers came from either the Lords or the Commons).

Reform was now on the agenda. In a House of Commons with constituencies of generally two members each, the smallest constituencies would be eliminated and new constituencies created in the towns; other constituencies would remain but have a seat removed; and the franchise would be extended (but only from around 200,000 to 400,000). Universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the lifetime of Parliament were no part of the package.

The new Government made the first attempt to reform Parliament with a Bill introduced in the House of Commons by Lord John Russell on 1 March 1831. The all-important vote on the Second Reading was carried by the narrowest margin possible – a mere one vote. But a month later an amendment moved by the Ultra Tory MP General Isaac Gascoyne – opposition to any reduction in the number of MPs in England & Wales – was carried with a majority of eight and effectively blocked the Bill.

This defeat caused an immediate General Election just eight months after the previous one and in June 1831 the Whigs stormed to victory. A second Reform Bill was introduced in the Commons and this time the majority was a very substantial 136. There were then 40 sittings in Committee that hardly changed the measure at all before it was finally sent to the House of Lords.

Inevitably the Tories mobilised against the Bill and it was defeated by a majority of 41. Those voting against the measure included two Royal Dukes and 21 of the 23 bishops in the Lords. In the face of this constitutional crisis – the elected Commons against the non-elected Lords – the hapless King George IV prorogued (rather than dissolved) Parliament and attempted to persuade the Duke of Wellington to form a Tory Government that would introduce more limited reform.

The country was in revolt and, in the worst of the riots, at Bristol something like 400 were killed. Wellington was not prepared to take on the task of government in these circumstances, the King had to call on Grey to become Prime Minister again, and a small group of Tory peers emerged who came to be known as ‘the Waverers’.

So, in December 1831, a third Reform Bill – there were some modifications – was introduced and predictably sailed through the Commons with a majority now of 162.

As the Bill was passed to the Lords, politicians, press and monarch were all forced to consider “the fearful alternative”; that is, the creation by the King of sufficient extra peers to enable the Bill to pass in the Lords. This was regarded by many – certainly the King – as such a constitutional outrage as to be avoided if at all possible and, when the King did contemplate this possibility, he insisted that the permanent character of the House of Lords should be changed as little as possible by finding these extra peers from those due to inherit a peerage eventually, those who had no sons who would inherit their title, and peers from Ireland or Scotland who were existing members of the aristocracy.

In fact, the Bill did obtain a majority on Second Reading in the Lords but by a mere nine votes and it was clear that this was insufficient for the legislation to pass through the Committee Stage. Indeed on 7 May 1831 – known as ‘Crisis Day’ – the government was defeated in Committee with a majority for the Opposition of 45.

At this point, the crisis was so acute that, according to Fraser, ”people talked very openly of civil war” and “there was even talk of a change of dynasty”. In the end, the pressure was too much on the Tories and they backed down allowing the Bill to succeed at Third Reading on 4 June 1832. In fact, very few of them were in the Lords for the crucial vote, Wellington himself being deliberately absent. So the Bill was carried with a majority of 84 but with only around 120 peers actually taking part.

In those days, the monarch would normally attended Parliament for the Royal Assent of a Bill, but King William IV – originally sympathetic to reform but increasingly angered by the pressure on him to create a block of supportive peers – “declined to honour the House of Lords with his presence”.

Fraser’s account of the enactment of the Great Reform Bill tells us very little about the detail of the legislation itself which she clearly judges would be dry matter for most readers. Instead her story revolves around the colourful characters on either side of the debate. No less than six of them would become Prime Minister.

At the time, opponents of the Bill made apocalyptic judgements on its consequences: Wellington pronounced that “the Government of England is destroyed” and the poet William Wordsworth called it “a greater political crime than any other committed in history”.

The new Act was immensely popular in the country and, in the new General Election of January 1833, the Whig majority over the Tories was 276. But the overall size of the electorate only rose from 439,200 in 656,000 – although this was a 49% increase.

For many reform campaigners, the 1832 Act was as much as could be achieved at the same but only one step in a series of struggles to make Parliament much more representative. Further Reform Acts followed in 1867 and 1884. As Fraser puts it: “The Reform Bill was destined to be the first of such, spread forward across the nineteenth century and beyond, 1918 being a significant end date; although women were not fully enfranchised until 1928.” She might have added that 18-21 year olds did not obtain the vote until 1969.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 left the membership of the House of Lords intact. Although there has been some recent reform of the Lords, almost two centuries after the first Reform Act we still have no elected members of the Lords. The road to democracy is long and troubled – and never quite over.

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"Chartism After 1948" by Keith Flett

Chartism was a vitally important British movement for political reform that was possibly the first mass working-class movement in the world. Its objectives were universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21, equal-sized electoral districts, voting by secret ballot, an end to the need for a property qualification for Parliament, pay for members of Parliament, and annual election of Parliament.

Chartism can be said to have started in 1836 with the formation of the London Working Men's Association, involved the submission of three huge, and ever-larger petitions to Parliament (all turned down), and peaked in 1848 with the rejection of the third petition and local disturbances at a time when the rest of Europe was experiencing one revolution after another.

So was Chartism a complete failure? The central thesis of Flett's book is that Chartism did continue after 1848 and laid the ground for the development of radical independent working-class education. This in turn led to the enactment of the Education Act of 1870 which introduced secular rate-supported elementary schools and opened the way to free and compulsory elementary education. Arguably it is state education which has most empowered the working-class.

This is a well-researched and ably-written study that reflects well on Keith Flett's passion for working-class history and assiduousness in tackling many contemporary sources, especially the late Chartist and radical working-class press. It is a specialist work that will not have a wide readership, but nevertheless a valuable addition to our corpus of understanding of this seminal period.

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"A History Of Modern Britain" by Andrew Marr

Following a television series of the same name by the same journalist, this history was published in 2007. I saw the television series at the time, but it was two years before I read the book. It is a weighty work of some 630 pages covering the six decades from the end of the Second World War to the first years of the new century. For Andrew Marr (born 1959) and even more so for me (born 1948), essentially this is our lifetimes.

The volume consists of five huge 'chapters', each subdivided into a series of roughly chronological 'essays' of around three-four pages each, and it is almost as much a social history as a political one. Marr's style is lively and opinionated and the work is therefore an easy, enjoyable and informative read in which the author displays eclectic knowledge and wry insights. Inevitably though, in a book of such length and scope, there are a few things that one would want to challenge and indeed, while I was reading it, Marr was subject to a libel action (settled out of court) in respect of his comment about an alleged enthusiast for the Angry Brigade of the early 1970s.

A slice of a nation's history can never lead to neat conclusions, but Marr finds some broad themes.

The main theme is the adjustment that Britain had to make between its pre-war global strength and its post-war poorer and less influential role in the world. Marr writes: "By the twentieth century, with a quarter of the world under British rule, no country had ever claimed power over so many people and so much land". Yet many forget now how weakened Britain was by the travails of the war and indeed rationing did not end until 1954. Marr reminds us of the Suez fiasco, the loss of Empire, and the repeated attempts to enter what is now the European Union. At the end, though, his judgement is as follows: "Britain successfully shifted from being one kind of country, an ineffcient imperialist manufacturer struggling to maintain her power, to become a wealthier social democracy, and did this without revolution".

Another theme is immigration. Marr revisits the bitter debates instigated by Enoch Powell. He suggests that, on the numbers migrating to Britain and the consequences for the population of non-whites living in the country, "Powell's figures which were much ridiculed at the time were not far out", but he notes with satisfaction that "His core prediction, of civil unrest comparable to that suffered in the southern states of the United States, has not come about". Nevertheless, for Marr: "Immigration has changed Britain more than almost any other social event in post-1945 Britain".

A third theme is energy - a constant factor in British political history. As Marr puts it: "We can follow it from the winter of 1947 when the frozen coal stocks blew Attlee off course, through the oil-related shock of Suez and the destruction of Eden, to Heath's double confrontation with the miners, ending in his defeat in 1974, the rise of Scottish nationalism fuelled by North Sea oil, and then the epic coalfield confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill taking the story up to today's arguments about global warming and gas dependency on Russia."

If there is a summary of the book, it is perhaps Marr's comment: "Always, we have been a country on the edge. We moved from being on the edge of defeat, to the edge of bankruptcy, to the edge of nuclear annihilation and the edge of the American empire, and came out on the other side to find ourselves on the cutting edge of the modern condition, a post-industrial and multi-ethnic island, crowded, inventive and rich."

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All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON

Last modified on 26 April 2014

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