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The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics
John Ramsden, ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
£35.00, xlix-714 pages, ISBN 0-19-860134-4 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Older specialists of British History or British Studies will no doubt be familiar with the venerable ancestor in the Oxford Companions series, Sir Paul Harvey’s Oxford Companion to English Literature, whose first edition appeared in 1932, with constant revisions ever since that date1. The title always was a misnomer, as the Companion included information on much more than ‘English Literature’—and that is why it was such a handy tool for the practitioners mentioned above. Where else could (and can) you immediately find a complete table of all sovereigns since 1066 with Regnal Years (so useful in dating Acts of Parliament, for instance)? If you had any doubts on the spelling of Liszt2 or Nietzsche, if you did not remember the exact dates of the Long Parliament (‘1640-1653’), if you wanted to know about King Pétaud (‘the king formerly elected by the community of beggars in France’)3, if you wondered about the origin of the word Luddites4, if as a foreigner you did not know what the Jolly Roger was (‘the pirates’ black flag’)5—the book was truly the best ‘Companion’ to have on your desk for quick reference.

Probably because it set such high standards the original Companion remained solitary for a long time. It was joined by an Oxford Companion to American Literature in 19416, by an Oxford Companion to American History in 19667, and by an Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature in 19678. But it is only in the 1990s that the series really saw an acceleration in the books immediately useful to the historian, as History Companions began to multiply, with Companions on Australian Military History9 and Australian History10, on British History11, on Irish History12, on Scottish History13, on New Zealand Military History14, on Military History15, on Local and Family History16 and on British Railway History17. The latest Companion in this fast expanding series is The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics, in the same size (240x160 mm, or 9 1/2 x 6 3/8 in.) and format (i.e. alphabetical entries of various length) as its predecessors. The thickness, at 60 mm (2 3/8 in.) for just over 700 pages, is in the same league as that of the specialised Companions (more ‘general’ Companions being thicker, with over 1,000 pages).

However useful, and even with its 1985 revision, The Oxford Companion to English Literature was always stronger on past centuries, and the reader always wished there was a more ‘modern’ Companion—and this is what The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics promises to be. Just as its glorious forefather was not limited to ‘English Literature’, it is not limited to ‘British Politics’ in the narrow sense. The 2002 equivalent to the 1932 King Pétaud is probably the entry on Ostrogorski, Moisei (1854-1919), ‘Russian scholar, educated in Russia and France, who penned an influential and highly critical work on the development of party organization’, and of course trying to find such puzzling entries is an easy game to play in any work of encyclopaedic nature. Also odd is the inclusion of Maurice Duverger, all the more so as he is described as ‘almost the only French political scientist to make an impact outside France as the subject was developing in the mid 20th century’—a qualification which I would have thought applied better to Raymond Aron, judging from conversations with older colleagues outside France (younger colleagues would of course reserve that description for Pierre Bourdieu).

Likewise, it is too facile to point out that many ‘important’ (in the opinion of reviewer X or reviewer Y) references have been left out. As Dr Johnson (1709-1784) put it when answering criticism of his Dictionary (1755) in advance: ‘In this Work when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed’. Still, if the reader will not dispute the choice of dead historians (e.g. C.L. Mowat, Henry Pelling, R.H. Tawney, A.J.P. Taylor,18 G.M. Trevelyan), he may be intrigued by the choice of entries on living historians. Nobody, least of all this reviewer, would dispute the inclusion of Paul Addison, Peter Hennessy or K.O. Morgan (to name but a few) among those who have made great contributions to our understanding of twentieth-century British political history. John Ramsden, the General Editor, and the undisputed authority on the Conservative Party19, has probably chosen not to include himself on grounds of modesty. But then, there is nothing on Angus Calder, who wrote a seminal book on the Home Front during the Second World War20, on David Cannadine, whose recent work at least has brought many insights into twentieth-century political attitudes21, or on Ben Pimlott, the authority on Harold Wilson, also noted for his work on the current monarch22. A Frenchman is also surprised at Eric Hobsbawm’s23 omission: he may not be seen as the most prominent British historian of twentieth-century British politics24 by French (or British) historians of twentieth-century Britain, but he is certainly the best-known active British historian for French scholars who do not specialise in British history. No doubt the General Editor must have trodden on very delicate ground when he made his choice of living names!

The choice of themes is of course far less controversial. The entries on politics proper are absolutely remarkable in their comprehensiveness. All major politicians are there, as may be expected, but also minor ones, and those who were briefly in prominence for some reason or other. The ‘Man of the Century’, Churchill, receives full coverage by no other than the General Editor himself. But Palme Dutt, the Communist leader now largely forgotten by those who do not specialise in British Stalinism, receives equally first-class (if necessarily shorter) treatment by John Callaghan, his noted biographer25. Likewise, Dick Taverne, who had a brief hour of glory in the early 1970s, is not omitted. All this to say that nobody seems to have been neglected (even ‘Confidence Tricksters’, with one entry) and that one cannot find fault with the coverage offered.

Major themes like the Cold War are the responsibility of major authors, in this case Anne Deighton, the well-known specialist of the question. Some of the ‘Organizations and Groups’ are perhaps unexpected (the British Council or the Forestry Commission would probably resent being considered as fit for being listed in a Companion to British politics, but their websites are given—perhaps a redeeming feature!), yet some are not only welcome, but also receive particularly useful treatment (by giving the lost etymology of Oxfam, for instance), although outsiders puzzled by the term ‘footsie’ in connection with the Stock Exchange would have appreciated to find it in the Companion (the ‘FTSE index’ entry does not even mention the popular name). Also unexpected is the entry on the Channel Tunnel, or that on Football Hooliganism, but they are fully justified if one comes to think of it. On the other hand, one wonders why the Angry Brigade has no mention per se: one only finds it by chance, when reading the notice on 1968. Television programmes are not forgotten, though if one understands why Death on the Rock (1988) should deserve an entry, one equally wonders why Cathy Come Home does not deserve one, since ‘homelessness’ (as well as ‘homeownership’) and other social problems are rightly included.

The most immediately useful feature of the Companion, however, is probably the list of ‘Quotations and Phrases’, not easily found in general encyclopedias, and usually hard to find in dictionaries of quotations, where you do not know where to look or sometimes even what to look for, and poorly served by the Web. Here the list given in the introduction is invaluable, and it is a delight to find gems like ‘ “No, no, no!” ’, which could be anything, but are in fact the ‘Famous last words of Margaret Thatcher […] on 30 October 1990 when responding to the suggestion of Jacques Delors that the European parliament should be the European Community’s democratic body […]’ which precipitated her fall. When two versions of a phrase co-exist (the actual one and the popular version), the Companion naturally gives both (e.g. ‘Homes fit for heroes’ or ‘We are the masters now’, but curiously the former is listed under the popular version and the latter under the correct one). Inexplicably, ‘You’ve never had it so good’ (popular version) is not among the phrases listed, neither under ‘Most’ nor under ‘You’: one has to know it is by Macmillan and read his entry—and even then one does not get the full quotation.

One test of this type of reference work is precisely the cross-reference system. Only a few soundings have been taken in this respect, and only long use will reveal the true strengths and weaknesses of the system adopted in the Companion. In the ‘Macmillan’ entry, for instance, it seems that only scanty cross-referencing has been attempted, since many notions and events mentioned in the entry have their own separate entry (e.g. Industrial Charter or, worse, ‘Neddy’, or—even worse—‘Supermac’), but do not receive the conventional asterisk. For some reason, the ‘new towns’ entry does not put asterisks before ‘Letchworth’ and ‘garden city’, which benefit from their own entry—written by the same Editor! And the ‘garden city movement’ entry mentions Letchworth without the essential asterisk. Another example of poor cross-referencing is to be found over the Beveridge Report: the entry on the ‘five giants’ correctly directs the reader to *Beveridge, but not to the Beveridge Report or Social Insurance and Allied Services, both being mentioned without asterisks. The reader with some knowledge of the question wonders whether he should go to ‘Beveridge Report’ or ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’—in the event, going to the latter is fruitless, since there is not even an entry sending to ‘Beveridge Report’, which has a full entry, this time with excellent asterisks for ‘*less eligibility’ or ‘*free at the point of delivery’. In other words, the cross-referencing can be either very bad or very good: there is no consistency in its quality.

The Companion ends with a series of very useful Appendices: Dates of Ministries since 1895, with principal Office Holders (Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor, ‘Other Major Offices’), and Results of General Elections since 1900, with Votes polled and Seats obtained. Obviously, this information is available elsewhere, but it is of course very convenient to have all this in the same book—this is everybody’s idea of a Companion of that nature.

A final note of congratulations: not a single typographical or spelling mistake has been detected in over seven hundred pages—the meticulous proof-reading must have been a very time-consuming task, and the Editors have attained quality standards which seem to be extremely uncommon these days in the publishing trade.

As all University and Department Libraries buy these Companions as a matter of course, it is perhaps not necessary to say here that The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics would be an essential purchase for them—but scholars and advanced students who like to work at home should immediately procure a copy, as they will find it an invaluable reference book, side by side with its glorious ancestor. Even for devotees of ‘modern’ methods and the Internet, snippets of information obtained (sometimes laboriously26) on the Web are no match for this handy tool.

1 Harvey, Paul [Editor]. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932, viii-865 pp. Latest edition: Drabble, Margaret [Editor]. Oxford: University Press, 1985, xii-1155 pp. (Reissue 2002).

2 Only in the Drabble edition.

3 An entry dropped in the Drabble edition.

4 ‘a person of weak intellect’ has interestingly disappeared from the Drabble notice to describe Ned Ludd.

5 Another entry dropped in the Drabble edition.

6 Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Oxford: Oxford University press, 1941, vii-888 pp.

7 Johnson, Thomas Herbert &   Wish, Harvey. The Oxford Companion to American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966, vi-906 pp.

8 Story, Norah. The Oxford Companion to Canadian History and Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967, xi-935 pp. (Supplement.  Toye, William [Editor], 1973,  v-318 pp.)

9 Dennis, Peter et al. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995, xxi-692 pp.

10 Davison, Graeme; Hirst, John; Macintyre, Stuart et al. [Editors]. The Oxford Companion to Australian History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998 (Revised, 2001, xx-722 pp.)

11 Cannon, John [Editor].   The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, xii-1044 pp.

12 Connolly, S.J. [Editor]. The Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 (Second Edition, 2002, xix-650 pp.)

13 Lynch, Michael [Editor]. The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, xxv-732 pp.

14 McGibbon, Ian [Editor]. The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000, xxvi-653 pp.

15 Holmes, Richard; Strachan, Hew; Bellamy, Christopher & Bicheno, Hugh [Editors]. The Oxford Companion to Military History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, xvii-1048 pp.

16 Hey,  David [Editor]. The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, ix, 517 pp.

17 Simmons, Jack & Biddle, Gordon [Editor]. The Oxford Companion to British Railway History: From 1603 to the 1990s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, xv-591 pp.

18 Though curiously his entry was not written by Kathleen Burk, one of the Companion’s editors, and a noted authority on him (Cf. Burk, Kathleen. Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor. Yale University Press, 2000).

19 Ramsden, John. A History of the Conservative Party. Vol. 3: The Age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902-1940. Vol. 4: The Age of Churchill and Eden, 1940-1957. Vol. 5: The Winds of Change: Macmillan to Heath, 1957-1975. London: Longman, 1978-1996.

20 Calder, Angus. The People’s War. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969

21 Cf. the review in CERCLES of his In Churchill’s Shadow: Confronting the Past in Modern Britain. London: Allen Lane, 2002).

22 Pimlott, Ben. Harold Wilson. London: HarperCollins, 1992. The Queen: A Biography of Queen Elizabeth II. London: HarperCollins, 1996 (Second Edition, 2001).

23 Hobsbawm, Eric J. Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life. London: Allen Lane, 2002. Review on CERCLES forthcoming.

24 Though his interest for the subject was already apparent in his review article, ‘Twentieth century British politics’. Past & Present 11 (1957), 100-8.

25 Callaghan, John. Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1993.

26 For instance, when entering ‘No, no, no’ on Google, no relevant result was obtained after looking at four pages. There were nine more to peruse, but who will waste the time when he has the Companion on hand?


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