Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
£35.00, xlix-714 pages, ISBN 0-19-860134-4 (hardback).
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 Harveys 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 Literatureand 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)5the
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 Companionand
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 centurya
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
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 Hobsbawms23
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 givenperhaps 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 Communitys
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, Youve 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 entryand 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, oreven worseSupermac),
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 entrywritten
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 Servicesin 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 bookthis is everybodys
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 pagesthe 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 thembut 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.
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).
Only in the Drabble edition.
An entry dropped in the Drabble edition.
a person of weak intellect has interestingly disappeared
from the Drabble notice to describe Ned Ludd.
Another entry dropped in the Drabble edition.
Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature.
Oxford: Oxford University press, 1941, vii-888 pp.
Johnson, Thomas Herbert & Wish, Harvey. The Oxford
Companion to American History. New York: Oxford University Press,
1966, vi-906 pp.
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.)
Dennis, Peter et al. The Oxford Companion to Australian
Military History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1995, xxi-692
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.)
Cannon, John [Editor].
The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1997, xii-1044 pp.
Connolly, S.J. [Editor]. The
Oxford Companion to Irish History. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1998 (Second Edition, 2002, xix-650 pp.)
Lynch, Michael [Editor]. The
Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2001, xxv-732 pp.
McGibbon, Ian [Editor]. The
Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History. Auckland: Oxford
University Press, 2000, xxvi-653 pp.
Holmes, Richard; Strachan, Hew; Bellamy, Christopher &
Bicheno, Hugh [Editors]. The Oxford
Companion to Military History. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2001, xvii-1048 pp.
Hey, David [Editor]. The
Oxford Companion to Local and Family History. Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1996, ix, 517 pp.
Simmons, Jack & Biddle, Gordon [Editor].
The Oxford Companion to British Railway History: From 1603
to the 1990s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, xv-591
Though curiously his entry was not written by Kathleen Burk,
one of the Companions editors, and a noted authority on him
(Cf. Burk, Kathleen. Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P.
Taylor. Yale University Press, 2000).
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.
Calder, Angus. The Peoples War. London: Jonathan
Cf. the review in CERCLES of his In Churchills Shadow:
Confronting the Past in Modern Britain. London: Allen Lane, 2002).
Pimlott, Ben. Harold Wilson. London: HarperCollins,
1992. The Queen: A Biography of Queen Elizabeth II. London:
HarperCollins, 1996 (Second Edition, 2001).
Hobsbawm, Eric J. Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century
Life. London: Allen Lane, 2002. Review on CERCLES forthcoming.
Though his interest for the subject was already apparent in
his review article, Twentieth century British politics.
Past & Present 11 (1957), 100-8.
Callaghan, John. Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism.
London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1993.
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?