A History of Britain, 1900 to the Present
Cambridge: University Press, 2018
Paperback. x+494 p. ISBN 978-1107612501. £22.99
Reviewed by Pippa Catterall
University of Westminster
There are a number of textbooks of twentieth-century Britain and they all have different strengths. The particular value of this one, as might be expected from such a distinguished social historian, is the coverage of social policies of the period and their effects. Developments such as the campaign for abortion reform or the origins of housing benefit are covered in a level of detail frequently missing from textbooks of this kind. Not least, the discussion of the changing experience of women and the women’s movement is a highlight. Furthermore, major shifts such as Thatcher’s cuts to social security are explained crisply and succinctly [408-409]. In the process, a number of often-overlooked developments, such as the rise of LGBTQ campaigning and the changing notion of citizenship entailed are also fully addressed.
I cannot help feeling, however, that much of this information could have been better conveyed by adopting a user-friendly format of the kind generally found in works of this type. Why, for instance, is there not more use of devices such as tables, maps, graphs and so on? Surely the plethora of social information presented here would then be easier to absorb? Furthermore, changes across time would also be easier for the reader to discern.
This is not my only caveat about this work. There is always a problem of what to include and what to leave out when painting on such a wide canvas. However, some of the omissions here seem a little surprising. Missing out the Robbins Report on Higher Education in 1963 is perhaps understandable. Missing out the Rushdie Affair in 1989, the effects of which continue to resonate on identity politics and Islamophobia, is more questionable. As Kenan Malik has pointed out, this was a key staging post in the reconfiguration of British social divisions from being around workplace class relations – spilling out into the binary divide of apparently class-based politics – to the more variegated fissures of twenty-first century Britain.
This shift is not fully explored here. The book may be entitled Divided Kingdom, but the focus tends to be on certain types of division, and principally those around class and gender. These were undoubtedly important facets of twentieth-century Britain, but those looking for discussion of other cleavages, such as the rise of nationalism, might be somewhat disappointed. Wales does not even appear in the index, and there is certainly scant coverage of those drivers of rising territorial divisions that were to give the lie to The Times’ claim in 1910: ‘What is a nationality if the people of these islands do not form one?’
The most recently emerging facet of such developments, the rise of English nationalism, illustrates how these cleavages very much map onto the class identities concentrated on in this book. However, these class identities are not defined purely by socio-economics, but also by cultural factors. The latter has arguably become if anything more important in the post-industrial landscape that emerged from the 1980s onwards.
The treatment of nationalist politics here is part of a more general issue with this book. The strength of the book is definitely in its treatment of social policy, rather than politics and economics. These are often treated in a broad-brush fashion and the linkages between them largely go unexplored. This applies to the cursory treatment of the political economy of inter-war Britain, and even more so to, for instance, the politics of stop-go, so central to the politics and economics of the 1950s and 1960s. On such subjects this text does not really serve effectively as a general introduction to the period.
There are also a number of places where this work would have benefited from more careful copyediting. One example is the out-of-context mention of the death of the disability rights campaigner Megan du Boisson in 1969 . Such passages give the book an unevenness which is matched by some of the content. There are places which provide pithy and thought-provoking assessments, such as the material on the Blair government. Other judgements are more sweeping and, in the case of the playwright Terence Rattigan – who has recently experienced a remarkable revival on the London stage – probably unfair.
A final aspect to consider is how the book treats its subject generally, together with the themes that are picked out to characterise twentieth-century Britain. The prism of social division reflected in the title is a good one, though it is only one of several that could have been chosen. Accordingly, after charting the rise and fall of empire, and of state welfare, this book closes with some sobering reflections on what has happened to social inequalities in Britain after one hundred years or more of change. For instance, although the measures of poverty have changed, the proportion of the population experiencing it – and, as the increasing recourse to foodbanks show, experiencing not just relative but absolute poverty as well – has returned to numbers remarkably similar to those of the Edwardian period. The share of income going to the rich has returned, thanks to the policies of the Thatcher government and after, to the levelsobtaining before the First World War. These points could have been made even more telling by adding in the growing divisions in educational attainment, or the revival of what Avner Offer calls the impatient finance approach to the housing market, which is causing as many problems now as it did in the late nineteenth century.
So far this return to the some of the social issues of Edwardian Britain does not seem to have produced the same shock. Instead of leading to a reforming New Liberal government it seems simply to have stimulated a vacuous populism that threatens to further exacerbate social inequalities. This is the somewhat dispiriting observation that struck me from reading the conclusions of this occasionally richly informative, but rather uneven book.
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