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The British Isles since 1945
Kathleen Burk, ed. 
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 
£35.00, xiii-277 pages, ISBN 0-19-873180-9 (hardback).
£12.99, xiii-277 pages, ISBN 0-19-924838-9 (paperback). 

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

New books on ‘Britain since 1945’—in this particular instance ‘The British Isles since 1945’—enter a very competitive market, since the theme constitutes one of the pillars of Contemporary British History as a genre. Some are single-handed exercises (1), others, like the volume under review, are collective undertakings (2), but it seems that all have one point in common: they are primarily intended for university students (and presumably school teachers preparing lessons), not for the educated public or even fellow-historians (3). The motif does not consist in publishing the results of novel personal research, but in giving a convenient, readable narrative based on the best recent literature.

The acid test is therefore the clarity of the exposition, considering the difficulty of giving a manageable synthesis of all the complexities which have characterised the United Kingdom since 1945, and as this book includes Ireland (North and South), the task is even harder. The authors and editors always have to square the circle of reconciling comprehensiveness with compactness, but this is especially true of the present volume, which belongs with the recently-launched Oxford University Press series significantly entitled ‘The Short Oxford History of the British Isles’ (4). Kathleen Burk, the competent Editor, aptly ends her Introduction on a reflection drawn from A.J.P. Taylor (5):

Therefore, unlike much earlier periods, a problem (or an opportunity?) is not the lack of material, but its abundance. As the historian A.J.P. Taylor (6) wrote, ‘History gets thicker as it approaches recent times: more people, more events, and more books written about them’. (7)

The first chapter, devoted to politics, is written by John Turner, who, in perfect conformity with the above requirements, ‘conveniently’ divides his period into a number of phases, with which few commentators would find fault: the Attlee Governments, 1945-1951 (‘Reconstruction or “new Jerusalem”); ‘The politics of affluence, 1951-1962’; the phase of doubt from the early 1960s to the ‘oil shock’ of 1973 (‘Modernizers frustrated, 1962-1972); an ‘open polarization’ from 1973 to the early 1980s (‘Inflation and the collapse of civility, 1972-1983); ‘The high tide of Thatcherism, 1983-1992’; and the current phase, when ‘all major parties accepted a market-oriented, individualist politics which was only partly embraced by the electorate’, which Turner entitles ‘Remapping the centre, 1992-2001’.

He then examines the great themes of debate (and essay-writing!) like the ‘Presidential’ Prime Minister, the structure of government, ‘State and civil society’, ‘Centralization and local government’, the ‘Pillars of the Constitution’, ‘Loss of Empire, immigration, and race’, ‘Celtic nationalism and devolution’, ‘Class, cleavage, and social politics’. The Conclusion bears an ominous title: ‘The decomposition of politics in late twentieth-century Britain’, and 1973 is seen as a turning-point for the worse:

After the oil crisis British politics, like the British economy, was exposed to the world. Both governing parties concentrated on inflation and used monetary policy and privatization to satisfy a more critical, skeptical, and heterogeneous electorate. In the formal political system of elections and parliaments, which attracted rather less public interest than it had done in 1945, political ideas were subordinate to electoral calculation.

In contrast the next chapter, by Jim Tomlinson on ‘Economic growth, economic decline’, starts on a note of optimism—but with a twist to it since it is Harold Macmillan famously telling his Bedford audience in July 1957 that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’. And Tomlinson rubs salt into the wound when he reminds the reader that ‘three years earlier R.A.B. Butler, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had talked of the prospect of the British standard of living doubling every twenty-five years’. Tomlinson indirectly supports both Butler and Macmillan (and indeed Turner’s turning-point) when he writes that ‘The perception that affluence was spreading down the social scale was accurate in the sense that, through the period to the mid-1970s, there was a clear process of income equalization taking place’. In a very clear discussion on ‘The culprits for decline’, he then sums up the ‘four major strands’ in the British economy which have been blamed by the ‘declinists’ for the fact that the initial 1950s momentum was not sustained: the restrictive role of the Trade Unions, the burden of external commitments, the undue size of the public sector and public spending and ‘what may be called the cultural thesis’.

Tomlinson’s turns the tables on the ‘declinists’, with whom he profoundly disagrees. He concedes that Britain has done less well than its comparable partners in Western Europe—but the gap in the growth rate was most obvious before 1973. After that date, the rates have tended to equalize all over Western Europe, with the result that ‘In 2000 Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had per capita GDPs within 10% of each other’. For Tomlinson, therefore, there is admittedly a decline in ‘national’ equality due to an aggravation of regional divergences within the United Kingdom, notably in the last two decades—but ‘declinism’, which is only a perception of the facts, not an accurate description of them, ‘can only be explained by politics’. A seductive thesis, of course—and founded on impeccable statistics—but a conclusion which would not be readily accepted by conventional commentators, Right or Left.

The theme of ‘decline’ is in fact taken up by Jose Harris in her discussion of ‘Tradition and transformation: society and civil society in Britain, 1945-2000’. Describing the end of the century, she writes that, compared with the mood of 1945,

There was a very similar awareness of fast-moving structural change, but also a widely pervasive sense of societal and institutional stalemate or ‘decline’. Despite a 300% rise in per capita real income since 1945, a perception of atrophy and decay in many of the ‘sinews’ that held society together was now as common in many quarters as confidence in the enduring strength of British society had been at the end of the war.

At some stage in her essay, Harris speaks of ‘the end-of-century civic malaise’—the great difficulty, which she does not eschew, being to pinpoint the reasons for that malaise, which seems to be denounced by all observers. But is it really perceived by the actors—i.e. the actual population? She pointedly reminds the reader that ‘social history that ignores what real people felt and thought about the society in which they lived can be peculiarly patronizing and barren’. The indicators, which she examines in great detail, are contradictory—and as she says in her opening pages, ‘Such questions defy exact answers, and will doubtless engage and puzzle historians for generations to come’. On balance, she concludes in favour of continuity, answering Yes (more or less) to the question which she asks herself:

The British people at the end of the twentieth century were cleaner, fatter, ruder, more multi-coloured, and less formal and phlegmatic than they had been in 1945, but were they still the same ‘people’?

Somebody who has no doubt that they still were (at least, largely so) is Peter Mandler, in charge of the chapter on cultural history, ‘Two cultures—one—or many?’. Starting with Raymond Williams’ observation in Culture and Society (1958) that Britain was deeply divided between the culture of the Establishment of fine arts and high ideas and the popular culture of the working class, Mandler examines the convergence or divergence over the years. Two phenomena were wrongly perceived as indicating convergence. One was ‘the growing visibility of working-class culture in forums hitherto reserved for the elite—“literary” novels and theatre’ (8), the other was Americanization, denounced by Richard Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy (1957). For Mandler, Hoggart did not perceive the

unprecedented cultural upsurge within the working class around the corner, which would derive much of its strength from American commercial culture, and which would seek to bridge the gap between the two cultures not from above but from below.

Mandler then asks the question, ‘Did Britain swing?’—in other words was the Sixties phenomenon limited to middle-class London, or was it a truly nationwide movement? In contrast to Hoggart, he sees a sort of cross-fertilization from Americanization to the provincial working-classes and on to the London counterculture élite:

There proved to be an almost electric fit between black American popular music—a music of cheerfulness under repression, of jeering irony, of yelps of physical pleasure which could be read alternately as bitter protest and sheer delight—and the mood of British working-class youth in an affluent but still class-bound society.

But the phenomenon of ‘cross-class penetration’ must not be seen as the final triumph of classlessness, as it was affected by ‘the social and economic malaise that set in during the mid-1970s’, when ‘Working-class culture was in a particularly bad way as the carpet of affluence was swept away, revealing collapsing community institutions and morale’. With the Thatcherites and their ‘enterprise culture’, ‘commercial culture ruled’, the unifying factor being provided by Americanization, as ‘a larger proportion of popular and middlebrow cultural material now came from America’, the archetype being Dallas (broadcast in Britain from 1978), ‘the first American TV show to integrate fully into British culture’.

Yet some popular British cultural pratices, like going to see football matches, not only resisted, but actually gained ground among the educated elite so that ‘by the end of the century this one sport—traditionally seen as of interest only to working-class men—had become a genuinely national hobby’. Turner sees in that ‘a phenomenon of “post-modernism”, the levelling of cultural hierarchy’, reflected both in the ‘crisis of confidence in high culture’ and in the politicians’ ‘enhanced awareness of the value of the cultural middle’, but he has no certainty over the long-term evolution of ‘Cool Britannia’ (apparently a phrase introduced by Newsweek in 1997), in spite of Tony Blair’s best efforts, notably his Millenium Dome and the attendant celebrations which

had sought to bring together the two cultures, rather than dividing them, as the 1951 Festival of Britain, with its separate sites devoted to pleasure (the funfair of Battersea) and improvement (the celebration of design and technology on the South Bank).

In the section devoted to Foreign Policy, ‘Britain and the world since 1945: narratives of decline or transformation?’, David Reynolds of necessity abandons the theme of the two cultures, but as his title indicates the decline v. transformation motif dominates the discussion. Obviously, there could be no policy of immobility in the fast-changing, post-1945 world. But of course, one can welcome and anticipate change or one can deplore and try to retard it (9). In his introduction, Reynolds argues that ‘shifts in policy generally occurred only when external pressures combined with significant shifts in the political or bureaucratic balance in Westminster and Whitehall. Foreign policy interacted with domestic politics’.

Reynolds’ sub-chapters are named after ‘seminal concepts or slogans’ which have remained associated with his theme: ‘A “financial Dunkirk” ’ (Keynes, 1945), ‘Churchill’s “three circles” ’ (1948), ‘Losing an empire, seeking a role’ (Dean Acheson, 1962), ‘ “I want my money’ ” (Margaret Thatcher 1979-84), ‘ “At the very heart of Europe” ’ (John Major, 1991), ‘ “Punching above our weight” ’ (Doublas Hurd, 1990-95). Reynolds sees two constraints already accepted by both parties by the time of Churchill’s return: the Cold War, and Britain’s world role. With his ‘three circles’, Churchill tried to transform negative commitments (in terms of cost) into a diplomatic asset, notably through the ‘Special Relationship’, a concept which Reynolds considers as ‘one of evident dependence’ after Suez. What was the alternative? Suez also precipitated the decline, not of Imperial sentiment (which remained vivid), but of Imperial reality. Only ‘Europe’ seemed to remain as an option (Acheson’s ‘role’)—but then, Reynolds suggests, the average Briton (or even MPs) had to catch up with lost time and never really and mentally did so.

Logically, therefore, his last sub-chapters are dominated by ‘Europe’ as the central preoccupation (overtly or covertly) in British foreign and domestic politics, and he concludes his discussion on the well-known phrase, ‘the awkward partner’, arguing that ‘British exceptionalism is potent myth, not accurate history’ and ending on a Voltairian note, à la citoyen du monde, which will no doubt be dismissed by his more chauvinistic readers: ‘Is it not possible to be English and British, British and European, part of Europe yet still bound into a wider world?’

This open-mindedness was certainly not shared in Ireland, as is made clear in the last chapter, by Dermot Keogh, on ‘Ireland 1945-2001: between “Hope and History” ’. Accusations of ‘intransigence and bigotry’ (at the time of Stormont) turned into murderous confrontation from the 1970s, and the chapter gives a full account of the ‘troubles’ which have plagued the island ever since, with a neat summary of the main provisions of the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.

Readers unfamiliar with the complexities of Irish politics, North and South, will find an excellent history of party politics, with the action of the various politicians since de Valera. One senses that, just as ‘Europe’ is always in people’s minds in Reynolds’ account, ‘England’ continues to loom large in Irish politics, from Eire’s provocative neutrality in the Second World War to unexpressed Unionist fears of an Anglo-Irish final settlement which would by-pass Ulster. But ‘Europe’ may also come to play a divisive role in Irish politics: the ‘No’ to the Nice Treaty in June 2001 showed the weight of the ‘Little Irelanders’, as Keogh calls them. This does not prevent him from ending on an optimistic note:

Despite warnings about economic ‘meltdown, Ireland in the early twenty-first century was in a strong position to handle the unpredictable and the unknown. The overwhelming majority supported the peace process and were comfortable with the challenge of having to live, in the words of Séamus Heaney, between ‘hope and history’.

Now, in her general Conclusion, entitled ‘Fin de siècle’, Kathleen Burk concedes that this optimism may be justified in the Irish case, but she has her doubts for the rest of the British Isles. As she puts it in a remarkable understatement, ‘For the United Kingdom as a whole, fundamental questions begged to be answered’—and of course most authors in the volume made that clear. This enables her to discuss the limitations of Contemporary History as a discipline:

This is the difference between this volume and those earlier in the series: they can reveal what happened next. Posing the questions, they can provide the answers. Perhaps the somewhat muted approach taken in this chapter will prove to have been wholly wrong: perhaps many of the problems described will be solved. Time will tell—and historians will then tell us.

Then follows a Further Reading section, with some authors giving comments while others simply provide a list of books. Not unexpectedly, since it has to cover all the aspects of Irish history, the list on Ireland is the longest one—with no comments, unfortunately.

The volume also includes fourteen pages of Chronology. As all authors of such chronologies know, it is very easy for critics to point out that such and such ‘important’ entries are missing. In this particular instance, it seems a pity that Macmillan’s historic phrase on the ‘affluent society’ which opens Tomlinson’s chapter, ‘most of our people have never had it so good’, should have be omitted (10). But in one respect at least this Chronology will be extremely useful: it has a lot of Irish events which are not always easy to find elsewhere.

Finally, before the Index, the book has a number of Maps, two of the British Isles (one economic, one political) and one of Northern Ireland from The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History, and one of the world, with no source given. In a book with colour illustrations, British dependencies and dominions would have been shown as the famous ‘red on the map’. But this book only has black and white and shades of grey. Somehow ‘the grey on the map’ does not have the same effect: an apt metaphor for the retreat from Empire (perhaps the major underlying thread in this warmly recommended volume)?

(1). The three ‘market leaders’ in the field being (in chronological order of first editions): Childs, David. Britain since 1945: A Political History. London: Routledge, 1979 (Fifth Edition, 2001). Marwick, Arthur. British society since 1945. The Pelican Social History of Britain. London: Allen Lane, 1982 (Fourth Edition, Penguin, 2003). Morgan, Kenneth O. The People’s Peace: British History, 1945-1990. Oxford: University Press, 1990 (Second Edition. The People’s Peace: British History since 1945. 1999; Third Edition. Britain since 1945: The People’s Peace. 2001).

(2). Two examples being Gourvish, T. & O’Day, A. [Editors]. Britain since 1945. London: Macmillan, 1991 and the most recent Britain since 1945 edited by Jonathan Hollowell. Making Contemporary Britain Series. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003. 

(3). A ‘tell-tale’ sign being the deliberately small number of footnotes

(4). Chronologically, it succeeds The British Isles, 1901-1951, edited by Keith Robbins.

(5). Who, among other seminal works, wrote a book (for the ‘large’ Oxford University Press series) which ended precisely when this one begins: Taylor, A.J.P. English History, 1914-1945. The Oxford History of England, 15. Oxford: University Press, 1965.

(6). Kathleen Burk is of course the author of a recent biography of A.J.P. Taylor: Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor. Yale University Press, 2000.

(7). English History, 1914-1945, p. 602.

(8). Notably Look back in Anger (play, 1956), Room at the Top (novel, 1957; film, 1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (novel, 1958; film, 1960).

(9). History books generally (and approvingly) contrast the anticipatory attitude of the ‘enlightened’ British governing classes, forestalling Revolution, with the Bourbons’ asinine refusal to yield an inch, precipitating Revolution.

(10). It is not in the Index, either, though ‘Winds of Change’, another famous phrase associated with Macmillan, is.


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