Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN: 9780198204763; 688pp.; Price: £30.00
Sheffield Hallam University
Date accessed: 28 November, 2023
When A. J. P. Taylor undertook the final volume of the old Oxford History of England, it was ‘England’, not ‘History’, which he found the problematic part of his brief.(1) The volume under review is the latest contribution to the New Oxford History of England, and how things have changed since Taylor’s day. Back then, we knew roughly speaking what to expect from a ‘general history’. Taylor wrote, as he said in his introduction, ‘in the form of a continuous narrative, though with occasional pauses for refreshment’. The heart of that narrative, and therefore of the book itself, was, of course, politics: and it was a widespread belief in the primacy of the high-political that made this kind of general history possible, providing a framework over which other concerns could be draped, part of the picture, but not really part of the story. But even as Taylor was writing changes were afoot, and the cultural and social byways where he paused for refreshment have become for many if not most historians the main road, the story itself. As a result, the once-dominant political narrative has been displaced and recontextualised by narratives of social and cultural change. This is more than just a change in subject-matter: these new narratives are multiple and complex, bringing many interwoven historical themes into play, and therefore posing a challenge to the whole possibility of a unitary ‘general’ history. As if that were not enough, awkward questions have been posed to the validity of ‘national’ history by a discipline, and a world, which has become increasingly globalised. In these circumstances to undertake not just one but two volumes of what on the face of it is still a general national history series is nothing short of heroic, even from a historian of Brian Harrison’s stature.
In the light of all this, it is not surprising that while the titles of the old Oxford History series were about dynasties, periods or political eras, the new ones are mostly thematic and often socio-cultural – often with a tell-tale question-mark to signal the theme’s tentative status: ‘A Polite and Commercial People’ (Paul Langford), ‘A Land of Liberty?’ (Julian Hoppit). Brian Harrison’s title may seem suspiciously political – evoking the loss of empire, Cold War, Europe and all that – but though he deals well with these things, which for a latter-day Taylor would have been the main story, he makes it clear that for him the doings of politicians and governments carry less historical weight than the underlying processes of non-political change: in Annaliste terms, the longue durée trumps histoire événementielle. The powerful concluding ‘Retrospect’ reaffirms that Britons’ ideas (albeit often illusory) about their nation’s role were cultural and moral as much as political and imperial, and, in the political realm, more about traditions of freedom and democracy and experienced statesmanship than about empire and world power. The underlying theme of the book is how a period of relatively rapid social and cultural change destabilised these ideas of the national role and the social cohesion which they fostered – which even so is shown to have survived reasonably intact, shaken but not overthrown, at least up to 1970. This narrative, although it lacks the detailed chronology of the old-style political framework, is strong enough and general enough to allow the author to range widely in his choice of themes and topics without losing coherence.
A history of destabilisation needs to start with a period of relative stability. The introductory chapter on Britain in 1951 depicts a nation with plenty of problems and perhaps rather complacent, but with its cohesiveness and security seemingly validated by wartime experience and historical continuity: though we might ask whether this was the default position for British society, or simply the product of an aberrant historical moment, to be followed by the resumption of business as usual, and if the latter, whether it makes any difference to Harrison’s analysis. Either way, this first chapter is followed by seven thematic chapters exploring the upheavals that were to follow: ‘The United Kingdom and the World’ (Empire, Cold War, migration, Europe); ‘The Face of the Country’ (environment, transport, urban development); ‘The Social Structure’ (monarchy, classes and minorities); ‘Family and Welfare’ (sexuality, gender, youth and age, the NHS); ‘Industry and Commerce’ (corporatism, consumerism, ‘declinism’); ‘Intellect and Culture’ (religion, education, the arts, recreation); and ‘Politics and Government’ (executive, Parliament, the parties). Chapter nine breaks with thematism and returns to another historical moment, rightly named in quotation marks: ‘The Sixties’, that mythic decade in which it all came together, or fell apart. A concluding ‘Retrospect’ draws the themes together, arguing that the stability and cohesion of British society was held together by a collection of props and illusions mostly rooted in vague ideas about the war or in even vaguer ideas about the more distant past, all of which were rapidly losing conviction by the end of the 1960s. ‘There were as yet few signs of the gloom that was shortly to descend’ (p. 546), the book ominously concludes, but descend it surely would: sending the audience into the interval nervously anticipating act two – for, astonishingly, Harrison is doing the same job again for the 1970s and 1980s. The title of the next volume, ‘Finding a Role?’, carries, we should note, a telling question-mark.
The chapter themes are well chosen, and they are explored with the detail and analytical flair we would expect, and which it is impossible to convey adequately in a short review. However, a thematic approach poses structural problems which unless addressed might appear to undermine the book’s claim to be a ‘general’ history. This problem is largely illusory: any way of writing history is arbitrary and selective, and an old-style continuous narrative, while purporting to include everything (that is, everything considered important) is actually the most selective of all. In our times we are apt to be up-front about the arbitrariness and selectivity of the way we write history, an approach which sits uneasily with the tradition of general histories, with their implicit claim to include everything. By contrast, to take one example, Ross McKibbin’s Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951 (1998), while it covers a tremendous amount of ground, can afford to declare its thematic selectivity in its title.(2) Harrison addresses this problem in the introduction identifying a half a dozen ‘recurring themes’ which crop up across the chapters but are dealt with in detail in one of them, and eight ‘cross-cutting motifs’ which are not given sustained discussion anywhere but picked out in the conclusion to each chapter (p. xx). As well as filling gaps and tying the chapters together, these recurring themes suggest what is almost an alternative chapter structure, another way the material might have been carved up. On the whole this approach works well, although it adds up to rather a lot of themes and motifs, and sometimes those chapter conclusions can seem a bit mechanical, ticking off the motifs as if the whole thing was being plotted on some vast wall-chart. But such are the problems of writing general history for our time, and it would be churlish to criticise Harrison’s solution without offering a better one. The only important question is, does it work?
To which the answer has got to be, on the whole, yes. Quite apart from its underlying analysis of the post-war British mentality, there are few corners of national life which do not find a place somewhere in the book, and we invariably learn something new about them. To pick a few more detailed examples at random, passages on the development of archaeology (pp. 126–8), the impact of tourism on the quality of food back home (pp. 84–7), the fate of the canals (p. 143) and changing ideas about death (p. 287ff), all offer concise narrative, lively analysis and illuminating bits of fact. Harrison is adept at picking up unfamiliar details, usually from recondite secondary sources, which not only shed light on a topic but enchant the reader: hands up those who knew that there were only 50 Chinese restaurants in Britain in 1957 (p. 86), or that cycling accounted for ten per cent of passenger miles in 1952 but only one per cent by 1970 (p. 137), or that this period saw a long, slow decline in suicide by drowning (pp. 290–1)? In his sustained analysis of more central issues, Harrison argues that strident class assertiveness in the 1960s and 1970s masked both a decline in the real centrality of class division and the persistence of pockets of poverty (pp. 209–13); although the same section on the working class and poverty goes straight on to discuss crime, in one of several awkward transitions that need more rationalisation. There is an eloquent analysis of the whys, wherefores and problems of high-rise building, which broadens into an exemplary account of architecture, conservation and housing, weaving together social, political and aesthetic concerns into a persuasive history of the rise and fall of the modern movement in housing which has done so much to mould our urban environment (pp. 151–164). The one thing missing here, and this is true not just of this chapter but of much of the book, is the voice of those who actually lived in these flats, new towns and suburbs. This is a significant absence; such individual voices as we hear are almost all from the elite, in well-chosen and illuminating observations picked up from the diaries and memoirs of such luminaries as Macmillan, Coward, Lees-Milne, Crossman or Benn. Perhaps there are no sources for this period equivalent to the late 1940s Mass Observation material deployed by David Kynaston in Austerity Britain, or the oral history once used by Paul Thompson to illuminate The Edwardians (3), but it is a pity to see people’s lives solely through the eyes of outsiders such as sociologists and politicians, however acute their observation.
The political also finds its place in the book, though not the doings of politicians so much as the development of the state and the political process. This is, of course, something Harrison has written about before and so he is on firm ground. There are fluent and persuasive accounts of the machinery of government and its tendency towards what he calls ‘pluralistic centralism’ – though, driven by the greater responsibilities of the state, more centralising than plural – and of the conflicting traditions within the two major parties. Harrison, unlike some observers, does not seem to regard the British political system as having been in any kind of crisis, and dismisses constitutional reform as an ‘irrelevant diversion’ (p. 403) and reform of Parliament in particular as equally unnecessary (pp. 420–1); piecemeal rather than root and branch change would take care of any problems,
The climax and in some ways the centre-piece of the book is the chapter on the 1960s. Here, Harrison identifies four key motifs (youth in revolt, relaxed manners, political radicalism and puritanism repudiated) which took root in the 1950s and earlier, but flourished in and have long outlasted the 1960s. Again, the description and detail on specific issues – such as the spread of social informality (491–7), the significance of clothing and hair-styles (pp. 487–91), and the ‘new puritanism’ evoked by the young left’s fierceness of commitment – are strong, and Harrison’s judgements forthright and perceptive. However, the overall impression given of the decade is rather piecemeal, as if getting close to the details of the decade makes us lose sight of why people think it was important as a holistic experience. Those of us who are more lumpers than splitters will be left looking for an embracing explanation of where it all came from and how it all fitted together. One of the strongest parts of this chapter is its discussion of the sexual revolution (pp. 506–13) and the reaction against it (pp. 518–20), although how this relates to discussion of sexual change earlier on (pp. 234–49) is unclear; on the other hand, retired student radicals may feel their aims and motivations deserved more explanation than ‘genuine but misplaced indignation’ (p. 501); and Harrison seems outside his comfort zone when discussing popular music. The chapter follows the currently conventional line that ‘London set much of the permissive pace’ and that sixties trends moved only slowly if at all across ‘the provinces’, as Harrison is apt, rather anachronistically, to call the rest of us (p. 473). This is a widely accepted view, which tends to undermine the idea of ‘the sixties’, but as far as I know nobody has done any research on, say, hippies in Halifax or sex in Sunderland, to test the hypothesis. The same goes for Harrison’s assertion that ‘provincial England’ was rather more in sympathy with Mary Whitehouse than with Hugh Carleton Greene’s BBC (p. 518): the North has a long anti-establishment tradition, and Mancunians surely rejoiced in TW3’s iconoclasm as much as any metropolitan sophisticate, let alone the inhabitants of Surbiton. But my argumentative comments testify to the entertaining and provocative character of this chapter – which would, however, work better as the book’s climactic moment if there was a stronger underlying analysis to draw together the themes of the other chapters.
Those of us who teach post-war history have long felt the absence of a scholarly but readable account of the period which focuses on social and cultural themes. No book of this scope and ambition could succeed in everything it sets out to do, and in this age of RAEs and REFs perhaps only those outside academia or, as in this case, of a seniority and eminence that obviates such mundane considerations, could even attempt it. No one will agree with everything in Brian Harrison’s book, but everyone will find it both readable and scholarly, with an intellectual backbone missing from the entertaining, often illuminating, but under-analytical popular versions, such as Dominic Sandbrook’s, which have come to occupy much of the territory. It deserves a warm welcome, and a wide readership.
- A. J. P. Taylor, English History 1914–1945 (Oxford, 1965).Back to (1)
- Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951 (Oxford, 1998).Back to (2)
- David Kynaston, Austerity Britain 1945–1951 (London, 2007); Paul Thompson, The Edwardians: the Remaking of British Society (London, 1975).Back to (3)
Writing history, like any artistic activity, involves a continuous interaction between creator and client. At one level, authors write purely for themselves in an ongoing attempt to make sense of the world and discover what, on reflection, they themselves really think. Before beginning to write on any major topic in my Seeking a Role: The United Kingdom 1951–1970 I did not at first know what I intended to say. I would discover my thoughts only in the course of writing about them; at the outset, I could not have predicted the end result. In the process of writing, ‘the dull brain’ does of course ‘perplex and retard’, and when starting to write on any particular topic I usually found myself somewhat daunted by a mere jumble of facts and ideas. Yet I was quite often surprised at how the pieces gradually and almost spontaneously fitted into place, given that the pattern had not initially been present in my mind. This gradual and almost spontaneous emergence of a pattern took place at every level: within the treatment of particular topics, but also in the arrangement within sections, between sections, or in the book as a whole. Its initial plan differed almost totally from the plan as published many years later.
No doubt John Baxendale is right to say, however, that sometimes in the book the pattern did NOT fit neatly into place, even as published, and that some of its transitions are awkward. This leads me to my first point: a welcome to the practice of Reviews in History, unique to my knowledge among historical journals, of encouraging a dialogue between author and critic. The writing of history is of course collaborative to the extent that in their publications historians commune with one another – publicly or privately reading, assimilating, disagreeing, reconciling. Like a play or a poem, a piece of historical writing does not spring fully armed from the creator’s mind. It is continuously shaped, especially in contemporary history, by the author’s experiences, observations, anxieties, and relationships. The playwright, however, can test the play when in draft through a series of rehearsals that involve interaction with the audience, and this can often generate changes in the script. Likewise the poet tests reactions to what has been written; in a more oral and communal culture than ours, poets and musicians often conducted public readings or performances, and re-shaped their work as a result.
Academic writing in the humanities differs from creative artistic activity, however, in at least two respects. First, the preliminary dialogue with the public is relatively limited in scope. Indeed, the process of research and writing is necessarily solitary, even selfish and anti-social, and anything that moderates that isolation is salutary if it broadens the perspective and interpretation without dulling its individuality and sharpness of perception. At this point, however, it is worth mentioning one recent development that makes the dialogue with oneself more effective. The author is the sole expert on the content of what is published, and no ‘professional indexer’ can do the job so well; indeed, if all authors took a pride in their books the ‘professional indexer’ would not exist. Yet many authors apparently see indexing as a chore which can be delegated to supposed experts less knowledgeable than themselves. Yet there is now a remedy to hand: the indexing package that implants the index codes in the text itself while it is being drafted. The codes move whenever the associated text moves, so that the index continuously accumulates in rough draft while writing is taking place. Because there is continuous interaction between the text and the index, a host of anomalies, errors, inconsistencies and infelicities are exposed for removal by the author. This certainly happened with Seeking a Role, and from others among my more recent books. The indexing package also brings a second (though, in my view, subordinate) benefit: indexes compiled in this way do not have to be rushed out during the brief interval between receiving the page-proofs and complying with the publisher’s production schedule: they exist in embryo long before the page-proofs arrive. After their arrival, the page-divides can be punched into the text, and the draft index can be put into its final shape. Its components can then be re-arranged, re-worded, winnowed out, and supplemented or shrunk as then seems necessary, often with help from the ordinary search mechanisms within the text that word-processing makes so very much easier.
History differs from creative artistic activity in a second respect: unlike many of the arts, it is almost infinitely malleable, despite being so firmly tied down with facts and footnotes. Once sculpture is shaped, it cannot easily be changed even when the material is malleable, let alone when set in stone, nor can an architect pull down the building and start again. A historian, however, like any writer, painter or composer can in principle start afresh, perhaps by re-writing the same book, or perhaps by writing a different book. Access to a broader range of critics may well therefore turn out to be one of the blessings the internet has brought us: its ample space, its convenience, and its informality all enable author and audience to interact more fully. The author has always at a late stage been able to respond to comments from an agent, a publisher, a publisher’s reader, or a few sympathetic friends, at least in producing the first edition, but in such situations the range of the dialogue is relatively limited: it involves only a small number of people, and usually occurs only between consenting adults in private. Authors once in print and thus launched upon the world must take what comes. Books may go through more than one edition, in which case there can be a somewhat discontinuous dialogue of sorts with the wider world, but by then there is a danger that authors will have become embattled, or feel defensive, especially if they think they have been unfairly criticized. Furthermore, their critics will have been pre-selected by review editors, who may well be drawn from a clique, or be specially subject to fashion, and their work will not be fully exposed to the full diversity of the actual or potential readership. Reviews in History is most welcome for broadening this dialogue: for ensuring that the author receives, publicly or privately, a much wider range of comment. Authors will not necessarily want to respond by changing their text, but they will at least retain it in the light of fuller information about readers’ reactions.
In commenting on John Baxendale’s review, I would like to begin by welcoming the time and care he has put into reading my book, but also the tone of his review. It achieves three objectives that the reviewer should in my view always seek: to explain the author’s intentions, to outline the contents of the book, and to suggest improvements. One drawback of the 20th century’s retreat from anonymity in reviewing is that these three priorities are all too often neglected. Because the review is signed, it is always at risk of becoming an ego trip: an excuse for the ‘reviewer’ to write about himself, to do a party piece, to play to a rather particular gallery, and to evade tackling the prime question that the reader wants answered: should the reader buy, or at least read, the book? Reviews have not necessarily gained from a second late 20th-century trait: from the greater length that reviewers are now often allocated. The resulting problem is partly a matter of opportunity cost: in typeset media, longer reviews of books that are pronounced (by whom?) to be significant entail less space for books that are deemed less significant. It is also partly a matter of content: given abundant space, the ‘reviewer’ may well simply aim to compile an essay which will be re-published in one of those shapeless compendia of ‘review articles’ that publishers, literary agents and authors conspire nowadays to cobble together into yet another book. I welcome the fact that Baxendale’s review does not fall into any of these traps.
His first criticism of Seeking a Role is that the eight cross-cutting ‘motifs’ which I highlight at the end of each chapter make each chapter conclusion ‘seem a bit mechanical, ticking off the motifs as if the whole thing was being plotted on some vast wall-chart’. I should perhaps explain that the ‘motifs’ were introduced at a late stage in the drafting, and were part of an overall ‘signposting’ exercise that would enable readers to find their way more easily through the book. This inevitably lent it a more didactic tone, and I may have overdone it. Baxendale is well aware, though, that it is difficult, once the historian of a society has abandoned the integrating political narrative, to find a satisfactory substitute. The introduction of the ‘motifs’, together with the short agendas and summaries that begin and end the chapters in Seeking a Role, reflect my desire to hold together a multi-dimensional narrative that was always at risk of flying apart. My non-political framework for the book does not, however, signify any abandonment of ‘narrative’ as such: only a recognition that a nation’s history consists of NUMEROUS narratives that are continuously and simultaneously in progress, and that among those narratives the political is not necessarily always the most important.
I do not deny that the political structure which largely shaped volumes in the Oxford History of England (published between 1934 and 1965) possessed virtues absent from the more comprehensive and analytic structure that has been widely adopted by authors within the New Oxford History of England (of which ten volumes have so far been published since 1989). The political narrative can, at its best, fully capture the uncertainty of events at any one time. Demographic, educational and welfare trends may be relatively predictable, but who could have anticipated de Gaulle’s ‘non’ of 1963, the oil crisis of 1973, the full implications of the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979, or the fall of the USSR in 1989–91? It is when coping with great crises like this that politicians come into their own, and far from deploring a crisis, they often rather enjoy it. Like policemen or soldiers thrilled by the excitements of combat after long periods of boredom, politicians relish the sudden and widespread recognition that they too have a significant role. Observing Harold Wilson during the Torrey Canyon oil-spillage disaster of March 1967, R. H. S. Crossman wrote: ‘I think he adores being in action – acting as the great commander organizing his forces’. This past sense of the unexpected and the unpredictable is often complicated still further by the simultaneity of governmental problems: crises often occur in several areas at the same time, as especially with the Heath and Major governments. Unless this uncertainty in the lives of politicians and administrators is borne in mind, the sheer difficulty of their task may be forgotten. Unlike the writers and readers of history books, politicians do not operate with the full knowledge and ample time that can be enjoyed in a library: the essence of their activity consists in being required to make quick decisions in the midst of imponderables. There is also a danger that the lack of a political framework will lose the biographical excitement of watching ambitious politicians jockeying for power.
It must be said, though, that historians who specialize in political narrative do not always convey these insights into the politician’s trade, though the work of Maurice Cowling and the publication of Crossman’s diaries ensured after the 1960s that few modern British historians could ignore ambition as an influence at the top. Furthermore, there is a heavy price attached to a national history that is dominated by political narrative: the serious neglect of aspects in the nation’s experience that do not impinge on the politicians, or that require only occasional intervention from them. To my mind, the dominance of politics in the Oxford History of England ignored too much and could not be allowed to persist in the New Oxford History of England, whatever the loss entailed. I was pleasantly surprised to see how feasible it was for Robert Bartlett, in his England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075–1225 (2000), the volume so far published that covers the earliest period, to tackle so many of the issues which I myself wanted to tackle when discussing the United Kingdom nine centuries later. Still, the difficulties of integrating a national history remain, and I welcome suggestions on how they can be tackled more skilfully than I found possible in Seeking a Role.
Baxendale’s second criticism is shrewd: he highlights the transition to crime in the section on ‘Working-Class Eclipse?’ in my fourth chapter (on ‘The Social Structure’) as ‘one of several awkward transitions that need more rationalisation’. He hits the bullseye here: he has intuitively realized that for a long time I wondered where crime could be fitted into my overall structure. Part of it I assigned to the discussion of liberty in my eighth chapter (on ‘Politics and Government’), but I could see no other place for the rest than in the discussion in chapter four of the people at the bottom of the heap, for there could be no denying that Britain’s 20th-century prison story is among the shabbiest of the stories I had to tell. Anyone who has visited a prison immediately becomes aware that this is not a place whose tone is set by the better-off in society.
Another of Baxendale’s bullseye hits is to say that the voice of the ordinary man is all too rarely heard in my book. The point comes up when he is discussing my treatment of high-rise building: ‘the one thing missing here’, he writes, ‘... is the voice of those who actually lived in these flats, new towns and suburbs’. This is less a historiographical problem than a problem arising from the authorities’ failure to consult the occupants at the time. One of the reasons why high-rise building went so badly wrong was that its architects did not feel obliged to consult the present or future residents: architects and planners in the high-rise period knew best, if only because the residents were not purchasers investing their own money but tenant-beneficiaries of the local authority. I entirely share Baxendale’s view that people’s lives should not be seen ‘solely through the eyes of outsiders such as sociologists and politicians’, and I regretted when writing my Seeking a Role that apart from what the Institute of Community Studies was able to unearth, there seemed to be no equivalents for the 1950s and 1960s of the Orwells, the Zweigs, the Rowntree/Lavers, and the Nella Lasts for me to cite. Maybe more of these will eventually come to light, in which case their experience should certainly be mined, given that (to quote G. M. Young) ‘the real, central theme of history is not what happened, but what people felt about it when it was happening’. Such comment should certainly become available from the 1970s onwards, for it was then that the ‘oral history’ movement really got going.
I would be sorry, though, if historians using diaries showed an interest only in the views of the less fortunate: I found Benn, Castle, Coward, Crossman, Lees-Milne, Nicolson, and Kenneth Williams so quotable because they lent vividness to experience higher up. To me, the middle- and upper-class experience is interesting too, for its own sake. There is, however, another problem with such quotations: the problem of space. Too often an eagerness to quote from the author’s hard-won interviews or from direct testimony discovered in obscure places prompts in the historian a shapelessness of inquiry, and even an abandonment of analysis in favour of assembling a mere collage. For me, in a book like Seeking a Role, space was at a premium, quotation from any quarter had to be pungent if it was to deserve inclusion, and when included it had to be incorporated into an overriding argument.
Baxendale has some difficulties with my treatment of ‘the sixties’. Some of these may be removed by my essay on ‘Historiographical Hazards of Sixties Britain’ now published in the collection edited by W. R. Louis, Ultimate Adventures with Britannia.(1) With popular music, as with so many other areas in recent British history (the history of sport, artistic endeavour, the armed forces, schools, the legal profession, and – dare I say it? – Wales, Scotland, and the monarchy), the field is dominated by the antiquarianism and connoisseurship that is of interest only to enthusiasts and insiders. Historians seek analysis and explanation, and cannot content themselves solely with description or story-telling. When writing at the generalized level that the New Oxford History of England requires, it is difficult – if the volume is ever to be completed – for authors to rise above the quality of the secondary sources that are available at the time of writing. Where the secondary sources are good, the synthesis has some chance of being good, but not otherwise. Indeed, one purpose lying behind Seeking a Role, as behind all the volumes in the New Oxford History of England, is the hope that more powerfully analytic research will be conducted in areas whose secondary literature is at present exposed as weak. A further purpose is to broaden the scope of research conducted. I am often surprised, when surveying lists of theses recently accepted by examiners, at how conventional and unexciting their topics are. No doubt the theses are worthy, but the New Oxford History of England will, I hope, help to ensure that theses will in future be devoted to topics less hackneyed, more imaginative, and more inviting.
- W. R. Louis, Ultimate Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain (London, 2009).Back to (1)