The cover of this book is adorned with John Singer Sargent's 1902 portrait of Winifred, Duchess of Portland. Future generations, according to the artist's obituary in The Times , would rank it with "the best Gainsboroughs". It is an odd choice, and not only because Roy Hattersley does not mention the Duchess. She is depicted just as one Edwardian described her, with delicate complexion, pearly teeth, eyes of sweet reasonableness, lithe and graceful, or - as Sargent contrived - radiantly rich, the epitome of the conventional view of the Edwardian period as a pleasure-seeking social parade, and quite alien to the author's purpose: to convince us that this was the era in which modern Britain was born.
Queen Victoria's death in 1901 was a great symbolic moment. No one under 70 could remember any other monarch. She had reigned over a country that had ruled the world; even "we poor Musulmans from Sialdah" (in Bengal) spontaneously joined the grief at her death. A global empire brought huge invisible earnings and, despite the gold standard, the world balanced its books in sterling - "as good as gold". Per capita income made Britain the richest country in Europe. Was it all about to change?
Edward, as Prince of Wales, went to the Portlands' wedding. With his 48-inch chest (and waist), he was a literally visible monarch. Conspicuous solemnity was replaced by conspicuous consumption, reticence and propriety by gregarious cultural hedonism. The Queen had died in the arms of her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Little wonder that the new monarch, at last advanced to power, felt he could treat European politics as a family matter. To an extent, perhaps, he believed the nation might run itself from day to day; it was the job of monarchs to sort out political power in the wider world. Hattersley's essential judgement of Edward - shrewd but superficial - is a valid one.
The book's contention is that the King who gave the era its name is not the key to its character. The basic thesis is that the creation of the Labour Party, the political nation's adoption of a new view of its obligations to the poor, the emasculation of the House of Lords, the demand for women's suffrage, as well as "an explosion of intellectual and artistic energy", suggest that this was a time of revolution.
Hattersley is good on set-pieces and, if we have learnt from politicians of his generation that politics is not about personalities, the Edwardian crew made better history, if not better democracy, by being highly individual.
To wit, the young Winston Churchill, in the Commons at 26 a month after Victoria died, finding trouble irresistible; Asquith, heir to Gladstonian glories and architect of the Liberal Party's final triumphs; Lloyd George, billed by Hattersley not as an opportunist but as "a supreme politician" - all of them, in his assessments, tend to prove that politicians have values that are not the same as the rest of us or conceivably, and more charitably, that this politician-turned-historian has had more experience of how decisions are made than his prissy critics.
The book is not error free, and it is sometimes cavalier with statistics, quoted inconsistently. There is a good deal of repetition and, although some of this is necessary within a thematic structure, to be told twice within 11 lines that the people's century had begun reveals poor editing - and feels like special pleading. The great political issues all seem to end in an interpretative vacuum after long accounts setting the scene. When it finally came to it, exactly why did the voters desert the Conservatives in the Liberal landslide of 1906? In 1910, why did some of the House of Lords "ditchers" - apparently all for fighting on - surrender?
Is the overall thesis - a time of radical change - convincing? Outside the political arena, Hattersley's excursions into literature, the theatre, music and art do not suggest so. T. P. Hyslop, a doctor, did not seem too out of step when he suggested, in a learned paper, that the post-impressionists were "clinically insane". In one area, however, the case is entirely accurate: women remained tied to oven and sink, but in football "the gate-paying spectator" was born.
Even so, the wider picture of technological progress and of social and political change had been gathering force at least since the "second Industrial Revolution" from the 1870s onwards. England's genius - the Edwardians confused "England" with the whole of the British Isles far more than would be allowed now - was not its radicalism but its cosy distinctiveness. There was something praiseworthy in Pinero's gibe at the country as "the suburb of the universe". And when, at the 1908 Olympics, Edward's Queen presented a trophy to the gallant Italian athlete who collapsed just as he was about to win the marathon, she was not unleashing a century of progress, or so we might judge from Paula Radcliffe's experience this summer. The Edwardians loved a loser. We, apparently, do not. In this respect, at least, the future was not anticipated at the beginning of the 20th century.
Jamie Camplin is publishing director, Thames and Hudson, and author of The Rise of the Plutocrats: Wealth and Power in Edwardian England .
Author - Roy Hattersley
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 528
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 316 72537 4