Speaking Volumes: The Road to 1945

January 12, 1996

Harriet Jones on Paul Addison's The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War .

I spent my evenings last August on the front porch of a cabin in the Blue Ridge mountains in the eastern United States listening to my father read Our Island Story to my seven-year-old son, Bobby.

Bobby, who is normally moved only by advertisements for the latest breakfast cereal or the mutant power ninja rats, sat entranced after a day's fishing or hiking listening to the exploits of King Alfred, a phenomenon I found rather puzzling, to say the least. I guess that part of it was Daddy's southern drawl ("Quaheen Bowd-I-Chee-Ugh"), which could hypnotise anyone, particularly a child raised in the East End of London. But when I sat down to write of the book that had most influenced me as a historian, it struck me rather wistfully how convenient it would be if I could explain how a girl from Nashville became a specialist on contemporary Britain because her father had read her Our Island Story on sultry summer nights with the crickets chirping and the lightning bugs blinking. No such luck, I'm afraid. The truth is that I entered university as a science major and was so desperate to switch by the end of the first semester that when I read Helen MacInesse's The Salzburg Connection I decided I wanted to be a spy, and switched to a double major in international relations and German the following day. Spying never worked out for me, though (I could not decide which side to work for) which is probably a good thing given the end of the cold war. And so I ended up as a contemporary historian, choosing Britain, to be quite honest, because it was simpler to do a doctorate at the London School of Economics than in Germany (or so I naively thought at the time).

Without any doubt, the text that has had the greatest influence on me, and most of us who spent the early 1980s at the Public Records Office, is Paul Addison's The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War. The book appeared in 1975 and its central argument is that the experience of fighting the Nazis against all odds engendered a new consensus in Britain around a set of values (Keynesianism, full employment, the welfare state) that lasted pretty much until the end of the Heath government. By the early 1980s, consensus had become a central concept in our understanding of postwar Britain, and indeed the debate over the extent and nature of that consensus is still alive and kicking in 1996.

As young postgraduates, we spent a lot more time than we ought to have done in the canteen at the PRO derisively unpicking Addison's arguments with the smug cynicism that is the irritating trait of young postgraduates everywhere.

Gradually, as we have begun to grow old and publish ourselves, many of the premises upon which the argument originally rested have been successfully unpicked. This is partly due to new research and the enlightenment that comes as the 30-year tidemark yields whatever flotsam and jetsam is there to be scavenged. I suspect, however, that it is largely the retreating memory of the political passions we lived through in the Thatcher era that has made what came before seem less remarkable. Debunking the postwar consensus has led to a tiresome series of heated seminars and conferences over the years, and defenders of the idea often cling to it with an orthodox fundamentalism calling to mind some of the wackier Christian sects I grew up with in the Bible Belt. But through it all, Addison himself has absorbed the debate with the good grace and continuing academic freshness that should be the hallmark of a true intellectual mind. Today, when I reread The Road to 1945, what I find most striking is the beauty of his prose, the force of his argument, and the awesome and painstaking research that underpins it. Although I still do not agree with him, it is one hell of an achievement, and one that has not been matched since.

Harriet Jones is a senior lecturer in contemporary British and European history, University of Luton.

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