All our yesterdays

Britain Since 1945. First edition
February 27, 2004

This book is an exercise in contemporary history, although of the 23 contributors very few are practising historians. The bulk are sociologists, political scientists and economists, all trying to identify major contours of change.

Since so much of these disciplines' efforts are focused on the here and now, an approach that insists that full understanding requires looking through time, is to be warmly welcomed. It is a common complaint of social-science teachers that their students have such little historical background that they cannot grasp the import of present-day patterns.

Britain Since 1945 has set out to address this shortcoming by providing a comprehensive account of major developments since the second world war. This is a challenging task since it is widely accepted that this period has witnessed the most significant changes in ways of life in recorded history, and these have accelerated over the past two decades.

By limiting itself to Britain, this work can at least avoid discussions of concepts such as globalisation, although this gives it a somewhat parochial feel. Nevertheless, the focus on one nation allows for depth and detail.

Each chapter has about 6,000 words, contains a chronology of major events and selected further reading. Topics cover a wide range, from the constitution, culture, the civil service, media, science and employment patterns to the position of women.

The book is aimed at undergraduates and school students. It is divided into three parts: "Politics and government" (11 chapters), "Society" (eight) and "Economics" (four). This distribution strikes me as somewhat odd, giving Britain Since 1945 an overly political-science stress, with an attendant emphasis on administrative detail. More concern for underlying themes such as decolonisation, industrial decline, occupational transformations and the growth of new social movements would have made an improvement.

Inevitably, the contributions are uneven, but there are certainly some outstanding essays. Arthur Marwick's assured analysis of demography, sex and marriage, class structure, leisure and crime stands out, although there can be no complaints about the rich empirical reviews, combined with lucid prose, of Duncan Gallie (employment and the labour market), Jane Lewis (women's experiences), Ray Fitzpatrick (healthcare) and Anthony Heath (education).

These are Oxford University dons, and authorship is dominated by senior contributors from Oxford, Warwick and London universities. The calibre of such academics ensures that the work is of high standard, if also somewhat staid and narrow. Consequently, it contains lots of material on government and administration but little on sport and tourism.

It is also striking, for instance, that the thoroughly competent, if quaintly titled, chapter on "Race relations" fails to mention either the pioneering work of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy or the groundbreaking Parekh report The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (2000).

It is also a limitation that, while there are excellent reviews of the Celtic fringe (notably Kenneth Morgan's masterly overview of Wales), there is no chapter dedicated to the question of identity, although - at least in England - some of the most compelling changes since 1945 revolve around the question "Who are we?" Jim McGuigan's stimulating account of "Cultural change" gets close to this matter, but has insufficient space to do it justice.

Teachers will feel able to recommend Britain Since 1945 as an authoritative and up-to-date source. However, as regards the intended audience, the book is open to criticism. This is evident in a tension, running through the work, between contributors offering polemical and even tendentious interpretations and those presenting little more than a record of major changes (the political scientists' contributions are especially prone to this). The uninitiated will find this confusing and off-putting.

Insensitivity to the target audience is also evident in the conflict between accounts that tend towards the listing of events and statutes and those that are more confidently thematic. There is also a tendency for authors to reference names that, to the young, will mean very little - most people over 40 will be familiar with Enoch Powell's 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech, but an 18-year-old needs some background to the person and occasion. Indeed, most of the contributors here appear unaware that youngsters entering a university this year were aged six or seven when Margaret Thatcher lost office, so she is distant history.

Further, the index is thin and will be of little use to novitiates. Again, while some authors use the "further reading" sections to provide an annotated guide to key literature, most simply list numerous titles - of limited use to the student who will reach for this book as a guide. Finally, the chronologies at the end of chapters bear no necessary relation to what went before and should have been better integrated.

Britain Since 1945 will not serve adequately as a text for introductory courses. That said, it must be stressed that this book is a valuable resource.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University, London.


Britain Since 1945. First edition

Editor - Jonathan Hollowell
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 464
Price - £60.00 and £15.99
ISBN - 0 631 20967 0 and 20968 9

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