Puncturing political myth

A History of the Modern British Isles, 1914-1999
March 1, 2002

This is avowedly a textbook designed for students and general readers. It aims to afford a clear, comprehensible account "featuring those things I feel students and general readers should want to know". A distinctive feature is the amount of space it awards social and cultural topics and the Celtic lands, with a useful reminder of how prominently "the Irish problem" has figured in British politics. Equally, Arthur Marwick persuasively shows that, if any revolution occurred in Britain, it was in values and ways of living, with the disappearance of the restraints and narrow and intolerant parochialism that once permeated established "morality".

The book's strength lies in its clarity rather than in originality. Lucid, sound and authoritative, it exhibits a deep familiarity with secondary and primary sources, the fruits of a long and productive study of 20th-century British history. It explores the interaction between, on the one hand, political actions and, on the other, "forces" and "circumstances". Historical explanation, Marwick advises, is all about "the structural, ideological and institutional circumstances which determine both the possibilities for... and the limits upon change" - a view immediately qualified by the claim that "contingency and accident are often critical". One is left wondering, however, precisely what part contingency played and how the turn of events may have been different.

The text is speckled with statistical tables that would have benefited from more interpretation. But for those whose historical grasp is unsure, the book is well stocked with reminders that puncture contemporary myths along the way. For example, the assertion that no full Labour government in the past has managed to increase its support. After six tumultuous years in office, the 1945 Labour administration emerged with 2 million more votes and more than 48 per cent of the poll (although it was turfed out of office by the electoral system), while, by comparison, Thatcherite "hegemony" was sustained by no more than 43 per cent. Second, the notion that a "progressive alliance" of Labour and the Liberals could have secured political ascendancy if Labour had not obstructed it. This overlooks the fact that the Liberals leaned at least as much to the right as to the left; half their MPs defected to the Tories in the 1930s. And third, the thesis that globalisation - the claim that international financial pressures now hobbles the ability of the nation-state to pursue progressive policies - is a recent phenomenon. Informed in 1931 that a United States loan was conditional on axing "high government spending", Ramsey MacDonald (according to the official minutes) "warned the Cabinet of the calamitous nature of the consequences which would immediately and inevitably follow from a financial panic and a flight from the pound".

The book's usually restrained tone does not preclude the occasional waspish observation - particularly against political outsiders. It is not difficult to surmise that the author's broad sympathy lies with the "secular Anglicanism" (a somewhat Whiggish notion), which he feels has generally pervaded British life. But it is the turbulence of the century more than its tranquillity that he most effectively conveys.

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, University of Stirling.

A History of the Modern British Isles, 1914-1999: Circumstances, Events and Outcomes. First edition

Author - Arthur Marwick
ISBN - 0 631 19521 1 and 19522 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £15.99
Pages - 414

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