Ubiquitous Tebbit fails to perform

State and Society
September 8, 1995

Having commissioned an innovative history of Scotland and a rather less successful history of England, Edward Arnold has re-entered the textbook market with a new series on the political and social history of Britain. On the basis of his earlier work, the author of this first volume, Martin Pugh, is well chosen.

A wide range of information with only minor inaccuracies is provided in clearly defined sections geared to the demands of A-level and undergraduate curricula. Trenchant judgements are made over a long chronological period. Thus, for example, "to a large extent the British Empire can be seen as the work of homosexuals", while Thatcherism is dismissed as an "aberration in the course of British history".

However, two shortcomings become increasingly apparent. First there is no clear organising theme: topics range from Britain's relative decline, through the growth of central government, to the placing of Thatcherism in historical perspective. Each, or an amalgam of all three, would have been workable. But without an explicit choice or linkage made between these topics, and with many chapters lacking clear-cut introductions and conclusions, the relationship between various sections (and indeed chapters) becomes unclear. Second, the social history provided is very much social history from above. An index that contains five references to Norman Tebbit but only one to the cinema and none to music halls speaks for itself.

Furthermore, surely no full understanding of the "British disease", the growth of central government or even the populism of Margaret Thatcher can be attained without an awareness of the underlying tensions within British society and, in particular, of the conflicting class cultures, such as that found in Ross McKibbin's excellent introduction, The Ideologies of Class (1990). Social history "from below" cannot be ignored because it provides a vital key to the pressures and constraints placed upon politicians.

The lack of a clear analytical framework obscures the relationship between various phenomena and the full range of possible explanations, particularly for government growth. Increasing state intervention was, after all, not unique to Britain but a common feature of all 20th-century western nations. A vast and challenging literature on it exists, rich in empirical detail and theoretical insights. It can pinpoint what was both normal and exceptional about the British experience. But this literature is largely ignored by the author.

Its omission erodes the basis on which readers can form their own judgements. Pugh makes bold, controversial statements but the assumptions on which they are based - such as the actual (rather than potential) efficiency of state intervention and the "reactionary" nature of Thatcherism - remain implicit. They do not emerge - as would be all the more persuasive - out of a balanced review of alternative opinions. And important information is not consistently provided. For example, government employment and expenditure as a percentage of the labour force and gross national product is provided for the period up to 1910 but not thereafter. The bibliography is also an unannotated mixture of monographs and general surveys, excluding several important works such as Jose Harris on evolving political thought, Penny Summerfield on women in the second world war and the authoritative survey of welfare policy after 1974, The State of Welfare (1990), edited by John Hills.

While State and Society contains many individual insights and interesting comparisons over time, particularly in relation to party politics, it does not match the author's previous achievement.

Rodney Lowe is a reader in economic and social history, University of Bristol.

State and Society: British Political and Social History 1870-1992

Author - Martin Pugh
ISBN - 0 340 50710 1
Publisher - Edward Arnold
Price - £12.99
Pages - 352

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