Smith on More, 'Britain in the Twentieth Century'

Charles More
David Smith

Charles More. Britain in the Twentieth Century. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007. xv + 277 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-582-78483-3.

Reviewed by David Smith (Department of History, Lingnan University, Hong Kong) Published on H-Albion (July, 2007)

Napoleon once famously remarked that the English were a nation of shopkeepers. Regardless of whether this should be taken as a compliment or as a calumny, it was certainly what sprang to this reviewer's mind when reading Charles More's recent textbook, Britain in the Twentieth Century. More's work is a comprehensive political, social, and economic history of Britain's many travails and occasional triumphs throughout the last century, but it is one where economics is particularly salient. The overriding impression is of a nation experiencing momentous changes driven by economic imperatives, trends in which governments of whatever political persuasion can merely accelerate or delay the inevitable.

Overall though, this is an impressive work, both in terms of synthesis of scholarship and clarity of organization. With occasional caveats, the analysis of economic and military history is particularly excellent. The book is structured chronologically, but often individual chapters are thematically based. For instance, three chapters cover the period 1974-2003, one addressing politics, one on Britain's relations with the rest of the world, and one exploring social trends. Clarity is further enhanced by the inclusion of boxes providing detailed and invariably illuminating vignettes that otherwise would bog down the flow of the narrative. The boxes are organized in terms of "politics and government" (e.g., "Local Government in the Twentieth Century"), "society and economy" (e.g., "Rural Britain 1945-2000"), "military affairs" (e.g., "The Battle of Britain"), and "people and politics" (e.g., "Clement Attlee"). The author equally deserves plaudits for including a wealth of references to the varying perspectives of other historians in the field of modern British history and a section discussing the current historiographical debates centering on such contentious issues as the causes of Britain's putative "decline" and the legacy of Thatcherism.

Considering how recent--not to mention how emotionally and ideologically charged--much of this history is, it is to More's credit that he generally succeeds in the fraught task of maintaining a reasonable degree of fairness and impartiality, eschewing the more partial perspectives of some other historians. His evaluation of Margaret Thatcher, for instance, is justifiably tentative, but balanced. Some, however, may take umbrage at his explicit downplaying of class identities as a significant phenomenon in twentieth-century British history, and this reviewer was particularly struck by an occasional animus towards Britain's trade union movement.

The extent to which the restrictive labor practices of the trade unions stymied the nation's economic growth and entrepreneurial spirit, particularly in the early post-war decades, is a matter of some contention. The author, however, does himself few favors with occasional intemperate and not fully substantiated comments such as this one, made in the context of the years immediately following the First World War: "And some sections of labour, in a strong position at the end of the war, persisted in making demands which combined impracticality with selfishness" (my emphasis, p. 55). Robust language indeed, and rarely replicated elsewhere in observations on either employers or politicians. By contrast, Neville Chamberlain and other interwar statesmen get off comparatively lightly, with the author opining, "Misjudging Hitler is hardly a crime, and ultimately that was the chief mistake of the appeasers" (p. 88). So that is all right then.

This leads on to the book's two significant (and interrelated) weaknesses. First, the voices of the past are absent. There are few if any quotations from primary documents--speeches, press reports, memoirs, poetry, fragments of literature, and so on. Consequently, much of the vividness of historical evocation, not to mention the sensibilities of past generations, is lost, or at best is merely mediated secondhand through the author. It is thus disappointing that another thematic group of boxes was not included that exclusively quoted from primary sources.

The problem with this is that the mere delineation of facts, statistics, and authorial interpretation deprives the reader of any real understanding of how people reacted to the changing world around them, particularly the ordinary person who found himself or herself at the mercy of vast and often barely understood impersonal forces. To cite merely one example where the absence of contemporary voices fails to convey both historical immediacy and the sensibilities of previous generations, More notes how the National government in 1931 attempted to reduce its budget deficit by slashing unemployment benefits by 10 percent, and then concludes: "However, historians who lambaste the 10 per cent cut..., neglect the fact that, since the benefit rate had been set, prices had decreased by about 12 per cent" (p. 62). Doubtless true, but this reviewer remembers how his mother would relate tales of the miseries her family experienced in these years living on benefit--the ignominy of the Means Test, chopping up household furniture for fuel in order to survive the bitter winters, and so on. How much then would the narrative have benefited, say, from a quotation from George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Similarly, what better way to enliven More's brief disquisition on the Permissive Society of the Sixties, replete with relevant statistical data, with something like Philip Larkin's famous aphorism: "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three. / Between the end of the Chatterley ban /And the Beatles' first LP."[1]

The second weakness is the elision of cultural history. The author acknowledges this, but offers no explanation for its absence. Even more than the lack of primary documents, this is problematic, in the sense that this is a work that is presumably to be used in introductory courses on twentieth-century British history. This is particularly an issue if the book is to be used outside the United Kingdom, where students have at most a vague and tenuous knowledge of British history and society. As an educator teaching undergraduates in Asia, I have a feeling that many of my students would consequently find this textbook overly dry. If nothing else they would have heard of the Beatles, and thus would doubtless be mystified that the Fab Four were relegated in the book to a photograph with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, with no mention being made of them in the text. Therefore, if used as a course textbook, it might be advisable to supplement it with other material better attuned to students' tastes and interests.

A couple of other more minor caveats. For an introductory text on British history aimed at undergraduates, there is a dearth of illustrative material, though the illustrations that are included are invariably apposite. Equally, only two tables and two (not particularly revealing) graphs appear, on the subject of U.K. population and earnings, that for no discernible reason are separated from the main text and exiled in an appendix where they languish bereft of context. There are also a number of typographical errors that could have been corrected with a more rigorous proofreading.

These caveats aside, this is a lucid and generally pedagogically sound introductory history of twentieth-century Britain. Nevertheless, in terms of accessibility and interest to undergraduate students, particularly those from outside the United Kingdom, it may be advisable for lecturers to leaven the nutritionally rich scholarly rigor of the text with sweeteners derived from other, possibly more palatable, sources.


[1]. Philip Larkin, "Annus Mirabilis," in Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: The Marvel Press and Faber and Faber, 1988), 167.

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