Thursday, 1 October 1998

David Thomson: England in the Twentieth Century (1905-63) (1965)

Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 125

The final volume in the Pelican History of England covers easily the shortest period, less than sixty years. It has a slightly different focus than the other books in the series, concentrating on the relationship between Britain and the rest of the world, and perhaps containing less about the social developments of the period. Thomson combines economic, social and political history into a single narrative, so it is a little bit more difficult to tell what proportion is being given to each type.

In some ways, this may seem a cop-out, as in most periods the economic and social pictures are far more difficult to piece together than the political. This doesn't apply to recent history to the same extent, because these formerly hidden parts of history are far less so: economic and social measurements and data are far more sophisticated, systematic and complete and, even more important, almost immediately available to inform comment and action, so that the affect the political scene far more obviously. (In the eighteenth century, it wasn't possible for the government to know such things as the total wealth of the country, for example.) The history of the labour movement is a fairly obvious case in point; it is clearly a major social and economic phenomenon of the twentieth century, yet it can be fairly adequately documented through its political effects.

No history written two thirds of the way through a century can possibly be considered the seminal popular history of that period; it will probably be another fifty years before historians will be far enough away from its events to look back objectively and see what its truly important trends and events were. In this book, Thomson managed to make a good start; he even avoided the rather ridiculous Churchill-worship which seemed endemic amongst sixties historians.

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