Approaches to Britain’s history | Historian | Social History

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Approaches to Britain’s history

Images of Britain
Historians do not work in a vacuum. Our knowledge of the past is influenced by the world in which we live and the way the past intrudes on us on a day-to-day basis. We see images of the past all around us – in paintings and, from the 1840s, in photographs and, more recently, through moving images on film and television. But the past is also interpreted for us in writing, whether in the fictional works of Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens or Graham Greene, or the overtly non-fictional, though often self-justifying, accounts left by participants. All of these shape how we see the country. But so too does the language we use to talk about the past. The rural landscape contains much about our past. In itself the countryside was in 1707 central to the economy, people’s living and everyday existence. The very nature of country landscape tends to recall the past to us – a slower pace of life, fewer services, poorer houses and lower standards of education and culture. In the eighteenth century, the bulk of people lived in small labourers’ cottages, most of which have long since been knocked down. However, the aristocracy and gentry moved out of the fortified structures or modest farmhouses of previous centuries and erected palatial and elegant country houses amid parkland and gardens which today (through visits to National Trust properties) dominate our appreciation of rural landscape and leisure. The kinds of change that have taken place in the built environment reflect the changes in social structures, in politics and in economics that have taken place in Britain over the last 300 years. In almost all cities, there is an historic social division between east end and west end – one strongly middle-class and one working-class in composition. In all cities, suburbs grew in the nineteenth century based on social distinctions, with the better-off generally moving ever westwards to escape the smoke,

Most cities also have their splendid town halls. Boers and Germans. the dangers of the centre. and the darker social commentary of Hogarth’s London scenes or Joseph Wright of Derby’s paintings of industry and science in the eighteenth century provide the visual grammar by which we understand Britain’s past. Manchester’s of 1888 on ‘king cotton’. alongside the memorials commemorating wars against French. Afghans. on shipbuilding and engineering. Military ones proliferate. streets of the skilled and the clerical were separated from those of the ‘rough’. wealth and power: Leeds town hall built in 1858 on woollen industry wealth. often with their country house in the background and evidence of their culture by their side. and to regard the cities that sprang up in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as dark and forbidding places to be condemned for their poor environment and health conditions. Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen (1851). The numbers of spires and church towers – many now put to secular uses – reveal a highly religious society in the last three centuries. Photographs give us a strong sense of our family history – perhaps the most personal and universal way in which we each have an investment in the past. with ‘gentrification’ of city centres and of some working-class suburbs. Although social divisions grew in British cities between 1707 and 1950. the geographies have been changing since then. General Colin Campbell (in Glasgow’s George Square). making our landscape history more complex. few now recall the importance of General Henry Havelock (statue in Trafalgar Square). Politicians and great aristocrats proliferate. and Glasgow’s. with hills and heather behind the mighty stag. Artists. and the working classes and the poor at home. a wealthy middle class was also getting itself painted. also of 1888. Moving images also bring us fictionalised versions of the past which have been extremely influential – especially of Britons at war in William . However. like historians. although few other monarchs are so commemorated outside London. A visit to any of the country’s great cathedrals dramatically brings out the links between church and state – the battle standards of British Army regiments are still housed in the great Christian churches. Zulus. changed images of Britain – bringing not just the successful to our view but also the exotic (with scenes from the British Empire of native peoples and places). with its thatched cottages with flowers growing up the wall. John Constable’s painting The Hay Wain (1821).4 INTRODUCTION the smells. while the less well-off moved eastwards. Joshua Reynolds or Thomas Gainsborough) that revealed a wealthy. Russians. These are often extraordinary statements about local pride. Within predominantly working-class areas. it was photography that. peaceful elite. A look at any townscape tells us other things about the past. The history of our islands also come to us through art. or the relatively unsuccessful General Redvers Buller (in Exeter). By the early nineteenth century. whilst middle-class homes became larger to accommodate servants. the crowds. Everywhere in statues and street names there are Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Statues to heroes and (more rarely) heroines of the past still dot cityscapes. with long-forgotten generals present in abundance. The idealisation continued with eighteenth-century paintings of individuals and families (by artists like Allan Ramsay. from the 1840s. have had a tendency to idealise the British countryside for its rustic values.

And this campaign to create a sense of Britishness worked by making England and Britain largely synonymous. Welsh or Scottish. as well as. The evidence on most of these is that such a lost age never did exist. more recently. In this argument. of deference and patriotism has been a major factor in creating what. of respectability. if polls are to believed. or merely to make money from a people keen to celebrate its own virtues. and how the sense of national identity is fostered and developed. The historian Linda Colley has shown the efforts that politicians and others went to in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to generate a sense of Britishness.APPROACHES TO BRITAIN’S HISTORY 5 Wyler’s Mrs Miniver (1942). And since the 1970s. ‘our island history’. . In the 1950s and 1960s. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). History is often ‘false history’ in the sense that it has been used to push a cause or strengthen an institution. lingering in television series as well as films. is sometimes a discontented and unhappy society. flags. as the distinct identities of those countries emerge. using anthems. In a well-known study. echoed in John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign in the 1990s and Gordon Brown’s promotion of ‘Britishness’ in the 2000s. Lewis Gilbert’s Reach for the Sky (1956) and David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Of course. However. jubilees and parades. leading to Britain becoming home to increasing numbers of black and Asian peoples. there has been rising pressure for home rule and independence in Wales and Scotland. a great deal of the past that has been shown in paintings and films is pure invention. This tendency to manufacture a past is particularly powerful when a national history is involved. The 1980s saw a lively debate on Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s invocation of ‘Victorian values’. It has to be instilled. in what he terms ‘imagined communities’. this imagining of Britishness has been faltering. of neighbourliness. The idea of Britain still depends to a great degree on the notion of unity and heroism brought by the Second World War. but the narrative to the contrary remains the powerful one. Language of the past Particular images of the past also come from phrases in regular use – ‘a thousand years of British history’. no one is born instinctively feeling English. In the 1920s. Historians and others have argued long and hard over what a ‘nation’ is. of politeness. and ‘democratic traditions and values’. the British Empire ended. In all sorts of ways. Nostalgia for an undated ‘lost age’ of order. the American Benedict Anderson argued that nations do not exist other than in the imagination. with Welshness largely disappearing from the public view and the Scots rushing to identify themselves as North Britons. the unity of Britain and Britishness established in the first two centuries covered by this book has in the last century become vulnerable. Ireland was partitioned between a ‘British’ north and an Irish republic in the south. ‘the mother of Parliaments’. invented and fabricated for political reasons – not least to keep us in order. then. to East European migrants.

the debate is over what happened. social and cultural historians. Historians will argue from evidence as to what is the best way to explain episodes from the past. Queen Elizabeth remains a vital source of identity for most Britons. the nation’s past is not a single. intellectual historians. History is like politics – it is open to debate. there are political historians. and devolved government returns in the 2000s to Northern Ireland. with the decline of religion in Britain in the later twentieth century. ‘Britishness’ has changed meaning and resonance. With each decade. The disputed British past History is dominated by debate. was being displaced by competing multicultural identities – of black. Though monarchy was. like monarchy itself. New knowledge. new information about events. historians are not disputing facts but debating the significance of events and processes. the Royal Family is the nation’s central vehicle for expressing its history. economic historians. contemporary concerns and perspectives. As nationalism rises in Scotland and Wales. the British state still perpetuates Britishness in parades. the past is re-examined to bring out modern agendas and understanding. Scottish. Most of the time. there are different approaches. can change the basic knowledge of an episode or process in the past. resulting from new knowledge about climate change and the impact that humankind has had upon the planet. For example. national war memorials and pageants of royalty and celebrity. historians of the labour movement. and confounds many predictions of the end of monarchy. the history of women become a major part of the writing of history. At the same time. historians of religion. These instances demonstrate that the way history is written tends to be strongly influenced by the concerns of the present time. and how to interpret them.6 INTRODUCTION This means that the language of the past and present is not stable. though. Yet. are given to constructing their research around large questions that form the centres of debate. It is a term which. and historians of Britain are just as likely as any others to disagree over interpreting the nation’s past. military regiments. by 2000. Asian. More than any other single institution. But. as it is called) is thus to consider different interpretations and approaches to the past. the emphasis on religious history has waned (though not disappeared). Was the Industrial Revolution really industrial or a revolution? Did the British working classes benefit from industrialisation between 1760 and . With the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s. rather more than other historians. however. historians of science and of philosophy. much less influential than it had been even a hundred years before. Sometimes. and also the re-mergence of English identity. Economic historians. There are several examples of these. it remains a symbol of political unity. agreed understanding. On the other hand. It is analysis and interpretation that drives forward new publications in books and history journals. More recently. based on documents or other sources that have come to light. there has been a tremendous growth in environmental history. Irish and Welsh. by 2000. Looking at history writing (‘historiography’.

wrote in 1775: ‘We must consider how very little history there is. 13. historians are more prone to seek to produce consensus in their narratives. Macaulay. Nevertheless. . p. But they are often complex and subtle. This reflects the way in which there is less emphasis on an agreed narrative of British economic history than on exposing the lines of debate. and stressed the primacy of ‘facts’ and the creation of policy from facts as both possible and superior to any other method. and certain battles fought. That certain Kings reigned. dating from the eighteenth century. there are disputes going on everywhere in the study of British history. Thus. T. rather than as subjects based around clearly defined disputes. In other areas. Here 1 Quoted in M. 1999). rather than structural to the study of each subject. Samuel Johnson. with a greater than usual focus on disputed interpretations in the chapters on economic matters. A sceptic of historical writing. I mean real authentick history. gender history. the Enlightenment prompted a rejection of the power of religion in interpretation while sustaining a place for religion as a stabilising social force. Studying the past could teach lessons and release modern knowledge from the unwelcome power of religious fanaticism and superstition. The Enlightenment encouraged a search for ‘truth’ and objectivity. Moreover. Of course.’1 The romantic view of British greatness continued in nineteenth-century writing. As the Enlightenment evolved. and to seek to influence the way in which this narrative is produced by introducing new areas of research and new angles on existing ones. Political history: putting the Great in Britain The earliest history of Britain. Bentley.APPROACHES TO BRITAIN’S HISTORY 7 1830? Did the late Victorian economy fail? Was the British economy regenerated in the 1930s? Was the British economy in decline from the 1960s? This book in part reflects this tendency. One consequence was a tendency to marry history with philosophy. Modern Historiography: An Introduction (London. Britain was a nation envisaged as the culmination of intellectual and cultural progress. topics like social and cultural history. all the philosophy of history is conjecture. but all the colouring. but in the work of one of the great exponents. though in Hume’s Tory/Jacobite view it lost merit because of the Hanoverian succession. was written mostly by men. Rather than seeking religious lessons from the past.B. Routledge. we can depend upon as true. behind the search for truth there lingered a strong romance about the developing ‘greatness’ of Britain. and the history of immigration and race appear as part of the increasing diversity of the narrative of British history. as in David Hume’s History of England of the 1750s. the history they wrote moved further and further away from medieval conceptions of the role of religion. the Tory view was replaced by a Whig outlook of upward progress in a grand idealistic narrative. the way in which historians such as Hume and Edward Gibbon wrote placed emphasis on the creative imagination of events rather on documentary evidence and scrupulous attention to detail.

Praise came for the absence of revolution and civil war on mainland Britain after the 1740s. This tendency is one that underscores much of the writing of British political history until the midtwentieth century. On the contrary. English historians had particular faith in a trait of English character that seemed to desire liberty. utilitarian and pragmatic political system of Britain itself. not as a result of pressures from outside. education and industry. it was still very easy for historians to slip back into Whig interpretations that take the present as the starting point and look at how things arrived there. Social mobility was seen as a benefit to civil progress. rather than trying to devise some grand narrative. The focus was very much on political history. It encouraged the study of the minutiae of a period or of individual lives. Even so. ideas changed as a result of history changing – a vision of history matching what seemed the sensible. which seemed to have modernised its outlook and legitimacy whilst. the breakdown of social harmony and an end to progress itself. One of the strongest challenges to the Whig interpretation was in Sir Lewis Namier’s study of The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929). Historians writing at the peak of British imperial progress in the nineteenth century found it difficult to avoid speaking in praise of the nation – its progress. a desire they traced back to Anglo-Saxon times and which could never be totally suppressed. In their view. which sought to trace a centuries-long progress of constitutional change. its leadership and dominance. Constitutional reform came about as a result of manoeuvres among the political elite. This gave rise to what is referred to as the Whig interpretation of British history. leading to the present. The British system was seen as far superior to anything elsewhere in the world. education and rational religion that allowed for the dutiful acknowledgement of both the world of God and the world of man. This outlook suited the imperial . many historians of the mid-twentieth century rejected the influence of ideas in determining human progress. The emphasis was on English exceptionalness because of the avoidance of revolution (other than what was regarded as an exceptional – and therefore Glorious – English Revolution in 1688) and the formation of an apparently free society. The history of Britain was written as the story of the gradual extension of constitutional government since 1688 and resistance to any attempts to increase royal power. The emphasis was on the peculiar stability of Britain and its steady progress. with demands for other areas of history to be studied. and such an approach came under attack from the 1930s. ideas did not cause history to change. often attributed to the unwritten constitution and the facility it allowed for change. Influenced by such an approach. there seemed to be a rigidity that had led to revolution. together with the absorption of new elites into the hierarchies of power. in the anciens régimes of European nations. which presented a picture of politics not shaped by ideas but by the narrow self-interest of individuals. law. its superiority in religion. responsive.8 INTRODUCTION the romance of British greatness focused considerably on Britain’s constitutional monarchy from 1688. There was an assumption of the nationalistic uniqueness of the English and Scots as superior and well-adjusted peoples who had systems of law. and for these interpretations to be embedded in other parts of the history discipline in ideas such as ‘the rise of the welfare state’ and ‘the long march of labour’.

. he developed a critique of Britain’s supposed greatness that was essentially conservative yet which saw radicalism as the maintenance of the tried and tested past. . like British imperial elites.2 2 J. p.L. and this spirit has done more than any event in English history to create the ‘two nations’ of which Disraeli used to speak. because it regarded men and women not as citizens but as servants of that power.vi. however. radical political campaigns and pronounced revolutionary notions. This established a tradition of combined scholarship and commentary that regarded worker-radicalism not as revolutionary but as essentially opposed to change. So. radicalism was seen as protecting the people from harmful change. Few historians now regard the British Empire or restricted voting rights as having been an unalloyed good thing. Significant in the origins of this trend was the emergence of labour and social history. Britons subordinated ideas to the need to get the job done. but they adopt more pragmatic criteria with which to judge the politicians and administrators who managed the country under those circumstances.L. On the contrary in this outlook. and Barbara Hammond. . J. Hammond and B. there is now a more nuanced understanding of the influence in previous centuries of ideas and ideologies upon the minds of the great leaders and their formulation and conduct of national policy. British historians. Unlike Namier’s history style. The Hammonds wrote: The social system produced by the Industrial Revolution reflected a spirit that we may describe as a spirit of complacent pessimism. Green & Company. 1920). The Town Labourer 1760–1832: The New Civilisation (London. Longmans. Hammond. This vision of the past has been overtaken by more complex and varied narratives in recent political history writing. This age had taken for its aim the accumulation of economic power. Like many radicals of the time. there emerged in the 1910s a concerted critique of the benefits of economic and constitutional progress for the plight of working people.APPROACHES TO BRITAIN’S HISTORY 9 mentality of the time as the British Empire moved towards the liberation of the old colonies to constitute the British Commonwealth of independent nations. Labour and social history The reputed ‘greatness’ of British history was challenged by emerging anti-industrial intellectuals of the nineteenth century. With husband and wife historians. human nature had to suffer. . William Cobbett (1763 –1835) wrote in a diary called Rural Rides of a trip around England in the 1820s in which he saw industrialism destroying the landscape and the yeoman people who were the backbone of the nation. If the needs of that power seemed to conflict with the needs of human nature. and its guiding philosophy was a dividing force. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In its extreme form this theory made the mass of the nation the cannon-fodder of industry. this tradition merged with the growing Labour movement of trade unions. saw the British as not fixated on ideas and principles like the French or even the Germans.

colleges. which should produce. which can be read at http:// www. self-interest and the need to survive as social groups. Thompson wrote in 1963: ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger.org/archive 4 E. According to Marx. especially in new and adventurous universities.’3 So the work of these scholars combined economic history with a new strong social history. with Marxist historians. were rapidly staffed with left-wing social historians.P Thompson. Eric Hobsbawm and E.10 INTRODUCTION In this way. . British Marxist historians. p. churches and public affairs in general. took the surge towards social history to new heights.P. the first nation to industrialise. This brought historians to re-examine the flaws of economic and political advance – the ‘oppression’ of the people through the loss of rights to control the work process. Thompson. Marx and F. 3 K.P. or have produced. From the 1950s to the 1970s. As E. Many of these took up the ideas of the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci to examine how the working people of Britain’s past were held down not merely by economic oppression in the workplace. the writing of British history was radically altered by a generation of left-wing writers. but also by what he called the ‘hegemony’ (or dominance) of the pervasive bourgeois culture in schools. Marxists looked upon Britain as the first industrial nation. Scholarship came also to look more directly at how the people resisted such pressures and came close to erupting in that supposedly inevitable revolution to overturn capitalism. and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott. concentrating on the people. In this view. what caused history to progress was economic determinism. much of British social history of the 1960s and 1970s was devoted to answering the question why Britain. This produced a vast explosion of historical investigation into British labour history. 1968 edn). the first proletarian revolution. As he and Engels wrote: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. and through declining cultural freedom. capitalism itself became the target for historical criticism and. the history of social organisation and the social condition of the people. failed to produce a proletarian revolution. Engels. history was an ineluctable progression through the states of primitivism.marxists. feudalism and capitalism towards an ideal state of communal ownership (in which private possessions were reduced to the level of individual need). the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver. the “utopian” artisan. the Luddite cropper. became openly the object of assault by those in pursuit of the proletarian revolution. but never quite did so. The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth.’4 This group and others trained a generation of historians who. The Communist Manifesto (1848). such as Christopher Hill. were originally members of the Communist Party and their scholarship of the 1950s and after grew out of what was termed ‘scientific Marxism’. Indeed. Penguin. the downtrodden and the poor in an empathetic manner. from the mid-1960s. 13. That it did not aroused tremendous scholarly inquiry into what factors in Britain’s past prevented this from happening. University history departments. from the enormous condescension of posterity.

Thompson called a ‘moral economy’. This was best seen in the influential work of an American historian. it was understandable that economic conditions were often at the forefront of explaining important moments of historical change. when primitivism and naïveté dominated. Economic historians from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century were optimistic and bullish. The World We Have Lost (London. Rostow. Economic history Underlying the rise of social history. At the same time. he wrote: ‘All our ancestors were literal Christian believers. Sociologists in the mid-twentieth century developed a large and adaptable theory. One book typified this influence. the theory of modernisation. p. The theory positioned this transformation as a long-term one. and claimed to explain much of the nature of the modern condition of a largely unreligious. W. the first nation to experience what seemed to be economic decline. individual worker freedoms.APPROACHES TO BRITAIN’S HISTORY 11 The rise of left-wing history writing was accompanied by a growing influence of sociological theory amongst historians. the rush to social history accompanied theories which seemed to permit historians – Marxist and right-wing alike – to explain the creation of the secular.W. alienated. has been economic history. Of that age. 1965). who favoured capitalism as the exemplar of modernity and progress. Methuen. to explain the emergence of modern society. principally from the eighteenth century onwards. were keen to provide a more systematic and scientific understanding of what made Britain the first nation to industrialise and. With so many British historians viewing the progress of Britain’s past in terms of material advance. though not always in agreement with it. Social and labour historians do not deny that standards of living improved in more recent times. historians of the right. P. 71. but they tend to look negatively at the impact of the Industrial Revolution. who in the midst of the Cold War in 1960 argued that the British Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century should be exported to the 5 P. incorporating intellectual and social movements which fostered modern social relations and outlooks. all of the time. In many ways it is the opposite of a Whig approach in that the preindustrial past (of the eighteenth century at least) is seen as one of good community relations. Laslett. . Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost (1965). socially stratified urban world with few social bonds of paternalism and deference. In this way. from the late nineteenth century. a calm pace of life and what E. which in its very title conveyed the hypothesis that there had been a golden age of social harmony and relative peace before the Industrial Revolution.’5 This represents a powerful thread running through much left-wing historiography – ‘golden ageism’ and the adverse impact of industrialism and urbanism upon the lives of the people. urban consumerist society of the mid-twentieth century.

in some cases. decades of poor industrial relations between trade unions and company management were blamed for bad working practices. Cambridge University Press. about failure. looked even for its moral origins. This became even more pronounced in the 1980s when there was a challenge to what was perceived as a culture of decline in British politics. there was the so-called ‘British disease’ – strikes that were seen to have crippled the British economy from the 1950s onwards. by the 1960s. 1950s and 1960s was seen as one cause. The shedding of empire in the 1940s. suggested cultural causes and. successive disputes caused high wage inflation. low productivity. engineering and volume car production. marked by the rhetoric and politics of the Thatcher Conservative government elected in 1979. Rostow. In the 1970s. At the same time. From this arose the notion of a ‘dependency culture’ which. Some economic historians trace these problems of Britain further back. and the dominance in economic thinking of coal mining. and undermining the sense of British national purpose. finally contributing to the fall of the Labour government of James Callaghan in that year. undermined savings investment. taking the British economy to be in decline. On top of this. It was claimed that insufficient numbers of people with drive and ambition.12 INTRODUCTION developing nations of the world as a model for growth to counter the export of communism from the Soviet Union. low investment in new machinery and. A few economic historians of the 1980s were strongly influenced by the outlook of the Thatcher government. History mattered politically. lay at the root of Britain’s failure to move with the economic times. and tracing the reasons for this in the negation of the conditions of individualism and weak state power that had caused the Industrial Revolution. it became blamed for allowing British 6 W. . above all. passing the baton of progress to countries like the USA and Japan. diverting investment overseas in the 1870 –1914 period. Blame now fell upon the Empire for a conglomeration of economic mistakes even earlier – notably.6 But whilst the British Industrial Revolution remained an exemplar of economic progress. shipbuilding. fostered by the welfare state after 1945. Along with this came a great deal of historical writing that looked at the economic origins of British decline. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge. entrepreneurship and originality.W. and willing to take economic risks. British manufacturing methods bred labour-intensive operations. A continued reliance on manufacturing of older staple products. were held to have diverted investment and risk-taking away from exciting new products like electronics. 1960). just when it was most needed at home to re-invent manufacturing industry for new products and new markets. and produced immoral behaviour (including the strike of grave diggers in 1979). much of the history written about Britain’s recent economic past was. they argued. Whilst reliance on the closed imperial market was seen to have been a benefit to nurturing industry between 1760 and 1870. had eroded individuality. diverting excessive resources into the maintenance of overseas colonies in their declining years prior to independence.

APPROACHES TO BRITAIN’S HISTORY 13 manufacturers to rest on their laurels thereafter. Whilst not all historians agreed with this analysis. It had been widely believed that British productivity and rates of investment had been low and that the ‘British disease’ – strike action – had been a massive problem that had distinguished British experience from that of the USA and most European countries. The original founders of big enterprises were innovative and risk-taking. German and French manufacturers. We examine the Wiener thesis in Chapter 20. Supporters of this argument spotted various elements. there was a particular denigration of what the youth culture of the 1960s had done to British moral fibre. at a very healthy rate. moreover. A new moral right emerged in politics and. The cultural origins of Britain’s supposed decline had developed as an intrinsic element in the economic story. The argument here was centred on the idea that Britain never really accepted industrial capitalism. a series of myths that had developed were shown. British entrepreneurship was flawed by a constant preference for being ‘gentlemen’ rather than ‘players’ – for playing the game rather than playing to win. but it is important to note here that this approach amounted to describing a failure of the industrial spirit in Britain. and not keeping up with innovation by American. The first realisation was that during the period 1950 –90. to some extent. sexual promiscuity and drug-taking represented a loss of inhibition and restraint that was blamed for social breakdown and the rise of crime in Britain from 1957 onwards. The American historian Martin Wiener asserted that the British were fundamentally hostile to industrial cities. The new research showed these statements to be false. First. to the grime and smog of such places. there was talk of a generational decline in entrepreneurship. amongst scholars. there were scholars like Christie Davies who argued from the 1970s onwards that moral deviance had become the norm in British young people. there was reputedly a decline of hard work and thrift. Led by Margaret Thatcher. With this. the British economy was not in decline. In the 1990s and 2000s. to be untrue. bringing in failure in education and religion. instead partying their family’s fortune away on the French Riviera. It was growing and. The moral failings of Britain also entered the rhetoric of historians who argued for ‘the decline of Britain’ hypothesis. With it. The rise of popular music. and the third generation were prepared to live off the profits of the firm but to take little interest in how they were made. . and to the factory. and an aversion to urban living. which were replaced by increasing reliance upon the state for social handouts. The third major argument was that the cause of this was a fundamental absence of a spirit of industrial capitalism. historians have once again begun to reshape the understanding of British economic history. At the same time. Secondly. This developed into a theory of an ‘economic climacteric’ in the late 1870 –1914 period – a pinnacle of British progress from which British economic decline could be dated – which enjoyed considerable support amongst economic historians through the 1980s. relying on imperial sales. But this cultural analysis pushed the origins of the problem further back to the very foundations of the Industrial Revolution. under close examination. came reassessments of the post-war British economy. the second generation began to turn away from the firm and involve themselves in public affairs.

Other explanations lay in a desire to see failure in a period of change. Gramsci and sociology for those of Barthes. religion and other categories. race. showed that Britain was either at the top or pretty near to the top of the economic performance of advanced industrial nations. the pessimists averred. and because too much reliance had been placed on it by left-wing historians to explain British history. a new cultural history grew directly out of Marxism – a new cultural history of the left. but was to spread across the whole discipline. The economy was adjusting to a postmanufacturing age. Cultural history One of the powerful trends in the writing of British history since the 1980s has been the rise of cultural history. with other west European nations catching up with the British position. But others traded the theories of Marx. It thus became vital to look at cultural explanations of economic history analysis and to think about the different ways in which the nation’s economic past had been branded. including the civil service and political parties – and was commonly found in the British press. and as too little concerned with thinking about gender. Class came to be regarded as increasingly problematic for study because of its variable and indeterminate meanings. as too obsessed with studying Marxist-driven ideas about class struggle and the chances of worker revolution. The second realisation was that the reason this account of the British past had developed was that a ‘culture of decline’ pervaded the British elites – the top echelons of government. creating the prospect of historians only ever being chroniclers of modernisation. in overseas images of Britain. There was cultural revolution in the air and these developments were seen to be undermining British traditional values and experience. many women’s historians placed gender as a category of analysis that was of immense and . when looked at dispassionately and closely.14 INTRODUCTION The statistical hard data. This was seen as too dependent on sociological theories (like modernisation) which compelled thinking in terms of progress or its reverse. and amongst many historians. This developed mainly within social history. and brought British historiography more closely in line with historians’ ideas from Europe and elsewhere. In its stead. Poststructuralism raised doubts about the validity of historians’ structures like social class. The reliance on social science methodology supposed the past could be understood with the certainties of science itself. At the root of cultural history lay a series of concerns with social history. For some in the 1980s and 1990s. and the loss of a role. was the loss of empire. Foucault and Derrida – for a modern cultural theory (sometimes referred to as postmodernism and poststructuralism). This realisation led to the ‘culture of decline’ itself becoming an interesting object for study: just why did British commentators becomes so pessimistic about British economic and cultural life in the 1960s and 1970s? Part of the answer. Cultural historians had a significant impact on the way British history was studied.

This has had a number of key characteristics. Though very large numbers of married women (especially of the working classes) did. the historian essentially explores the differences in meaning between then and now. and we carefully consider our meaning and the meanings of past peoples. is to look at representations – often referred to as ‘discourses’. this discourse was approvingly represented for many centuries in the word ‘housewife’. This interest is not limited to understanding individual words. go out to work. First. Looking at representations of such objects in daily life results in a deeper appreciation of how each age understood itself. bowls and bed-sheets have in the eighteenth-century world of status? How did a man foster a sense of masculinity in industrialising Britain of the early nineteenth century? Why did so many married women of the mid-twentieth century adopt ‘housewife’ as a self-description? How were arriving Afro-Caribbeans and Asians looked upon by a predominantly white society in the 1950s? To answer these questions. The cultural historian gains much by reflecting on the meaning of entirely commonplace things. ‘social class’ and ‘inequality’) and what we are implying by them. while historians of colour looked to race and ethnicity as categories that required to be examined intensively in British domestic and imperial history. For example. without a job. Discourses tell us what. if so. and how our interpretations of the past derive from present concepts. the term and its discourse have fallen from universal popularity. though it retains a greater power and significance amongst some ethnic groups. the approving meaning of ‘housewife’ has become more ambiguous (sometimes implying a woman who has missed out on a career and worldly excitement). it was considered by most of the British middle classes that a woman’s proper desire was to be married and that her place was in the home. peoples and identities. to be a spinster was seen as undesirable – ‘on the shelf ’. whether they understood them in the same way as we do today. A discourse is an injunction or interpretation being expressed by a representation to which people adhere in daily life.APPROACHES TO BRITAIN’S HISTORY 15 underrated importance. When we use these words. beliefs and ideologies. History as a written account is conjured by the words we invoke. it has encouraged reflection on the ‘historians’ gaze’: how factors in our own time determine what aspects of the past interest us. The study of a term like ‘housewife’ and what it has represented in different times and for different people is one example of how cultural history has changed ways of . A key device of the cultural historian. This starts with reflecting on the language we use to write our historical narrative – our use of terms (ranging from ‘nation’ and ‘empire’. in more recent times. bringing up children. we will see later in the book how. in fact. what place did material things like cutlery. having failed to ‘catch a man’. was considered to be ideal behaviour and what was considered deviant or unacceptable. whilst her husband worked. but encompasses wider representations. from around 1800 to 1960. For example. These impulses fostered amongst historians a cultural understanding of Britain’s past. to ‘Industrial Revolution’. However. then. notably since the 1960s. we must immediately consider whether the peoples of Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used them and. in a given time and culture.

. 2000) . Polity Press. What is History Now? (Basingstoke. Postmodernism for Historians (Harlow. 1992) Green. eclectic and multicultural history that has only recently been more fully recognised. This technique is sometimes referred to as discourse analysis. 2001) Cannadine. Pearson Longman. about what powerful men did. Palgrave Macmillan.. M. and what irrefutable single visions can be used in writing it.. P. (ed. is no longer acceptable. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-century History and Theory (Manchester. A.. 2004) Colley. Longman. J. Modern Historiography: An Introduction (London. 1999) Tosh. 2005) Burke. and we will see its influence in a variety of chapters in this book (including in sections on gender. (eds). K. Historians bring different skills to studying different themes. Britons. the former notion that British history is about the nation only. L.. In this way. and Troup.G.16 INTRODUCTION viewing the past and has expanded the agenda of issues for study. Yale University Press. Manchester University Press. and the nation has developed a rich.. 1999) Brown. This book reflects the trend towards diversifying the angles of approach to the history of Britain. Routledge. New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge. D. sexuality and black Britain). Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven. The Pursuit of History: Aims.). C. Methods and Directions in the Study of Modern History (London. Further reading Bentley.

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