The Macaulay of the Welfare State

David Cannadine

  • The BBC: The First 50 Years by Asa Briggs
    Oxford, 439 pp, £17.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 19 212971 6
  • The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs. Vol. I: Words, Numbers, Places, People
    Harvester, 245 pp, £30.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0094 0
  • The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs. Vol. II: Images, Problems, Standpoints, Forecasts
    Harvester, 324 pp, £30.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 7108 0510 1
  • The 19th Century: The Contradictions of Progress edited by Asa Briggs
    Thames and Hudson, 239 pp, £18.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 500 04013 3

Asa Briggs has just produced three new books. This piece of information is made even more remarkable by the fact that he has published 26 already. Admittedly, there are some, like How they lived, 1700-1815 and They saw it happen, 1897-1940, which are largely collections of contemporary documents, and which have merely been awarded Briggs’s benediction. And others, like The 19th Century, which has just been reissued, and Essays in Labour History, are edited volumes, to which he has contributed only a chapter and an introduction. But the majority are authentic works by his own hand: textbooks, like The Age of Improvement; scholarly books, like Victorian People and Victorian Cities; picture books, like The Power of Steam and Ironbridge to Crystal Palace; bestsellers, like A Social History of England; and multi-volume blockbusters, like The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. While lesser historians fiddle over footnotes, Briggs dashes off reviews; while they ruminate over reviews, he completes articles; while they agonise over articles, he manufactures books; and while they bother over books, he produces multi-volume works. As befits his position as the pre-eminent authority on Victorian England, Briggs has often been described as a steam-engine scholar, pounding along the tracks of historical endeavour like an express train at full throttle.

Yet this prodigious and unrivalled output has not been the product of limitless research time, nor of leisured and scholarly detachment. On the contrary, as well as being one of the best and the brightest, Briggs has enjoyed a parallel – and unparalleled – career as one of the great and the good. He has shouldered heavy burdens of academic administration, as Professor of Modern History at Leeds, as a founding father and Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University, and as Provost of Worcester College, Oxford. He has walked the corridors of power, as a member of the UGC, as British representative to the United Nations University, and as chairman of a government committee on nursing. He has held a clutch of decorous and dignified offices, as Chancellor of the Open University, and as President of the WEA, the Social History Society, the Society for the Study of Labour History, and the Society for the Social History of Medicine. And he appears regularly on television, is an incorrigible conference-goer, and spends so much time jetting round the world on business that when he received his peerage, it was suggested by some that he might take the title Lord Briggs of Heathrow. If in one guise he is a supersonic G.M. Trevelyan, then in another he is the thinking man’s Lord Mountbatten.

No one can travel so much, do so much or write so much without attracting his detractors: the greater the achievement, the larger the target. Compared with his immediate contemporaries, Briggs’s writing lacks the combative forcefulness of G.R. Elton, the olympian grandeur of Owen Chadwick, the stylish verve of J.H. Plumb, the cosmopolitan allusiveness of E.J. Hobsbawm, and the impassioned radicalism of Christopher Hill. Some have criticised his work for being too bland, for lacking analytical bite, for being more concerned with experience than with explanation, for relying too much on frequently-recycled quotations, and for the way in which one book is so often and so obviously cloned from another. Others have noticed that his coverage of the 19th century is distinctly uneven: he is happier in the town than in the country, stronger on the middle classes than the aristocracy, has more feel for nonconformity than for established religion, and is more interested in public than in private lives. And even his most ardent admirers must sometimes regret that he has lavished so much time and energy on his vast history of the BBC (happily now abridged into one book), of which yet another instalment is promised in the near future. Appropriately enough, one of the volumes is called The War of Words. In this case, at least, it is a battle Briggs has not always won.

Yet the shortcomings are far outweighed by the strengths, chief among which is the simple but essential truth that Briggs has been almost as much the maker of Victorian England in our own time as the Victorians themselves were the creators of it in theirs. When he began to write, at the close of the Second World War, Victorian history barely existed as a serious scholarly subject. The outline of events was known, but it was not clear what the problems were, nor what attitudes to adopt. The influence of an earlier generation of ill-disposed critics, like H.G. Wells and Lytton Strachey, remained much stronger than it should have done. There were reminiscences and three-decker hagiographies, but the archives were either unavailable or unexplored. There was Elie Halévy’s massive History of the English People in the 19th Century, but it did not cover the crucial middle decades. There was G.M. Trevelyan’s textbook, and his admiring biographies of Lord Grey of the Reform Bill, Sir Edward Grey and John Bright. And there was G.M. Young’s masterly if elusive Portrait of an Age. As Briggs gratefully and graciously acknowledges in two of the essays reprinted here, both of these patriarchs influenced him profoundly: Trevelyan by urging the links between economy, society and politics; and Young by his stress on the uniqueness of each generation’s historical experience.

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