The Road to 1989

Paul Addison

  • The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1989 by Kenneth O. Morgan
    Oxford, 558 pp, £17.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 19 822764 7

Kenneth Morgan’s history of our times is both rewarding and frustrating. It is rewarding on government and politics since 1945, and frustrating on social and economic structure. Between the two, at the point where government and society meet, Dr Morgan is at his most interesting and controversial. He develops a thesis about the decline of leaderships and authority in Britain which may or may not be right, but which lends the book a vision and a theme.

To write of post-war Britain is to enter a long-running debate over the state of the nation which began about 1960 and has continued ever since. Many conflicting views have been expressed, but strange to say there is one assumption on which almost all participants agree. They all conceive of British history since 1945 as a record of decline. It may be the decline of Britain as a great power, the decline of Scotland or Wales, the decline of the economy, the decline of socialism, the decline of the family, the decline of educational standards, the decline of the environment: but decline it must be. Nor is the word ‘decline’ ever employed in a purely quantitative sense, as in ‘the decline of the birth-rate’. A sense of failure and degeneration is invariably implied: decline and fall.

Contemporary historians, then, are under pressure to explain what went wrong and who or what was to blame. This is a heavily slanted agenda, no doubt, but a mighty stimulus for historians to dig deep into what Morgan calls the geology of post-war Britain. The frustrating thing about Morgan’s book is that he leaves so much of the geology unexplored.

Dr Morgan reports the debate, and the visions of decline which haunted the commentators. But he rarely pursues the problems himself. About three-quarters of the book are devoted to political history. Social, economic and cultural history are inevitably compressed within narrow confines. But the confines are narrowed still further by the decision to organise the whole book strictly around the chronology of Whitehall and Westminster. Forty-four years of history have been divided up into 12 periods of government with a chapter devoted to each. From the standpoint of political history, the periodisation works well. But the chopping up of social, economic and cultural history into 12 segments is a ruthless exercise. Whatever Dr Morgan’s intention, the effect is to smother the fundamentals of post-war history under a blanket of narrative detail.

Economic history figures mainly as a series of crises: balance of payments deficits and runs on the pound. Occasionally Dr Morgan pauses to identify underlying flaws in the economy, but readers will find no sustained analysis of the reasons for Britain’s relatively poor economic performance. Some statistics are given in the text, but there is not a single graph or table to illustrate the long-term economic trends. Much is said of the political history of Britain’s relations with the Common Market. But what were the effects of entry on the pattern of British trade or the competitiveness of British industry?

Social and cultural history are also much neglected. There is a running emphasis no reader could miss on the centrality of class and other social divisions, balanced by frequent reminders of the rising standard of living. Rapid impressions are given of changes in leisure, family life, the role of women, the universities and so on. Much-loved snapshots from the British family album are pressed into service to help create a period feel: Butlin’s camps, Teddy Boys, Angry Young Men, Carnaby Street, the Beatles. But if you are looking for an analysis of long-term changes in the occupational structure, or the income and employment of women, you will not find them.

The social history is sketchy. But it has to be said that having adopted his utterly wrongheaded method, Dr Morgan carries it off with great panache and ingenuity. Here he is in the middle of a discussion of Mrs Thatcher’s policies towards the Commonwealth. He is about to introduce an episode of cultural history before moving swiftly on to foreign affairs:

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