Dismantling the class war

Paul Addison

  • The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950. Vol I.: Regions and Communities edited by F.M.L. Thompson
    Cambridge, 608 pp, June 1990, ISBN 0 521 25788 3
  • The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950. Vol II.: People and Their Environment edited by F.M.L. Thompson
    Cambridge, 392 pp, June 1990, ISBN 0 521 25789 1
  • The Temper of the Times: British Society since World War Two by Bill Williamson
    Blackwell, 308 pp, £30.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 631 15919 3

In a chapter of the Cambridge Social History V. C. Gatrell describes the relationship between policing and crime. ‘More policing,’ he writes,‘leads to more reported crime; more reported crime results in the unfortunate statistical corollary of lower clear-up rates; these in turn unleash a call for additional police resources; more resources lead to more reported crime.’ A similar model applies to the writing of British social history. Since the Sixties more and more historians have been recruited to the field. Inevitably the number of historical problems has multiplied, giving rise to more and more debates and controversies – thus proving the need for more research.

The growth of social history has been all the more rapid because of the ease with which its boundaries can be extended in almost any direction. Between social theory at one extreme, and antiquarianism at the other, lies a vast terrain which includes the history of class, religion, politics, gender, health, housing, education, leisure, sport, crime – and so on. The result is an increasingly diffuse school of studies which could easily break up into a mass of unrelated specialisms.

The Cambridge Social History, edited in three volumes by Michael Thompson, looks very much like an ambitious attempt to restore coherence and direction. But the stated aim is the more modest one of communicating ‘the fruits of recent writing and the most recent research in social history to the wider audience of students who are curious to know what the specialists have been doing and how their work fits into a general picture of the whole process of social change and development’. Twenty-two specialists have been commissioned to write wide-ranging and thorough surveys of the fields in which they are most expert. Three of the topics – Scotland, Wales and the role of government in society – have been split between two authors. Otherwise each contributor has been asked to pursue a single topic across two centuries of social change.

Professor Thompson is a self-effacing editor. In a modest preface he is at pains to stress that his contributors do not represent a single school of thought or editorial doctrine. But like the film director who receives an Oscar, and makes a speech giving all the credit to the wonderful team who made it all possible, he is not to be taken literally. In many ways this is a Thompson trilogy – for who selected the topics, cast the authors in their roles, and devised the overall scheme? The contributors do indeed vary in their opinions. But overall, the Cambridge History is a triumph of professional detachment over radical engagement.

The expansion of social history in the Sixties owed much to the work of socialist historians and their vision of class conflict and repression as the driving forces of modern British history. In the Seventies the feminists introduced a second strand of radicalism in which the same themes of conflict and repression were discovered in the relations between the sexes. In the Cambridge volumes, the primary struggles of radical history have been reduced by most of the contributors to lesser conflicts inseparable from the development of a stable but plural society.

This is what we would expect of a revisionist history. But instead of confronting the questions of class and gender directly, the editor tiptoes around them. ‘These issues,’ he explains, ‘have not been picked out for separate treatment in these volumes. The debates are best followed in the original exchanges, or in the several admirable surveys which are available.’ In practice, the contributors have been left to smuggle their own interpretations of class and gender into chapters dealing with other topics, like religion or leisure. The problem is that because of this circuitous method of handling controversial issues, two important aspects of the past have been obscured.

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