Philip Williamson

Philip Williamson is a lecturer in history at the University of Durham. His book National Crisis and National Government: British Politics and Policy 1927-1932 is to be published by Cambridge.

Something of Importance

Philip Williamson, 2 February 1989

Publications about the Great War continue to proliferate, hardly needing additional stimulation from the 70th anniversary of the Armistice. The present books are just a few on the subject to appear during 1988, and despite publication dates close to 11 November only one of these seems to be a largely opportunistic production. The reasons for such persistent attention are plain. The war was a huge rupture in many areas of human experience. It caused the fall of empires, dynasties and governments, the transformation of many institutions, and the emergence of new states, regimes, parties and political issues. It was the first truly international war, which affected even neutral countries through their economies, and which with the rise of American and Japanese power precipitated the end of European supremacy. It left an aftermath of disrupted international and national economies, bringing deep economic depression and mass unemployment. It precipitated social revolutions in some countries, and almost everywhere an advance in the power of labour and intensification of class tension. It was a blow to cultural optimism, to all assumptions of rational and humane progress. But it was not just a ‘world-historical’ event or clash of great entities. It was also the first war both of mass armies and mass mobilisation of civilian populations in war production. It was a war of an immense number of extraordinarily intense personal experiences – the terrors of combat and the particular horrors of trench warfare, proximity to suffering and death, bereavement, material deprivation, new work experiences and new social expectations. In one way or another the Great War affected the lives of more individuals more directly than any previous episode. It was stamped deeply upon ‘modern memory’ – not just in literary culture as described by Paul Fussell, but in family and communal memories and in the most solemn national commemorations.’

Stanley and the Activists

Philip Williamson, 13 October 1988

During the present century the British political system has undergone three periods of severe stress – of strains so serious that the leaders of all the major parties felt obliged to suspend party politics and to combine in coalition governments. The first and third periods of crisis are obvious: the world wars. Here the nature of the threat is evident, and the domestic consequences are familiar – in each case a major advance for the Labour movement and substantial increases in state responsibility for and expenditure upon social and economic reform. The second period of crisis, from 1929 to 1931, is less well-known, perhaps because it was more complex in its causation and because its immediate outcome was by contrast a defeat for the ‘forces of progress’. Yet contemporaries compared the gravity of this situation to that of the Great War, and its consequence was, in Stuart Ball’s words, ‘a reshaping of the party system, and a new basis in the pattern of issues, which was to hold sway for the following fifty years’.’

One’s Rather Obvious Duty

Paul Smith, 1 June 2000

How bogus was Baldwin? When he said in 1925, ‘I give expression, in some unaccountable way, to what the English people think’, the statement was, as Philip Williamson notes in this...

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