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.

Since 1945, there has been a boom in Victorian studies, and Briggs himself has done more to mould and create it than any other historian. He seems to have read everything the Victorians wrote for or about themselves; he has a remarkable feeling for people and places, buildings and artifacts, institutions and organisations; and he draws illuminating contemporary comparisons with the United States, France, Germany and Australia. He has tackled mainstream political and economic history, and tried his hand at biography; he is highly sensitive to art and architecture, poetry and literature, culture and ideology; and he has been a much-emulated pioneer in social, labour, urban, company and medical history. Yet unlike many sub-disciplinary chauvinists and proselytisers, he has never become imprisoned in these new frameworks, nor lost sight of the broader historical landscape. On the contrary, it is his capacity for making connections which is his most impressive gift: between social structure and political activity, between contemporary issues and contemporary writers, between Manchester and Birmingham, Melbourne and London. By such illuminating comparisons and aptly-chosen examples, Briggs has built up an unrivalled panorama of the range and riches of Victorian life.

But what has given Briggs’s work its real immediacy and appeal is that, regardless of the particular subject about which he may be writing, the present and the past have always come together in his work in such a way that he has been above all else a contemporary historian. To some extent, this is because the Victorian period, which is at the centre of his historical universe, remains a world more lived in than lost: for many people, its town halls and churches, railway stations and grand hotels, suburbs and slums, still provide (if diminishingly) the setting for their existence; and for Briggs himself, life must often have seemed like a latterday parable of Smilesian endeavour triumphantly rewarded, as the Keighley Grammar School boy has taken his seat in the House of Lords. But Briggs’s history has also ranged more broadly over the two centuries which separate the 1780s from the 1980s, and he has written extensively on the period since 1945, the very time when he himself has been so busy as an academic statesman. So it is not surprising that the slightly left-of-centre ethos of Welfare State consensus politics, which so dominated English life from Attlee to Wilson, has not only been at the forefront of some of his writing, but has also provided the unifying background and underlying value structure to all of it. For nearly forty years, Briggs has been the most ‘relevant’ of historians – of his time and for his time.

As he himself rightly and readily admits, ‘historians cannot avoid reading into the past the preoccupations of the present.’ And in his case, this means he has spent his prolific professional life as the Whig historian of the Welfare State – not in the crude, teleological sense of seeing everything in the last two hundred years as leading inevitably and inexorably in that direction, but more subtly, in that the aspects of the past which he has most frequently studied, evoked and celebrated bear a remarkably close affinity to the distinguishing characteristics of the Welfare State in its hey-day. The Age of Improvement, for instance, is dominated by a rising and increasingly meritocratic middle class, by their sense of never having had it so good, and by their high-minded reforming ardour, which gradually created a more decent and wholesome world for everybody. Likewise, Victorian Cities explores how, in the age of the railway and the tram, and of the unprecedented massing of millions of people, urban society gradually came to recognise its problems, set about solving them, and so progressed towards a greater degree of control over itself. And Victorian People is unified by the themes of prosperity, national security, trust in institutions, belief in a common moral code based on duty and restraint, and in the virtues of free discussion, inquiry and investigation. The Welfare State in its prime could hardly be better described.

Throughout his writings, Briggs is primarily concerned with thought and work, inquiry and investigation, debate and discussion, progress and improvement. He knows that there is conflict and exploitation, squalor and misery, unhappiness and discontent, but these are not so much lamented for themselves as seen as the mainsprings to positive action. As a labour historian, he is less concerned to evoke dreadful working conditions than to show how these led to trade-union organisation and a better deal for the employees. As an urban historian, he is interested not so much in the blighted environment as in the opportunities which big cities provided for middle and working-class people to make a better world. And as the historian of the BBC, his main aim has been to show how a group of conflicting interests was gradually moulded into a great national institution, for the edification and improvement of the mass of the people. Accordingly, the heroes of Briggs’s books are men like Joseph Chamberlain and Sir John Reith, who got things done and made things work, and institutional agencies of improvement, like voluntary societies, local government, royal commissions and civil service departments. Throughout Briggs’s historical universe, the Welfare State mentality is there, even when the Welfare State is not: private lives are explored only with reference to the public stage; problems are solved and objectives achieved, agreement is reached and consensus emerges; individual enterprise and sectional interests are gradually fused into some shared sense of purpose for the common good.

All this emerges vividly in the first two volumes of his collected papers. Between them, the essays brought together here span 35 years of indefatigable scholarship: some ante-date and anticipate later books; others are retrospective ruminations on subjects explored in greater detail; all can be read with pleasure and profit. The opening section of the first volume reprints several pieces in which Briggs considers how contemporaries tried to make sense of the Industrial Revolution, how they tried to describe it and explain it to themselves. There is his famous essay on the language of class, which explores the rise of collective vocabularies and collective perceptions; the parallel study of the language of the masses, which treats the same problem from lower down the social scale; an account of those more quantitatively-inclined Victorians, who deployed statistical modes of inquiry to measure more precisely just what was going on; and a more impressionistic piece which shows how, at the other extreme, writers and artists tried to evoke the city, not as a statistical aggregate, but as a particular place. Here are assembled a classic cast of Briggsian historical personages: looking carefully, thinking hard, anticipating the future. As Briggs himself puts it, ‘studies which begin with the Victorian city end with the 20th-century state.’

The second section draws together some of his earliest, most substantial and most important work on 19th-century towns, where he first developed the idea that political activity might be explained with reference to economic structure and social life. This, too, is a typically Briggsian approach, not dwelling on depression and distress, but seeing them as a spur to endeavour, improvement and reform. And he was to use it again, as a central theme of his masterly History of Birmingham, and as the unifying thread in his virtuoso cavalcade, Victorian Cities. The famous contrast which was developed in that book, but first worked out in these early articles, was between Manchester, a city of deep economic divisions and social cleavages, and Birmingham, a city of economic co-operation and social cohesion. So while in the one, political activity took the form of the middle-class Anti-Corn Law League, in the other it expressed itself as the Birmingham Political Union, with its agitation for Parliamentary and currency reform. Thirty years on, these pioneer pieces still impress: for the audacity with which they broke down traditional historical sub-disciplines; for their sensitivity – pace Mumford – to what were in fact very unalike industrial towns; and for their concern with ‘the tangled nexus of private and public conflicts, compromises and decisions’ which fashioned these particular communities.

While most of the essays in the first volume relate in some way to Victorian Cities, many of those in the second are more closely linked to the companion book, Victorian People. This is especially so in the first section, where Briggs tries to ‘trace patterns of value through the experience of individuals’ – not, in this case, politicians or administrators or investigators, but creative artists and intuitive commentators. There is a general essay on writers and cities in the 19th century, which shows how novelists came to terms with the newness, noise and numbers of the urbanising world, in America, Britain, France and Germany. There is a well-crafted piece on Ebenezer Elliott, a middle-class Sheffield radical, who wrote poems about the steam engine and Free Trade for a working-class audience. And there are two rather slighter essays on Trollope as a traveller and William Morris as a Victorian. But the two best pieces are on George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë. In a study of Middlemarch, Briggs shows how Lydgate’s success as a doctor and failure as a medical reformer can only be understood with reference to the contemporary debates on public health, both at the time when Eliot wrote and of the time in which Middlemarch is set. And his analysis of Shirley not only rehabilitates it as a commentary on Yorkshire Luddites but also notes, characteristically, that one sentence from it – ‘misery generates hate’ – provided the motto of Beveridge’s Full Employment in a Free Society.

The remainder of the volume makes a less coherent collection. There are sundry essays on Victorian historians and the Norman Yoke, on how 19th-century commentators looked to the future, and on how some historians play the same prediction game. And there are short and appreciative pieces on G.M. Trevelyan, G.M. Young and Gilberto Freyre, which tell us almost as much about Briggs as about the subject of scrutiny. But the most substantial essays deal with another quintessentially Briggsian topic: the interaction between health, medicine, politics and reform in the modern world. One study considers public health and public opinion in the age of Edwin Chadwick, and sees the fight for reform as a war on two fronts: experts battling against misunderstanding and ignorance and politicians and administrators crusading against prejudice, inertia and vested interests. A second piece explores the impact of cholera on 19th-century urban society, and shows Briggs in unusually polemical vein, largely at the expense of Professor Louis Chevalier, who saw cholera as a menace to be endured rather than as a problem to be solved. ‘The forces of resistance to chaos and panic,’ Briggs notes with stern and determined optimism, ‘deserve as much attention as the chaos and panic themselves.’ And there is a more general essay on the Welfare State in historical perspective, where Briggs deliberately tries to avoid Whiggish excesses, but still feels moved to comment that ‘shapes of the future flit through the changing past.’

Taken together, these essays are a remarkable testament to the range and vigour of Briggs’s work (and there are two more volumes still to come). Of necessity, some are more substantial than others, and the passing of time has not treated all of them with equal respect. Briggs’s picture of Birmingham as a unique city of collaboration and cohesion would not, now, command universal assent; nor would his more general argument that urban politics can be so closely related to economic structure and social relationships. His constant preoccupation with public rather than private lives means that the recent shifts of interest among social historians are barely reflected here: sex and gender, childhood and marriage, bedrooms and bathrooms, shop-floors and households, seem rather more conspicuous by their absence than they would have done a decade ago. It is also noteworthy that, while Briggs emerges as a brilliant pioneer of social, urban, medical and labour history, he has been much less emulated in his attempts to bring together history and literature, background and text. As literary criticism becomes less historical and more introverted, and as historical scholarship becomes more quantitative and less impressionistic, the dialogue between these two disciplines, never loud, has become virtually inaudible.

More broadly, the real interest of this collection is that the overall view of the recent past which it articulates so powerfully is much less fashionable now than it was ten years ago. Briggs has never been in any doubt that the Industrial Revolution was a great leap forward, a time when the whole texture of society was totally transformed. But it has recently become more commonplace to argue that it was but a little local levitation rather than a national take – off into sustained growth. For Briggs, the power of steam, the impact of technology, the new processes of production, were crucial. But many historians now believe that their importance has been much overrated, and that very little change had really taken place by 1851, when Britain was the workshop – but not the factory – of the world. For Briggs, the rise of class-consciousness, the growth of big industrial cities, and the massing of millions of men and women in such new environments, cannot be ignored. But today it is fashionable to suggest that class formation was at best fragmented and localised, that the new industrial cities were not really that large, and that, in any case, most people still lived in Barsetshire. For Briggs, the major impulse to improvement and progress was the rising and ever more influential middle classes, who were the carriers of the notion of improvement, and whose demands resulted in political and administrative reforms. But now it is more frequently asserted that the middle classes were economically weak, and that such reforms as there were may best be explained in terms of high political manoeuvering rather than as responses to popular pressure.

As Briggs himself remarks, ‘the sense of the past shifts in each generation,’ and the sense of Britain’s recent, industrial past is not, in 1985, what it was in 1955 or 1965. Briggs’s past is no longer the fashionable past because the contemporary world which gave it meaning, and to which it in turn gave historical validation, is not what it was either. The great provincial cities, whose exuberant civic pride Briggs so vividly evoked, and which were still so palpable in the 1960s, are now physically ruined, economically desolate, and politically threatened. The GLC, which is the direct descendant of the LCC, whose creation and early workings he so carefully analysed, is under sentence of death. The universities founded in the 1960s, of whose establishment and expansion he was so redoubtable a champion, are on the defensive. The BBC, whose Reithian ethos of public service and improvement he so fulsomely celebrated, seems interested only in ratings, and teeters on the brink of commercialisation. And the Butskellite, Welfare State world of low unemployment and high government spending, of cultivated consensus and avoided confrontation, about which Briggs has written so ardently, is now no longer practical politics. The present and the past no longer interact in a Briggsian way.

Of course, Briggs himself is far too acute an historian, and far too sensitive to the passing of generations, to be unaware of this. ‘The facts of 20th-century life,’ he notes, ‘have been as important as changes in scholarship in changing perspectives.’ And the facts of 20th-century life today are very different from what they were ten years ago, by which time most of the essays in these volumes had been written. Put more bluntly, this means that the broad nexus of left-of-centre goodness, of low-tech decency, of middle-class improvement, which flourished from the steam-engine to the steam radio and beyond, and which has informed Briggs’s life as an academic statesman and his work as an academic historian, is no longer the conventional wisdom, but has itself become a thing of the past. The Welfare State is not a way of seeing history any more: it is history. Attlee and Toynbee Hall, G.D.H. Cole and the Fabians, Lord Beveridge and the LSE, Harold Macmillan and the middle way, C.P. Snow and the two cultures, Harold Wilson and white-hot technology: all these politicians and pundits whose ideas and values so pervade Briggs’s work are now yesterday’s men with yesterday’s modes. And, it is abundantly clear, Lord Briggs does not like this at all. The most recently-written of these essays, like the concluding chapter in his Social History of England, register a firm, compassionate and deeply-felt protest against the bleakness of the 1980s, the ‘Thatcherite contempt for consensus’, the cuts in public spending, the growth in unemployment, and the increasing polarisation of public and political life.

There is, in all of this, a considerable and instructive irony, the force of which can hardly have escaped Lord Briggs’s notice. In his life and work, Briggs has celebrated and epitomised many admirable qualities which might quite accurately be called Victorian values and Victorian virtues. Yet the advent of a prime minister who claims to be doing the very same thing, has turned Briggs’s contemporary and historical worlds almost completely upside down. When he defines the Welfare State as ‘organised power deliberately used through politics and administration to modify the play of market forces’, it is abundantly clear that this is a world we are losing, even if it is not yet fully lost. And when he quotes the Standard, recently, as saying that ‘the great Victorian engine of Britain’s prosperity has finally run out of steam,’ the enormity and significance of that admission, for a man like Briggs, hardly needs labouring. Whatever may be the provenance of Mrs Thatcher’s Victorian values, it is certainly not Briggsian. On the contrary, as the Lord Macaulay of the Welfare State, Briggs is as out of step and out of sympathy with the Thatcherite world as he is with the type of history which that world is now in the process of making for itself. Like another great historian and public teacher, the march of events has transformed Briggs from being a conformist into being a dissenter. Trevelyan’s English Social History was an elegiac lament for a world of liberal decency destroyed by the Second World War. Now, forty years on, Briggs’s very different Social History of England may in its turn stand as a more robust requiem for a world of Welfare State decency destroyed by Thatcher. Indeed, Briggs’s very last sentence in that book – ‘just as we have had more than one yesterday, so we can, if we choose, have more than one future’ – may perhaps embody his protest, not only against the way things are now going, but also against the way they are, increasingly, now deemed to have gone.