A History of Modern Britain

Andrew Marr (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Marr) is a much admired journalist, author and broadcaster with a talent for making serious subjects accessible. Happily, as of April 2013, he is recovering from a heart attack, and has appeared back on our television screens. When it comes to a history of modern Britain he is shrewd enough to know that yet another irenic trot through what is in outline an overly familiar story may risk what he himself calls “autistic repetitiveness”. Just how many more times can the fall of John Profumo be rehearsed? Whatever your age, the very words “Beatles”, “Kings Road” and “Cecil King” are calculated to produce a universal lowering of the spirits. So Marr’s invigorating method is to adopt what you might call the Ben Schott (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Schotts-Original-Miscellany-Ben-Schott/dp/0747563209/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365953472&sr=8-1&keywords=schott%27s+miscellany) approach to history, piling up interesting detail, often through quotation, and hoping, quite correctly, that it will do more work than windy generalisation.

So it’s intriguing to discover that Hitler had a précis of the Beveridge report with him in the Berlin bunker at the end of the war (“superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points”); that Nehru kept a picture of his old school, Harrow, on his prison wall; that Harold Macmillan described Keith Joseph as “the only boring Jew I’ve ever known”; and that in 1964 the outgoing Tory chancellor of the exchequer, Reginald Maudling, handed over to his Labour successor, James Callaghan, in the hall of No 11 with the words “Sorry to leave such a mess, old cock”. But it’s just as revealing and interesting to learn that Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Mini, was known to his exasperated colleagues as Alec Issigonyet; that the provider of mass holidays Billy Butlin carried a cut-throat razor in his top pocket; and that the flaming socialite Ann Fleming described her lover Hugh Gaitskell as having “a long inquisitive nose like the ant-eating tapir”.

Curiosity being the supreme human virtue, Marr’s own inquisitive nose is his finest feature. But clearly even he wouldn’t have bothered to write such a long book – 630 pages (published 2009) with a fallible index – unless he had a few fish to fry. Some of these cook better than others. When Edward Heath, of all people, is described as “a political leader whose reputation deserves to be revisited”, then you are contemplating the kind of sentiment expressed only by people who write books like this. You feel Marr’s time would have been better spent in the Schottish labour of listing the old sailor’s exotic beards, who, at one stage included Olivia de Havilland. And it seems even more perverse to take such an unforgiving view of Harold Wilson when Wilson, at least, was coping more successfully than most with what emerges as the central quandary of the book: not just that Britain was fated to give away its empire and struggle for economic stability, but that it could never work out how to settle on a just or sensible relationship with its principal ally.

There is, in British history, from the end of the Second World War and onwards through Suez and Vietnam, a painful, abject uneasiness about the United States which is expressed as much through our unjustified sense of superiority to what Marr calls the cargo cult of celebrity worship and narcissism as through any particular incident in politics. Wilson earned the contempt of many for offering moral support to the American slaughter in Vietnam. Yet he now seems like an admirable master of realpolitik for having skilfully avoided committing British troops. In this context, Blair’s collusion in the invasion of Iraq hardly seems like the principled action of a liberal interventionist who imagined he could bring peace without bothering to bring order. Rather, Blair is positioned as only the latest in a long line of disastrously deluded, socially conservative prime ministers who turned out not to exercise half the influence they claimed over a partner far more powerful and far more ruthless than they dared to admit.

Absorb all this and you’ll be more than ready to engage in debates historical and political concerning our recent times. Reading it is more a pleasure than a task.

640 pages in Pan paperback edition

ISBN 978-0330511476


Andrew Marr

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