Customary ways

30th December 1994 at 00:00
Michael Duffy welcomes an update on English social history. A Social History of England, new edition, By Asa Briggs, Weidenfeld and Nicolson Pounds 25, 0 297 83262 X.

In the preface to the first edition of this book in 1983, Asa Briggs described his approach to social history. It focused, he said, on people rather than on abstractions and on experience rather than on concepts; the detail mattered more than the sweeping overview. But it remained always "the history of society", and so a synthesis was still required, covering the centuries, "difficult though the task will be".

In the event, of course, he made the task look easy, and all the familiar strengths of that successful first edition are there in this newly designed, up-dated, version. The narrative thrust is strong and the illustrative detail and quotation, much of it refreshingly unfamiliar, lend shape and colour to it. The developmental structure is always clear, and the connections in particular are skilfully handled. Who but Asa Briggs could move so easily from Oscar Wilde to Victorian cricket, the intricate conventions of team games, and Gladstone's "Rule of Ought"? This is history as insight and as pleasure; three cheers for that.

It is also history as scholarship, and it is not at all surprising that the 1983 version stands up so well to the considerable volume of new research and publication of the last decade. Until the last two chapters, which pick up the story in the post-war years around the "symbolic break" of 1956 (the year of Hungary and Suez, he reminds us, as well as John Osborne, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets) there are only very minor textual changes, and most of them are changes of style more than substance. What is different, though, is the presentation; much better printing and design,and superb new illustrations. Illustrations, after all, are sources: the choice here is striking, often beautiful, and sharply relevant.

The most substantial changes come in the last two chapters, reflecting a degree of reappraisal from the sharper political and economic perspectives of the 1990s. Different details become significant: Penguin books, colour supplements, Chinese take-aways, jeans and trainers, Aids and condoms all make a new appearance. So, increasingly, does the market - and there is a new emphasis on investment as an economic determinant of social change. The revised chapter "Poverty and Progress", reviewing the social trends of the first half of this century, now closes with the country facing a blunted recognition of its serious limitations.

It is the last chapter, however, "Ends and Beginnings", that has been most comprehensively rewritten. At one level, this is a delicately balanced assessment of the social impact of the politics of the post-Macmillan years. At another, it is an intriguing essay on the changing concept of the social fabric. What is happening, Briggs suggests, is that for the first time the social fabric is being fundamentally modified by elected governments. True, there are new dimensions to it, and he hints at them when he offers as subtitle for this edition, "From the Ice Age to the Channel Tunnel" -striking metaphor for an England returning to mainland Europe.

But what, in the 1990s, is this "society" of which his original preface spoke? At head of this last chapter there is an ambiguous Margaret Thatcher aphorism: "In the end, good will triumph". A second comment is unquoted in the text, but echoes insistently as the transformation of society and social institutions is outlined. There is no such thing as society, Mrs Thatcher once famously opined. The unspoken question, of course, is "Which way from here?" Wisely, Professor Briggs leaves it unanswered, but his final words - "We are back (with our computers) where we started" are as ambiguous as the opening quotation. In short, a wise, informative, invigorating book. Strongly recommended.

Michael Duffy is head of King Edward Vl School, Morpeth, Northumberland.

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