Labour's pains

10th October 1997 at 01:00
Fifty Years On: A Prejudiced History of BritainBy Roy HattersleyLittle,Brown + #163;20From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939 Edited by Nick+ TiratsooWeidenfeld amp; Nicolson #163;20The contemporary historian suffers + from a number of handicaps as well as a number of advantages. Although all + history is affected by the intellectual climate in which it is written, + contemporary history is especially likely to be shaped by the political + passions and philosophical debate of the era in which it is + produced.Additionally, some history is self-consciously written (or pressed + into service) to advance a particular cause by identifying responsibility for + some trauma such as national decline or the outbreak of war. Against these + potential disadvantages, the contemporary historian, unlike the historian of + medieval times, has available a range of sources which can illuminate his + work.These two books, although written from very different perspectives, + illustrate nicely both the pluses and the minuses of writing about the recent + past and about events which are still the subject of political controversy.Roy + Hattersley's is an explicitly biased account of Britain's political history + since 1945. As a long-time Labour MP, Hattersley sees no need to hide his + contempt for most conservatives and, as a right-of-centre socialist, he is + equally caustic about some of the antics of his party's Left.But he is also + less than happy that his party, although in government, is now deradicalised + and recreated with a middle-class image. The result is a book which is an + enjoyable read, robust and revealing. It also, of course, is able to draw on + inside knowledge and some of the best bits are the descriptions and discussions+ of political contemporaries such as Barbara Castle, Jim Callaghan and Harold + Wilson.Perhaps because it is a book which is both personal and intended to be + easily read as a whole there are no footnotes or references. Yet by and large, + his summary, though clearly not neutral, is compelling. (There are, however, a + few errors: for example, there were opinion polls at the time of the 1945 + election - it was simply that few paid attention to them.)A number of themes + emerge from the narrative rather differently than in many more orthodox + histories. Hattersley is an intellectual whose attachment to the people is + somewhat romantic, since on many occasions he clearly disapproves of popular + values and preference s. He pays a good deal of attention to the contrast + between Britain's declining world power status and her determination to retain + a nuclear capability, and indeed to engage in occasional independent foreign + policy ventures such as Suez and the Falklands.But he also pays a good deal of + attention to one of the legacies of Britain's imperial past: the acquisition of+ a substantial ethnic minority population, not an entirely popular process. + The discussion of the role of the trade unions is wryly done with some neat + early vignettes of Churchill using Sir Walter Monckton, his Minister of Labour,+ to pacify their demands ("always give the lion the lion's share") and an + interesting view of the emergence and demise of "In Place of Strife" as well as+ the Winter of Discontent.Education and class inequality as well as welfare + policy get particular attention. What is conspicuously lacking however is any + real analysis of whether the right of the Labour Party, so well-represented by + Hattersley's humane socialism, could have done anything else to resist the + onslaught of the left on the Labour Party and the consequent triumph of + Thatcherism.Most interesting of all is the extent to which in the last chapter + Hattersley emphasises the newness of "New Labour" and implicitly reveals his + own disappointment with the new order. According to Hattersley, Blair "because + he neither knew nor cared about what Labour had once stood for, was able to + lead the most remarkable revolution in modern political history so that 'New + Labour' succeeded where Militant had failed". Not merely had Blair captured the+ Labour Party but he had transformed it from a radical party into a bourgeois + one and had discarded its egalitarian ideals. Peter Mandelson, the architect of+ Labour's capitulation to the "suburban middle classes", does not appear.Nick + Tiratsoo's collection of essays by contrast is designed to rebut the + "Thatcherit e historians" who have collectively peddled a one-sided view of + Britains's past which attributes the nation's decline to avoidable policy and + leadership deficiencies on the part of Labour and "wet" Tory politicians. + Rather confusingl y in the introduction, however, he seems to criticise the + middle classes for their reluctance to embrace change (surely not an accurate + assessment of Mrs Thatcher) and to wonder at the unwillingness of much of + Britain to be impervious to Labour's charms.Not all the essays are addressing + the same kind of dispute. Tony Mason's incisive essay on the standard of living+ in the 1930s successfully rejects the picture of the decade as comfortabl e + and secure and reaffirms the inequality and insecurity that marked the + period.Steven Fielding examines the impact of the Second World War on Britain, + pitting Paul Addison against Correlli Barnett. Paul Addison himself takes issue+ with the "revisionist" historians Maurice Cowling, David Irving and John + Charmley in their assessment of Churchill's responsibility for the war and his + part in the double-whammy of 1945 - a Labour government and international + decline. Kenneth Morgan, in a powerful essay on the Wilson years, takes issue + with no individual historians but rather with the picture of the period as one + which left a damning legacy for Labour.The problem with the collection, + stimulating though the essays are individually, is to see what precisely the + authors are arguing as a group. Nevertheless, these essays will provide useful+ pegs for the discussion of many recent historiographical debates and, like Roy+ Hattersley's volume, can point up the difficulties both in establishing + "historical truth" and the importance of maintaining that, though there may be + many versions of a historical event, not all interpretations are equally + valid.Gillian Peele is tutor in modern history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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