Labour's pains

10th October 1997 at 01:00
FIFTY YEARS ON: A Prejudiced History of Britain. By Roy Hattersley. Little,Brown Pounds 20.

FROM BLITZ TO BLAIR: A New History of Britain Since 1939. Edited by Nick Tiratsoo. Weidenfeld Nicolson Pounds 20.

Gillian Peele reads Roy Hattersley's highly personal account of his party and more distanced views of the same period

The 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 preferences. 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 "Thatcherite 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 confusingly 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 comfortable 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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