Reasons to be cynical, part two

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Britain in the Twentieth Century: a Documentary Reader Volume II: 1939-1970 Edited by Lawrence Butler and Harriet Jones Heinemann Pounds 9.50. 0435 319256

Sean Lang welcomes a new documentary reader reflecting the British 'way of life'.

The old idea of training for one job and sticking to it for life, which has been the lot of millions, will have to go out of the window." Not Michael Heseltine, nor even Tony Blair, but a Conservative Party pamphlet, Putting Britain Right Ahead, published in 1965. It's one of a number of interesting documents included in this welcome second volume of what is already proving a successful and well-judged series. A documentary reader is perhaps closer to an anthology than to a textbook, and, free of question sections to skip, it invites the browser as much as the student.

The selection is a touch conservative - there is a heavy preponderance of memos, speeches and official documents, though all the major ones seem to be in. We see the context for Enoch Powell's vision of the Tiber running with blood and Harold Wilson's greeting to the white heat of the technological revolution. These are very useful to have, but the less familiar material is perhaps more fun. The Conservative MP John Boyd-Carpenter supported lowering the voting age to 18, pointing out that "an intelligent young person thinks that he or she knows how the country should be run - and at that age most of us thought precisely that". How true. Roy Jenkins deserves a booby prize of some sort for his confident assertion in 1967 that "people employed in a vigorous modern economy with a technological base which demands high management and other skills are less likely to be obsessed by old grievances". It just goes to show how wrong you can be when talking about Northern Ireland.

Even so, it's the moments when the collection strays from Hansard or Cabinet memos that provide the most illuminating vignettes. Not surprisingly, diaries put some spice into things. Barbara Castle records the gathering of the Parliamentary Labour Party fresh from its 1945 election victory, many of them in service uniform. It gave the lie, she recorded, to the Tories' attempt to claim the Second World War for themselves. Part of that attempt took the form of a concerted attempt by the Conservatives to depict Labour as a danger to the constitution, which took the form not only of Churchill's ill-judged comparison of Labour with the Gestapo, but also, according to the memos and speeches given here, of a failed attempt to refer to them consistently as the Socialist Party. Luckily for Labour, Tony Benn's comment that "if there was a conflict between what the public wanted and what the Party wanted, I was on the side of the Party" was confined to his diary. Presumably future volumes will be able to make use of Alan Clark.

This is knockabout stuff, and there is some particularly fine material on the tricky problem of removing a sitting Prime Minister: Eden's awkward broaching of the age of retirement to Churchill and the messy business of replacing Macmillan make ousting Mrs Thatcher look positively humane. Private Eye satirises the Tories' patronising search for the mythical White Collar Worker after the Liberal win at Orpington, but despite the satire it was still possible for a 1951 memo to claim, quite without irony, that "we believe that the British 'way of life', which is a convenient expression to use for our political and social system, is more enlightened than that of other countries". We, no less than our students, need books like this to remind us of what we were.

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