Victorian values revisited

7th June 1996 at 01:00
AN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL HISTORY OF BRITAIN 176O-199O Second Edition By Trevor May Longman Pounds 13.99

Keynes once remarked that "Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist", and thanks to this book we can all know which ones. This updated version of Trevor May's popular study, first published in 1987, takes the story forward to cover the Thatcher years.

The text is a joy to read: easy to follow without being either patronising or too simplistic, and with many a good turn of phrase: "If [Thatcherism] struck a chord with many people, it was because the strings were already there."

There are plenty of telling examples or anecdotes, such as the Victorian nobleman who owned a castle in Wales which he had never visited but where his table was laid for dinner every night, or the engineer who built 8,000 miles of railway in every country in Europe except three: Finland, Greece and Albania.

May is particularly good with the (all too few) illustrations, pointing out details that would easily escape the casual eye. But the text is up to date on debates and controversies between historians, such as the inconclusive arguments about the standard of living in Victorian times or the accuracy of the term "Industrial Revolution".

Apart from some updating in the heart of the book, the main difference in this new edition is in its new final section covering the period from 1970. The anecdotes are fewer here, but the analysis is absorbing.

May points out that Thatcherism predates Mrs Thatcher's period in office by some years, and that its founding father was probably Labour's Denis Healey in his spats with the unions and the IMF. He ends, appropriately, with Mrs Thatcher's appeal to Victorian values. Those who use this book will know what they were.

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