A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

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A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A lively account of the political and social history of Britain from Winston Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister in 1940 to Tony Blair's resignation and beyond. Magnificently researched and written with a pleasing lightness of touch, it's highly recommended by Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 629 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Pan Books
ISBN: 978-0330439831

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If this had not been written by one of the best-known journalists and commentators working today, I'd have had my doubts about the title. Sure, the book is what it says on the cover, though a rather dry academic designation like that might put off the more general reader.

As long as it doesn't, fine. Because anybody who has read Marr in the papers, seen him on TV, or even enjoyed his masterly series on the small screen last year (shown to coincide with this book's first appearance in hardback), will need little further recommendation from me.

With over 600 pages of closely printed text, it's not for the faint-hearted. But though a serious work, it is magnificently researched and written with a pleasing lightness of touch. Marr evidently enjoys telling the chequered story of our nation, and the text is a journey through solid fact and not a few amusing anecdotes about the main protagonists. For example, Churchill's retort when a nervous official was sent to summon him from the lavatory because the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him immediately will make you chuckle. So will the little domestic contretemps at the Macmillan country home caused by the then French President's travelling with a stock of blood for transfusion, in case of assassination attempts. You can sympathise with the family cook who refused to keep it in the fridge next to the haddock.

The starting point is May 1940, shortly after Churchill became Prime Minister, and from there it's like a switchback railway of Britain from then to the present. The main text, by the way, finishes at around early 2007, and this paperback edition begins with an introduction that looks briefly at the latter year, taking in the first few months of Gordon Brown's leadership and the press's reaction to Madeleine McCann's tragic disappearance, among other events. The accent is largely on politics, but with entertaining diversions into the changing social landscape of Britain, the land of lost content of the 1950s, the growth of the motorway, the rise of the consumer society, the impact of James Bond as a contemporary icon, the swinging sixties, and the growth of the internet.

Marr is a kindly writer and he sees positive qualities in all the politicians he writes about, as well as offering pithy insights into the major players. Although some of her measures were controversial at the time, Barbara Castle is hailed as a heroine of our motoring history for introducing speed limits and the breathalyser, the 'friendless' Edward Heath is a leader who had had a bad press but whose reputation deserves to be revisited, and Michael Foot was too old, too decent, too gentle, to take on the hard left or to modernise his party. I also liked the description of Ken Clarke as a pugnacious, pro-European, beer-drinking, jazz-loving One Nation brawler.

In a chapter on Suez, he concludes that 'Suez' became four-letter shorthand for the moment when Britain realized her new place in the world. That is yet another of the book's great qualities; the author has this gift of pinpointing important events and assessing just how pivotal they were. 9/11 is another, still fresh in the memory, that springs to mind. There are also the events that never were. For instance, how different would the last few years have been if Labour leader John Smith had not suddenly died in 1994?

History, Marr tells us, either a moral argument with lessons for the here-and-now or it is merely an accumulation of pointless facts. One can hardly argue with that assessment. This book is overflowing with facts, yet all knitted together to perfection.

I can see this book as not just being a read for today, but one which will be enjoyed, consulted and used as an academic reference tool for years to come. One can read it from cover to cover, or alternatively dip into it and savour short chapters on why the Goons were so revolutionary in British post-war humour, Cecil King and the threatened putsch against Harold Wilson's government in 1968, or the ERM debacle of 1992, and much much more. It really is that good.

Our thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending a copy to Bookbag.

Further reading: If you enjoyed this title, also try Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy.

Booklists.jpg A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr is in the Top Ten Books about Britain, Britishness, and the Brits.

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Buy A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr at Amazon.com.


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