Winston Churchill defined imperial Britain

Prospect's books of 2018: history

New biographies of Churchill and de Gaulle dominate
December 13, 2018

Who are we really? In The Rise and Fall of the British Nation (Allen Lane), David Edgerton re-writes the history of our 20th century. He argues that the British “nation” only came into being after the Second World War, when it stopped being a cosmopolitan empire and confined itself to its own borders, embarking on a period of industrial dynamism that ended with the miners’ strike in 1984.

The personality who best embodies old imperial Britain is Winston Churchill, and in Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane), Andrew Roberts paints a vivid picture of a man who still means so much to so many. (Meanwhile, as Antony Beevor demonstrates in his masterpiece of military history, Arnhem (Viking), one of Churchill’s lowest points was the disastrous Operation Market Garden.) The only other comparable figure in 20th-century Europe is Charles de Gaulle and in his biography A Certain Idea of France (Allen Lane), Julian Jackson shows how the man from Colombey-les-Deux-Églises came to identify himself so thoroughly with his country that he felt his nation’s glory was his own—and vice versa.

But history isn’t just men commanding armies. One hundred years after some women were allowed to vote, Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up, Women!  (Bloomsbury) tells the astonishing story of the suffragettes. The Pankhursts and the other familiar names are here, of course, but so are the music-hall stars, weavers and Indian princesses who faced down fierce—and sometimes violent—opposition in the name of democracy. Fighting for freedom around the same time was Mohandas Gandhi. Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi: 1914-1948—The Years that Changed the World (Allen Lane) shows how one spiritual-political leader harnessed the moral power of non-violence to make Britain quit India. Three hundred years earlier another sub-continental pioneer ruled the roost. Nur Jahan was the Mughal emperor Jahangir’s 20th and final wife. As related in Ruby Lal’s marvellous Empress (WW Norton), she was effectively co-ruler of the empire, giving orders and shooting tigers while wearing masculine clothing.

Peter Frankopan’s surprise 2015 bestseller The Silk Roads was a gripping world history that centred on the east. His follow-up The New Silk Roads (Bloomsbury) takes the story right up to the present, as a resurgent China seeks to recreate the old trade routes. China is now Communist in name only, but 50 years ago the Cold War was convulsing east-west relations. Max Hastings, in Vietnam (William Collins), tells the story of a brutal conflict that cost millions of lives—mainly Vietnamese, from both South and North. While that proxy war was being fought, Britain was doing its bit by recruiting KGB colonel Oleg Gordievsky to work as a double agent. His Le Carré-esque story is told with typical verve by Ben Macintyre in The Spy and the Traitor (Viking). Divided loyalties of a different kind are at the heart of Helen Parr’s Our Boys (Allen Lane). Her history of the paratrooper regiment—drawing on her uncle’s story of fighting in the Falklands War—honestly appraises ordinary soldiers’ shifting sense of who they were fighting for. Queen and country—yes, but not politicians like Margaret Thatcher.

Finally, as we move into 2019 and are set to leave the EU, what better way to get a deeper perspective on Europe’s history than Ian Kershaw’s brilliant Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950-2017 (Allen Lane)? European integration—and possible disintegration—are described with sweeping narrative breadth. As both Britain and Europe continue to redefine their relationship one thing’s for certain: the ride isn’t over yet.