In his grand study of Britain's democratic traditions, David Marquand offers a history that is also a masterclass in politicsby Michael Kenny / November 23, 2008 / Leave a comment
Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy by David Marquand (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)
In this major new account of 20th-century British history, David Marquand depicts Harold Wilson as a politician who preferred to see the trees to the wood. It’s a witty and useful metaphor to bear in mind when approaching the literary genre that has grown up around the political history of 20th-century Britain. Many of Marquand’s predecessors placed us right in the middle of a beguiling cacophony of personalities, rows, plots and crises. We know a lot about some of the trees of our past political life as a result—but less about the pattern and nature of the wood. Against this backdrop, Marquand’s offering is striking in its ambition. Within it, both trees and wood get a thorough and thoughtful airing.
No doubt some of Marquand’s insights stem from the proximity afforded by his political career—first at Westminster as Labour MP for Ashfield, then with Roy Jenkins at the European commission, and subsequently as a founding member of the SDP—as well as his status as one of the leading political intellectuals and commentators of his day. And yet he chooses to remove all traces of himself from his narrative. This combination of close-up judgement and self-absence is revealing. It suggests the ethos of the era when the author came of age: the more austere and formal world of 1950s high politics, when the ideals of public service, civic duty and high-minded liberalism were in the ascendant. Not for Marquand the self-indulgence of political history as gossip, or of political commentary that takes the form of loudly-stated opinion.
Instead, the many different stories, episodes and judgements offered here are marshalled within a wider interpretative frame, formed by the interplay of four grand narratives. At the centre of Marquand’s story is the first of these: “Whig imperialism.” This shaped the perspectives of leading elements in both main parties for two decades up to 1945, and came to the fore again in the Tory-dominated 1950s. Linking its many exponents, Marquand argues, is a broadly optimistic view of human nature, a commitment to the unique value of Britain’s political institutions, a gradualist approach to policy, and an emphasis on political moderation. The Whiggish lineage stretched across several centuries, from its 18th-century intellectual architect, Edmund Burke, right up to the pragmatic paternalism of the current Conservative leader, David Cameron.