Master’s in Twentieth-Century British History
This London-based programme enables students to examine Britain’s history in the twentieth century, focusing on the period from the death of Queen Victoria to Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in 1990. It is led by Simon Heffer, Professor of Modern British History in the University and a leading authority on the period.
The course includes a series of seminars (see below), given by a range of eminent guest speakers, to supplement students’ private research. These will provide a broad chronological survey of the period and an introduction to major themes in the political and social history of 20th century Britain, and are intended to stimulate ideas for research by students. The seminars will take place at the elegant Caledonian Club in Belgravia, and supervisory meetings will be held at the University’s offices at 51 Gower Street in Bloomsbury or by video link.
The programme’s main focus is on politics and society, but also discusses cultural history and historiography. Guest speakers will include the contemporary historians Sir David Cannadine, Vernon Bogdanor, David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook, Jane Ridley, and Michael Bentley.
Assessment is via a dissertation of approximately 25,000 words on a topic of the student’s choosing, which is completed under the guidance of a supervisor and submitted at the end of the academic year.
2022/23 Seminar Programme
The academic year begins in September and Professor Heffer, as Course Director, will be available to all students before the seminar programme gets under way to discuss dissertation topics and independent research. A full bibliography will be issued to all students in September so that the autumn can also be used for essential background reading.
Seminars and Dinners
Seminars and dinners take place at the Caledonian Club (above), 9 Halkin Street, London, SW1X 7DR. View the location on Google Maps. Nearest Tube Stations: Hyde Park Corner, Victoria.
Each guest speaker seminar begins at 18:30 and is followed by a dinner at 20:00 with the guest speaker. The cost of all post-seminar dinners is included in the tuition fees.
Seminar dates 2022-23
Seminars take place on Thursdays at 6:30 pm, unless otherwise stated.
29 September 2022: Professor Jane Ridley The Edwardians
13 October 2022: Professor Simon Heffer: Britain in the Great War
Public Lecture Wednesday 26 October 18:00-19:30 Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House, London
Professor Sir Hew Strachan FBA on the First World War
27 October: Dr Geraint Thomas: A Land fit for Heroes?
10 November: Professor David Dilks: ‘The Hungry Thirties?’
24 November: Professor Dan Todman: Britain in the Second World War
8 December: Professor Vernon Bogdanor: Rebuilding Britain
12 January: Dr David Kynaston: ‘Never had it so Good’
26 January: Professor Sir David Cannadine PBA: Dismantling the British Empire
9 February: Dr Dominic Sandbrook: The Wilson/Heath Consensus
23 February: Dr Robin Harris: The Eighties Revolution
10 March: Professor Michael Bentley on the Historiography of Twentieth-Century Britain
A divided society of rapid change.
When King Edward VII ascended the Throne in January 1901 Britain still had a claim to be the world’s leading power, with the largest empire on earth, serviced by the world’s greatest Navy and a formidable regular Army. Yet the United Kingdom before the Great War experienced excessive tensions, and this seminar will focus on four great causes: militant women’s suffragism; chronic industrial unrest; demands for Irish Home Rule; and the House of Lords triggering the worst constitutional crisis in living memory. Immense social mobility and opportunity characterised the age of ‘swagger’, Pomp and Circumstance and H G Wells’s finely observed social novels.
The Politics of the Great War and the coup d’état of 1916.
This seminar discusses the political considerations that led to Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in August 1914, and how the Liberal tradition gave way to a politics suited to total war. It will examine the formation of the Asquith and Lloyd George coalitions, the relationship between politicians and generals and conflicts about the conduct of the war. It will also look at the war’s role in breaking down of opposition to women’s suffrage, and of the establishment of a new style of politician largely divorced from the landed interest.
‘The Impact of Labour’, the breaking of the Coalition and the first Baldwin administration.
This seminar will look at the debate about economic and social policy in the decade between Versailles and the Wall Street Crash, highlighting the process that led to Churchill putting Britain back on the Gold Standard and the causes of the General Strike. It will discuss why the Conservative party sabotaged the Lloyd George coalition after its failure to keep its extravagant election promises from 1918. It will discuss the first Labour government and the role of women, newly-enfranchised but many unable to have the lives their mothers took for granted because of the death and maiming of nearly two million men during the war.
‘The Hungry Thirties?’
The slump, National Government and the Politics of Appeasement.
After Ramsay MacDonald’s ‘betrayal’ of his party in 1931 by entering into a coalition government because of the national emergency, society witnessed the growth of fascism in Britain. The country’s split into ‘two nations’, and politicians and opinion-formers supported appeasement of Nazi Germany after 1933 – with resistance, centred upon Churchill, to that policy. It will examine also the contrasting roles of King George V and Edward VIII, and the effect the abdication had on social stability and national unity. The seminar will focus on how well much of Britain fared during the slump thanks to innovation and diversification – and a level of rearmament that is under-appreciated.
How far did Churchill model his style of war leadership on that of Lloyd George, in creating a quasi-dictatorship to mobilise the national war effort? How fit was Britain for war, both in terms of its manpower and industrial base? How effective was propaganda, especially using media that had not existed or been widely exploited in 1914 – the radio and the cinema? How did the war change attitudes to women, who for the first time joined the services in large numbers? How far did the heavy centralisation of the state change the mindset of the public and alter its expectations for peace? And what caused the Labour landslide of 1945?
The Attlee Administration and the Building of the Post-War Consensus.
This seminar will discuss the Attlee government’s social reforms – the creation of the NHS and a wider welfare state, the modernisation of the penal system through the 1948 Criminal Justice Act, reform of the franchise and further reform of the House of Lords. It will discuss the programme of nationalisation, but also why the public turned against Labour. It will examine how, when Churchill returns to power in 1951, the Tories leave the post-war consensus in place. Was that down to the elderly Churchill’s inertia, and reversion to his pre-war persona of misjudgement, or was it because of a shrewd assessment by the Tories that much of what Attlee had done still had public support?
‘Never had it so good’
From Suez to Scandal – the Era of ‘Tory misrule’.
Suez precipitated the end not just of Empire, but of Britain’s self-estimation as a great world power: and the political rhetoric becomes that of ‘managing decline’. Yet the Tories win a second, and then an even more convincing third, term in office; Britain wallows in ‘never had it so good’ affluence. Social change, especially among the young, is in the air: this is the era of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ film, Beatniks, Teddy Boys and mods and rockers, but also the growth of television as a highly influential medium. Britain starts to modernise, with the closing of railways and the opening of motorways. However, the Tories look out of touch and the Profumo scandal exposes Macmillan’s isolation, which effectively brings him down.
The Wilson/Heath Consensus
From White Heat to the Winter of Discontent.
Harold Wilson, catapulted to power after Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1963, promised a technological revolution to transform Britain: but forms a pact with the trades unions, who resist such change and bring down the Heath government in 1974. In 1978-79 they challenge the democratic legitimacy of the Callaghan administration, and break the post-war consensus. A fissure grows in the Labour party between hard-line socialists and social democrats. Heath is challenged by a right-wing faction, led by Enoch Powell, who has important intellectual followers in Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph: and Thatcher’s ascent to the Tory leadership in 1975 ends Tory statism. Powell opens lines of crucial intellectual debate; on immigration; on monetarism; on constitutional reform; on withdrawal from east of Suez; and on the Common Market. Parliament takes Britain into the European Economic community in 1973, laying the ground for decades of strife and internal division; essentially, the trente glorieueses from 1945 to 1975 have made Mrs Thatcher inevitable.
The Eighties Revolution
The Impact of Thatcher
This seminar, conducted by one of Mrs Thatcher’s closest former advisers and biographers, will examine the social and economic revolution her policies wrought. It will look at the apparent paradox of Mrs Thatcher’s intense social conservatism against her political radicalism. And it will look at the confrontations she set up to get her way: with organised labour, the City of London, and the Irish Republican Army; and how her relationship with Ronald Reagan and role in ending the Cold War gave Britain powerful international influence. But it will examine how the Community Charge proved a confrontation too far: how her Powellite ideology of national sovereignty and self-determination made her the enemy of the European project, and cost her her job – but not her place in history, and certainly not her legacy.
The Historiography of 20th century British history.
This seminar will review the nature of the writing of the history of the country between the Great War and the fall of Mrs Thatcher – in terms of the methods and the motivations and aims of historians – and will highlight areas that would benefit from further research and exploration, or where existing accounts require revision. It will also encourage the critical reading of historical texts and, during archival research, critical appraisal of original documents.
Dismantling the British Empire, from Ireland to Hong Kong.
Starting with the victory of Sinn Féin in Ireland at the 1918 General Election, the seminar will study how throughout the period from 1920 to 1980 Britain had broker the independence of its former possessions. It will discuss the main driving forces of anti-imperialism in the British political class after the Great War, but also those – such as Churchill – who fought to retain Victoria’s empire into the second half of the 20th Century. The seminar will consider the 1931 Statute of Westminster; the independence movement in India; and the rush to Indian independence between February and August 1947, and whether the bloody events of that process shaped attitudes to the African and West Indian decolonisations in the 1950s and 1960s. It will also consider the idea of the ‘British’ world, mass immigration to the former mother country, and the wider legacy of empire, and will conclude with the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.
Graduate studies in twentieth-century British history