From the Great War to the Fall of Margaret Thatcher
This London-based programme enables students to examine Britain’s history in the 20th century, focusing on the period from the start of the First World War in 1914 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. The seminars will take place at the elegant Reform Club in Pall Mall, and supervisory meetings will be held at the Humanities Research Institute offices at 51 Gower Street in Bloomsbury.
The programme’s major concentration will be on politics and society, but there will be a subsidiary focus on cultural history and historiography. Guest speakers will include the contemporary historians Sir David Cannadine, Lord Hennessy, David Kynaston 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.
2020/2021 seminar programme
Because of delays caused by the Covid-19 crisis the seminar programme will run this academic year from January to May: as in previous years, there will still be 10 seminars addressed by leading historians, covering the period from 1914 to 1990 and other specialist topics. Speakers in the past have included Sir David Cannadine (on the decline of the British Empire), Professor Lord Hennessy (on the immediate post-war period), Professor David Dilks (on the 1930s), Dr David Kynaston (on the 1950s), Professor Michael Bentley (on historiography), Professor Simon Heffer (on the Great War) and Dr Robin Harris (on Thatcherism). It is expected most or all of these speakers will return in 2020/2021.
The academic year will begin as normal in September and Professor Heffer, as course director, will be available to all students during the autumn to discuss dissertation topics and independent research so that work can begin before the seminar programme gets under way. A full bibliography will be issued to all students in September so that the autumn can also be used for essential background reading.
Location for seminars: The Reform Club (104 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5EW). Click here for map and directions to the Reform Club.
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.
The Politics of the Great War and the coup d’état of 1916. The aim of this seminar is to discuss the political considerations that led to Britain’s deciding to declare war on Germany in August 1914; and the consequent end of the Liberal tradition in British politics and its replacement by a politics suited to total war, with the creation of a centralised state and an ideology of the citizen’s commitment to that state in the interests of victory. It will analyse the reasons for the formation of the Asquith and Lloyd George coalitions, and the important distinctions between them. It will examine the relationship between senior politicians and generals and conflicts about the conduct of the war; the ethics of the coupon election and the chaos of the war’s immediate aftermath. It will also look at the war’s role in the final breaking down of opposition to women’s suffrage and of the establishment of a new style of politics and 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 also discuss why the Lloyd George coalition was sabotaged by the Conservative party; brief premiership of Andrew Bonar Law, the first Labour government and the end of the Liberal party as a political force: 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. It will also discuss British participation in the League of Nations and international affairs during the decade after Versailles.
The slump, National Government and the Politics of Appeasement. This will focus on Ramsay MacDonald’s alleged betrayal of his party in 1931 by entering into a coalition government because of the national emergency, as unemployment rose and interest payments on the national debt accounted for nearly half of Britain’s public spending; it will look at the growth of fascism and the proliferation of fascist sympathisers in Britain; the country’s split into ‘two nations’, the more affluent south and the distressed industrial areas of the Midlands and the north; and the sympathy among politicians and opinion-formers for appeasement of Nazi Germany after 1933, and Britain’s failure to re-arm to pre-empt the German threat – and the limited resistance, centred upon Churchill, to that policy. It will examine also the role of King George V in establishing the National Government in August 1931, and contrast it with the comportment of his son, Edward VIII, in destabilising the monarchy in 1936 – and will look at the effect the abdication had on social stability and national unity.
Churchill’s Dictatorship. 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 without alienating the British public? How fit was Britain for war, both in terms of its manpower and industrial base? How effective was propaganda during the war, especially using mediums that had not existed or had not 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? What was the effect of the black market? How far did the heavy centralisation of the state change the mindset of the public and alter its expectations for peace? And was there either an overt or covert education programme, through the Army Education Corps, the Left Book Club and the BBC, to try to bring about the Labour landslide of 1945? Or did Churchill and his fellow Tories run an appalling campaign that re-opened memories of the incompetence and naivete of many Tory ministers before the war? How does the Tories’ failure sit with their initiatives on the Beveridge Report, and the Butler Education Act of 1944, to improve social mobility and give humane support to those unable to live decently?
The Attlee Administration and the Building of the Post-War Consensus. This seminar will look at the Attlee government’s wide-ranging 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 effectiveness or otherwise of the programme of nationalisation, but also the way in which the public that had given Attlee his landslide then proceeded to vote him out by 1951, expressing distaste at the post-war continuation of a centralised and bureaucratic state, and the failure to take food and many other essential items off the ration. However, it becomes clear when Churchill returns to power in 1951 that, despite attempting the odd denationalisation, the Tories are leaving the post-war consensus more or less as it was. 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 had the support of the public?
From Suez to Scandal – the Era of ‘Tory misrule’. Suez marks the beginning of 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 Tries 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 social medium. The Tories become out of touch – the ‘grouse moor image’ – and Macmillan’s isolation is exposed by the Profumo scandal, which effectively brings him down. Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with America makes it a major player in the Cold War – this is also the era of James Bond – and the country starts to modernise, with the closing of railways and the opening of motorways. But the post-war consensus holds until the party’s defeat in 1964: and given the growth in prosperity, how far was it a really an era of ‘Tory misrule’.
From White Heat to the Winter of Discontent. Harold Wilson, unexpectedly catapulted to power after Gaitskell’s unexpected death in 1963, promises a technological revolution to transform Britain: but he also forms a pact with the trades unions, whose power grows throughout the period until it effectively brings down the Heath government in 1974 and in 1978-79 is seen to be challenging the democratic legitimacy of the Callaghan administration, thereby breaking the post-war consensus. Wilson has to manage those allies, such as Barbara Castle, who want to shackle union power; and a fissure grows in the Labour party throughout the 1970s between those who want hard-line socialism and those who are de facto social democrats. Heath has his own problems with 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 undoes the statist, interventionist policy of Heath. Powell opens several lines of crucial intellectual debate; on immigration; on what becomes known as monetarism; on reform of the House of Lords; on withdrawal from east of Suez; and on membership of the Common Market. Parliament half-heartedly 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 Impact of Thatcher. This seminar, conducted by one of Mrs Thatcher’s closest former advisers and a biographer of her, will look at the social and economic revolution her policies wrought in 1980s Britain: the wholesale economic restructuring, the end of industrial subsidy, the policy of deregulation that attacked professional as well as working-class vested interests, the neutering of the unions and the privatisation of Attlee’s nationalised industries. It will look at the apparent paradox of Mrs Thatcher’s intense social conservatism measured against her political radicalism; the ‘rolling back’ of the frontiers of the state. But it will also look at the confrontations she set up to get her way: with organised labour, with the City of London, with the Irish Republican Army, and with the collectivist left; and how she used her political style to make Britain a once-more powerful international influence, in her relationship with Ronald Reagan and the means it gave her to help bring about the end of the Cold War. And it will examine how, after driving through the Community Charge, she engineered a confrontation too far: how her Powellite belief in the ideology of national sovereignty and self-determination made her the enemy of the European project, and how her determination to wrest back power to Westminster 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 – both 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.
Dismantling the British Empire, from Ireland to Rhodesia. Starting with the victory of Sinn Féin in Ireland at the 1918 General Election, when it became clear the country would soon come under Republican Rule, the seminar will look at how throughout the period from 1920 to 1980 Britain had to negotiate with its former possessions their independence. Sir David will look at the main driving forces of anti-imperialism in the British political class after the Great War, but also at those – such as Churchill – who wished to fight to retain Victoria’s empire into the second half of the 20th The seminar will consider the 1931 Statute of Westminster; the independence movement in India; the Imperial response to the Second World War, notably in the Far East but also in terms of Dominion and Colonial troops fighting for Britain; 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 of the 1950s and 1960s; and, finally, why the independence of Rhodesia turned into a 15-year confrontation, and the role of Britain and the Commonwealth after the end of the Empire, notably in pressing South Africa to dismantle apartheid. But the seminar will also consider the idea of the ‘British’ world, mass immigration to the former mother country, and the wider legacy of empire.
Full details in the Curriculum Handbook