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. 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.
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, 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 during the autumn to discuss dissertation topics and independent research so that work can begin before the seminar programme gets underway. 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 on the Edwardians
13 October 2022: ProfessorSimon Heffer on Britain in the Great War
Public Lecture Wednesday 26 October 18:00-19:30, Professor Sir Hew Strachan FBA on the First World War, Society of Antiquaries, Burlington House, London
27 October 2022: Dr Geraint Thomas on the 1920s
10 November 2022: Professor David Dilks on the 1930s
24 November 2022: ProfessorDan Todman on the Second World War
8 December 2022: TBA on Post-War Britain
12 January 2023: DrDavid Kynaston on Consensus Britain 1955-64
26 January 2023: ProfessorSir David Cannadine PBA on the fall of the British Empire
9 February 2023: DrDominic Sandbrook on the Wilson and Heath years
23 February 2023: DrRobin Harris on the Thatcher era
10 March 2023: ProfessorMichael Bentley on the Historiography of Twentieth-Century Britain
A divided society of rapid change.
When King Edward VII came to the Throne in January 1901 Britain still had a claim to be the world’s leading power. Although America and Germany had just overtaken it economic performance Britain still had the largest empire on earth, serviced by the world’s greatest Navy and a formidable regular Army. Yet the decade or so before the Great War, so often depicted as a golden age, was one of excessive tensions in the United Kingdom. This seminar will focus on four great causes of tension: women became more militant in demanding the vote; trades unions more aggressive in seeking improved conditions for workers, leading to three years of continuous unrest; the Irish renewed demands for Home Rule; and the House of Lords triggered the worst constitutional crisis in living memory by defeating the Budget for the first time in 200 years. This happened against a background of rapid technological change, ostentatious expansions of wealth among the privileged few, but also immense social mobility and opportunity: it was the age of ‘swagger’, Pomp and Circumstance and H G Wells’s finely observed social novels. The seminar will illustrate both the fractures and the achievements of a nation about to be revolutionised by total war.
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, but also by its own failure to keep its extravagant election promises from 1918; the 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.
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.
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 one of her biographers, 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. It will also encourage the critical reading of historical texts and, during archival research, of 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, 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, and will conclude with the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.
Graduate studies in twentieth-century British history
The minimum entry-level required for this course is as follows:
a first or upper second-class honours degree from a recognised university or,
a recognised professional qualification with relevant work experience.
In cases where candidates are applying on the basis of work experience, they may be asked to complete a short written assignment and/or attend an interview as part of the applications process.
Age is no barrier to learning and we welcome all applications from suitably qualified students. Due to their flexibility, our London-based MAs by research attract a wide variety of applicants from a range of backgrounds, including people in full-time employment and retirees. Our current students range in age from 25 to 75.
Candidates apply online, sending in their supporting documents, and will be assessed on this basis by the Programme Director. The Programme Director or Admissions Assistant will be happy to answer any enquiries. Call us on +44 (0)1280 820227 or get in touch via our online form.
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The MA does not offer systematic instruction in the facts; instead, the emphasis is on independent thought and research.
At the heart of the Buckingham MA is the close working relationship between student and supervisor. While the final thesis must be an independent work, it is the supervisor who offers advice on refining the topic (if necessary), on primary sources, on secondary reading, on research techniques and on writing the final text (which should be not less than 25,000 words). Supervisors and students will meet frequently throughout the year, and not less than twice a term; and the supervisor shall always be the student’s primary contact for academic advice and support.
The University’s Course Directors, students’ supervisors, and the Research Officer and Tutor for Graduate Students are available to discuss students’ post-graduation plans and how they may utilise most effectively the skills acquired during their studies.
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