Review: Britain since 1900 – a success story?

Posted On: 
22nd April 2015

Lord Skidelsky’s history of 20th-century Britain is a stimulating and thought-provoking read, says Labour’s Giles Radice

Britain since 1900: A Success Story? by Robert Skidelsky, published by Vintage

Robert Skidelsky, distinguished crossbench member of the House of Lords and much-acclaimed author of the three-volume biography of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, has written a stimulating account of Britain since 1900.

This is not a conventional narrative history but a work of analysis designed, as the author says, “to provoke thought”. The question that Skidelsky asks is how successful has Britain been in the 20th century? To produce a convincing answer, he divides his book into two parts: ‘The Stage of Action’ which examines the resources – material, moral, cultural and political – which the British brought to their 20th-century history; and ‘The Action’, which seeks to show how these resources were bought into play by leading politicians.

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According to Skidelsky, the biggest transformation in the 20th century was the end of empire and the decline in British power. Even during my own lifetime, I have seen a dramatic shift. When I was a child in India during the last days of the British Raj, I used to gaze up at the world map above my bed, a quarter of which was coloured in red. Now, in the 21st century, we have shrunk back to being a small group of islands off mainland Europe.

The author gives two main explanations for this change. The first was the impact of war. The empire was destroyed not by British military defeat, but by the sapping over two world wars (especially the second) of the resources, confidence and will necessary to sustain it.

In Skidelsky’s view, the second reason for the destruction of empire was the failure to evolve a successful European policy. Britain failed either to conciliate its main challenger, Germany, or to resist its ambitions in time. Then, having failed to play the balance of power game when it mattered, it tried to sabotage the attempt to unite Europe after 1945. The failure to go with Europe early enough weakened the European Union and made Britain a de facto vassal of the United States.

Despite this decline in power, Skidelsky points out, the British people grew very much richer and healthier during the 21st century, along with most other western Europeans. A key feature in this success was the establishment of the welfare state, with the National Health Service as “the jewel in the crown”. However, the author raises the question (without coming to a conclusion) whether it will continue to be possible to support the welfare state at the present level without a major improvement in the dynamism of the British economy.

But he is unequivocal about what he calls the “unsung success story of the 20th century” which has, in his view, been the preservation of liberty in Britain at a time when other European countries were losing theirs. As he says, despite some fraying at the edges, “Britain remains one of the most civilised and tolerant societies in the world”.

Although he believes history is generally made from above, he gives high marks to the good sense, tolerance and fortitude of the British people who have been both “the beneficiaries and victims of the actions and behaviour of the governing class”.

On the whole, he respects the quality of the leadership provided by politicians. In his view, there have been three top-class prime ministers: Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. I would add to the list Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson and – despite Iraq – Blair. I would also argue that modern politics cannot be fully understood without grasping that at key moments it was the contribution made by pairs of politicians – for example Churchill and Attlee, Bevin and Morrison, Macmillan and Butler, Thatcher and Whitelaw, and Blair and Brown – that helped make history.

Looking ahead, Skidelsky is somewhat pessimistic. He writes that “estranged from Europe and despised by America, Britain faces a lonely, introverted future”. While agreeing with him about the dangers, I am less pessimistic than he is, putting my faith – as he does – in the character of the British people.​

Lord Radice is a Labour peer. His new bookOdd Couples: The Great Political Pairings of Modern Britain
is out now