- A Companion to Contemporary Britain: 1939–2000
The “companion” genre of historical reference book seems a little informal, historiographically; on my office shelves, I have several versions. There is the near-dictionary, written in miniscule type to provide the answer to “who or what is this,” and weighing in at bowling ball size; the stream-of-consciousness essay collection, which assumes a wide-ranging knowledge on the part of the reader that seems unwarranted, since anyone who understood the historical background to the essays wouldn’t need a companion to begin with; and the encyclopedia-in-all-but-name, which seems to have been retitled because “companions” probably get a wider-ranging buyership beyond libraries.
That being said, should historians one day come to the conclusion that there is a need to define precisely what a “companion” to history is, they could do far worse than to use Basil Blackwell’s multivolume series on the history of Britain as a guide. This volume is edited by Paul Addison, an eminent scholar on Churchill and the war, and Harriet Jones, a former director at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research specializing in contemporary history. Its contributors are some of the best scholars available on their subjects of interest—Pat Thane on demography, Bill Osgerby on youth culture, Christopher Harvie on the four nations of Britain and the issue of their devolution, to name a few. [End Page 484]
The subjects chosen are a generous outlay of historiographically rich fields taken from the history of Britain in the twentieth century—class, the controversial concept of the “decline” of Britain, northern Ireland, postimperial immigration into Britain, the relationship between Britain and Europe. But there are also subjects that one might be more likely to find discussed regularly in their newspapers as opposed to the latest version of the academic journals to which they subscribe. Thus, on the one hand, the late Arthur Marwick’s witty chapter on class challenges editor Addison’s review of one of his books by arguing that the perception of class in Britain has changed dramatically since the war, but that the perception still exists on the part of the public, and therefore is still relevant. Perhaps so. Yet when reading about “class” in Britain in the press today, one might be likelier to wonder about where the working classes have gotten off to—when the reader can then find Robert Taylor’s description of the working classes’ rise to prominence and affluence in British politics, culture, and society with the Labour government of 1945, and their constituents’ collapse into individualism during the Thatcher-Major years from 1979 to 1997. This combination of pitching responses to both other academics and the informed general reader—particularly the world history reader—is a good way of defining what a “companion” ought to do.
Surprisingly, while there are lots of references to politicians, there is no chapter on politics and government—to that Labour government of 1945, for example, one of the most monumental in British history. Any world history reader, however, could find innumerable summaries of the governments of the era since 1945. This companion’s value comes in discussing subjects not so readily available in an academic context.
Personally, I use a companion mostly as background for writing a lecture. I look for a fast and easily digestible overview of a subject that I can trust for the moment to provide me with the latest research on a subject and to provide me with other sources on which I can do research in future years to expand upon and remain fresh. With that in mind, few of these chapters end in more than twenty pages including endnotes, and most of them are liberal in referencing secondary sources in the text. Occasionally, they also provide names of useful primary sources that the world history reader might not be familiar with, such as Wendy Webster’s introduction of the Parekh Report on the reimagining of Britain in multiethnic terms, or Nicholas...