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24Historically Speaking · May/June 2004 Writing Recent National History Jeremy Black Writing recent national history, in my case Britain Since the Seventies: Politics and Society in the Consumer Age (Reaktion, 2004), provides a welcome opportunity to engage with readers in a different fashion. There is an understandable distancingwhen offering the fruits ofarchival research which, in my case, focuses on the 18th century. But when addressing the past thatis within living memory, there is no point pretending some Olympian detachment or Delphic omniscience. Instead, the choices of what to include and how to treat the material are more clearly personal than they are for traditional historicalworks. Writingabout this period proved more difficult than addressing the long span ofnational history in my History ofthe British Isles, 2nd edition (2003). It is always important for readers of historical works to be aware that what they contain, how the material is treated and organized, and what is omitted reflect a process ofchoice. This is most apparent and valuable when discussing the recent past, as that necessarily throws fight on both subject and process. Aside from reflectingmyviews, faced with the difficulttaskoftryingto cover such a large subject, I am consideringaworld on the cusp from experience to memory. Indeed, it was interesting to see how many ofthe individuals mentioned in the text I had met and discussed aspects of the subject with, and that withouttrying to do so from the pointofany publication. I realized that I had conversed with two prime ministers, an Archbishop of Canterbury, a European Union commissioner , and a Lord ChiefJustice, all when they were in office, and one former prime minister and several former Cabinet ministers. I have tried to avoid the commonplace, metropolitan-centered, politics-driven, and government-enacted approach to British history . Instead, I have emphasized the limitations ofgovernment. Weakness is not, however , the same as inconsequence. To suggest thatmajor changes occurred in, for example, the environment or demographics without government policy playing a major role would be to ignore subjects such as planning permission and publichealth issues. Itwould be a mistake to write the historyofthese years with government onlyhaving awalk-on role toward the close. Indeed, education and the National Health Service exemplified a compulsive "tinkering" mentality in which both Conservatives and Labour sacrificed stability for action. Although the activities of government punctuate the text, they do not, however, set its direction. Instead, it is social, cultural, and environmental trends that attract particular attention, especially the nexus of consumerism . "I spend therefore I am" was the motto ofthese decades. The consumer, and industries geared to consumerism, drove the pace of social change. The citizen as consumer meant a world ofshopping centers and cars, always cars. This was related to the dominance of individual preferences in social mores and practices, and the political ethos of the house owner. Consumerism can be presented as a triumph for the people, butits expression was greatly affected not only by government, but also bythe structures ofeconomic power, not least the rise of multinationals and their extension into the service sector. To critics, there was also a disengagement with social concerns as part ofa breakdown ofcivil society. Consumerism, however, played a major role in the democratization of politics and society: democracy was incomplete without the responsiveness to the popular will. The endless satisfaction surveys/market research/focus groups ofthe 1990s and 2000s promoted a sense ofresponsive and democratized businesses and public services. Television linked consumerism with culture , and devoting one ofthe chapters to the latter meant dealing as much with soaps, girl bands, and children's names as the world of fashionable art. In addition, cars and housing linked consumerismwith pressure on the environment, leading to a remolding of the visible environment that contributed to a sense ofchange, ifnot crisis. As the landscape, rural and urban, was central to images of place, this contributed to awider angstabout identity. Disruptive laborrelations and crime both reflected consumerist pressures, and each contributed to an ungovernability that was more generally a product ofthe greater accountability of government in the face of declining deference. The focus on customers /voters/members and the emphasis on theirrights—nottheirresponsibilities—combined to make it harder for institutions to operate. Culture and environment do not exist...


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