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Mighty Blighty?: A History Of Modern Britain ~ Andrew Marr (Review)

July 26, 2011

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Author: Andrew Marr

Year: 2007

Publisher: Macmillan

ISBN: 978-1405005388

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Make no mistake, Andrew Marr’s A History Of Modern Britain is a doorstep of a book. Boasting more than 600 pages, it’s an uncompromisingly ambitious, densely fact-filled and very long telling of  the UK’s postwar story. But what a story – all the way from the welfare state-establishing Labour government of the ’40s to the Iraq War-mongering New Labour government of the ’90s and ’00s. And what a way to tell to it too.

For Marr kicks off his tome as he means to go on – highlighting the unexpected truth at the heart of the decision made in May 1940 (just after Winston Churchill had succeeded the failed Neville Chamberlain as Britain’s PM) over whether an arguably half-crippled Blighty should fight on against the German war machine or surrender to Hitler and seek clemency. The reality – a very little known one – is that of the five men of the war cabinet that had to make that decision that day, it wasn’t the usually ‘war friendy’ right-wingers who had traditionally ruled Britain (the Tories Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax) who voted to carry on, but the left-wingers (Labour’s Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood) who, with Churchill’s decisive vote, did so. The two Tories voted to cut a deal; had they had their way, they would have seen the Nazis march into the country and probably finish off Britain, ensuring no modern story could even take place.

It’s exactly this unearthing of the unusual, surprising, delightful and even ironic throughout its tale of Britain’s last 50-plus years that is behind this book’s success. Attlee’s 1945 Labour government (despite its socialist agenda) can be thanked/ praised for turning Britain into a nuclear power; the ’60s’ telling legacy isn’t the peace movement or free love, but actually the triumph of modern consumerism; Thatcher at first wasn’t really that crazy about privatisation – they’re all here; this book’s full of ’em.

Indeed, anyone who watched BBC News about ten years ago will know that Marr (originally a Fleet Street hack with the likes of The Daily Express and The Observer) is a showman. His delivery of each night’s Westminster round-up as the Beeb’s political editor was full of theatrical flourishes; all lyrical turns of phrase and animated similes. He was a very populist sort of television newscaster and, rightly, became very popular because of it. And that impressively accessible style is to be found right here in this book. Brilliantly researched, unerringly focused, but an easy read – it’s both smart and light. Like many books of this sort, it’s best read by dipping in and out – and whenever you do so, it leaves you feeling more knowledgeable and more curious and often with a wry smile on your face.

Admittedly, you may not agree with all the conclusions Marr draws (the suggestion that ’60s/ ’70s troublemaker Enoch Powell was a more impacting politician than that era’s PMs – Labour’s Harold Wilson and the Tory Ted Heath – doesn’t really convince) and when he tries to summarise the complex, ever changing, youth-oriented culture of the ’60s in just six pages, he perhaps overreaches himself – more successfully he tries the same for merely the punk movement of the ’70s and doesn’t try at all for the popular cultures of the ’80s and ’90s. Yet one can allow him such oversights.

For, given the audacious aim of his book, he unquestionably brings to life the major events, ideologies, machinations and – most impressive and probably most important of all – the players behind Britain’s modern story. Yes, he manages to make many politicians appear interesting, intelligent, principled and full of personality. We have a dim, very cynical view of politicos right now (for good reason), so this genuinely is refreshing. For instance, his colouring of Harold Wilson as a sometimes paranoid, but often very clever ‘little spherical thing’ of kind of working class roots who presided over his cabinets by playing entrenched opponents off each other is one that will live with me forever.

If you’re at all interested in what this book’s all about, the political, economic, social and cultural history of postwar Britain, then you’ll no doubt have watched Marr’s BBC TV series that shared its name with this book. Fair dues, this very long read covers exactly the same territory as that terrific programme – and will probably take longer to read than that did to watch. But, in actual fact, this book was not the commercial companion to that series; in reality, Marr wrote the book first and, thus, wrote the series from the book.

Therefore, if you want the whole story, the real treatment not just the telly-friendly abridged version, then you have to give this book a read. If you thought the show was TV gold, then there’s many more nuggets mined here, just ready and waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by eager readers. 

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A History Of Modern Britain is available to buy here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Bella permalink
    September 19, 2012 9:17 pm

    very helpful review – thank you!

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