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The royal road to ruin

27 March 2004

12:00 AM

27 March 2004

12:00 AM

A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 G. E Searle

OUP, pp.902, 30

The old Oxford Histories of England were trusty bestsellers bound in pale blue wrappers. Hugely authoritative but often dull, they provided confident narratives of kings and governments, together with a chapter or so on culture and economics. The Clarendon Press has begun to update the series, and several volumes of a New Oxford History have so far been published. Geoffrey Searle has spent a lifetime working on Edwardian England, and he is well qualified to provide a new overview.

This is no easy task. Searle’s massive book, over 900 pages long, is ambitious but uneven. For a start, there’s the problem whether a history which is really about Britain can still be described as a history of England. Spurred on by Blairite devolution, historians have spent much time in the past two decades pondering the meaning of Englishness and deconstructing ‘Britain’ into its component parts. It is no longer PC to title a book which is really about ‘The Isles’ a history of England. Searle deals sensibly with this issue, but it is perhaps the least of his problems.

Like the old Oxford Histories, much of the book consists of political narrative. Perhaps the least interesting part is the section on Gladstone and Salisbury. Students will find here a reliable and admirably even-handed survey of recent research. But reading this part made me long for Searle to lighten up and spin a theory or tell a joke. Searle is not a flashy stylist, and his text is not enlivened, as was A. J. P. Taylor’s English History 1914-45, with wit or pithy character sketches. Nor does he attempt to set up an over-arching thesis, exploring, say, the links between the Great Depression of 1878-96 and political realignment in the way that made Norman Stone’s Europe Trans-formed such a brilliant survey.

What really interests Searle is defence and administrative reform. This was the subject of his first (much thinner) book, The Quest for National Efficiency (1971). In Searle’s account the catalyst for change was the Boer war — that imperial wrangle against those ‘hardbitten farmers with ancient theology and inconveniently modern rifles’ who proved so hard to beat. But the post-Boer-war consciousness failed to deliver the radical military reforms that were called for. This, as Searle rightly says, was probably a good thing: the very amateurishness of the low-paid British officer class meant that they posed no threat to civilian government as officers did in Germany or France. The realignment of foreign policy that followed the Boer war — the shift from splendid isolation to the continental commitment of the 1904 Entente with France — happened, says Searle, almost by accident. Balfour and Lansdowne were ‘two sleepwalkers stumbling into a continental entanglement’.

Searle gives a clear survey of the welfare reforms of the Asquith government of 1908, but he doesn’t really engage with the historical debate about the New Liberalism. Perhaps the question whether the Liberal party could have made the shift to a genuinely class-based system of voting and become the party of the working class, pre-empting the rise of Labour, is one that historians have pretty well done to death anyway. Rather than agonise about the ifs and buts of New Liberalism, Searle gives a clear-eyed account of the road to war in 1914, analysing Grey’s foreign policy and showing how much the strategy of continental commitment depended on bluff. In 1914 the British Expeditionary Force consisted of a mere six infantry divisions –— the Germans had 84 divisions and the French 66.

The most enjoyable and novel part of this book is the section on social history. After 1900 the Victorian synthesis, as Searle says, was unravelling with remarkable speed. In 1935 George Dangerfield wrote a brilliant polemic, The Strange Death of Liberal England, which presented a vivid, impressionistic picture of an England on the eve of war in 1914 torn apart by violence — war between the sexes, war between the classes and civil war imminent in Ireland. Searle concedes that there was perhaps ‘a crisis of the state’ before 1914, and that alienated groups were questioning authority. But his Edwardian England is not a land of strife and violence.

On the contrary, according to Searle the Edwardians were a nation of pleasure-lovers. The two fastest-growing occupations in 1911 were actors and chefs. The Edwardian generation was the first to claim the right to leisure. They took holidays at the seaside (this was the great age of the picture postcard), they stayed home at bank holidays and they invented the weekend, revolting against the grim Sabbatarianism of their Victorian parents. Football clubs mushroomed (I like the story of the church football club at Bolton who quarrelled with the vicar and walked out into the pub, from which they re-emerged as Bolton Wanderers). By 1913 23,000 people went to first-division football matches. When Kipling poured scorn on ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket’ and ‘the muddied oafs at the goals’ he really had a point: the English were a nation obsessed with sport. Before 1914 they taught the world to play, inventing rules for golf, football and tennis. They were also obsessive gamblers — over 80 per cent of the population bet.

The Edwardian establishment was both prudish and philistine. They cracked down on brothels; the result was that in 1905 944 women were charged with having sexual intercourse in the open air (not so the men, apparently). H. G. Wells’s novel Ann Veronica, which is no erotic thrill, was banned on account of immorality because it celebrated ‘free love’. The National Gallery spent its money on pretentious rubbish, ignored the work of major living artists, and allowed Whistler’s ‘Mother’ to go to Luxembourg for a paltry £120.

Not surprisingly, artists and writers were beginning to think of themselves (unlike their Victorian predecessors) as exiles from society. Anticipating modernism, some boasted of being unable to connect with a wider, vulgar audience. Others retreated into the simple life. Searle’s hero (I think) is the simple-lifer Edward Carpenter, who campaigned for animal rights and experimented in free love with working-class males, wearing Indian hand-made sandals — a strangely modern figure. Modern too was the growing trend towards academia. Scientific research was increasingly endowed by business. More and more of what had been the sphere of the Victorian man of letters was professionalised by the universities, which proliferated new disciplines such as history or English literature.

Unlike most histories of this period, Searle doesn’t stop short in August 1914, but takes the story up to the end of the first world war. His narrative of the Great War is lucid and direct. He presses all the right buttons, assessing Haig’s responsibility for the losses of the battle of the Somme, explaining Asquith’s fall, and considering the reasons for the final victory in 1918. And he also explores the social impact of the war, which was often paradoxical. On the one hand, the war increased the opportunities for women, who smoked cigarettes and took jobs. On the other, the very fact of the fighting legitimised conventional masculinity. But this last section of the book shows a very different England from the pre-1914 era. The war changed so much, at least in the short run, that it’s hard for Searle, even in the space of 900 pages, to address the issue of change or continuity after 1914.

This book deserves to become a standard work. It is reliable, lucid, even-handed and up-to-date. It is dull in parts, but in other places it breaks new ground. Nowhere has Edwardian social history been so revealingly synthesised.

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