David Cannadine was a schoolboy in 1950s Birmingham, which was still recognisable as the city that Joseph Chamberlain had known. In the 1960s the town planners demolished much of Victorian Birmingham. The bulldozing of 19th-century cities coincided with — and helped to cause — a boom in Victorian history, led by Asa Briggs. As a postgraduate student at Cambridge, Cannadine wrote a thesis on Birmingham’s 19th-century aristocratic landowners. Since then, there has been a torrent of academic research on 19th-century history, and this has had a ‘deadening and dampening effect’. The Victorians have gone out of fashion. Historians have migrated to the rich pastures of the 18th century or the newly available archives of the 20th.
So much has been written about 19th-century Britain that a new interpretation seems almost impossible. But in this magnificent Penguin history, Cannadine pulls it off. At first sight the book seems conventional enough. This is a narrative history. It is also a political history. As Cannadine explains, the vital feature of 19th-century Britain was the extraordinary importance of Parliament. Other countries had parliaments, but none were as enduring or as prestigious as Westminster.
Most histories of 19th-century Britain begin in 1815 and end in 1914. Cannadine’s account, by contrast, starts in 1800 with the Act of Union with Ireland, which created the United Kingdom, and ends with the Liberal landslide election of 1906; both dates are landmarks in Britain’s parliamentary history. But this is not a clichéd textbook story of the triumph of democracy and reform. Nor is it an insular, inward-looking narrative of Westminster high politics. There is something else going on here. Cannadine begins his history in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars with France. Throughout the book the story of Britain’s relations with Europe and with its expanding empire is integrated into the narrative of domestic politics.