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December 20, 2005

The Guardsmen, Napoleon and the British, and Finest and Darkest Hours - Jeremy Black recommends three recent history books for Christmas

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - recommends three recent history books for Christmas.

The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends, and the World They Made
by Simon Ball
Pp. 480. London: HarperCollins, 2004
Hardback, 25; Paperback, 9.99

This skilfully interwoven collective biography was placed on the short list for the History Today/Longman book prize in a year that was not short of good entries. Ball uses the lives of Macmillan, Oliver Lyttelton, Bobbety Cranborne and Harry Crookshank, who all arrived at Eton in 1906, served in World War One in the same battalion, entered the Cabinet during World War Two, and held office again in the 1950s, in order to throw light on what led to success or failure. In short, this is a comparative biography and one based on an enviable range of archival research. Furthermore, the topics covered are fascinating: war and politics, the fate of empire, including Rhodesia, and the project for a National Theatre. Ball has an instinctive grasp for personalities and also uses personal clashes to feel for political differences:

Lyttelton saw the National Theatre as a flowering of Englishness. Tynan admired the state theatres he saw in East Berlin and Warsaw.
Ball argues that Macmillan reached the top because he was the politician of his generation, that no-one could match his mixture of political intelligence, determination to succeed, and skill in manoeuvre, that he was unusual amongst his early contemporaries in his early and detailed work on economic policy, and that
the system worked: from the talent pool available the best man emerged.
Judicious and well-written, this is a most impressive work.

Napoleon and the British
by Stuart Semmel
Pp. 367. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004
Hardback, 25

Semmel's well-paced treatment of the contemporary British response to Napoleon recommended itself to the judges for inclusion in the short list for the Longman/History Today book prize. Ranging widely to consider a variety of sources, including prints, busts and epithets, Semmel shows how, while widely criticised, Napoleon was attractive to others. Furthermore, the confrontation with Napoleonic France led many commentators to consider the nature of British society and the character of the threat. For example, millenarian fears that Napoleon was a scourge sent by God to punish a sinful nation provided a vivid instance of the widespread fear of national decline. In hindsight, Napoleon emerges as an example of unsuccessful meritocrat in a typology of rulers that would have George Washington as a successful meritocrat, Louis XVI as an unsuccessful hereditary monarch, and George III, at least in comparison, as a successful one. Such distinctions were less clear at the height of power, not least as Napoleon's march towards dynastic glory ensured that he sought a different basis for rule. Although Semmel's is not the first treatment of many aspects of the subject, it is interesting and refreshingly vigorous.

Finest and Darkest Hours: The Decisive Events in British Politics from Churchill to Blair
by Kevin Jefferys
Pp. 336. London: Atlantic Books, 2002
Hardback, 20; Paperback, 8.99

Kevin Jefferys, one of the most thoughtful historians of twentieth-century Britain, especially of the Labour Party since 1945, approaches his task by drawing attention to the role of a number of turning points, including the fall of Chamberlain, the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair, the Three-Day week, the Winter of Discontent, the fall of Thatcher, and Black Wednesday. He offers a series of snapshots which combine a careful narrative of the episode with consideration of its broader implications. The role of individuals emerges clearly. The actions of Chamberlain and Halifax are given due weight in Jefferys' discussion of Churchill's ability to hold onto power once he had gained it. The "ghost" of Macmillan is seen as responsible for the fall of the Tories in 1964, but other issues were also important.

As Jefferys points out, victory in North Africa helped Churchill overcome the serious crisis in his leadership in late 1942, while poor handling of the economy led to the fall of the Conservatives in 1961 and Labour in 1966, undermining the two-party system. His preferences are clear. This is not a book that makes comfortable reading for Conservatives, while there is a certain reluctance to draw attention to recent deficiencies in New Labour. Yet this is a valuable and thoughtful account.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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