The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
July 23, 2007

Jeremy Black asks, is Andrew Marr a very good thing? History of Modern Britain - Andrew Marr

Posted by Jeremy Black

A History of Modern Britain
by Andrew Marr
London: Macmillan, 2007
Hardback, 25

Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain enjoyed good viewing figures and has been a success in the bookshops. As he is clearly a nice man, engaging as well as intelligent, well done to him. Yet, at the same time, it is appropriate to ask, as Gerard Baker did in The Times, whether there are not flaws in the series. Baker drew attention to stylistic issues (Marr in front of the camera) as well as those of content, to whit Marr's complacency and failure to discuss Britain's decline toward dependency culture and EU servitude. Fair enough. Marr certainly wins the Kenneth Clark/Simon Schama award for inappropriate display afore the camera, rather than relying on the greater authority of an intelligent voice, a method particularly favoured by David Starkey. Moreover, some of the gimmicks were downright silly. Why have Marr as both Brown and Blair at Granita, or put him into a sports car to highlight the Ecclestone affair? On that basis, Marr should have donned a frock to represent Margaret Thatcher, Princess Di or Peter Mandelson.

More serious, however, was the laziness of some of the analysis, and this is disappointing because Marr is highly intelligent and perceptive, while the series was right on so much, for example stressing North Sea oil in the Thatcher programme or the Internet and consumerism in the last programme. Yet, there were also serious omissions. It just won't do to present British history in such an insular fashion. Most of the developments Marr discussed, such as the end of austerity, occurred far more widely, and this was also true of the social trends, and many of the political ones. Thus, the analyst should consider how far and why the British manifestation was different, for example comparing Scottish with Catalan devolution. Why was decolonisation less serious in its political consequences than for France or Portugal?

There was also a trend of smugness in the account that was favoured by this sleight of hand. If Britain grew more prosperous and socially liberal (and tell that, for example, to smokers who wish to run a private club or to any who hold non-politically correct opinions), then this was also true of many other countries, and, compared to them, the degree and rate of progress may be qualified. Furthermore, Marr badly underplays the challenge from the EU. Marr, at least, is aware that the media sold, and was sold, Blair as part of a lie, but, at the close, he offers a Blair moment.

At least the film footage was excellent. Much took me back, and my daughter was bemused by the sight of her father acting as if he was seeing old friends. Because of this footage, the television works better than the book, which should have been written by Peter Hennessy, who is acknowledged as providing valuable advice, or, more excitingly, someone who took a different view - perish the thought, maybe a Conservative. So, qualified praise: for the BBC for devoting the resources and prime time, for Marr for his vigour and for his many insights, and for the British public that had to put up with the ghastliness we were reminded of. At least Blair's duplicity took its proper place alongside "The Winter of Discontent" as a rotten canker that was no joke.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) and A Short History of Britain (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement