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November 2011 – Paul Addison’s “No Turning Back”

Reviewed by:  Adrian Smith, University of Southampton

Paul Addison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 352 pp. £18.99 (hardback).

In recent years pre-Blair Britain has been well served by serious historians: David Kynaston and Peter Hennessy are both two volumes in to their award-winning panoramas of the postwar era; Brian Harrison can boast his prescient two-part portrait of a nation anything but at ease with itself; and the youthful Dominic Sandbrook has no less than three best-sellers to his name. Sandbrook offers a fresh perspective, if only because he was not even born when much of what he describes took place. A fresh pair of eyes is of course welcome, but describing recent social and cultural history in absentia is a risky business (‘No, no, no – that’s not what punk was about!’). Not that the veteran observer can be a guaranteed chronicler of his times. Arthur Marwick, who until late in the last century had a near monopoly in survey histories of modern Britain, was no ivory-towered academic, and yet his remarks regarding sport and popular culture were rarely informative and almost always unconvincing – did he ever actually watch the ‘Old Firm’ or listen to Pink Floyd? Marwick served his apprenticeship at Edinburgh University, as did Paul Addison, whose near half-century north of the border ensures No Turning Back’s lively and informed discussion of national identity (the third member of this ‘sixties triumvirate is the late Angus Calder, whose enduring work on the Home Front clearly informs his one-time colleague’s thinking over the legacy of wartime myth). Both Marwick and Addison located the Second World War at the heart of their initial research, the latter’s early reputation resting upon his acclaimed if contentious study of Churchill and Attlee’s uneasy alliance, The Road To 1945 – the author soon found himself defending, but later qualifying, his insistence upon a Whitehall consensus which had survived, battered but intact, until the global economic crisis of the early 1970s. Any reference to consensus is absent from No Turning Back, but in any case the author eschews several well-known areas of historiographical debate. Thus, no embrace of David Edgerton other than a passing reference to the ‘warfare state’, and no mention of Correlli Barnett except for a brief quote which, ironically, portrays manufacturing industry in a favourable light. Addison side-steps Marwick’s once fashionable insistence upon war as a motor of social change, from the outset maintaining that, ‘the comparative peace and growing prosperity of the second half of the century were more powerful solvents of tradition than the Battle of the Somme or the Blitz.’

This prioritising of the British at peace is consistent with Addison’s TV tie-in Now The War Is Over (surely deserving of a BBC4 re-run) and his downplaying of both world wars in Churchill On The Home Front 1900–55. Yet neither of these titles, The Road To 1945, or Addison’s book-length entry on Churchill for the Oxford DNB, display the scale and ambition of No Turning Back. This is without doubt an important book, OUP securing a suitable sequel to its most influential study of British society in the twentieth century, Ross McKibbin’s Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951. No Turning Back is not as dense a volume, displaying a lighter touch, not least because its author writes so well (less intimidating to the average student than McKibbin’s magnum opus, it lends itself more readily to deployment as a textbook). However, it extends many of the arguments advanced in Classes and Cultures, not least the continuously changing composition, experience, and self-perception of the British working class(es) before, during and after the Second World War. Similarly, McKibbin’s assessment of Labour’s reluctance to remould civil society is echoed in Addison’s conclusion that the ultimate outcome of 1945–51 was ‘a makeshift social democracy based on expediency not principle.’ Churchill’s peacetime government is portrayed here as merely treading water: a cabinet of ‘One nation Tories’ quietly endorsing a postwar recalibration of the private-public sectors heavily in favour of the latter, most expediently in the twin spheres of health and welfare; and, more predictably, placing withdrawal from empire on hold. The early 1950s saw a late flowering of the ‘British Commonwealth’, but Suez brought a rude awakening, prompting Addison to lay bare its profound consequences as to how the British – and most especially, the English – now saw themselves. As with Peter Hennessy in Having It So Good, Addison makes a convincing case for Macmillan as a moderniser abroad and at home: paradoxically, an instinctive progressivism ensured genuine approval of widening affluence, and yet by dint of class and age ‘Supermac’ found the harsher elements of modernity and consumerism both ghastly and incomprehensible.

While acknowledging that the differences remain far greater than the similarities, Addison suggests Wilson and Heath shared their own modernising agenda, which by 1974 had demonstrably failed; the travails of that decade accelerating an uneasy and painful, yet never cripplingly traumatic, ‘progression from the producer-monopoly welfare state of the 1940s to the quasi-consumerist welfare state of the twenty-first century.’ Needless to say Margaret Thatcher looms large in the final third of the book, overshadowing her successor, and squeezing out an extended post-1997 reflection upon New Labour: the Major years deserve fuller consideration, not least as the dawning of the digital age, and the moment when a nation already stripped of its industrial base placed commerce and construction in hock to ultimately unforgiving global forces. When covering the 1980s Addison forensically exposes the hollowness of monetarist dogma, lamenting its disastrous effect upon British manufacturing, and detailing the cruel consequences of communities blighted by accelerated deindustrialisation. Similarly, his forensic dissection of industrial relations in the era of Scargill and Tebbit (neither are spared) is consistent with preceding chapters’ full and fluent commentary upon the rise and fall of mass-member trade unionism in the four decades following 1945.

The strength of No Turning Back is its smooth progress from high politics and policy-making to the grass-roots consequences of all those decisions so painfully arrived at in Westminster and Whitehall. Addison is equally adroit at chronicling social and cultural changes over which central government had little or any influence, ranging from drug use to racial prejudice. He acknowledges the centrality of 1960s when comprehending how Britain has changed so dramatically since the Second World War; but at the same time he acknowledges those shifts in society evident before and after that pivotal decade, witness his insightful observations upon secularism, liberalism and feminism – the latter, as with so many other facets of social change, closely linked to a burgeoning and aspirational middle class belatedly gaining access to higher education. The breadth of No Turning Back reflects an author whose polymath credentials – historian, political scientist and sociologist – underpin his ambitious intellectual agenda. For any student of Britain in the modern era this is, quite simply, a must-have book.

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