Written by Daniel Sharp
Peter Clarke’s history of twentieth-century Britain was first published in 1996 before being updated and republished under a new subtitle in 2004. It is this latter version which is under review here and which – as I read it recently in my spare time – astonished me with its depth and breadth of narrative and analysis. Hope and Glory stands as a remarkable achievement in historical writing. As part of the Penguin History of Britain series, it is simultaneously academic in depth and written for a popular audience and makes such a synthesis seem incredibly easy. Clarke is a distinguished historian, currently Professor Emeritus of Modern British History at Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy, and from the basis of this book, it is not hard to see why.
Hope and Glory is primarily a history of political, economic and social changes which took place in Britain throughout the last century. Clarke spins easily from the British film industry to the Suez crisis of 1956, from the leisure pursuits of the population to the Edwardian fiscal crisis, from the rise of the Labour Party to the decline of the Liberals. The writing is fluent, cogent and often funny with undertones of irony throughout. Take one instance for example: sections dealing primarily with Edward Heath and the second Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan premierships in the 1970s are entitled, respectively, ‘Tweedledee’ and ‘Tweedledum’.
Beginning with the Unionist government of Salisbury at the beginning of the twentieth century and taking us right up – through all of the prime ministers, political scandals and crises of this remarkable period – to the second premiership of Tony Blair, Clarke both narrates and analyses with scholarly flair the fortunes of the century’s major personalities, from David Lloyd George to Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher. He also elucidates the economic and political motivations and impetuses of these actors with verve and style, and, though the economic analysis can be quite a drudge to read at times, Clarke never loses sight of the importance of human decisions and personalities in shaping historical events.
Though the emphasis is firmly on politics and economics, there are many sections dealing with cultural and social aspects of British life throughout the century – perhaps this represents the influence of Clarke’s wife, the eminent cultural historian Maria Tippett. Highlights of the book’s concerns with social and cultural change include its analysis of the BBC’s evolution, the changes in Britain’s religious affiliation and its often-penetrating asides on the century’s literature.
The fact that so much of Clarke’s scholarly rigour is worn so lightly is deceptive – the bibliographical essay at the end of the book is a testament to the depth of his reading and knowledge and provides a variety of historical writing with varying interpretations. In addition, the appendix detailing information on the century’s governments and election results is an incredibly useful tool to turn to. Finally, though last updated in 2004, Clarke’s analysis is prescient, for example in his discussion of Britain’s relationship with Europe which he states has produced seemingly ‘intractable’ issues. Indeed.
Overall, Hope and Glory is not only a brilliant read for the stylish writing, it is moreover a comprehensive and detailed account of twentieth-century Britain – that period of great change in the nation’s history.