Best Modern British History Books | Five Books Expert Recommendations

What will historians say about the latest period in british history ? What has stayed the same, and what is vastly different from our parents ‘ generation ? Andrew Hindmoor, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and writer of Twelve Days that Made Modern Britain, recommends books that feed insights into contemporary british history. You ’ ve just written an excellent koran : 12 Days that Made Modern Britain, which spans 40 years of british history. It ’ s a in truth clever way of charting how the UK has changed and why and a actually good read. Before we get to the books, what did you find were the chief features of this period of british history ?
The standard line in academia is that the key difference is economics, around the arise of what comes to be called ‘ neoliberalism ’ and the emergence of markets. There are parts of the book where I talk about that and the changes in the economic landscape .
But for me, growing up in Sheffield and then living abroad for a decade, the individual standout coming back is that the area feels a bunch more socially liberal than it did when I was unseasoned. That strikes me as a reasonably positive change that we don ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate spend enough fourth dimension celebrating.

That doesn ’ metric ton entail that everything ’ s perfect ; it doesn ’ thyroxine base that there aren ’ thyroxine political issues even to argue about, but it ’ s a real generational deepen. The degree of dispute in embedded norms of liberalism, permissiveness and diverseness between my children, myself, and my parents is enormous. We take it for granted and forget how important it is as a story of how much Britain has changed .
In your script, is it the chapter on the murder of an innocent black adolescent, Stephen Lawrence, and the patrol ’ second awful treatment of that crime, a well as the chapter on gay marriage, that in truth explore those social changes ?
That ’ mho properly. My front-runner footnote—not that I normally tell people to go to the footnotes—is one on civil partnerships and the poll data showing that a majority of UKIP members are actually in favor of gay marriage. Given the demographic we expect UKIP members to be coming from, that is a in truth useful measure of just how far and how promptly the area has changed .
Do I detect a sense that, despite the move towards American-style economic neoliberalism since Margaret Thatcher, you don ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate think that ’ s happened quite a much as people seem to believe ?
This is an controversy I ’ ve been having both in my headway and with colleagues for a while. The bible I wrote before this ledger is called What ’ mho Left now : the History and Future of Social Democracy. In it I mounted a epic argument—particularly heroic given the state of british politics over the end few years—that we exaggerate the degree to which Britain has been transformed from a social majority rule into a neoliberal dystopia .
“ We exaggerate the degree to which Britain has been transformed from a social majority rule into a neoliberal dystopia ”
Britain recognizably retains a social democratic affection to its politics and to its economy, but there ’ s a trait of miserablism on the impart which sees everything as having gone to hell in a handcart, all politicians as equally bad, every government vitamin a bad as the one that preceded it—and fair locks itself into a actually negative lookout .
partially on those social liberalism grounds, and partially on some arguments about redistribution, I have tried to persuade myself, approaching my 50th class, to be a fiddling bit more optimistic—though as my family says it ’ s slightly ironic, given my personal tendency expression on the worst side of everything, to be offering an upbeat political manifesto .
many problems in Britain are blamed on austerity but, in your book, you point out that a different picture emerges if you look at the figures. Talk me through your views on this controversial subject .
I precisely think both sides are wrong about austerity. There have been cuts—and those cuts have been badly, and in many ways are biting nowadays far more than they were a few years ago—but it ’ s possible to exaggerate the degree to which public outgo has been savaged. overall, what we ’ ve seen is the end to public spend increases and, give or take, populace outgo being held constant, with cuts in some areas. That ’ s not a pretty mental picture, and it ’ s surely not a policy that I personally would have supported, but it ’ mho far from being a 1930s-style slash and burn, as the leave would have it .
The right field, meanwhile, argue that we had to have this time period of austerity ; that the medicine was tough, but it ’ south been worth it. That ’ sulfur besides folderal. The public debt now is manner higher than it was in 2010, and the effect austerity has had in terms of lower increase means that the country is much poorer than it would have been .
So the argue we ’ ve had about austerity—which we now seem to have stopped having because we ’ ve all agreed it ’ s over—has barely left me wanting to pull my hair’s-breadth out. The policy itself was incorrectly and the public understanding of what was happening was controversially divided between bequeath and correctly in a direction that just wasn ’ triiodothyronine helpful .
Let ’ s bend to the books you ’ ve chosen on modern british history. First on the list are the two books on Brexit by Sunday Times diarist Tim Shipman : All Out War and Fallout. These have been shortlisted for a act of prizes and are by and large acknowledged to be brilliant. Tell me how they fit into an understand of modern british history .
On the discipline here, I was thinking about what makes a bang-up history book–and a modern history book in particular—and I think there are three things : first is if it can take you behind the scenes and tell you what people were actually thinking and saying to each early at the time. That by reading the book, we learn things that we otherwise might only get a hint of .
The irregular crucial timbre for a good modern history book is that it gives you the bigger video. We get bombarded day after day with news, and it just becomes overwhelm if you ’ re trying to make sense of the history and in truth understand events. A estimable history reserve is one that takes you out of the hurly-burly of the daily and shows you how things fit together .
“ Modern history is inevitably an exercise in nostalgia ”
third and last, I think modern history is inescapably an exercise in nostalgia. It reminds you of your own past. It pushes you to remember where you were and what you were thinking when something happened. The books I ’ ve chosen offer examples of all three of these aspects in different ways .
Starting with the books by Tim Shipman, All Out War and Fallout : these are complete insider accounts of the politics of the last few years. These are events we ’ re hush living through, and the third gear book in the trilogy will be out former this year .
Both are actually substantive books that I give to my students. They ’ re very retentive and very detail, not lightweight books by any means. He ’ south got this amazing capacity to marshal the minutia of what ’ s going on, but besides make his account ample in its personalities and its anecdotes .
The level of access he ’ sulfur been able to get is breathtaking. You get a feel of truly being told what people were arguing and thinking and saying to each other. For me, it ’ s the level of insider entree that makes these books stand apart and it ’ s what journalists like Shipman can give you .
Though I ’ thousand identical concerned in Brexit, when I foremost picked up these books, I was a bit worry that I wasn ’ t quite concern enough to hear a blow-by-blow account. But I started listening to Fallout as an audiobook and I got hooked. Some of the things these politicians say about each early, the turns of phrase, are just hilarious. I was wholly gripped .
It is a page-turner. It ’ south quite concern to see politicians being thus lusciously and cleverly rude about each other and to each other. distinctly he ’ s dealing with massively significant affairs of department of state, but the characters are just indeed human, the way they ’ ra depicted. I just find it beautiful to read .
I besides learned a draw : I ultimately understood, for example, the options available for the UK ’ s relationship with the EU. Shipman explains the remainder between the Norway option, and the Switzerland placement, and how it was that Theresa May ended up not going for either of those .
They ’ re big books—goodness knows how long the audiobook must be—but coming to the end, you can kid yourself that you ’ re actually an adept. The books in truth do lay out all of the options. It ’ s this fantastic concoction of the knife-in-the-back, daily human politics without losing sight of the big picture of why this matters and why people care about it .
Is it strange to have that depth of insider information about what ’ s going on at a leadership level ?
The classic exercise is Bob Woodward in America. Watergate set him up for a career where he had a high degree of access to George W Bush. He wrote some in truth great insider accounts of the Iraq War and then, more recently, about Obama and now Trump .
In Britain, for the labor politics you had Andrew Rawnsley. He was the head political analogous of the Observer and he wrote a book, Servants of the People ( and besides a moment book, The end of the Party ) where he was trusted as an insider by all of the keystone people and was distinctly live and breathing it on a daily basis. That ’ s the early record that stands out .
So it ’ s relatively strange but not impossible, and Shipman is angstrom good as any .
Your future book is by the historian Simon Schama, A History of Britain. It ’ mho in three volumes and covers the integral history of Britain from 3000 BC to 2000 AD, sol quite a long period .
I studied british history as a scholar and didn ’ t particularly enjoy it. When I came back from surviving in Australia, I decided I wanted to learn a bite more about the history I ’ d ignored when I was sitting in the classroom .
Simon Schama is a television personality and academics are constantly bitchily leery of any historian who ’ south full at being on television receiver and being a celebrity. They will always want to assume that the histories they write are lightweight and insubstantial .
“ Academics are always bitchily leery of any historian who ’ sulfur good at being on television receiver and being a celebrity ”
I read the three volumes of Schama ’ s A History of Britain promptly, because what they have in coarse with Shipman is that they are beautifully written. There ’ s a rhythm method of birth control to them. Schama has mastered that real art of history where you give person reading it enough of a smell of detail that they feel the historian knows what they ’ rhenium doing and that you come out of it knowing more, but without getting bogged down in the contingent that you don ’ t need. Like Shipman, it ’ s a page-turner, though obviously on a very unlike scale of history. He manages to capture, at different points of the book, a real sense of what ’ s distinctive about british history .
It ’ randomness besides a modern accept. For exemplar, I looked up his bill of the events of 1688, when James II was ousted as monarch and replaced by William of Orange and Mary. This is sometimes called ‘ the glorious Revolution ’ —and actually comes up in your book because Maggie Thatcher proudly refers to it at one point—but Schama points out it was actually a dutch invasion. Schama ’ sulfur is a more modern interpretation of what 1688 was all about .
Yes, and he does that without ever being the trendy, right-on vicar. There ’ s a light to his touch as he punctures the myths of british history. He ’ second telling a fib without being excessively supercilious about it all .
Having this whole sweep of history is then significant. I studied british history in school and then at university, and the Tudors came up again and again. It would have been dainty to be mindful of what was going on over 5,000 years preferably than just, you know, studying the reign of Henry VIII .
Yes, and the Schama books are very clear. There are books I read at work and there are books I read in the evening. The Schama ones I could read quite happily in the evening without it feeling like work .
A History of Britain goes right improving to the modern menstruation. It ’ s a unlike room of ending the koran, because he offers very detailed portraits of Winston Churchill and George Orwell as two in truth authoritative figures of twentieth century british history. He describes them and their achievements at real distance, but somehow whilst doing it seems to find a way of drawing together with it hundreds and hundreds of years of history .
It ’ s a neat ending, because historians differently have the problem of where do you end ? How do you stop the book becoming out of date ? The room he ends with Churchill and Orwell wraps the ledger up in truth neatly .
Let ’ s motivate on to book total 3 on your choice of british history books, which is Denis Healey ’ s autobiography The Time of My Life. This is very clear and I think was a best seller when it was published in 1989 ?
That ’ mho justly. Denis Healey is such an concern person and he tells such nice anecdotes in the record. He ’ s not precisely a miss politician now, but I suspect if you talk to the 18-year olds that I ’ megabyte education, a batch of them wouldn ’ metric ton even have heard of him. But Denis Healey was a very crucial figure from 1945 right through to the mid-1980s. He held a succession of major cabinet ministries, and was right at the concentrate of lots of the samara economic and political debates at the time.

The Time of My Life is another book where you ’ re getting an insider ’ sulfur explanation. You ’ re going behind the stage and seeing what he in truth thought about things at the time. obviously, he ’ south writing with axes to grind—but that actually makes it more entertain, because he ’ s got some pretty delicious write portraits of people he ’ second argued with over the years. He besides has some good observations, looking back at things with the profit of hindsight, which it ’ s constantly commodity to see politicians doing .
Is there a particular anecdote that sticks with you from The Time of My Life ?
There are credibly two. A personal one is about when he was offered the Chair in International Politics at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He tells a history about going up there on the train from London and realizing how far, even in a little country the United Kingdom, Aberystwyth is from anywhere. By the time he arrived on the train, he decided that no count what else happened, he was going to turn down the job .
I did my undergraduate degree at Aberystwyth and never had money for the train. I ’ five hundred always be trying to hitchhike on a Friday good afternoon to go to visit friends—including my now wife—in London. I was the earth ’ sulfur worst person to pick up, with long scholar hair and a dangly earring. I have these memories of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere in the Welsh countryside .
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The other separate of The Time of My Life that stands out for me—and I pick up on it in 12 Days that Made Modern Britain—is some of the stories around the 1976 economic crisis and the IMF bailout. His right take is that much of that crisis was driven by bad figures prepared by the Treasury. Those figures were revised a year late and shrank the size of the public deficit trouble. The solid country went through this profound economic and political crisis—which, you can argue ( and I do in my book ), was a key a keystone turn point for Britain .
history might have turned anyhow, but Healey talks with talk contempt about those in the Treasury who precisely got the numbers wrong. At one distributor point, he evening goes so far as to wonder aloud whether their political inclinations had led them to give him figures that weren ’ t accurate .
We argue all the time in politics and economics about numbers, and treat them as inviolable. But constantly, they are merely best guesses .
It besides covers a long menstruation of history. Healey writes at the begin of the book, “ At one prison term I wanted to call this memoir A Hitchhiker ’ s Guide to the Modern World. My generation has seen it all. ”
Yes, and starting with the second World War, which we ’ ll come to in a minute. He was part of a generation of politicians ( that we ’ ve now come to the end of ) who were absolutely defining in british politics .
We ’ ve lost that genesis immediately, and that ’ s just the passage of meter, but I do think it ’ s worth commend, when we look back on history at its impact. These were people whose early political memories were of the war, for whom it was a critical factor in their lookout. World War Two was a define here and now in setting the post-war consensus .
Do you think there would be fewer Eurosceptics today, if there were more politicians who ’ vitamin d been animated during World War Two ?
For person like Edward Heath, the experience of fighting for and with Europe was absolutely seminal and corroborate why Europe was so crucial to him. He was credibly the alone rightfully pro-European bourgeois leader .
But I would say there ’ s no denying the war besides gave wax to a tune of arrogant nationalism—often on the leave and sometimes on the right—that you can see feeding into Brexit : ‘ We won the war. We intervened to stop early countries fighting each other. They need to integrate, because the trouble was theirs, and we don ’ thymine and didn ’ thymine because we emerged triumphant. ’ That was a dominant puree of think in early attitudes towards the European Union. It was person else ’ mho trouble to sort out. The consequence of that is that we came into Europe very late and with our tails already between our legs because our imagination of being a world power had been then discredited .
Let ’ s talk about The Road to 1945 future, which is by Paul Addison .
I read The Road to 1945 a long time ago. It ’ s an exercise of a history book that ’ s not about insider access, although he does a very thorough historian ’ randomness subcontract looking through the archives and finding out things we didn ’ metric ton know. Rather, what ’ mho impressive about the book is its swing and how it fits things together that aren ’ thyroxine obvious .
What The road to 1945 shows is the academic degree to which the triumphant—because it ’ randomness normally viewed as triumphant—1945 labor government was the product of the war. Clement Attlee government is feted for the creation of the post-war consensus, of the wellbeing state of matter, of the NHS, of keynesian economic management. But in a sense that wasn ’ metric ton appreciated at the clock and hasn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate always been appreciated since, as Paul Addison writes in the foreword : “ When Labour swept to victory in 1945 the new consensus fell like a arm of ripe plums into the lap of Mr Attlee. ”
The pursuit of sum war required an incredible mobilization of resources and plan. Churchill decided it required a coalescence with Labour and the trade unions and they were given a significant state in politics. There was besides a spirit that in regulate to maintain public hold for the war during some darkness times, there would have to be a positive vision on offer for what would follow in peacetime .
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The war changed everything and made the shift to the left in british politics the consensus from 1945. It was equitable there and waiting when Labour was elected. That was a massive shock at the prison term, expected by no one, but it was a sign of how much remember within Whitehall had already changed. What would have once seemed absolutely unthinkable had become, by 1945, the norm .
For me as a modern historian, what ’ sulfur interest is the contrast with the economic crisis of 2008-2009. There ’ sulfur a debate about whether we have learned lessons from the crisis and whether the populace has changed. On the wholly, it probably hasn ’ thymine. I ’ megabyte not saying it ’ s the like scale of shock, because it isn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate, but you ’ ve got a clean line there with The Road to 1945, and how the war did change everything and everyone ’ s think .
For those not familiar with british history, the capital wartime leader, Winston Churchill, was booted out in an election in 1945, less than two months after the Allies won the war. There was a landslide victory which brought the enemy party, Labour, to power. But if I ’ megabyte right, Churchill late came binding again ?
There are two parts to the story. The Labour party to this day—and Jeremy Corbyn is a bite of a sucker for this one—tell the glorious floor of 1945. It was a enormously important government. But it fell into dead exhaustion. The drive for exports, which that politics measuredly used to push down home consumption, meant ration was hush a commonplace in the late 1940s. Some goods were more ration in1949 than they had been during the war ! People tired of that british labour party government .
Churchill and the Conservatives then came spinal column into power in the 1950 election. But what ’ s authoritative through the 1950s is the academic degree to which the Conservatives explicitly accepted the basic terms of Labour ’ s bequest from 1945. It didn ’ t mean they agreed with everything—there were bad arguments around nationalization and around the function of barter unions—but the conservative manifesto of 1945 looked very different from the conservative manifesto of 1950 and 1955. So Churchill and the Conservatives come back, but entirely by accepting how much had changed .
last on your list of british history books is a drollery biography, Things Can alone Get Better by John O ’ Farrell. The subtitle is ‘ Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. ’
For me, this book is in the ‘ history as nostalgia ’ category, a reserve that reminds you of the past and of who you were in the past. It ’ s a authentically amusing book. It will resonate for anybody who was ( as I was ) a left-of-centre scholar feeling absolutely righteous conviction at the certainty of the correctness of their own views. Utter bewilderment is the prerogative of youth, and it was impossible to understand how anyone could vote for a conservative government .
“ At the moment, there ’ s a real pessimism about what ’ s happening in this nation. There ’ s nothing new about that—it was there throughout the Thatcher years. ”
And so far, no matter how absolutely and obviously right I and other long-haired students were, nothing ever quite turned out the means that we wanted it to, and this was fair character of being on the forget. Politics was an across-the-board pastime in which no matter what else happened, the Conservatives always won .
At the here and now, there ’ s a real pessimism about what ’ s happening in this area. There ’ second nothing fresh about that—it was there throughout the Thatcher years .
Things Can merely Get Better does a in truth good job of reminding us what it was like during that time. The book it most reminds me of is by Nick Hornby, who wrote Fever Pitch at about the like time, an account of what it was like to be a lifelong Arsenal fan. This book is its politics equivalent, about what it was like to be a true believer in a cause—and all of the highs and very frequent lows that came with that .
He writes about Margaret Thatcher, “ like the bubonic plague and stone facing, no one took her seriously until it was besides late. ” It ’ mho easy to forget now that her rise wasn ’ t inevitable. As you trace in your book, it was not at all easy for her to become prime minister .
For the leftover, this is a history that starts from, ‘ Who is this person ? What is happening ? It ’ ll be all right because she ’ ll lose. ’ But she wins. then, you think she ’ ll miss in 1983, but it ’ s all about the Falklands and she wins. then, the Conservatives win again in 1987. And again in 1992. There will be genesis of people in their early 50s for whom the first 10-15 years of their matter to in politics would have all been about Margaret Thatcher. And if you were on the leave, that would have felt like the most abject time conceivable .
“ Anti-Thatcherism—being on the left, supporting the miners—was a solid identity. It wasn ’ thyroxine equitable what you thought about politics, it was who you were. ”
interestingly, for the cautious side, because she ’ mho venerated to such a degree, they ’ ve got the trouble that everything that ’ s come after her has, in some sense, been a disappointment and a failure. Everything is compared back to Thatcher and the aura days. So you ’ ve got this rent generation for whom the blessed Margaret is the reference point decimal point for everybody, for both parties. They just each reap different lessons from it .
The other important thing to mention about John O ’ Farrell ’ second book is his ability to capture the degree to which politics was about daily identity : who you dated, what you wore, what music you listened to. That immediately feels in truth dated, but when you read the book, you go back and it reminds you of how this anti-Thatcherism—being on the left, supporting the miners—was a whole identity. It wasn ’ deoxythymidine monophosphate just what you thought about politics, it was who you were .
This is something Nick Clegg, the former leader of our bantam centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, writes about in his book : how unmanageable it is to counter the tribalism in british politics. But that ’ s changing now, and Brexit is shaking things up even more, is that right ?
british politics was therefore stable for such a long time, that if you knew what person ’ mho problem was and how their parents had voted, you would have had a 9 out of 10 casual of guessing how they would vote in an election. Also—and this is a approximate range figure—around 9 out of 10 people did not change their vote in any election. So you had this arrant common sense of stability, with elections being decided in bare constituencies by the relatively little numbers of people who changed their mind .
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What would you look at now, if you could know one thing to figure out how person voted ? Their old age ? possibly. Are they public sector or private sector ? That would matter. But it ’ s thus much more fluid and cross-cutting. Brexit adds another layer on top of that. The excitability of the electorate means you can be wiped out in one election and then emerge absolutely triumphant in another. Sitting her now, it ’ s possible to see both a scenario in a general election where Boris Johnson is returned with a majority of 200 and a scenario where he crashes and burns and goes down as the greatest catastrophe of a conservative premier curate in history. There ’ s equitable this volatility there, now, in the country : how people distrust politicians, the means in which the tension goes from one publish to another, the way there are now multiple parties. The instability feels built-in.

And is that a good thing ?
It ’ s a sodomite if you ’ re teaching modern history because you can ’ t write your lectures in advance and promise that they ’ re however going to stand up in two weeks ’ time. When I was writing 12 Days that Made Modern Britain I kept putting off to the concluding possible consequence sending the Brexit stuff to the publishers because I knew the moment I sent it something would happen that future day. We live in matter to times and all that. I ’ m not sure I ’ thousand particularly happy with what ’ s happening, but I suppose if you ’ re concerned in british politics and modern history it ’ s good for commercial enterprise .

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