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Britain in the Long Twentieth Century

Tutors:  and Clare Tebbutt (tutors for 2017-18) / Mark Roodhouse

Module type: Histories and Contexts

Module Code: HIS00058I

According to Sellars and Yeatman, the authors of the spoof history 1066 and All That, ‘English’ history ended when America replaced Britain as ‘Top Nation’ in 1918. For them the national story after the First World War was a forgettable tale of decline and fall. Contemporary historians echoed this ‘declinism’ in their accounts of the period. All agreed that the years since 1870 have been a time of dizzying economic, political, and social change. Britain, already thought of as the ‘workshop of the world’ and the ‘first industrial nation’ at the start of this period, was propelled by the technological and economic changes associated with the development of industrial capitalism into a ‘modern era’ characterized by industrialization, urbanization, ‘modernity’, and ‘mass society’ – at least that is how some have come to see it.

While few dispute the pace and extent of change, historians continue to struggle to understand its causes, consequences, and significance. In recent years historians have turned away from an earlier narrative of imperial and economic decline offset by rising living standards and a more inclusive notion of citizenship. An alternative story has yet to emerge, although this is not for want of trying. There are many tales to tell that challenge or complement the story of comfortable decline, including ‘the short life of social democracy’ (or ‘the long life of market culture’), neo-corporatism, and governmentality amongst others.

Unlike other modules with a mature historiography, you will have the chance to find your own evidence and tell your own tales as well as evaluate those told by historians. We will study themes in modern British history, focusing on the economic, the political, and the social and cultural by turns, considering the relationship between developments in these interconnected spheres, while evaluating historians’ attempts to develop integrated frameworks. Despite the youthfulness of the historiography, there is no shortage of primary or secondary source material to study. Historians are now discovering the recent past, but social scientists and cultural critics were there long before them. There are also new sources to consider – photographs, sound recordings, moving images, and digital data – that captured aspects of life in modern Britain.

The provisional outline of titles for the lecture series is as follows:

Briefing: Why Study Modern Britain?


  • Briefing: Why Study Modern Britain?
  • Island Stories

Part 1 The Economy: globalisation to post-war reconstruction

  •  Free Trade and Greater Britain
  •  War and Peace
  •  Decline and Declinism
  • ‘Other’ Narratives

Part 2 Politics and the Public

  • Leaps into the Dark: democratisation in Britain
  • Labour: the new kid on the block
  • Roads To and From 1945
  • Thatcher and After 

Part 3  Experiences: society, community, self

  • Class Systems and Class Identity
  • Gender and Region in British Social Identity
  • Mass Culture
  • Identities and (Counter)cultures
  • The Death and Legacies of Christian Britain
  • A Multicultural Britain?

Reflections on Britain in the Long Twentieth Century – and the module     

Round-up: Any Questions

Weekly discussion groups will focus on a key debate raised in the lectures. The topics are likely to be:

  • Island Stories
  • From Globalisation to Fragmentation
  • Declinism - and Reconstruction?
  • Adjusting to Democracy
  • Consuming the State
  •  Class and Social Identity
  •  Re-Imagining Community
  •  Belief and Belonging


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.