Books: Corrective measures

Edward Pearce greets a textbook whose figures add up
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The Independent Culture
Hope and Glory, Britain 1900-1990 edited by Peter Clarke, Penguin, pounds 25

Remember the Pelican History of Britain? Richmond on Roman Britain, Lady Stenton on the Anglo-Saxons, A.R. Myers on the Late Middle Ages, Maurice Ashley on the 17th Century, J. H. Plumb on the 18th... They went in the schoolbag 40 years ago.

Pelican no longer exists, a reflection of the video age, but the history series is being run again by Penguin with a new team to take account of 40 years of scholarship. Mark Kishlansky's 17th Century is due and Peter Clarke takes up the 20th century that was done previously by David Thomson.

Clarke has at least two great virtues. If not opinion-free, he keeps a steady and scrupulous eye on his era and he intersperses Kings and Queens - like Baldwin and Thatcher - with happy splashes of social history. As a very numerate, not to say statistic-happy historian, he tells us things we didn't know, things which correct the perspective of history.

Such as this: chattering opinion likes to talk about "civilised licensing hours" as a good French thing which the absurd, Nonconformist-ridden British have only just got round to. Chattering opinion reckons it can handle its Chablis. But in 1900 the annual consumption of spirits in England and Wales was 25 million gallons (over a gallon per head). In Scotland it was eight million, an average of three annual gallons per head. Down to 17 million and six million respectively in 1913, consumption, hit by Lloyd George's licensing hours, fell to (and stayed at) 40 per cent of the 1913 figure and a quarter of that for 1900. This is an important finding, but it is not the history we have in our heads.

Clarke beats no political drum, but he has a social democratic instinct about how health and welfare are indices of general all-rightness. He has a nice way of focusing on essentials. The advance of the NHS over the panel-patient system was to create "for women, for dependent children, for the elderly", free medical services previously available only (and that narrowly) for men in the prime of life. He is nicely succinct. The NHS immediately went over budget "provoking alarm that spending was out of control, though the real reason was an underestimate of what was needed for patients."

Clarke has a number for most things, even for personality politics. The popularity of Churchill, up to May 1945, never fell below 78 percent. Then again, read his account of the Tony Barber boom - not just the relationship between low interest rates, wild credit and house-inflation, but the social benefits, like the revitalisation of suburbs. These, as well as the consequential harm they caused, are elegantly set out.

As for those consequences, "The trick was to stay ahead of the game, by sitting on assets discounted for future inflation while securing pre- emptively high wage increases... In 1972, prices rose by seven per cent, industrial earnings by 16 per cent." At every crisis or turning point, the key numbers come in.

But with the numeracy goes high culture, a layering-in of the art and books of each period as illustration rather than adornment. Interestingly, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy, both firmly planted in the social record, get his regard; Virginia Woolf gets a sort of quizzical respect. But we don't just get novels and poetry, we get cricket and football too. It is sad to be reminded that Glossop, which had the biggest spinning mill in the world, also had, before the First War, a team in the FA first division.

And having begun his history with an account of Joseph Chamberlain's large imperial purpose, clarifying imperial preference to many of us, Clarke makes the ironic point that Lord Hawke's cricket tours, by establishing the Test series, probably did more for Commonwealth unity than Joe.

The hidden importance of trivia is underlined when he tells us that Britain was ahead of the US and Europe in video ownership. He reckons with some plausibility that this toy has taken the central place of religion - and it is a matter of some irony that a country now so heavily capitalistic should also be so proletarian.

This is a splendid book. The breadth of knowledge, the grasp of statistical evidence, the wide culture all combine with a lucid, plain prose to get us from Joe Chamberlain's tariffs to Mrs Thatcher's hang-ups about Europe. They leave us instructed, amused and with a perspective of a country healthier, richer, living longer and yet unhappy, preoccupied with decline, hung over after its delusions about great power status, a Britain in Europe but too late, almost indeed a country needing a little benigncomplacency. If you want a text book for the century, this is it.