AN Wilson sets out to describe British history during the period when we awoke to the fact that we were no longer "top nation". He deploys several particular gifts. Not being an academic historian, he is not constrained by professional demarcation lines. His narrative leaps from politics to military strategy to literature: characteristically, he suggests that Britain's diminished status after the Second World War is illustrated by Mary Norton's novel The Borrowers, about tiny people who live behind skirting boards foraging for scraps. Wilson is opinionated and undeferential - and sometimes he is right.
Like the most eminent of post-Victorians, Lytton Strachey, he uses biographical sketches to tell much of his story and, like Strachey, is at his best when he combines a refusal to take people at their own valuation with a recognition that they did have some value. There is a particularly dramatic passage on the confrontation between Churchill and Air Marshall Dowding, chief of Fighter Command, in May 1940. For Wilson, Churchill - voluble, emotional and bellicose - was the only man who dared stand up to Hitler, but Dowding - quiet, ascetic - was the only man who dared to stand up to Churchill. By doing so, he prevented British planes from being sacrificed in a last suicidal mission to help France.
Wilson is also interesting on institutions and classes. One is struck by how much of Britain's ancien régime survived. After the abdication crisis of 1936, the British royal family illustrated its peculiar talent for drawing strength from crisis. The aristocracy survived too, and Wilson points out that Bonar Law's cabinet of 1922 was the "most aristocratic for a generation". How did the old order survive?
Wilson gives us tantalising references that are never quite followed up. So he discusses changes in the Church of England, but gives no great sense of how the church acquired the strength that allowed it to survive the collapse of religious belief after 1945.
Sometimes, Wilson's ability to understand the past seems restricted by an odd lack of sympathy. His tone can be dismissive. Stanley Baldwin was Conservative prime minister three times between 1923 and 1937. He was a brilliant man with a gift for hiding his cleverness - not, one suspects, a gift Wilson holds in great esteem. No one who neglects Baldwin can understand how the British social order survived the General Strike and the Depression, but Wilson seems to share Curzon's view of a "man of the utmost insignificance".
Wilson was once England's most prominent "young fogey". His writing has always referred to the past, but young fogeyism was as much linked to the 1980s as were red braces and cocaine. Wilson is very present-minded - he tells us that that the sinking of the Titanic was a "9/11 moment". He seems most interested in history when it can be used as ammunition in some contemporary argument. This book would have been better if Wilson had allowed the possibility that the beliefs of even the recent past are, in some ways, as remote from our own as the beliefs of the middle ages - and that it is the job of the historian to understand those beliefs, not to sneer at them.
Richard Vinen's 'A History in Fragments' is published by AbacusReuse content