The inter-war period has become a curious blind spot in British history. Events on the European continent were so terrible between 1918 and 1939 that they often seem to overshadow anything that happened on this island. Britain between the wars is remembered, if at all, as a dowdy sideshow, in which only the men who railed against the orthodoxies of their day – Keynes, Orwell, Churchill – deserve starring roles.
Margaret Thatcher was particularly contemptuous of those she blamed for appeasement and could barely bring herself to say a good word about Stanley Baldwin, Conservative prime minister for much of the period.
Roy Hattersley is slower to condemn than Thatcher. Sitting on the Labour front bench during the 1980s has given him a wry understanding of the constraints within which most politicians work. There is, for example, a touching passage in this "story of Britain between the wars" that describes how Clement Atlee felt obliged to serve on the Simon Commission on the governance of India even though he predicted it would harm his career.
Hattersley builds much of his story around sketches of individuals. Most historians now would probably treat the abdication of Edward VIII and his marriage to Wallace Simpson as illustrative of some wider theme, such as the Americanisation of British society or divisions within the Conservative party. Hattersley treats these events as a tragi-comic love story of two very unlovable people.
I enjoyed this book and learnt a lot from it, but was unconvinced by its central thesis. Hattersley begins and ends with the suggestion that the Paris peace settlement after the First World War created problems so great that the Second was all but inevitable; in particular, that the peace treaties "precipitated the greatest economic crisis" of the 20th century. But Keynes, a severe critic of Versailles, said that there was no point in writing about much of eastern and central Europe because these areas were already experiencing an economic cataclysm prior to the treaties.
I also felt that Hattersley understates the ways in which British success after 1939 was built on things that had happened between the wars. The patriotism of 1940 did not come out of nowhere. Indeed, Baldwin's emollient style and his treatment of the Labour party probably did as much to lay the foundations of the post-war consensus as the Beveridge report. That's another reason why Margaret Thatcher did not like him.Reuse content