Oxford, £20, 449pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

No Turning Back, By Paul Addison

Having sex is like lying on top of a horsehair mattress". So the boys of King Edward VI grammar school in Lichfield were informed by their biology master at some point in the late 1950s. Among those boys was Paul Addison, who was born in 1943, just after the Beveridge report and just before the Normandy landings. Winston Churchill had talked of the "sunlit uplands" that would come after victory and Addison lived his early life on such uplands.

His life was moulded by the rapid expansion of opportunity produced for clever young men by the Butler Education Act and the Robbins Report into Higher Education. He was just too young to get caught up in the last days of compulsory military service (that reference to the horsehair mattress sounds like army talk) and too old to have his prospects of a university position blown away by the economic crisis of the 1970s.

His academic reputation was secured with a book, The Road to 1945, that described how the foundations of the post-war Britain were laid during the war itself. It was published in 1975, just as the political consensus that Addison described was coming under attack. He subsequently became one of those rare historians whose work is so important that it influences how people think about the present as well as the past.

This book about "the peacetime revolutions of post-war Britain" might well have been entitled The Road from 1945. It describes how immigration, changing attitudes to sex, the collapse of traditional industries and the increasing importance attributed to the market economy undermined the certainties on which, say, the ministers of the Atlee government had expected post-war Britain to be built.

In the late 1940s, it had seemed that a constellation of interlocking values underlay public life. Economic management depended on the idea that the "gentleman in Whitehall" knew best, which, in turn, went with the educational elitism that trained civil servants. The welfare state depended on the assumption that British people felt that they had claims on one another, which went, in turn, with a certain sense of social, perhaps even racial, homogeneity.

These constellations were not brought down by the conscious decisions of powerful people. Politicians would almost certainly have made even more vigorous attempts to prevent large-scale immigration if they had realised its implications. Feminists criticised the traditional family, but it was not they who undermined it – I suspect there was a strong inverse correlation between reading The Female Eunuch and having children outside a stable relationship. The rise of social inequality is often associated with Margaret Thatcher but, as Addison shows, it seems to have begun a couple of years before her election as prime minister and continued long after her political demise.

Addison's book is thoughtful, scrupulous and based on an extraordinary range of reading. But, for all these virtues it is disappointing. He begins by telling us that he still sees the world with the curiousity of a 14-year-old schoolboy. The problem is that, like many grammar-school boys of the 1950s, he looks for answers to his questions in textbooks. The result is that he sometimes seems to be examining his own life through the eyes of, say, Tony Judt or Eric Hobsbawm.

I suspect that Addison is sometimes prone to turn to other historians precisely because his intellectual honesty precludes the kind of sweeping generalisations that a book of this scope needs. Addison often seems to draw back from expressing any certainties at all, particularly on all those difficult matters of private life or cultural values. Readers are asked to cross "unfathomable" depths while sailing into "uncharted waters" until we begin to feel we are drowning in a sea of nautical metaphors.

Perhaps the book might have worked better if Addison had stayed in the oceans of straight political history, where he himself drew up many of the maps. I would have liked more of a sense of how the British elite themselves saw the world after 1945. Was Harold Macmillan more sanguine about national decline than Edward Heath or was he simply overtaken by a melancholic certainty that there was nothing to be done?

I would also have liked to know more about Addison himself. We get glimpses of his personality – it tells us a lot about a man when he devotes as much space to the arch television comedy The Good Life as to the whole of punk rock – but there is no sustained element of autobiography. What was it like to be a child of the post-war years? How did the student upheavals of the early 1970s look to someone just embarked on an academic career? What was it like for a grammar-school boy to watch his own children go through school in the age of the comprehensive?

Such personal reflection need not involve intimate revelations – though Addison might have cared to speculate about why men born in the early 1940s are so reticent about their private lives when women born five years later are so prone to confessional memoirs, and I am still intrigued to know whether sex for Addison and his contemporaries did turn out to be like a horsehair mattress.

Richard Vinen's 'Thatcher's Britain' is published by Pocket Books

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