Historians used to think that Britain was transformed by the great upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century – the two world wars and the Slump. Now they can see that the second half of the century was even more disruptive than the first. Intact in 1945, the British Empire had virtually disappeared by 1970. National sovereignty was abandoned when Britain entered the European Union, and the United Kingdom itself began to break up. At home the postwar moral order was overthrown by the permissive society and the postwar political settlement by Mrs Thatcher. An economy founded on manufacturing was displaced by an economy based on services, a predominantly working-class nation by a predominantly middle-class nation, a white man’s country by a multicultural Britain. At the end, Elizabeth II was still there, an astonishing survivor from an earlier time. But her reputation was almost overwhelmed by the celebrity cult of Princess Diana, whom Andrew Marr describes as ‘a kind of Barbie of the emotions, who could be dressed up in the private pain of millions’. The outpouring of emotion that followed her death was at odds with almost everything that had been written about the English or British national character in the Forties and Fifties. Were the British losing their identity, or re-inventing it?
To cover all these topics in a single volume would be a tall order. Andrew Marr takes his readers on some very enjoyable excursions into economic, social and cultural themes (he is very good, for example, on Ealing Studios, and the early history of British pop music), but the core