Titling a series ‘The New Oxford History of England’ raises numerous expectations. ‘New’ suggests daring revisionism; ‘Oxford’ implies orthodoxy; ‘history’ an officially approved narrative; and ‘England’ itself, once what people meant when they spoke of ‘Britain’, is today, thanks to the EU and New Labour, fast becoming a frowned-upon, literally unthinkable concept.
It is a courageous historian who answers such a complex challenge, and G R Searle, in this latest volume in the series, cannot be faulted for his monumental industry, and the wide scope of his inquiry. His huge dreadnought of a book launches into the high summer of Victorian peace and plenty, glides majestically through the gathering storm of the Edwardian era and then sails fearlessly into the tempest of the Great War. En route, he hits all the right targets: the growing angst of the governing class over the burden of empire and the future of the race; the radical questioning of Britain’s imperial destiny; new threats to the ruling ethos (from the Labour Party and trade unions, or sexologists like Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis); garden cities; suffragettes; Fabians; Boers; Germans. He examines thorny questions like eugenics and racism, devotes chapters to the fashionable topics of ‘gender’ and ‘national identity’ and naturally arrives at all the correct left-liberal conclusions.