Turning Points: Crisis and Change in Modern Britain, from 1945 to Truss by Steve Richards - review by Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Dates with Destiny

Turning Points: Crisis and Change in Modern Britain, from 1945 to Truss

By

Macmillan 416p £22
 

In the good old days, dates were for foreigners. France, to take the obvious example, had repeatedly been turned upside down by war, revolution and changes of regime. But the English tourist in Paris rarely bothered to find out which of these distasteful events might be commemorated by, say, the rue du Quatre Septembre. The history of England (this was less true of Scotland and not at all true of Ireland) was a smooth and mostly benign progression. Educated people could tell you what the Glorious Revolution was but might be hazy about when exactly it had happened. Even the Second World War did not entirely change this. For the English, there was no single moment of triumph or tragedy. The day on which Nazi Germany surrendered, 8 May (or 9 May in the case of the Russians), is a public holiday in much of continental Europe. V-E Day has never been much marked in Britain – except, significantly, in 2020, when it became intertwined with the celebration of the NHS during the pandemic.

It was after V-E Day, though, that dates began to matter for the English. History no longer felt like a Sunday drive through the Home Counties in a Bentley. It was more like a session on the dodgem cars at a fairground – lots of hard bumps and the uncomfortable sense that we were making ourselves look ridiculous. Steve Richards has picked out ten ‘turning points’ in Britain’s postwar history: three elections (those of 1945, 1979 and 1997), two wars (the Suez Crisis and the Iraq War), two economic crises (one produced by the oil price rise of the 1970s, the other an extended period of instability stretching from the financial crash of 2008 to the Covid pandemic), one social reform (the Abortion Act of 1967) and two more recent episodes that Richards and, to be honest, I too regard as instances of collective insanity: Brexit and the government of Liz Truss.

Richards, a political journalist who has previously written a book about prime ministers, is well informed and good at capturing what it felt like to be at the wheel of the dodgem car. However, I am not sure that the convulsions of British politics in the period since the

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