How was ‘Modern Britain’ made and remade between 1951 and 2007?

History can often feel like one event after another. It can achieve a kind of boring objectivity to it. But do not fall for this. There is more than scientific objectivity to this.

Let us consider the question of when to begin the story of ‘Modern Britain’. Some Political Historians have delved as far back as 1688, to the eve of the peculiar English system of Parliamentary Sovereignty. Others have told a story that begins with ‘the Victorians’ – telling a tale of modern industrial Britain in which the origins of ‘industrial’ and ‘post-industrial’ Britain can be found in the factories and avowed ideals of Victorian life. Another interpretation still begins at 1945 – with the emergence of Britain and its empire from a global war and a moment of ‘progress’ towards a Welfare State and ‘post-war consensus’.

The moment you decide to begin the story of ‘Modern Britain’ has immense implications for the story you tell. Each of these curtain openers suggests aspects of today’s Britain as its essence – its Parliament, its model of Capitalism or its Welfare State.

But we could just as easily begin our story with the 1905 Alien Act that legalised the borders of Britain, the 1928 Representation of the People Act which created somewhat universal electorate or the creation of the BBC in the aftermath of World War One.

This course decides to begin six years later in 1951, with much of that supposed state and consensus already established. It decides to end in 2007 as Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair leaves the scene. One year before the Global Financial Crisis and three years before the official starting point of a decade of Austerity Britain. 1951 to 2007. The twilight of Churchill to the end of Blair. Make of that what you will. The course seeks to look broadly at the political, economic, social, and diplomatic histories of ‘Modern Britain’ during this period.  But this periodisation, inevitably narrows the vision of the past – emphasising certain moments as significant and reducing others to a footnote. It is the work of future historians and students of history to consider the validity of this.  

What types of change did Britain experience between 1951 and 1964?

In the first enquiry of our course, we specifically consider the different nature of change and continuity in Britain during a period ostensibly characterised as one of continued Conservative political dominance. Not all change is the same. Neither is all continuity. Students need a language to articulate this complexity and in this enquiry they are provided with it.

Between 1951 and 1964, Britain was ruled by successive Conservative Governments. Instead in exploring important first order concepts – such as race, colonialism, sexuality, gender, stop-go economics, class, deference, the establishment – we are invited to consider the extent to which more hidden traces of change can be identified in the sources and events of the time. Although many of the events covered – such as the Suez Crisis, the Notting Hill riots and the Profumo Affair – can be seen as expositions of a changing or ‘modernising’ Britain – we use our first-order concepts to ask what type of change this was. Was it a transformation or merely a revision? What survived and what stabilised? Were there any advances and did anything worsen? In short, How far was Modern Britain being remade in this period and what was the pace and extent of that change?

  1. Why were the Conservatives able to dominate for thirteen years?
  2. Did Britain’s post-war economy really boom?
  3. Did British society remain largely unchanged by 1964?
  4. Had Britain really ‘lost an empire but failed to find a role’ by 1964?


Did Britain really experience the ‘white heat’ of a revolution between 1964 and 70?

The 1964 election was heralded at the time as a moment for ‘Modern Britain’. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s famous demand for a technological change that was ‘white hot’ may have had a narrower political framing, but it promised a radically different decade for society to the one that went before.

Yet how far did this supposed vision match the experiences and events of 1964-70? Students are invited to appraise the extent that ‘Modern Britain’ was made, remade and contested between the rather arbitrary dates Wilson first arrival and departure at Number 10. The enquiry uses Wilson’s ‘white heat’ terminology to consider the pace and extent of change in different aspects of political, economic and social life – as well as considering how much the power the British were really willing to cede on the global stage. Such a story would remain incomplete without considering the early fracturing of the post-war consensus as well as the emergent political consciousness and power of a self-organised working class (in all its diversity) outside of the traditional institutions allowed for them. In so doing, a more complex picture emerges around the question of who welcomed, who remade and who resisted emerging developments in ‘Modern Britain’.

  1. How successful was Wilson’s leadership of Labour between 1963 and 1970?
  2. How well planned was Capitalism under Labour in the 1960s?
  3. Why did the ‘The Troubles’ begin again in the 1960s?
  4. What ‘liberal reforming legislation’ was passed in the 1960s?
  5. Did British society and culture transform in the 1960s?
  6. Did Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech reveal more than reignite racism in Britain?
  7. Did Labour’s foreign policy find Britain a ‘new role’?          
  8. Did Britain really experience the ‘white heat’ of a revolution between 1964 and 70?


How fair is it to interpret the 1970s as a decade of decline?

Arguably no decade in ‘post-war Britain’ has been more controversial for those seeking to interpret it than the 1970s. The 1979 election was fought partly upon differing interpretations of the failures of the decade that had gone before. Indeed, students are invited to begin this period of study – using Alwyn Turner’s introduction to his book on this period – to move beyond the anachronistic view of the decade as either an addendum to the 1960s or a precursor the 1980s.

By considering the events of this period on its own terms – students are asked how fair it is to interpret the 1970s as a decade of decline? in a holistic way – considering not only the experiences in Parliament and on the picket line – but in the classroom, the home, the street, and the discotheque. Was this the decade of Callaghan, Wilson and Heath or of Mary Whitehouse, Bernadette Devlin and Ziggy Stardust? And where does Jayaben Desai fit in all of this? By asking these questions, a Manichean story of either decline or progress becomes much harder to tell.

  1. Why did Wilson lose power in 1970?
  2. Was the Heath Government sunk by factors outside of its control?
  3. Were the Labour Governments of 1974 – 79 able to steer a different course?
  4. Why did ‘The Troubles’ escalate in the 1970s
  5. How diverse were Womens Liberation groups in the 1970s?
  6. What were the most significant developments in race relations in the 1970s?
  7. How ‘political’ were British Youth Cultures in the 1970s?
  8. What were the most significant developments for Environmentalism in the 1970s?
  9. How comfortable was Britain in Europe in the 1970s and how do we know?
  10. Did the Cold War and the Special Relationship take a new direction in the 1970s?
  11. Revision : How fair is it to interpret the 1970s as a decade of decline?

How far did Thatcherism bring ‘new times’ to Britain between 1979 and 1987?

Moving beyond the supposed turning point / milestone event (depending on your perspective) of the 1979 election, we consider the events of the 1980s and the extent of the change the decade brought to ‘Modern Britain’. Students are asked to engage with and evaluate Stuart Hall’s hotly debated characterisation of the 1980s as something qualitatively different for the UK, or ‘New Times’. These changes occurred outside of the defined Political and Economic spheres and were sometimes, but not always, avowedly fashioned in resistance to them.

In considering rioters as well as yuppies, pickets as well as scabs it’s hard to avoid the idea that all in Britain were looking towards some sort of ‘new time’ beyond the world around them – even if for some such a ‘new time’ looked very similar to an imagined past. In meeting these figures and events, students investigate the nature of the changes that occurred in the 1980s and what, or who exactly was responsible for making them.

  1. Was the 3rd May 1979 a turning point or a milestone?
  2. Why were Thatchers Conservatives so electorally successful?
  3. Why did ‘The Troubles’ remain unresolved in the 1980s?
  4. Was Thatcherism more than an electoral project?
  5. Was Thatcher able to reshape society in her own image?
  6. How similar were Thatchers extra-parliamentary opponents?
  7. How far did Thatcher return Britain to the World Stage?
  8. Did the 1980s bring ‘New Times’? – Revision Lesson

Did Britain travel in a different direction between 1987 and 1997?

The period of late Thatcher and the ‘Tory 90s’ is regularly seen politically as one of stasis – with a Conservative Party desperately seeking to repackage itself for a new generation no longer compelled to vote Conservative as their parents had in the 1980s. Society – allegedly – had become more socially liberal and was not ready to go ‘back to basics’. But how widespread was this identifiable trend and how much change did it bring to our ‘first-order concepts’ of race, class, gender and sexuality? Was ‘Girl Power’, real power? Was the tragic case of Stephen Lawrence the watershed many of the tireless activists involved wanted it to be? And if so, why? In the post-Cold War world, was Major able to lead Britain in a new direction on the Global Stage?

By now students will be familiar with the idea that much of ‘Modern Britain’ was in fact remade both because of and despite its political leadership. But in summing up the period, students invited to answer how far ‘Modern’ Britain’s travels and travails between 1987 and 1997 represented something distinctively new at all.

  1. Should Thatcher have seen her resignation coming?
  2. How did Labour manage to lose the 1992 Election?
  3. How much was John Major able to lead between 1990 and 1997?
  4. Was ‘the tide’ simply coming in for the Conservatives in 1997?
  5. How ‘socially liberal’ had Britain become by 1997?
  6. Was Girl Power, real power?
  7. Why was one Black life seen to matter more than most in the 1990s?
  8. Did Major lead Britain in a new direction on the global stage?
  9. Did Britain travel in a new direction between 1987 and 1997?

How new was New Labour’s ‘New Britain’?

‘New Labour’s’ 1997 election manifesto promised a ‘New Britain’ and much language and expense was again made constructing a ‘Modern Britain’ for a new millennium. But how successful was this endeavour? Big and at the time seemingly irreversible political shifts occurred both at Westminster and in Northern Ireland. British foreign policy gained a new language – adopted from Washington – of a ‘war on terror’ that energised wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. British society – according to Blair himself in his 2007 leaving speech– had become more tolerant, liberal, and multicultural at the same time as it had introduced greater state powers to punish, imprison and deport those living here. How fair an interpretation was Blair’s of the previous ten years. What was the ‘New Britain’ he had helped construct and how new was it?

  1. How did New Labour seek to ’reconstitute’ Britain?
  2. How successful was Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer?
  3. How much of a ‘New Britain’ did ‘New Labour’ deliver?
  4. Were the Conservatives simply unelectable after 1997?
  5. Who or what can take most credit for the Good Friday Agreement?
  6. How typical was the experience of Tower Hamlets under New Labour?
  7. How far was 9/11 a turning point in foreign policy under New Labour?
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