Like its predecessor, Aspects of British Political History 1815-1914, this book is intended to introduce the reader to a range of interpretations on modern Britain. It is designed to act as a basic text for the sixth-form student and to introduce the undergraduate to the increasingly wide range of ideas and research. I hope it will also capture the imagination of the general reader who likes to go beyond narrative into the realm of debate.
Why political history? And what does it mean? During the 1970s and 1980s there was an outpouring of books specifically on social and economic history, a departure from the older type of text, which aimed to cover all areas but within the broad context of political history. To some extent the focus on social and economic history is part of a process of establishing a new balance. In the words of G.R. Elton, the reaction against political history, 'although often ill-informed and sometimes silly, has its virtues. These arise less from the benefits conferred upon other ways of looking at the past, than from the stimulus given to political history to improve itself.' 1
Political history now seems to be making a determined comeback, although in a more eclectic form, covering a wider spectrum and drawing from social and economic issues. It is also based more on controversy and debate and less on straight narrative.
Political history may be defined as 'the study of the organisation and operation of power in past societies'. 2 It focuses on people in positions of authority; on the impact of their power on the various levels of society; on the response of the people in authority to pressures from below; and on relationships with power bases in other countries. The study of political history fulfils three functions. One is the specific analysis of the acquisition, use and loss of power by individuals, groups, parties and institutions. A second is more generally to provide a