The British Revolution, 1880-1939

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

In 1880, Great Britain was the richest and most powerful nation in the world, proud of her ancient liberties and tradition of limited government, ruler of an extensive empire of which India was the centerpiece. Although her government was limited, she was not a democracy: the franchise had been extended in 1867, but the right to vote was still limited and government was in the hands of an elite group of aristocratic and wealthy middle-class politicians. Out of the confusion of the 1850’s and 1860’s, two parties had emerged—Conservative and Liberal—and the apparatus of modern party organization was beginning to take shape. By 1939, Robert Rhodes James tells us, a revolution, or rather several revolutions, had taken place. Great Britain’s position in the world had diminished. Her industry had lost its lead to the United States and Germany and her status as a world power was challenged by Nazi Germany. India was well on its way to self-government, and the Liberal Party had little political importance, having lost its place to Labour. Political democracy had been achieved little by little, the final step coming in 1928 when the franchise was extended to all adult women (limited suffrage for women having been adopted in 1918). In 1880, there were still two Britains—that of the rich and that of the poor. In 1939, there were still great social problems, but Britain was essentially one nation, more fair, more united than it had been in 1880.

The British Revolution: 1880-1939 is a highly readable, thought-provoking account of how these changes came about. Robert Rhodes James’s stated purpose is to bring the individuals and struggles of the past to life again, to convey to the reader some element of the human dramas, the achievements and failures of these important years of British history. He succeeds very well. The emphasis is on political history: not the dry recital of voting patterns in the constituencies and contents of bills but the personal side of politics. The scene is almost always the House of Commons and the play of personality and issues there. As each leading personage is introduced into the narrative, James pauses to analyze his personal history and character, his motivations, his mannerisms, his reception by his colleagues. These sketches have the authority of long acquaintanceship; it is as if an elder statesman of unusual psychological insight and literary ability were summing up his observations of colleagues formed over many years. It is hard to believe that James, born in 1933, could have had no personal experience with any of the men or events he discusses. He has, however, had direct experience of the life he describes: he was clerk of the House of Commons from 1954 to 1964 and is currently a Conservative Member of Parliament for Cambridge. He knows and loves the parliamentary scene and is well qualified to convey its special flavor to the reader.

James believes that the character of British politics changed at the time of World War I. Until 1914, a small group of men centered in Westminster made political decisions for Britain, but with the very active interest and involvement of a large audience of the British public. After 1914, the electorate was widened greatly, problems became more ominous, and new methods of communication brought the mass of people more directly into the political process. James’s perspective widens then to include the scene beyond London. But the House of Commons is too fascinating to leave for long; there may be flying trips out to the constituencies, but he and the reader are happy to return as quickly as possible to Westminster.

When the narrative begins in 1880, the Liberal Party under Gladstone’s leadership had just won a great electoral victory. The widening of the franchise in 1867 had worked in their favor, and with a still further extension in 1884, it appeared that the Liberals would rule Britain for years to come. All this was turned upside down by Gladstone’s espousal of Home Rule for Ireland in 1886 and the breakup of the Liberal Party over that issue. As it turned out, it was the Conservatives who became the dominant party, in power from 1886 to 1939 with the major exception of the Liberal Government of 1906-1916 and three minor exceptions (the Liberal Government of 1892-1895, and the Labour Governments of 1924 and of 1929-1931). The author rightly considers the coalition of 1916-1922 and the National Government of 1931-1939 as essentially Conservative, although led by a Liberal in one case and a Labourite for at least a portion of the other. The major responsibility for guiding Britain through its revolution was then that of the Conservative Party.

If the Conservatives had been inflexible in their defense of the status quo, the course of modern British history might have been very different. In fact that party proved to be rather...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, October 1, 1977, p. 263.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, September 15, 1977, p. 1030.

Library Journal. CII, October 1, 1977, p. 2061.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, August 29, 1977, p. 360.