Defne Ersin

History, being one of the most controversial subjects of all times, has been exceptionally contentious in our contemporary age of postmodernism. As is an essential attitude of postmodernism, one has to question everything to its roots. However, almost all of us have the tendency to open up just any history book when we are in need of historical information and we never feel the urge to question history. After all, it is ‘history’ - ‘the absolute truth about the past’. Unfortunately history has its subjectivities as well. As is a concern of any author, historians have concerns about the politics of publication, target audiences and aims in writing. What is the ideology behind the publication of the book? Who is the book designed for and aimed at? What is the expected reaction of the audience? Such questions become important in the postmodern perspective and put forth the fact that no representation of history can be objective. Neither can there be any absolute truth in history. Therefore, in order to be alert and active readers and not to be misled, one has to be careful while dealing with history.

In order to put this theory into practice, I would like to study the different representations of Britain in the post-war era, from 1945 to 1970. When we take the information in one history book, in my case Kenneth O. Morgan’s The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, as truly historical we end up being rather narrow-minded and indifferent because the same period has been represented totally differently in other history books. This conflict may easily lead a common reader to misinterpretations and misunderstandings. But readers like us would not let it go that easily. We would rather cause further bombardment. Whose history are we reading anyway? Are we being unconsciously influenced by others’ way of thinking? Or are we conscious enough to be aware of these differences in the way history is served to us and to avoid pitfalls of history?

In this respect, any interpretation by any historian becomes as valid as any other and furthermore I could as well be a historian writing my own interpretation of history and by no means would it be inferior to Morgan’s, Schultz’s, Childs’s or James’s .


The year 1945 has marked a turning point for many countries, Britain being one of them. After the end of the Second World War, Britain experienced a process of numerous transformations concerning its social and, specifically, political life.

From 1945 to 1951, the Labour Government was in power in Britain. Their rule has been defined as a social democracy based on a mixed economy and a welfare state. The balance between innovation and stability, introduced by the post-war regime, is claimed to have conformed to the general will. A remarkable programme of sustained reformist activity was brought in by the Attlee government. The introduction of the National Health Service and the National Insurance System in 1946 signified the rising living standards in the post-war era. Steel and iron were nationalized in 1948 and public ownership gained a very rapid increase with major industries and institutions, such as coal, railways, road transport, gas, electricity, Bank of England and civil aviation getting under the control of public ownership. Increasing old-age pensions, a raising of the school-leaving age, spreading of child allowances and public schools as well as grammar schools flourishing and gaining charitable status have all been regarded as signals of the improving British way of living. Public housing schemes - the houses provided by the government for rent - were decreasing due to the principle of a ‘property-owning democracy’ and this was the beginning of the shift from nationalization to privatization. Welfare State was broadly supported and accepted as “a vital attribute of the balanced, compassionate society” (Morgan 635). Commitment to full employment was largely supported and new regional policies were raised in order to renew life at once derelict areas like Durham, Cumberland, the Welsh valleys and the central industrial belt of Scotland.

Trade Unionists, who at that time provided the main funds for the government, were ready to accept wage freezes, devaluation and all disagreeable hardships because after all they were loyal to their own government. However, huge post-war debt, continuous shortages of raw materials and basic food supplies, lack of dollars and a severe imbalance of trade with North America were the main reasons for the cause of austerity and gloom. In 1947 convertibility of exchanges was experienced; 1949 was the year of devaluation of the pound against the dollar and 1951 was when there were balance of payments difficulties due to the Korean War.

No matter how serious the economic difficulties were, most working-class people - the vast majority of the population - viewed the years since 1945 as much the best that had been generally known since the late-Victorian heyday (Morgan 636). Wages rose to 30 percent above their 1938 level; there were higher living standards, guaranteed employment, more satisfying environmental and educational facilities. In a world, too, where popular sports such as football and cricket, and also the cinema and the dance-hall, were readily accessible, the leisure aspects of the good life were catered for as well (Morgan 636). All in all; a conflict between ‘a time of economic shortages and much gloom’ and ‘a time of festivals of national rejoicing’ existed in this era.

The rule of the Labour Government came to an end in 1951 when Tories took a hold of the government and the Conservative Party ruled from 1951 to 1964. Trade Unions were permitted to develop their freedoms and collective bargaining powers that they had strengthened during the war. In this era, there were few major strikes and no domestic violence - “not even in Northern Ireland” (Morgan 637). Welfare State was reinforced and full employment remained. Unemployment was, however, experienced to a certain extent in 1959 and 1960. When Macmillan, referred to as ‘Supermac’, was the Prime Minister, there was no major departure from Attlee-style consensus between 1951 and 1964. The return of another Labour Government under Wilson by a narrow majority in 1964, suggested no great deviation from the broadly-accepted political and social framework of the past twenty years.

It was a period of political harmony at home that gave rise to experiment and innovation in the arts. Art flourished greatly, especially literature - poetry and drama; it was the Renaissance period for British drama and the time of the Angry Young Man Movement. “The illusion nourished that Britain, for all its acknowledged economic weakness and technical backwardness, could still, through its cultural attainments, play Greece to America’s Rome” (Morgan 638).

Such are the brief highlights of the political and governmental changes that took place in Britain between the years 1945 and 1970. Yet another significant change took place on international grounds. The post-war period was also one during which the British Empire started to dissolve. Britain’s international position was qualified by the gradual, but necessary, retreat from empire that the post-war era witnessed.

Between 1947 and 1949 self-government was granted to India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, the former British colonies, by the Attlee government and this has been regarded as the key moment in the transfer of power. It was an ambiguous statement of Britain’s military and financial ability and lack of will to retain possession of distant lands by force. The Empire Day disappeared from state school calendars, Indian civil servants returned home and the King ceased to be the Emperor of India. World opinion turned against Britain due to the plan of invading the Suez Canal Zone. Sterling was thus threatened, oil supplies dried up and British troops withdrew. In this post-imperial phase, Britain became a more introspective power, one whose role in world affairs was uncertain. From 1949 onwards, Britain and United States were bound together in NATO both strategically and geo-politically. It was an equal special relationship between the English-speaking peoples and British and American policies marched closely together.

Most British people regarded other Western Europeans as incomprehensible aliens, with few natural ties linking them across the English Channel. The first British attempt to join the European Common Market was in 1963 and the British cannot be said to have shown any sign of grief at its failure since they did not care much about being admitted to an alien institution which would only mean dearer food and a threat to national sovereignty.

All in all, this post-war era was detected by the economists to embody slow rates of growth and falling productivity. Sociologists, on the other hand, claimed that there existed deep inequalities and class divisions prevented the modernizing of a ‘stagnant’ society. However, many of the traits showed that life for the British was improving on the whole.

Such is the representation of the post-war era in Britain by Kenneth O. Morgan in The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. When this representation is studied questioningly, one wonders about its objectivity (if objectivity can ever be existent in history that is ). The first interesting question is, how can Mr. Morgan claim that the 1945 Labour Government conformed to the general will? Did the Attlee government really introduce a ‘remarkable’ programme and in whose terms is it defined as remarkable? Is the Welfare State really a ‘vital’ attribute of the ‘balanced, compassionate society? And furthermore, is the British society balanced and compassionate at all ?

In Morgan’s representation there are many references to the Irish as well. His attitude is far from one of sympathy towards the Irish. He regards them rather as trouble-makers and when such is the attitude, one wonders why he has a grudge against the Irish. When we keep the fact in mind that Kenneth O. Morgan is a Welsh Nationalist historian, some of his attitudes may be explained. The impression he has made is that he is a favourer of the Labour Party, he regards it highly but he definitely does not like the Irish. His hate for the Irish may be a result of an envy on behalf of Wales since Ireland managed to gain its freedom, though partially, but Wales is still subservient.

However, we shall focus on the deconstruction of other representations of the same period in history and take Morgan’s point of view as the ‘factual’ background information. Do other historians share the same ideas or do they have their own interpretations depending on their own concerns?

Harold J. Schultz in his book British History refers to this post-war period as one of ‘reconstruction and decline from greatness’. My selected passage is from his introduction and is as follows:

World War II reduced Britain to a secondary power. The emergence of two new superpowers, the United States and Russia, meant that, for the first time in five centuries, Western Europe was no longer the axis of political and military power. Britain’s ability to accommodate itself to this decline from greatness and to transform an empire of 600 million subjects into a self-governing and voluntary commonwealth of nations, predominantly nonwhite, demonstrated the flexibility and the continuity of its institutions.

Within Britain the welfare state became part of the institutional and social structure of the nation. The Labor party used its electoral victory of 1945 to introduce it; the Conservatives dared not dismantle it. In these postwar years rapid social changes occurred in an attempt to equalize the rights and benefits of all citizens regardless of class. The maturity of Britain’s political system withstood the strain of these rapid postwar changes. Britain’s stature in world affairs, especially with the United States, was such that the nation’s decline in strength was not followed by a corresponding decline in influence until a generation later.

During these years Britain’s weakening position in world trade, along with wage, price and inflationary pressures at home, made economic problems and policy, rather than foreign and commonwealth relations, the dominating issue of virtually every British government, except for a short period of prosperity in the fifties (Schultz 375).

Now, where has all the spirit of glory portrayed by Morgan gone while presenting exactly the same decades? As is clear through spelling as well, British History is an American publication and inevitably, it is intended for an American audience. The book is claimed, in the preface, to be a College Outline volume with its two goals: to serve as a supplemental outline and condensed summary to assist students in grasping the more extensive study of British history and culture, and an interpretation of the British heritage and achievements so that the book can stand on its own merits as a slim-line basic text. When such is the situation, it cannot be expected of Schultz to present British history as superior to that of the American. He does not deny the fact that, “America is, after all, the greatest achievement of the English people” but a sense of mockery can be grasped from his tone of voice in the introduction. It sounds as if he is terribly happy with Britain’s decline as a world power leaving its place to the United States. The victory, beating the British after five long centuries and replacing Britain as an emerging superpower, belongs to the Americans. Additionally, the implication is that the United States did in a very brief period what the United Kingdom managed to achieve in five centuries. Schultz sounds as if he is also happy with the dissolvement of the British Empire and thinks that the imperial success was only achieved through the strength of the British institutions and nothing more; maybe if the US had the same strong institutions, then it would be the US not the UK that would be referred to as the empire upon which the sun never sets.

Schultz presents Britain as if it had lost all its international power in this post-war era and from then on had to rely only on its introspective power. The rigid class consciousness as claimed by Morgan to exist is here rejected by Schultz and British governments are portrayed to have abandoned class distinctions. The days of the Labour government are referred to as a short period of prosperity in the fifties, not as a period of expanding improvement nor as a glory.

Another version of the same historical period is given by David Childs in his book Britain Since 1945. This books deals specifically with the political history of Britain in the post-war period. Not much information is given about the author but as is grasped from the acknowledgments section, Childs claims himself to be rather objective because he talked to a wide variety of witnesses, including many MPs, so as to hear the true story of the times. In this respect, Childs’s interpretation becomes a mixture of different voices but we cannot claim that witnesses are always objective. As is mentioned in the acknowledgements, Childs is aware of the obvious pitfalls in writing recent events, as recent as those between 1979-85, or even between 1945-79. Let us try to examine whether he managed to avoid the pitfalls or not:

Britain’s image was so essentially conservative that few foreign commentators had expected any surprises from the British electorate. In those countries where Britain was better known, the English-speaking world, there was even greater astonishment. Churchill had become the personification of Britain’s determination to survive and in the Dominions and the United States it seemed inconceivable that he should be removed. In South Africa, then still in the Commonwealth, financial circles did not expect the Labour victory to have any serious effect on British policy. There was little concern therefore. In the, for Britain, all-important United States reaction was mixed.

.....It found that American bankers ‘who have been rather over-eager to negotiate loans to Britain are reported to be slightly less eager now, although they have had no reason to believe that the Conservative Party would have been more willing than Labour to abandon the empire preference or currency controls to which they have always objected’.

Whatever the doubts of the American bankers, there was delight and hope among American trade unionists, German Social Democrats, Indian nationalists, Spanish republicans, French and Italian socialists, Zionists, and many others around the world who thought ‘Left could talk to Left’ (Childs 9-10).

This passage smells of pure leftist ideology to me. There sounds to be a strong belief in the Labour Party and though the whole portrait of Britain has changed with the leaving of the stage by the Conservatives, the new emerging picture with the Labour in the foreground is claimed to be promising. There is also the typical leftist image created; that left can talk to left, and that togetherness would bring strength in the fight for the same cause.

This representation is more similar to Morgan’s than Schultz’s, though this one is even stronger than Morgan’s in its belief in the victory and glory of the Labour Party. This one is inevitably more ideology-based since the book is one of political history of Britain. However, in no respect can one claim this representation of history to be less valid - or less true - than that of the other historians. Who is to determine the validity of a representation anyway?

The last, but by no means the least, interpretation I would like to look at is Lawrence James’s in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, the chapter being named as ‘The Setting Sun’:

The empire had been a peripheral issue during the 1945 general election. Labour did affirm that it would give self-government to India, but when George Orwell raised the issue at the hustings, he and it were politely ignored. Used to hearing sympathetic noises from the Labour politicians, mostly on the left of the party, West African students in Britain threw themselves into the campaign in the hope that a Labour victory would bring nearer their countries’ independence. They were disappointed, and within a few years were finding it impossible to tell the difference between Labour and Conservative colonial policies.

This was unfair but understandable. Having set its heart on a new Jerusalem in Britain, Labour was busy setting up smaller Jerusalems in the colonies. This was the principal aim of Labour’s colonial policy which, in practice, differed little from old-style benevolent imperialism (James 527).

Here we have another different representation of history, specifically of the rule of the Labour government. It is hard to tell why but it is for sure that the Labour Party has been subject to much controversy. In this passage, the author seems to be accusing the Labour Party of having deceived the voters with a false foreign policy. It sounds as if the promise was not kept, the theory was not put into practice. So in a way the aims of the Labour Party have been distorted; this unfair act was carried out only for the sake of winning the elections. They have eliminated their differences with the Conservative Party and moreover, they have been passionately misled by the imperial utopia. Just this brief passage is enough to be led to the idea that Mr. James is a conservative.

In the endpaper of the book, it is claimed that the book is a ‘masterly attempt to define the truth’ and furthermore, ‘this definitive survey of the imperial experience benefits from the new objectivity of its passing’. When such are the claims, I believe Mr. James would not be pleased at all to hear that someone is questioning his truths and objectivity.

The other side of the coin, however, concerns the process of selection that I, as well as all the historians, went through. As has been a part of the deconstructed views of these passages; the personality, the point of view and the concerns of the historian all play a very significant role in the writing of history. Being a distant observer of Britain and British culture, I have also gone through a process of selection while doing this close study of history.

My knowledge of Britain have always been dependent on secondary sources and no matter how well I claim to know the British society, I am still an outsider (though I think that being an outsider provides a lower level of subjectivity). In this respect, it is inevitable that my concerns are totally different than those of these native British historians. Furthermore, my perspective tends to be sympathetic towards the Irish and Scottish citizens and thus any information in which these nations are regarded as inferior to the English is bound to be regarded as prejudiced and unfair by me. My political preference, when British politics is concerned, portrays a tendency on behalf of the Labour Party. Though I can never claim myself to be a leftist, I would still think that any bad portrayal of the Labour Party is sided or biased and in favour of the Conservatives or presented by a conservative. And when the case is one of the UK against the US, as in Schultz’s example, there is no doubt that I would appear on the side of the UK.

All in all, there can never be any absolute truth in history. Due to the afore mentioned personal and ideological differences in the writing of history, each and every author - historian - goes through a process of selection. In the course of this process, certain points are emphasized and certain ones are inevitably overlooked. And there is no possible way of omitting this process of selection.

Since there was none of us in Britain recording the happenings in the era between 1945 and 1970, we can never reach absolute truths about this period. We are bound to rely on other people’s interpretations and representations. What counts is to be aware of the fact that there is no thing as objectivity in history and we shall never believe in what we read to be the one and only truth. It is again in this respect that any interpretation should be regarded as valid as any other, even mine. After all, there are three kinds of lies in history; white lies, lies and statistics, and the rest - if there is anything left - is pure truth.


Childs, David. Britain Since 1945. London: Routledge, 1992.

James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

Morgan, Kenneth O., ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.

Schultz, Harold J. British History. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1992.