Britain Since 1918 by David Marquand

This learned discussion of democracy in the UK received a positive review from moderate Labour’s Roy Hattersley. It is hard not to be impressed  by a text which informs and entertains. The democratic process might not always have delivered the goods for ordinary people in Britain, but appreciating the statecraft and ideologies which have led to negative results can be educative.

For Marquand, politicians should not be seen as cynical hypocrites. They have often been trapped by tradition just when they hoped to be innovative. Old influences like Edmund Burke have seemingly shaped some of their choices in the modern era. While political theorists may have been thinking in terms of Machiavelli, Marx, Althusser or Foucault, the behaviour of those they have been ruled by could have been shaped by less inspirational philosophy.

Nonetheless, Burke should not be viewed as a pure reactionary. His excessive distaste for the French Revolution did not make him into a simple conservative. This kind of complexity means that politicians have sometimes misread the lessons of the past. On other occasions, pressure from the people has obliged politicians to assume more collectivist ways of thinking. Marquand ends his narrative on a note which is not devoid of optimism:

“As petrol blockades, the Countryside Alliance and, most of all, the huge anti-war demonstration in February 2003 all showed, the ancient British tradition of peaceful protest was alive and well.”


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