Times of turmoil

<strong>Borrowed Time: the Story of Britain Between the Wars</strong>

Roy Hattersley <em>Little,

"What a decade! A riot of appalling folly that suddenly becomes a nightmare, a scenic railway ending in a torture chamber." Orwell's judgement on the 1930s sets the tone for most popular assessments of British history during the inter-war period as a whole. The policies pursued by a negligent governing class are blamed for creating mass unemployment. British appeasement of Continental fascist regimes is attributed to that same class's pusillanimous insularity and its culpable ignorance: qualities which ensured that Britain was ill-prepared when the global military conflict resumed in 1939. Europe's descent into renewed international anarchy is blamed on the punitive and humiliating reparation clauses imposed on Germany in the Versailles peace treaty - conditions agreed to by Britain's coalition government and supposedly the source of National Socialism's popularity. The 1918-39 period attracts the moralist who castigates quite as much as the historian who tries to explain. It is almost impossible to avoid the perils of hindsight in writing about this period and Borrowed Time, as its title suggests, is shaped by the know ledge of what happened after the 21 years described in the book.

Roy Hattersley's briskly written account does not stray far from political and economic history's more conventional judgements. John Maynard Keynes, as both the critic of Versailles and advocate of expansionary economic policy, therefore gets the customary good-conduct badge. The book can strike an unconventional note: the wide regional variations in the impact of the slump in the 1930s is accepted, with the author also noting the dissenting, and typically patrician, view of Beatrice Webb on the effects of unemployment: "Men and boys benefited from the rest, sun and open air and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco." It is also good to see an acknowledgement that Winston Churchill's anti-appeasement views of the 1930s were not always as clear-cut as he later wished them to be seen. And Hattersley notes Labour's opposition to re armament in its 1935 general election manifesto - a fact forgotten when the party sought later to identify appeasement as a Conservative cause.

But the book's general picture of British foreign policy is one in which clouds of war drift across the Channel, the political and diplomatic failure to respond remaining inexplicable. It is a view that fails to appreciate the impact of a wider political and military dimension during this last stage of Britain's imperial history. Britain was attempting, against the odds, to maintain a global status as a great power, and relations with other western European countries, though vital, had to be juggled against those other priorities. Much the same is true of France and its own imperial burden at this time: both British appeasement and French enfeeblement need to be interpreted therefore in that international context rather than in just a national one. Parochialism rears its head elsewhere, too: the "Britain" of the title really means England, and Scotland and Wales barely get a mention.

The book's political narrative is in fact its least inspired component. Information about what happened in public life is packaged with Hattersley's accustomed efficiency and clarity. But as once again we are invited to join the Jarrow March, to follow the causes of the 1926 General Strike, to unravel the details of Wallis Simpson's decree nisi, or to note that George V's dying words were "Bugger Bognor!", it is with a sense of travelling to territory that is very familiar and more than adequately covered in other histories of the period.

Cultural history, however, gets a livelier treatment. This was the period when mass enter tainment really took off in Britain with the development of radio and cinema and an expansion in newspaper circulation. Cynicism about traditional values was a high-society pose in Noë Coward's early plays but the development of a mass culture enabled a much wider body of public opinion to express its own criticisms. This contributed to the gap between the tiny late- imperial elite who ran the country and the bulk of the population. The idea of an avant-garde sensibility - whether in T S Eliot's poetry, Barbara Hepworth's sculptures, or Berthold Lubetkin's architecture - is a major English cultural development of the era and involved another rejection of irrelevant authority.

Hattersley also brings out the connection between the theatre and these cultural trends, with Lilian Baylis's Old Vic productions democratising Shakespeare for East End audiences. Shaw and O'Casey showed a similar concern with ordinary speech in their plays and their characters' identification with a moral cause typified many of the period's writers and artists. One significant absence from this cultural section, however, is Aldous Huxley. In his evolution as a novelist, from the brittle disillusion of Antic Hay (1923) to the debates on ethical choice described in Eyeless in Gaza (1936), Huxley mirrored the development of a generation which had decided that it was closing time in the gardens of the west.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan