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12 February 2024

Edwardians like us

In Little Englanders, Alwyn Turner reveals striking parallels between Britain in decline at the start of the 20th century and our own divisive age.

By Andrew Marr

They didn’t last very long, the Edwardians, just the 13 years or so between Victoria’s final breath in 1901 and the Western Front in 1914; but they are all around us still. Lift up your eyes, walking through any of the great British cities, and their plump, bulgily flamboyant stone-faced architecture is everywhere. Their music, from swooping Elgar or Vaughan Williams to raucous music-hall hits, is still listened to, and their star writers – HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse, John Buchan – remain widely read.

Most people, I suspect, are vaguely aware that under the sunlit surface, Edwardian Britain was roiling with disaffection, most famously from the increasingly violent protests of the suffragettes. But Alwyn Turner’s page-turner of a popular history of the period, crammed with humour and striking quotes, reminds us just how uncanny are the parallels with Britain in the early 2020s.

Both eras follow the death of a long-lived Queen. Both are periods in which a trend for self-indulgent consumerism has followed a period of abstinence: the austerity of high Victorianism and the frugal, public-service orientated atmosphere of the postwar modern Elizabethans. Our institutional life also remains strongly Edwardian-inflected: one of the most important reports of early 2024 came from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in its regular research on British poverty; the organisation was founded in 1904, part of the social reform movement of Edwardian life which brought old-age pensions and slum clearance. (And today we can proudly report the return of Edwardian diseases such as rickets and scurvy.)

We have recently been having arguments about the National Trust: is it “woke” or not? Founded in 1895, the organisation was expanding fast across Edwardian Britain, taking in everything from Stonehenge to the view from Richmond Hill. And if today’s Conservative government is making coded threats to the House of Lords, this follows, in dishwater fashion, the much more aggressive confrontation after the People’s Budget of 1909, when the Lords initially vetoed the government’s wealth taxes.

In both periods, popular culture was changing fast. The rude, chaotic music halls of the Victorians were being sanitised, politicised and exposed to American imports such as ragtime. The Edwardians did not have smartphones but they had the animated photography of the coin-operated Mutoscope machine, and early cinema. “Trans” and “genderqueer” were not a thing; cross-dressing and male beauty pageants certainly were. Twenty-first century public revulsion at the Iraq War and what is happening in Gaza are mirrored by violent and passionate Edwardian arguments about the Boer War (1899-1902) and the British use of concentration camps in southern Africa.

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They really were very like us. Britain under Edward VII – who reigned from 1901 until his death in 1910 –seemed to many observers to be on the way down, overshadowed by Germany and the US then, as by China and the US today. There were serious arguments about whether Britain could afford to stand aside from Europe, or needed to plunge into alliances there. Both societies are marked by apocalyptic culture: the Edwardians had the science fiction horrors of HG Wells and the torrent of invasion novels, predicting French or German armies arriving on the coast, while we have a deepening climate crisis and wallow in stories of disaster and post-apocalyptic movies.

Both then and now, there is a contradictory attitude to science, which is seen by some as the promise of a better tomorrow, and others as an out-of-control existential threat. The Edwardian middle classes looked forward to easier, cheaper travel across the oceans while Alfred Harmsworth, founder and proprietor of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, asked of the arrival of heavier-than-air flight: “Don’t you realise what this means? Britain is no longer an island.”

The parallels are also more subtle. Think of a right-wing observer such as the short-story writer “Saki” (HH Munro) warning against the liberal intelligentsia who use “the jargon of denationalised culture”, or the Edwardian scares about migration. If we have the Rwanda Bill, they had the 1904 Aliens Bill to exclude undesirable immigrants. Around 100,000 Jews arrived by steamer – rather than small boats – during the period, mostly escaping Russian pogroms after the assassination of Tzar Alexander in 1881.

The fight against the bill was led by the young Winston Churchill, who said it contradicted ancient British traditions of freedom and hospitality: it was, he said, “an attempt on the part of the government to gratify a small but noisy section of their own supporters, and to purchase a little popularity in the constituencies by dealing harshly with a number of unfortunate aliens who have no vote” – the kind of policy, he added, that appealed “to those who like patriotism at other people’s expense”.

But the Edwardian world was also very different to ours. We talk about knife crime and “county lines” drug gangs. But today’s Britain has nothing like the big, named gangs of youths randomly terrorising inner cities as the Edwardians knew them: the Hooligans and the fearsome Silver Hatchet Gang in London, the Scuttlers of Manchester, the High Rippers of Liverpool, the Peaky Blinders of Birmingham and Glasgow factions including the Hi Hi’s, the Tim Molloys, the San Toys, the Village Boys and the Wellingtonia.

It was a society in which everyone smoked, almost everyone was white, and religion was militant and ubiquitous. By today’s standards it was casually racist and although the Edwardians were proud that Britain had abolished the Atlantic slave trade, even that pride was satirised by social reformers such as General William Booth of the Salvation Army. “England emancipated her Negroes 60 years ago,” he said, “and has never ceased boasting about it since. But at our own doors, from Plymouth to Peterhead, stretches this waste continent of humanity.”

Edwardian Britain has been well served by historians, including David Cannadine, Simon Heffer and Roy Hattersley; but Turner’s specialty, as in his books about modern Britain, is using popular culture as the lens through which to squint at everything else. The Edwardian period gives him the music hall, used almost relentlessly in this book – but it was a mass, chameleon phenomenon, as constantly reflective and mutating as television, and it proves hugely useful.

Some of the parallels between our era and that one are reassuring: our Edwardian forebears are at least as disputative, chaotic and hypocritical as we are. Others are less so: that, after more than a century, we still have such ingrained inequality and poverty is a source of shame. But what makes the Edwardians poignant, even spectral, is our knowledge, which they did not have, of what was about to happen: the mass slaughter of world war, industrial butchery and revolution. Many of them believed they had outlived European war. They will never escape, in our eyes, their tragic ignorance. We can only hope that we prove, in that way at least, entirely unlike that long-lost Britain of big hats, moustaches and cheeky, gap-tooth smiles.

Andrew Marr’s books include “The Making of Modern Britain” (Macmillan)

Little Englanders: Britain in the Edwardian Era
Alwyn Turner
Profile Books, 400pp, £25

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[See also: The invention of the Teddy boy]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland