British political history since 1880

Course Material 2021/22
First World War recruiting poster, UK Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (1915)

Modern historians are rightly wary of claiming that their subject can straightforwardly 'explain the present'. Nonetheless, the weight of the past upon contemporary party politics is so powerful that this paper promises to throw unique light on competing historical narratives that continue to shape party political discourse.

Between 1880 and the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United Kingdom became a full political democracy based on universal suffrage, and witnessed major party-political realignments as well as the rise of social rights, identity politics and new non-governmental movements.The UK also experienced civil war (in Ireland from 1916 to 1921, and in Northern Ireland from 1972 to 1998), total war (1914-18 and 1939-45), the loss of a global empire, and a complicated relationship with a new international body, what is today the EU, the future of which is not yet certain. Throughout the period there was a vigorous debate on the role of the state and the freedom of the markets in a globalized and deeply unequal economic system. This was accompanied by struggles over what it meant to be a citizen of the United Kingdom and who had the right to belong - a question which, at different times, mobilised women, a wide range of minorities, from the Irish to religious groups, and people of colour. All had profound political consequences, some of which appear to be more long lasting than others, and historians have adopted different methodological approaches in trying to make sense of complex narratives of continuity and change.

This paper provides a unique opportunity to ponder and contextualize these narratives, while affording students access to many of the new types of source material (primarily oral, audio-visual and digital) that make the study of the twentieth and twenty-first century so distinctive. It does not seek to yield definitive answers, but to guide you to make your own judgements on your journey into the past.

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