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Modern British History

Subject Group

Convenor : Professor Jon Parry

 Web Officer: Dr Ben Griffin

Note that, for the purposes ogenio Biaginif the Cambridge History Faculty, 'modern history' signifies the last 300 or so years, i.e. since ca. 1700.


The Group's research activities naturally vary a great deal, but certain key themes have dominated in recent years:

  • Liberalism: its emergence out of Whiggism, its Peelite heritage, its artisanal manifestations and relationship to Radicalism, its ultimate decline and slippage into progressivism;
  • party politics, with particular reference to popular mobilisation and the history of electioneering
  • trade unionism and the political culture of the Labour Party;
  • Ireland’s political and social history since 1850
  • issues of national identity, with particular emphasis on art and culture;
  • British and Irish attitudes to ‘Europe’;
  • the religious, cultural, and intellectual contexts in which political developments occurred: e.g. politeness in the eighteenth century, atonement and manliness in the nineteenth;
  • the Keynesian revolution, the politics of taxation, and the development of planning and economic policy;
  • the impact of gender on party politics;
  • Winston Churchill.

Our understanding of nineteenth-century political and intellectual history has benefited greatly over the last decade from explorations in the history of science, and close contact is maintained between members of this Group and the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science.

Postgraduate Teaching and Related Activities

In recent years Cambridge has been by far the largest centre for postgraduate research on modern British political history, with as many as fifty to sixty research students in place at any one time. If they already have a Master's degree from elsewhere, students will often be allowed to proceed straight to the Ph. D., which takes three years; otherwise they will be required to qualify for doctoral work by taking a one-year M. Phil. course and passing at a sufficiently high level. Doctoral students will each be assigned a personal supervisor, with whom they will work closely, as well as an Assessor who will help to monitor their progress, but they are of course encouraged to discuss their work with any of the Group's members (listed below). Applicants are also encouraged to contact Group members before finalising their research proposal and application.

Besides providing an effective training for future doctoral research, the M. Phil. programme is academically satisfying in its own right, and provides opportunities for the honing of many different intellectual skills. The M.Phil. in Modern British History, established in 2015, involves taught courses as well as a 15-20,000-word dissertation. In the past many of our students took the M. Phil. in Historical Studies, which is based entirely on the preparation of a 25-30,000-word dissertation. Alternatively, it is possible to take the M. Phil. in European History, which has a significant examination component, or the M. Phil. in Political Thought and Intellectual History, which requires candidates to produce three short essays and a dissertation. There are also graduate training classes aimed at PhD students. For instance, Dr Lawrence and Professor Mandler organize a course on ‘Readings in Modern British History’.

Many Faculty seminars cater for the needs of our postgraduate students, including two interdisciplinary seminars:

  • 'The Eighteenth Century Seminar'
  • 'Modern Cultural History'

Of most direct relevance to the Group's work is the 'Modern British History' seminar which meets fortnightly at least ten times a year, and regularly attracts audiences of twenty to thirty. It is one of the oldest established seminars in Cambridge, and in May 2014 celebrated its five-hundredth meeting. Many of the meetings are addressed by scholars from outside Cambridge, but in addition all final-year doctoral students are given the opportunity to present their research in a full-length paper.

Some idea of the seminar's scope will be evident from the following selection of topics addressed at recent meetings:

  • 'A life in Imperial politics: William Beckford (1709-70)’
  • ‘The English working class from the Blitz to the Beatles’
  • ‘Our Paris, our Prague, our Chicago: Northern Ireland and the global revolt of 1968.’
  • ‘Three failures and a success: Dublin Castle intelligence and Irish subversives, 1795-1803.’
  • The modern British state and religion: national days of prayer, 1830-1956’?
  • ‘Nation, party, and politics in the 1840s: the Maynooth grant controversy.’
  • ‘Socialism, political communication and the Labour party between the wars’
  • ‘The Chartist Gothic: Radicalism and Popular Literature in the 1840s’
  • ‘Empire and the memory of General Gordon, c. 1885 - 1985.’

Since Cambridge has no independent Faculty or Department of Politics (as distinct from Political Science), the study of recent and current affairs falls squarely within this Group's remit. Here the resources of the Churchill College Archive Centre are invaluable, and constitute an unrivalled collection of primary material for twentieth-century British historians. The Centre hosts highly successful 'witness seminars' attracting scores of politicians, civil servants, policy advisers, journalists. Recent seminars include:

  • The General Election of 1979
  • Revitalization or Vandalism? The Reform of the Civil Service under Margaret Thatcher
  • The Changing Climate of Opinion: Economic Policy-making 1975-9.
  • Faith in the City: the Archbishop’s Report into Urban Priority Areas

Cam-NYC training collaboration in 20th-century British history.
From 2015, Cambridge will be developing a postgraduate training collaboration with Columbia and New York Universities in New York City, which will bring together postgraduates in 20th-century British history for joint reading courses and workshops on both sides of the Atlantic. For more information, please click here or contact Peter Mandler at

Undergraduate Teaching

Every undergraduate taking Part I of the History Tripos must select at least one paper on the Political and Constitutional History of Britain, and may take more than one if they wish. For this Subject Group, that means Paper 5 on the period 1688-1886 and Paper 6 on the period from 1880 to the present. The terms 'political and constitutional' are used to differentiate the papers from those on social and economic history, of which candidates must also select at least one (almost always on the same period). By distinguishing in this way between two different types of history, we ensure that candidates spend roughly equal amounts of time on either side of the divide, but it must not be supposed that the two types of history are studied in isolation from each other. On the contrary, the social and economic context is to the fore in all our teaching of political history, and so too are the intellectual and cultural aspects, reflecting the research interests of the various members of this subject group.

Since no one taking Paper 5 could hope to cover the whole of its chronological span, our advice to those taking Paper 5 or Paper 6 is to cover at least one hundred years. The special importance of the papers on political and constitutional history is that students are able to study-in detail and over a long stretch of time-the chronological development of one particular society, and one moreover for which the main primary sources are in English, a language which all candidates are fluent in. This entails a rigorous emphasis on narrative, whereas the social and economic history papers are organised in a more thematic way. Concepts relating to the constitution, the role of the state, national identity, race, gender, class, and sociability all play an important part in the way the papers are taught, and emphasis is placed on underlying intellectual, cultural, religious, and linguistic developments. Candidates who have already studied this period at A Level should find this approach both novel and refreshing, while candidates who have not studied the period before may be reassured that they will not be at any disadvantage.

In addition to a paper on political and constitutional history, all Part I undergraduates must take a Themes and Sources paper. Ever since the inception of Themes and Sources, the option on 'Democracy in Theory and Practice: an Anglo-American Perspective' proved to be one of the most popular and successful. An Anglo-American perspective lies at the heart of one of the group's current Themes and Sources papers, 'Film and History, 1929-45', which is taught by Dr Colin Schindler and others.

Part II candidates may approach modern British political history in three ways: special subjects requiring close attention to primary sources; specified subjects dealing with large-scale themes; and dissertations on a topic of the students' own choosing. At present three special subjects deal directly with modern British and Irish political history.

  • The British and the Middle East, c. 1830-1865 (Professor Jon Parry)
  • An alternative history of Ireland: religious minorities and identity in the 26 counties, 1900-1959 (Professor Biagini)
  • Class, party and the politics of social identity in England 1914-1945 (Dr Lawrence, Dr Thomas)

The following specified subjects also deal with themes in modern British and Irish political history.

  • Culture and identity in Britain's long eighteenth century (Dr Klein)
  • The French and the British problem, since 1688 (Professor Tombs)
  • The politics of gender: Britain and Ireland, 1790-1990 (Dr Thom, Dr Griffin, Dr Lawrence, Dr Thomas, Dr Sutcliffe-Braithwaite)

Our Traditions

No student of modern British political history will be unconscious of Cambridge's role in recent historiography. So-called 'Whig history', which dominated the first forty years of the twentieth century, was a quintessentially Cambridge product, its most important exemplars being J.R.M. Butler, G.M. Trevelyan, and J.H. Clapham, the last of whom supplied the economic understanding of social movements on which so much of the Whig historians' progressivist interpretation was founded. During the 1950s and 1960s, Whig history gave way to a more Conservative understanding of nineteenth-century developments, whereby a 'revolution in government' was seen to emerge gradually in response to practical problems, an approach which was pioneered in Cambridge by the 'Kitson Clark School', whose alumni included Oliver MacDonagh and Geoffrey Best. If Kitson Clark gave us the 'official mind' of social reform, the next generation in the persons of Jack Gallagher and Ronald Robinson reinvented nineteenth-century imperial history in a similar way. During the 1970s two other Cambridge historians, Maurice Cowling and John Vincent, took the study of high political history on to an unprecedentedly sophisticated plane, while Owen Chadwick, Edward Norman, and Maurice Cowling pioneered the integration of ecclesiastical conflicts into mainstream political history. Since 1970 a remarkable stream of research on eighteenth-century British history flowed out of Cambridge under the guidance of Jack Plumb, and distinguished work on the nineteenth was masterminded by Derek Beales. Meanwhile the serious study of twentieth-century electoral and party politics was pioneered by Henry Pelling, a distinguished school which was then taken further by Professor Peter Clarke. The Group is confident that the work currently being undertaken here-by the research students every bit as much as by the teaching officers-will ensure that Cambridge retains its place at the forefront of modern British historiography.


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