Arthur Marwick

Arthur Marwick is Dean and Director of Arts and Professor of History at the Open University. Class and Image and Reality in Britain, France and the USA has recently been issued in paperback. British Society since 1945 will be reviewed here by David Marquand.

Ex-King Coal

Arthur Marwick, 31 March 1988

‘You never seem to be able to get the numbers right in this industry,’ lamented Sir Norman Siddall, who bravely filled the gap between the Coal Board chairmanship of Sir Derek Ezra, supreme servant and subtle bureaucrat of consensus, and that of Sir Ian MacGregor, vieux terrible of confrontation. ‘There is either too much or too little.’ Not since 1913, in fact, have the figures seemed roughly right. Coal had been ancillary, rather than essential, to Britain’s early Industrial Revolution. Demand had fluctuated consideraoly throughout much of the 19th century, but by the end of that century it had achieved a crushing dominance as the source of heat, light and power, not just in Britain but in the expanding world economy: in 1913 coal provided 75 per cent of the world’s energy requirements, 99.5 per cent of Britain’s own. In that year the British coal industry produced 287 million tons, one-third of which was exported (much of it in the form of fuel for foreign steam ships), with the rest absorbed in industrial and domestic consumption; about 10 per cent of the world’s need for coal was met by Britain, whose coal exports made up 55 per cent of all coal traded internationally. Output fell during the First World War, and there were a number of crises as the Government sought desperately to maintain the coal supplies critical for the national war effort. The war over, it became clear that the world now had too much coal for its needs, that alternative fuels (particularly for shipping and transport) were widely available and usable, and that former British markets were not only producing their own coal supplies but offering them on the international market at prices which the British industry found difficulty in competing with. British coal then suffered a decline in production and employment so nicely paced, and a series of self-inflicted wounds so exquisitely contrived, that the Second World War and the period of reconstruction which followed were marked by one continuing crisis of productivity. Though some sort of stability was seemingly restored to a steadily shrinking industry, getting the numbers right continued to be difficult as oil resources fell and rose in accessibility and nuclear resources rose and fell in acceptability.

Diary: On Beauty

Arthur Marwick, 21 February 1985

Before my appointment to a visiting scholarship at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace was confirmed I had to submit a synopsis of my proposed research. At that time my working title was ‘Physical Appearance and Life Chances in Modern Society’. Already before my departure in late October I had changed the latter phrase to ‘Life Experiences’, having worked out that while the good-looking arouse different responses from those encountered by the less well-favoured and thus have different opportunities and experiences, one cannot say that they are inevitably more successful. The matter was academic, in that my hosts clearly did not trouble to read my synopsis and simply appointed me on my record as a – let us put this as neutrally as possible – much-published social historian. While my immediate sponsors, anxious to foster research of the widest kind, have been most supportive, some embarrassment has been engendered by the open secret that the higher powers (the Hoover is, of course, best-known as President Reagan’s Think Tank) feel that serious studies of, say, the vices of Soviet foreign policy, or the virtues of monetarism, are to be preferred to such frivolities as human beauty. In the annual report just published my topic is officially designated as (oh magic word!) ‘élites’; my major public performance in ten days’ time will be on ‘The Upper Class in Britain, France and the USA since World War One’ (the argument, as it happens, will be that class is a far more useful category than élite). My paper on ‘Beauty and Ugliness in Western Society: The Social and Political Implications of Personal Appearance’ will be presented a little later within the confines of the (largely anti-Republican) History Department, where for the Winter Quarter, I am a visiting professor teaching a colloquium on 20th-century Britain.’


Arthur Marwick, 18 October 1984

‘With others of my own contemporaries,’ Denys Hay once wrote, ‘I certainly found myself in the years after 1945 still preoccupied with aspects of warfare in other times (in my case the later Middle Ages) which would not, I believe, have caught my attention if I had not experienced life between 1939 and 1945.’ Another distinguished Medieval and Renaissance scholar, Hans Baron, first sketched his thesis about the early Florentine Renaissance being triggered by the threat of invasion from other Italian states while he was in London during the Blitz. Medievalists have always been aware of war and society as a continuum: modern studies, however, for long remained remarkably resistant to the pervasive, if not cataclysmic resonances of war. The first serious study of 20th-century Britain, Charles Loch Mowat’s Britain between the Wars (1955), neatly managed, as the title indicates, to steer between the century’s two total wars. Liberal British historians found wars very nasty and preferred either to avoid them altogether or to keep them in carefully compartmentalised sections of their books. How far things have changed can be seen from the title of Max Beloff’s Wars and Welfare: Britain 1914-1945, an excellent textbook, if you like that sort of thing, of political and diplomatic history.


Arthur Marwick, 21 October 1982

What, we may ask, is greatness anyway? Who in the West this century has shown it? Does it only flourish when nurtured by the ecstatic opiates of war? Greatness, in this context, is what people recognise as greatness: manifest success on a national rather than a purely partisan scale. Losing both wars hasn’t helped Germany’s candidates: Clemenceau eclipses both Hindenburg and Ludendorff. De Gaulle has it, but Léon Blum, holding too long to his prissy belief that he couldn’t take office till the moment came when society was ready to leap into socialism, does not. Churchill, obviously, needed the war; perhaps Roosevelt did not, despite the fact that his economic policies were rescued only by that same war – as Kitchener was a magnificent poster, so Roosevelt was a magnificent voice.


Arthur Marwick, 3 June 1982

For almost the whole of the period since 1945 annual rates of economic growth in Britain ran at 2 to 3 per cent: ‘growth was still faster than at any time in history,’ as Professor Pollard reminds us, and ‘led to a widespread rise in prosperity’. Cheers! However, averaged over the same period, the EEC countries managed 4 to 5 per cent per annum, the Americans, starting higher, 3 to 4 per cent, and the Japanese, starting much lower, 9 to 10 per cent. Thus, ‘measured against what turned out to be possible for others in a competitive, intercommunicating world’, Britain’s record was ‘disappointing to the point of being calamitous’. Groans! Nobody, it seems, writes any more about Britain’s ‘progressive social revolution…peaceful and silent’ – as the great architect of French social security, Pierre La Rocque, described it in 1955. True, the Washington Post’s Bernard Nossiter, writing as recently as 1978, spoke of Britain: A Future that Works, advancing the argument that having wisely preferred a leisurely pace and a high quality of life to the hectic stresses of working hard, Britain was the foremost nation in adapting herself contentedly to the realities of post-industrial civilisation. Good try, one might say, but not really fetching enough to stand against the assertion of his fellow-countryman, Martin J. Wiener, that the central issue for historians of contemporary Britain is that of poor economic performance.

Secret Meetings

Arthur Marwick, 20 May 1982

If you saw pictures of female miners carting coal around, or loading trucks, would you exclaim ‘How appallingly Victorian!’ or ‘How fantastically modern!’? It was not till some years after the Second World War that ‘pitbrew girls’ ceased to do the heavy and dirty work of separating out dross from coal; many of them became canteen workers instead. Joe Gormley was, and is, firmly against the idea of any ‘modern young ladies’ trying to secure coal-face jobs. He was outraged by the women carrying coal in baskets on their heads whom he encountered on his visit to India in 1975.

Leading the Labour Party

Arthur Marwick, 5 November 1981

Has Labour ever had a decent leader? Has not the conjunction of circumstance always ensured that the right man in the right place at the right time was, ineluctably, the wrong man? Or has there, perhaps, never been a ‘right’ man (or woman): is it in the nature of British working-class politics that those who come to the fore are always those who, as the saying goes, could scarcely organise a piss-up in a brewery? The Edwardian pioneers had no settled leader (the SDP has sound scriptural precedent here): Keir Hardie’s talents were other than those of a Parliamentary chairman; Arthur Henderson was dull; Ramsay MacDonald was both great orator and skilled tactician, though his critics within the Party were numerous well before the First World War broke out. During that war, a number of Labour men served in government (not, of course, MacDonald, whose view that the war was the product of a misguided foreign policy, but could scarcely be brought to a stop overnight, was not always well understood by out-and-out pacifists or out-and-out opponents of capitalism). The war brought Labour to the forefront of national politics, but the first post-war election deprived it of its best-known figures. Willie Adamson, a former Fifeshire miner, happened to be around and so became Chairman of the Parliamentary Party. In 1922 MacDonald, Philip Snowden, his great rival in the Parliamentary opposition to the war effort, and the Clydeside contingent were returned to a Parliament in which Labour was now indisputably the main opposition party. A chairmanship contest was held between MacDonald and J.R. Clynes, who, serving as a competent minister in the Lloyd George war coalition, had at that time been tipped by the Observer as a future Labour prime minister. MacDonald was elected chairman and leader, as the press at the time, and Robert Mackenzie much later, stressed. MacDonald had the charisma, he had the contacts with the Left, and he profited from the general disenchantment with the war and those associated with it. That said, it is impossible to see the worthy Clynes as a ‘lost leader’ who would somehow have averted the humiliations of 1931.



15 August 1991

John Barrell is always a pleasure to read. His is a particularly fascinating type of fiction, invaluable as a stimulus and goad for those of us who believe that the historian’s reconstructions of the past are based on a methodology as rigorous as those of the natural scientists, involving the complex analysis of an enormous variety of primary sources; constant attention to the origins and validity...

I could have fancied her

16 February 1989

‘But Ms Dickinson, come off it! is far prettier than Henry Kissinger, even if she won’t see fifty again, and I doubt her boyfriends urge her to put a bag over her head unless that is what they always like to do.’ Come off what, Ms Carter (LRB, 16 February)? Neither Kissinger nor bags over heads are mentioned in my Beauty in History: Society, Politics and Personal Appearance c. 1500...

I could have fancied her

Angela Carter, 16 February 1989

Back in the Sixties, a decade which evidently I enjoyed rather more than did your contributor, Janet Watts (LRB, 8 December 1988), Kenneth Clark published a contribution to art history called The...

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For ever Walsall

Angus Calder, 21 March 1985

There are, of course, purely academic reasons for fresh syntheses of modern British history. The accumulation of new specialist studies must sooner or later compel wholesale revisions of the...

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History’s Revenges

Peter Clarke, 5 March 1981

It is doubly true these days that the experts are the last people we can rely on. We rely on them because the compartmentalisation of knowledge in every field means that they are the only guides...

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