T. A. Jenkins. Britain: A Short History. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001. ix + 210 pp. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-85168-266-9.
Reviewed by Jeremy Black (Department of History, University of Exeter)
Published on H-Albion (October, 2002)
Although brief and offering far too short a treatment of the period down to 1714 (covered in simply one chapter compared to the six devoted to subsequent years), this study can be recommended as an intelligent and interesting account of recent British history. Jenkins, a research officer at the History of Parliament Trust, is the author of a number of valuable works on the political history of the last two centuries. The prospectus is clearly set out in the introduction, where Jenkins argues that "four nations history" and other developments, not least an appreciation of co-existing social identities, has made it difficult to write the history of Britain. Instead, there is a danger that "an incoherent and bewildering mass of local and personal particularisms" (p. 4) will be offered. However, as Jenkins points out, the island nature of Britain underlines its objective existence. The approach adopted in his book is "to concentrate on those areas where a sense of common nationhood has been most clearly exhibited: namely, politics--the struggle for control of national institutions of government, and to regulate the relations between social groups working within national structures--and the attempts to define 'Britishness' by reference to other nations and peoples, which have sometimes led to military conflict and imperial expansion" (p. 4). Rather than writing a detailed narrative, which space anyway does not permit, the aim is to suggest connections between developments at the political level and various economic, social, and cultural trends.
There is an explicit engagement with historiography, as with the eighteenth century, where Brewer, Cannon, Clark, Langford, and O'Gorman are all discussed. Jenkins suggests that the ability of historians to present such dramatically conflicting accounts of the nature of eighteenth-century Britain testifies to the "rich ambiguity" of its political and social structures, a reasonable conclusion, although something should be added about historical rivalry. The following chapter, on the "Early Industrial Age," down to 1832, suggests that the co-existence of old and new was seen in the absence of a political revolution to accompany that of industrialization. Victorian Britain is handled well, and, in the discussion of the twentieth century, Jenkins defends the decision to fight on in 1940, although he also underlines the cost of the war. The book concludes at the millennium with the suggestion that the psychological legacy of British history and geographical isolation will prevent the people from fully appreciating that they no longer live in a powerful nation state.
It is always useful to reflect on how other scholars tackle subjects one has approached. In my History of the British Isles (2nd ed., Palgrave, 2002), I had the fortunate margin of more space, but I also think that my decision to give proportionately far more space than Jenkins does to the pre-1714 period is important as that period was crucial to later developments, not least the character of the Anglo-Scottish relationship. Jenkins is also weak on environmental issues, while culture does not appear to interest him. The Victorians mean Gladstone and Disraeli, not Dickens and Tennyson. Yet choice is never easy. Those who want an effective, short introduction to modern British political history will be well pleased with Jenkins's well-written book.
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Jeremy Black. Review of Jenkins, T. A., Britain: A Short History.
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