Richard Kelly compares three books on a similar theme.
Parliamentary Reform 1785-1928 By Sean Lang
Routledge, 1999 198 pp, £6-99 ISBN 0 415 18399 5
Democracy and the State 1830-1945 By Michael Willis
Cambridge University Press, 1999 122 pp, £6-95 ISBN 0 521 59994 6
The Growth of Democracy in Britain By Annette Meyer
Hodder & Stoughton, 1999 144pp, £6-75 ISBN 0 340 69792 X
As the 20th century closed, there was - and is - a clear need for studies which assess the development of British democracy during the past 100 years. These three books are therefore timely and useful to those studying modern British history and, indeed, modern British politics. Even though only one of them (by Mayer) narrates the century as a whole, they all seek - with some success - to link the history of democratic politics to some of the key issues facing British governments today.
Sean Lang's Parliamentary Reform 1785-1928, a recent addition to Routledge's 'Questions and Analysis in History' series, aims to 'separate narrative from interpretation', so that students can first establish crucial 'facts' before venturing forth to a more considered assessment of subject material. Most of the chapters begin with a simple 'Background Narrative', with the reader then being guided into the realms of analysis - mainly through an approach to specific questions of the sort frequently found in A and A/S Level exams. Each chapter concludes with a selection of useful source materials, which normally includes passages from books, letters and speeches.
It all represents a sizeable effort on Lang's part, one which combines a respectable level of erudition with a constant awareness of most students' needs and capacities. However, he does occasionally lose sight of the ideological forces at work behind the main players: his chapter on 'The Labour Movement', for example, overlooks the sceptical view many socialists took of the whole Parliamentary process. To what extent was their scepticism justified? These gripes aside, Lang has made a worthy contribution to the Routledge series.
Michael Willis's Democracy and the State 1830-1945 was written as part of CUP's 'Perspectives in History' collection. It naturally covers a lot of the ground stalked by Lang, although it is written in a less sophisticated style. Yet its simplicity of language, and its GCSE-style format (numerous sections and sub-sections, a liberal sprinkling of photographs and cartoons, an assortment of 'document case studies' and related questions) never mask Willis's scholarly grasp of the subject.
The opening three chapters indicate a standard, non-eyebrow-raising treatment of the subject, offering seaworthy appraisals of Parliamentary reform from 1832 to 1928. Yet it is in the following four chapters that Willis truly gets into his stride, conveying a brisk but majestic analysis of complex areas like 'Power in the State' and the problems posed by the growth of corporatism.
I suspect that neither Willis nor CUP, in planning this book, were especially ambitious: it was designed, after all, to slot into an established series. Yet he has still produced a gem of a book - one that will detain not just A and A/S Level students of history and politics, but those with a more discursive interest in the period. For his next publication, he deserves a more challenging project.
Annette Mayer's The Growth of Democracy in Britain was written as part of the Hodder and Stoughton 'Access to History' series. After a brief inspection of democratic theory in the 17th century, she charts an effective course through the nature of Parliament in the 18th century, before inspecting the various pressures for, and results of, reform in the ensuing two centuries.
Mayer's chapters are clearly written and sensibly compartmentalised. The source-based questions at the end of each chapter will also prove useful to teachers, though the accompanying 'Summary Diagrams' can be confusing in their graphic contortions. Some may think she would have been better off had she used those seven pages to expand her concluding chapter, which provides some useful thoughts on the future shape of British democracy. It is a courageous finale to a excellent sweep through the democratic history in Britain.
Richard Kelly teaches history and politics at Manchester Grammar School.
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