Lord Briggs, Public Life and History in Britain

The Age of Asa: Lord Briggs, Public Life and History in Britain Since 1945
Edited by Miles Taylor   Palgrave Macmillan   311pp    £60

Asa Briggs says he likes to think in threes. In the three years following his 90th birthday, the author of Victorian People, Victorian Cities and Victorian Things published three books of memoirs: one on his time at Bletchley, another on people and places (which includes at one point some musings on his own three-letter first name) and a third which concludes with a chapter entitled Pasts, Present, Futures. Appropriately enough, The Age of Asa, a volume containing a dozen freshly commissioned essays about Briggs and his work, is divided (like Gaul) into three parts. The first and longest focuses on Briggs the social historian and leading figure in the revival of interest in Victorian times. The middle section covers Briggs’ contribution to the history of broadcasting and the media, while the final essays chronicle what the editor Miles Taylor – himself a distinguished Victorianist – nicely encapsulates as Briggs’ ‘career as a university impresario’. This is no academic Festschrift; rather, a celebration of the sheer range and energy of Briggs’ work over a long and fruitful lifetime. The man who emerges from these pages is a genial, open-minded figure from provincial West Yorkshire blessed with a personality summed up by Rohan McWilliam as that of ‘a scholarship boy who never really failed at anything’.   

Social history was not new with Briggs. But while learning from his predecessors, Briggs proved open to ideas from all sides, ‘a bridge between Marxists and non-Marxists’, says John McIlroy, who went on to write about the history of business and labour, health, education, transport and urban development, food and drink, the arts and sciences, broadcasting, publishing and the thousand and one trinkets of everyday life.  Inevitably, perhaps, his writings have occasionally been criticised for privileging information over argument or ‘interpretation’. As Martin Hewitt points out, there is no ‘Briggs school’ of historians. Briggs was always more concerned with bridging divisions and solving problems than in highlighting them.

This became abundantly clear at the University of Sussex, where Briggs (leaving a chair at Leeds) was one of the founding fathers and later vice-chancellor. The aim at Sussex was to ‘re-draw the map of learning’, notably by the replacement of traditional academic departments with cross-disciplinary Schools of Study. As a young Sussex lecturer from 1963, I remember finding this approach both challenging and exhilarating, with Briggs himself always easy to talk to – provided you could catch him as he dashed from his office to a lecture or meeting, a taxi, railway station or airport. Briggs left Sussex in 1976, the year of his peerage, to become Provost of his old Oxford college (Worcester), while continuing to undertake a bewildering variety of good works: the Commission on Nursing, the Workers’ Educational Association, Open University and University Grants Committee, the Labour and Social History Societies, the Commonwealth of Learning and Glyndebourne Trust, the Brontë, Ephemera and Victorian Societies and the editorial board of journals and magazines (including History Today). Briggs was associated with them all and chaired many while managing to remain a prodigiously active historian. His five-volume history of broadcasting in Britain led to further innovative work on the history of communications more generally.   

The Age of Asa does not pretend to give comprehensive coverage to all that Briggs has done. No single volume could do so. Rather, it is a carefully researched and affectionate (but not uncritical) portrait of Briggs’ principal public achievements by an assemblage of authors, all of whom have themselves benefited from his example.    

Daniel Snowman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research (London).

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