Change and Continuity in British History

Eric Hobsbawm has recently been honoured with a second Festschrift, The Power of the Past, edited by Pat Thane, Geoffrey Crossick and Roderick Floud, an appropriately unusual distinction for an unusually distinguished historian.

During their introduction, the editors mention the 'now fashionable, but in our view questionable, strategy in historical writing of emphasising the continuities in historical experience, playing down the significance and the effect of change and discontinuities in the past'. To endorse such a view would, they rightly note, 'be a strange tribute indeed to a historian whose most widely read book is The Age of Revolution'.

The point is well and timely made. And, since the editors did not have the chance to develop it, I shall do so instead, and illustrate it with reference to modem British history and recent British historiography. Quite simply, during the period since the Second World War, there has been a U-tum in the way in which the history of modern Britain has been professionally presented. At one time, it appeared as the history of recurrent revolution. But more recently, it has become the history of sustained stability. The shift has been as abrupt as it is disturbing, and has fundamentally changed the way we seem to see our past – and thus ourselves also.

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