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Book Review: Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars by Roy Hattersley

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If there’s one thing Britain’s inter-war years don’t lack, it’s history. From the General Strike to the abdication crisis, the rise of cinema to the collapse of the economy, it was a time of dizzying change. So Roy Hattersley has a rich seam to mine in his examination of the twenties and thirties.

Instead of telling the story as it happened, he uses a series of essays on selected themes. This compartmentalized telling of history may appeal to some, but others may find it too tidy a view that dilutes the chaotic reality of the times.

The curtain rises on the inter-war years with the Versailles peace conference. It’s here, Hattersley argues, that the seeds were sown for World War II. In the face of a French President intent on revenge, David Lloyd George is shown to have a more far-sighted view. But his desire to transform Germany from vanquished enemy into partner for peace proved to be a quarter of a century ahead of its time.

The chapter on the General Strike is as even-handed as it’s possible for a former Labour cabinet minister to be, although the firebrand at the head of the mineworkers’ union appears uncannily familiar: the parallels between A J Cook and Arthur Scargill are too close for comfort. Meanwhile, Hattersley’s treatment of the abdication crisis offers no new information, but portrays Edward and Mrs Simpson as two unlovable people with only each other to love.

Although politics dominates the book, Hattersley also looks at other aspects of inter-war life, notably the arts and sport. Unsurprisingly for a politician, he can appear to approach every subject with an open mouth. One moment he’s grumbling about the convoluted language in Ulysses, the next he’s offering a critique of Henry Moore.

Hattersley conveys his love of sport with fulsome attention to football, rugby, golf, horse racing tennis and athletics. But the seven lines devoted to coarse fishing were, perhaps, seven lines too many. As for Hattersley’s examination of the Bodyline controversy, those baffled by cricket at the start of this chapter will finish it none the wiser.

The book is at its strongest when focusing on a particular theme or character. His portraits of the first BBC director general, John Reith, and of Edward Elgar are especially insightful. The section on newspaper barons throws an unforgiving searchlight on their influence, avarice and blatant anti-Semitism.

Unhappily, a book which promises “the story of Britain between the wars” turns out to be very Anglo-centric. There’s the occasional nod towards Scotland and, apart from Lloyd George, not much about Wales. An entire chapter is devoted to Ireland, but it appears the main contribution of the Irish to English history was their effort to escape from it

The final chapter on the drift to war makes up for any flaws in the rest of the book. It’s as good an examination of the subject as any previously attempted. The rift between Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, is played out like a poisonous melodrama. Even as Chamberlain is turning a blind eye to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, Eden is making a damning assessment of Mussolini: “…an absolute gangster. His pledged word means nothing.” Winston Churchill, whose presence runs like a thread through the entire book, is portrayed as brooding and bad-tempered. But in excluding Churchill from his 1935 cabinet, the often unregarded Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin has a premonition: “We must keep him fresh to be our wartime prime minister.”

Hatterlsey finishes, as he started: the peacemakers at Versailles fired the starting gun for the Second World War by botching the conclusion of the First. Had Lloyd George’s proposed treaty been adopted, the course of history might have been very different, and Hattersley would have written a very different book.

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  • Dave

    Bodyline was huge