The Peculiar Modernity of Britain, 1750 to the present

History 151C

Spring 2013
Day & Time: 
TuTh 11-1230P
  • Note new room.
  • For many years Britain was seen as the crucible of the modern world. This small, cold and wet island was thought to have been the first to develop representative politics, an industrial economy, sustained and rapid population growth, the nuclear family, rapid transport, mass cities, mass culture and, of course, an empire upon which the sun famously never set. And, most remarkably, it appeared to combine rapid economic and social development with relative political stability and massive imperial expansion.  No wonder that like its own imperialists some still consider it as providing an exemplary model of historical development.  And yet, despite this precocious modernity, imperial Britain remained a deeply traditional society unable to rid itself of ancient institutions like the monarchy, the aristocracy and the established church. How can we explain that paradox? The class examines how this peculiar combination of the old and the new produced a liberal version of modernity which combined free markets, the rule of law and carefully calibrated civil liberties. Yet if Britons thought of themselves as an essentially liberal people, bringing trade, prosperity, democracy and civilization to the rest of the world how did they also come to be associated with tradition, immense poverty, and imperial violence and exploitation? And how did this liberalism lay the foundations for the enormous growth of Britain's decolonizing welfare and security state in the twentieth century let alone the emergence of multi-culturalism and neo-liberalism?  The class combines economic, social, political and cultural history.  If you want to understand Britain's peculiar modern history or just understand the Downton Abbey phenomena you might enjoy this course. Readings will consist of primary web resources and a textbook. Sections will discuss lecture materials and work on research and writing skills.  Assessment will be based on section assignments (30%), a mid-term (30%) and a final examination (40%). Students will also have the option of writing a short research paper (10 pages) in place of the final exam.


Course Books

A History of Modern Britain by Ellis Wasson Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN: 9781405139366 Required