A Peculiar Modernity: Imperial Britain, 1848-2000

History 151C

Spring 2010
180 Tan
Day & Time: 
TuTh 11-1230

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, rapid transport, mass cities, mass culture and, of course, an empire upon which the sun famously never set. 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. In surveying the history of Britain over the past century and a half this course will examine this paradox. Was this peculiar combination of the modern and the traditional what enabled Britain to avoid many of the social and political instabilities that plagued other Western countries in the transition to modernity. For surely it was Britain's precocious and peaceable modernity that made many (from its own nineteenth century imperialists to modernization theorists in the cold war US academy) consider it the exemplary world historical model all should follow.

The focus of the course is on how this combination of the old and the new produced a supposedly unique liberal version of modernity which combined free markets with the rule of law and a developing democratic system. This provokes a series of questions: 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? How did this liberalism lay the foundations for the enormous growth of Britain's welfare and security state in the twentieth century. Is decline a sufficient way of understanding what has happened to Britain during the twentieth century given that its people are better off than ever before and live in a culturally dynamic, multi-racial and multi-faith society? How is Britain's sense of itself still informed by its imperial history, or its relationships to America and Europe? So if you want to understand Britain's peculiar modern history or just understand why it still produces the best music and comedy you might enjoy this course.

Readings will consist of primary web resources, a novel and secondary reading through set texts. You will be expected to have read all the primary web resources before each lecture: a paragraph writing assignment will be due on them each week. Assessment will be based on these assignments (20%), a mid-term (30%) and a final examination (50%). Students will also have the option of writing a short research paper (10 pages) in place of the final exam.