Andrew Marr on the making of modern Britain

Following his History of Modern Britain in the second half of the 20th century, Andrew Marr in 2009 turned his attention to the period 1900–45 with a new BBC Two series. David Musgrove asked him what he'd learnt about The Making of Modern Britain

Andrew Marr pictured in London in July 2015. (Photo by Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Q: Is there an overarching theme running through the series?

A: The series takes us from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the Second World War. The underlying thesis, and I hope this is left for the viewer to pick up rather than being too plonkingly made by me, is that this is the period in which we go from being basically a hierarchical aristocratic empire to being a democratic country.

It’s not a series of programmes about the empire – that’s offstage. But it’s crucially about the two wars that change everything and really shake the place, and the two extraordinary periods before and between the wars.

So there are two programmes on the Edwardians, a time of enormous turbulence, the Suffragettes, Ireland, the unions, as well as the image of the dappled, sunlit pre-First World War world. Then there’s the First World War itself, then the 20s and the 30s, then the Second World War. There’s a fair amount of politics and economics plus social history, so it’s ambitiously trying to do everything.

Q: Clearly that’s a busy half century. What struck you most about the period 1900–45?

A: The period I’m describing is only 45 years. I’m about to be 50 years old. It’s not a long time. And yet, in that short period, not only do we fight two apocalyptic world wars, but we start with a world where in essence most of the ruling class – most of the people in government – were titled and landowners. Where most people didn’t have the vote, where attitudes to sex, marriage and race were unbelievably different from today. In the period I’m covering you get the proper arrival of the motor car, film, telephone, air travel, plus all the political changes, and you end up in the nuclear age. It’s an astonishingly fast rate.

I would say that our prime experience in the modern world is acceleration. Everything gets faster. But you look at that period and it’s hard to think of another time when things were accelerating at quite that rate. It’s just before the huge explosion in world population, but in every other way, it’s an astonishing, dizzying, quite disorientating speed of change.

Q: What drove this dizzying change?

A: Perhaps unlike today, politics matters enormously. There’s an underlying question all the way through, which is, “How best shall we live?” During this period a lot of people are giving relatively extreme political answers to that question. So there’s a lot of political pressure for change in all sorts of ways.

The other huge driver is technology, so it’s politics and technology, not climate change, demography and all the things you could say are driving us now.

Q: So how different was the world of 1900 compared with today?

A: When I was going through source materials, at one level you start off with a world which is totally different. You have a country where eugenics – which is basically getting the poor to stop breeding, and producing more middle-class people with various wheezes and gimmicks – is considered absolutely rational and sensible by people of the centre, left and right. By archbishops and so on. You move from that world, which is really hard to think our way back into now.

On the other hand you keep coming across jaw-dropping parallels. If you look at the crisis of 1929 and the depression of the early 30s, there is an awful lot to learn, and maybe we wouldn’t have gone through what we’ve gone through recently had politicians read a bit more history.

Q: Will there be any more series? Are you going back through British history in half centuries?

A: No. This is the completion of what’s been a huge long-term ambition of mine, which is how did we become who we are, the British. Despite the awful economic situation we’re supposed to be in and the rain pelting down on me now, I feel lucky and proud to be British. They are quite patriotic films.

I feel that the story of how we moved from being the world’s unlikeliest empire to being a democracy relatively at ease with itself is stranger and more moving than we often acknowledge.

If you want to be properly British, you can’t do that without knowing some of these stories. You do need to know where you’ve come from, is my fundamental view. And that’s what the series is about.

Q: Do you think that many British people don’t know where they have come from?

A: One of the points of this series is that huge numbers of us haven’t really been taught history properly. We haven’t been taught sequential history, what happens after what.

In schools, I think the question of chronology and what’s happened when is a bit too difficult and a bit too dry, so we say let’s ignore it, and let’s spend almost all a history course doing the horrible Tudors and the trenches and the First World War poets. The excuse is that you go deeply into a period of history and you learn about the sources, and that’s more useful, gives you more skills than the old rote learning. I think this is copping out in a terribly worrying way.

If you don’t know roughly what happens when, if you don’t know where the Stuarts came compared to the Romans, if you don’t know that the Victorians preceded the Edwardians, and a little bit about what these people did, then you really can’t understand anything. I really worry about this hacking history up into attractive high-calorie, high-sugar-content gobbets that can be easily masticated and swallowed without pain.

A lot of the things that a history graduate or someone who’s read most of the popular recent histories would take for granted, huge numbers of people who will be watching these films simply won’t know. So you have to put in the crucial facts. You can’t ignore the abdication crisis or the battle of the Somme or the crucial clashes with the Suffragettes. In each film you have to pin down these absolutely essential moments of the first half of the 20th century and deal with them. But at the same time a lot of people watching these films will know quite a lot of that. I hope they’ll be surprised by some of the fascinating individual stories around the wider ones they think they already know.

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Andrew Marr is a former editor of The Independent and a political commentator who presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC One. The Making of Modern Britain aired on BBC Two in October 2009.


One forgotten story: The Green Shirts

“With each film I want to ensure that there’s material there that people will be surprised by, and don’t know so well. And some of it I think will surprise people a lot. You have to be prepared to cut out quite important and well-known issues to get in some of the unexpected stuff.

So to give you an example, the film on the 1930s doesn’t mention George Orwell, doesn’t deal with the Spanish Civil War, and therefore with the fear of bombing. All of those things are absolutely central for a lot of people. But it does deal with the most disciplined and most impressive marching movement on the streets of Britain, the Green Shirts.

There was a big split in the Scouts in the 20s. There was a less militaristic group that broke off, called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. They spent a lot of time wearing silly costumes and doing rural things, as people did in the 1920s. And then came the philosophy of Social Credit, or Douglasism, which seemed to many, like TS Eliot and quite a lot of mainstream people, to be the middle way between communism and capitalism.

It was a theory that I think most economists now would say was nuts. But it caught people’s imagination. It was basically a crusade against banks, and for dividing up national wealth. [The founder of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, John Hargrave, became fascinated by Social Credit and so his movement morphed into a new organisation, the Green Shirt Movement for Social Credit].

The Green Shirts were the paramilitary wing of Social Credit. They had marching bands, and huge military camps and a very distinctive symbol that was seen all over the place, their own newspaper, their own propaganda films, they were big. And now they are completely forgotten.”