Consensus Britain? The State and the People, 1945-79

The details
Colchester Campus
Undergraduate: Level 5
Monday 13 January 2020
Friday 20 March 2020
20 August 2019


Requisites for this module



Key module for


Module description

Historians of modern Britain have long debated the issue of whether there was a 'consensus' between the main political parties after the Second World War. This module sets out to examine the idea of the 'consensus' and its ramifications for the people in Britain, going beyond the narrow political history of the period and exploring instead the inter-relations between the state, citizens and the broader culture of postwar Britain.

One argument contends that both Labour and Conservatives agreed on the central political issues of the day, united by a common commitment to full employment, the welfare state and industrial democracy, until this cosy agreement was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher. The alternative view highlights profound disagreements concerning nationalisation, state control, private enterprise, equality and permissiveness.

Students taking this module will explore a number of key areas which will allow us to understand the how the state influenced people's lives in the 'postwar' period, the aims of the politicians involved, and how ordinary people experienced the range of policies and initiatives introduced (how they were affected, but also how citizens resisted them at times, and forced the government to adapt policies at others). This experience of 'consensus' will be the heart of the module.

Policies designed to promote social improvement often had a negative impact on certain sections of the population. For example, the new welfare state led to the promotion of a middle-class model of motherhood which led to stigmatisation of those who rejected the model as 'bad mothers'. Crucially, 'consensus' also involved a limited understanding of who 'the people' where, and understanding which struggled to the cope with the nation's changing social make up.

The postwar political settlement struggled to hold in the crisis decade of the 1970s, as the economic certainties of the previous two decades unravelled. Both left and right sought new and very different answers to Britain's problems, a new generation of feminists sought to over-turn the structural inequalities of British life, and by the end of the decade it was clear that the 'consensus' was dead.

The module will introduce students to the nuanced historiography of postwar British history, but will also use a range of primary sources designed to deepen understanding of the period.

Topics will include the creation of the postwar settlement, welfare state and delinquency, the growth of affluence, the attempts to tackle racism in the 1960s, permissiveness and its discontents, the challenge of feminism in the 1970s, and the collapse of consensus amid the economic problems of Trade Union militancy in the same decade. As you will see, this module is about far more than politics narrowly conceived – it is about the nature of culture and society in a country experiencing enormous change.

Module aims

1. To introduce a range of historiographical and conceptual approaches to the study of modern Britain, 1945-1979.
2. To promote a deep understanding of the inter-relationship between the state and the people.
3. To encourage wider understanding of the primary sources relating to this topic.
4. To develop research and writing skills.
5. To promote confidence in presentation skills.
6. To investigate the way ‘consensus’ could mask political, cultural and social structures which hindered, rather than promoted, social advance in this period.

Module learning outcomes

On completing the module, students will:

1. Have an awareness of key debates concerning the history of post-1945 British politics, society and culture.
2. Be able to analyse the historiographical debate concerning a key area of British history in the 1945-79 period.
3. Have analysed suitable primary source material in a coherent and well-developed manner.
4. Have demonstrated the ability to participate in seminar discussion in a way which improves the quality of education of all participants.
5. Be able to convey effectively through an oral presentation analysis of primary and/or secondary sources.
6. Have gained key discipline-specific skills in preparation for the final year research project.

Module information

General reading list:

Addison, P. and H. Jones (eds), Companion to Contemporary Britain, 1939-2000 (Oxford, 2005).

Clarke, P., Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-2000 (London, 2004).

Learning and teaching methods

Lectures and seminars.


This module does not appear to have any essential texts. To see non-essential items, please refer to the module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework Seminar Participation 5%
Coursework Historiographical Essay (2500 words) 27/03/2020 75%
Practical Oral Presentation 20%

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Belinda Waterman, Department of History, 01206 872313



External examiner

Dr Rachel Rich
Leeds Beckett University
Senior Lecturer
Available via Moodle
Of 20 hours, 20 (100%) hours available to students:
0 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).


Further information

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