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Britain

Robin Prior opens this monumental military history by stating that Britain was the only power on the Allied side in both world wars to fight the regimes of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperialist Japan ‘from beginning to end’. Some might quibble. Was not 1937 the beginning of the war against Japan? But few could doubt that Britain’s sustained war effort in both world wars was remarkable. Even though victory often seemed uncertain and the cost in casualties, human grief, economic dislocation, and financial ruin was immense, the nation continued to exhibit ‘stern resolve’, believing that ‘conquer we must’.

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It is a truism that all politics is performance. Successful leaders are frequently adept in the manipulation and deployment of scripts, props, stages, and costumes. To their credit, British politicians have worked exceedingly hard over the past year and more to explore the full range of theatrical genres. The vaudevillian moral vacuum of Boris Johnson’s government was reprised in recent weeks as Johnson put on a command performance, all wispy blond hair and faux indignation, for the Commons Privileges Committee. The unbelievable farce that ended his time at 10 Downing Street gave way swiftly to the burlesque-cum-tragicomedy of Liz Truss and her chancellor’s calamitous (not to say ironic) ‘mini’ budget. We seem to have arrived, in the efforts of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to out-gravitas one another, at a sustained attempt to revive the long-lost tradition of the morality play.

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The ongoing war in Ukraine is not mentioned in Oliver Bullough’s new book, Butler to the World. That is not unexpected: it went to press before Russia invaded Ukraine. But Vladimir Putin’s illegal and reprehensible invasion looms large over this excellent new book about Britain’s role in enabling financial crime. The invasion is an acute example of the real-world consequences of this industry.

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The convict Thomas Brooks was transported to Sydney in 1818. He had been sentenced to seven years but would serve twenty-seven, with stints in some of Australia’s most brutal penal settlements. His life became a cycle of escape attempts, recapture, and punishment. Each grab for freedom made his chains heavier, the floggings ever more severe. Eventually the penal system broke him, his spirit and will to escape crushed. When Brooks was finally released, he went bush, content to live in a humpy, drink, and ponder his past. He wondered how Britain could see fit to abolish slavery and yet maintain the convict system. ‘For our slavery there was no balm. Those who believed in the freedom of men had cast us out; and those who were incapable of reflection must have seen the impassable gulph between the stains of our bondage and the free position of honest liberty.’

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The Gallipoli campaign has a peculiar fascination for historians of World War I. This new book, by British historian Nicholas A. Lambert, is concerned not so much with the conduct of the campaign as with the reasons for its being launched. The chances for its success were known at the time to be low, so why was this gamble, which cost perhaps 130,000 Allied and Ottoman lives, taken?

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In 2007, Britain’s Royal Mint issued a £2 coin commemorating two hundred years since the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the zero in ‘1807’ appearing as if a broken link in a chain. While interrupting the notorious transatlantic trade, the Act did not end slavery itself – that was achieved, at least in parts of the British world, with further legislation in 1833 that outlawed enslavement in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape of Good Hope. Emphasis on the dramatic, if illusionary, chain-breaking moment in some bicentenary celebrations extended a tradition of dwelling on Britain’s role in slave emancipation.

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On 3 October 1962, Hugh Gaitskell rose to address the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton. He had been Labour leader for nearly a decade and was widely tipped to win the next general election, due within two years. Gaitskell’s message was clear and vivid: Britain must never join the European Economic Community. To do so, he told delegates, would ‘mean the end of a thousand years of history’.

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As we await the fate of the United Kingdom in its tortuous process of extricating itself from the European Union, what better time to produce a provocatively titled text purporting to trace nothing less than the rise and decline of the British nation? ... (read more)

The main title of John Darwin’s new book is simple but mischievous. Its primary purpose is to announce that he sees empire as an activity rather than a thing. People, millions of them, made it, and remade it constantly, over long stretches of time; it was always in progress, always being finished ...

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Unsurprisingly, Australia leads the world in the production of close-grained studies of convicts sentenced to transportation. Since 1788, it’s what we do. Emma Christopher proves herself to be a crackerjack at tracking down just about anyone who ever stood before an eighteenth-century court. She reels off their crimes, social origins, associates, aliases, lovers, victims, favourite haunts and previous convictions like a bailiff of long experience. What is more, she appears to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the alleys, lanes and bolt-holes of every city in the British Isles. So stupendous is her talent for conjuring up the atmosphere of the times that most readers will forgive her for too frequently slip ping into the archaic language of the documents she studies.

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