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HIST45730: A Safe Democracy? Constitutionalism, Extremism, and Political Violence in Modern England, c. 1890-1939

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Type Open
Level 4
Credits 30
Availability Available in 2023/24
Module Cap None.
Location Durham
Department History


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Excluded Combinations of Modules

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  • To help students develop an independent command of primary material in the history of modern British politics and political culture, with an appreciation of the nature and form of sources and the ability to deploy different methods and techniques to interrogate them
  • To help students develop a deep engagement with historiographical trends and historical interpretations in the history of modern Britain.


  • The Brexit victory in the 2016 referendum was about many things, including, for some, a sense that England was unique. One historically persistent and significant expression of this exceptionalism has been the view that England was a uniquely stable, constitutional, liberal, consensual, practical and successful nation-state, unlike the unstable, strife-torn and dogma-ridden nations of Europe, which sooner or later end in revolution, authoritarianism, and tyranny. This is certainly a comforting view, not least for a cross-party political class; but is it a correct view? The objective of this module is to explore this terrain by clarifying its conceptual bases, examining both published and manuscript primary sources, and engaging closely with problems of historiography. The first half of the module explores Britain in the early twentieth century. An industrialized, urbanized society, with a long-established tradition of parliamentary government, Britain seemed the very model of the modern, civilian, and constitutional state. It was widely regarded (not least by its governing political elite) as a mature democracy. But, in terms of its parliamentary franchise, Britain was in fact one of the least democratic societies in Europe. It was also a polity whose prosperity and confidence had been built on an industrial and imperial dominance that was increasingly being threatened by international rivals. Early seminars in the module focus on the tensions in politics and society around the turn of the century that seemed to challenge Britains self-conception and self-confidence as a stable, liberal, nation-state. These include the spirit of paranoia, jingoism, and militarism that seemed to take root in Britain during the final quarter of the 19th century, and intensified during the South African War; the emergence of new challenges to the nations established parliamentary system, from militant suffragettes, Syndicalists, and organised Labour; and the looming threat of paramilitary violence, perhaps even civil war, in Ireland, where it appeared that the armed forces of the Crown might not be fully under the control of civilian statesmen in London. The second half of the module considers the impact of the Great War and the economic slump on Britains institutions and political culture. Seminars explore the question of trauma in British society in the aftermath of the war, and the scholarly controversy over the extent to which political violence was either normalised or rendered illegitimate by the experience of the conflict. Seminars will also examine the emergence of a nascent fascism, arguably driven by a revolt of the middle classes; the worsening of class tensions that culminated in a General Strike, the nature and meaning of which remains fiercely contested; the problem of unemployment and its corrosive effects on social solidarity; and a resurgence of political violence during the 1930s in the contest between fascism and anti-fascism. The module considers how far these phenomena undermine the narrative of an inter-war Britain characterized by a spirt of national unity, internationalism, and pacifism, in what has often been seen as a golden age for civil society. The module concludes by considering how far, and in what ways, British democracy had developed over the first half of the twentieth century: did victory in the Second World War mark the triumph of a British form of social democracy, or the failure to break free from what was only ever a half-formed and incomplete democracy?

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:

  • advanced knowledge and understanding of aspects of modern British politics, including historiographical approaches.

Subject-specific Skills:

  • Subject specific skills for this module can be viewed at:

Key Skills:

  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at:

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Student learning is facilitated by a range of teaching methods.
  • Seminars require students to reflect on and discuss: their prior knowledge and experience; set reading of secondary and, where appropriate, primary readings; information provided during the session. They provide a forum in which to assess and comment critically on the findings of others, defend their conclusions in a reasoned setting, and advance their knowledge and understanding of the medieval Liberal Arts traditions.
  • Structured reading requires students to focus on set materials integral to the knowledge and understanding of the module. It specifically enables the acquisition of detailed knowledge and skills which will be discussed in other areas of the teaching and learning experience.
  • Assessment is by means of a 5000 word essay which requires the acquisition and application of advanced knowledge and understanding of medieval Liberal Arts tradition. Essays require a sustained and coherent argument in defence of a hypothesis, and must be presented in a clearly written and structured form, and with appropriate apparatus.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Seminars10Weekly in term 22 hour20 
Preparation and Reading280 

Summative Assessment

Component: EssayComponent Weighting: 100%
ElementLength / DurationElement WeightingResit Opportunity
Essay5000 words not including footnotes or bibliography 100 

Formative Assessment

20 minute oral presentation 2000-word primary source commentary

More information

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