Book Review: Sing As We Go: Britain Between the Wars


by Simon Heffer

London: Penguin Cornerstone, 2023. Pp. xii, 960. Illus., notes, biblio., index. £14.99 paper. ISBN: 1804940984

Life and Society in Interwar Britain

In Sing As We Go, a brilliant close to his series on British history from Victoria’s accession in 1837 to the outbreak (for Britain) of World War II in 1939, Simon Heffer provides a first-rate history of Britain in a fascinating period, one that offers a prequel to America’s current position as a great power under pressure from ambitious foes and domestic issues. In both particulars and generalities, the account is open to the reinterpretation of clichés. Thus, for George V: “Far from being the pheasant-slaughtering boor his caricature held him to be, he had acquired great political nous.”

Heffer’s account of the era is not that of Richard Overy’s somewhat fatuous The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919–1939 (2008), but, rather, one of a period of development, political stability, social cohesion, and economic recovery:

“[D]espite the squalor of the depressed areas, living standards and prosperity rose in most of Britain . . . . Millions benefited from new technology. . . .

“By 1937 there were more people in work than ever before, producing more than ever before. . . . This is far from the picture usually painted of the decade, and helps explain why Britain avoided deep unrest.”

This is not actually a new view, and Heffer’s account would surprise few specialists (Philip Williamson’s work on Stanley Baldwin is particularly instructive). Yet, for most readers, Heffer’s analysis will be a striking revision of the usual account of gloom, decline, and crisis, of a frenetic 1920s followed by a depressed and depressing 1930s. Indeed, of all the excellent four volumes in Heffer’s series, this one will cause the greatest surprise. A particular focus of his consideration is Britain’s ability to maintain order. Indeed, what is striking is that, despite the rise of political extremism in the 1930s in the shape of organized communists and fascists, neither group attracted a mass following, and there was nothing in Britain to match the division and disorder seen in the nearest large democracy, France.

From the perspective of stability, it was indeed useful for Britain to have lost control of much of Ireland, as that island might have been a destabilizing presence. Neither Scotland nor Wales then had a significant separatist movement, and this is a classic instance of how the silences of history are important, in this case the relative lack of attention to both. Heffer focuses on England, which is reasonable as it was dominant in demographic, economic, and political terms, and was also more significant culturally.

Within this context, Heffer offers much on politics, but there are also many signs of a powerful intellect at work, one that searches out the significant. One instance is Heffer’s focus on the National Grid, constructed between 1926 and 1933. By 1938, it served 98 percent of the population, and there were 26.7 billion kilowatt hours generated. Electricity was a way to free many households from dependence on coal, and the fate of that industry is a theme in Heffer’s narrative. Those who clung to it, for example three of the four railway companies, are now seen as backward-looking in that respect. The National Grid was modernism in practice, and in the pursuit of electricity Britain matched the Soviet Union, but without murderous forced labor.

Modernism took many forms. Virginia Woolf was less significant for the culture than the spread of the motorcar, which by 1938 resulted in nearly two million cars, half a million trucks, and 53,000 buses and coaches. “The sound of horns and motors” of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (1922) was becoming more insistent, and in the 1929 play The Apple Cart, George Bernard Shaw asked, “What Englishman will give his mind to politics as long as he can afford to keep a motorcar?” A character in E. C. R. Lorac’s Death on the Oxford Road (1933) complained about sticking to the main roads and forming “one of a procession—bonnet to tail—reaching from Land’s End to John-o’-Groats.” Thanks to the Morris works at Cowley, Oxford had only 5 percent unemployment in 1934, and the car factories there employed ten thousand in 1939, producing on the American model that William Morris, Lord Nuffield, cribbed from Henry Ford. Those who could not afford cars were in the overwhelming majority, but vehicle ownership became a goal or model for many of them, creating a pent-up aspiration and ensuring that future affluence would lead to the purchase of more cars, which placed a question mark against rail. And the cinema helped to foster this romance of the motorcar. Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic Morris was an important financial supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists, which reminds us of the multiple strands of the period.

The decision to go off the gold standard, which occasioned much debate at the time, had benign consequences, rather as the later departure from the European exchange-rate mechanism “snake” under John Major did. As Heffer argues, the combination of budgetary and balance-of-payments tensions had created a political crisis that left the government with no other option than to abandon the gold standard. He points out that those nations,

“like Britain, who left first, tended to revive first. The pre-emptive decision to float the currency ensured the U.K. escaped more lightly than the U.S., and that no financial institution went down.”

The British economy was helped by the combination of loose monetary conditions with orthodox fiscal policy, by low commodity prices, and by consumer demand from the prosperous section of the country. Peacetime economic planning was discredited for Conservative politicians by its association with Five-Year Plans and was unacceptable to the powerful financial community. Public works played only a minor role, as they were seen as likely to crowd out the private market. Economic policy, however, brought scant relief to the traditional heavy-industrial sector which did not grow appreciably until rearmament.

The politics pursued in this study are far-ranging, from India to Appeasement. Heffer sensibly argues that much of the subsequent judgment has been misleading: “A proper understanding of public sentiment at the time, based often on direct experience of 1914–18, is essential.” He does not shy away from a lengthy discussion of Appeasement and, in doing so, finds need to address the reputation of government and society, politicians and peace-seekers. He points out the problems posed by the array of revisionist accounts:

“Baldwin’s pipe dream of an understanding with Italy as a bulwark against the German threat was cruelly exposed by Mussolini’s unsupportable determination to build a Roman Empire in Africa. . .

“[I]t seemed that, in the name of long-term strategy, everyone wanted to appease someone.”

At the same time, the tone is lightened by a discussion of the Abdication Crisis, which provides a very different milieu to that of international diplomacy. Heffer suggests that had Edward VIII refused to abdicate and a king’s party developed, the latter would have been composed of marginalized Tory MPs who would not have been able to make the political weather. His supporters in the country were in a minority, and the situation and context was totally different to that of 1641–42: Edward lost interest in the fight. Churchill helped further ostracize himself by supporting Edward who, ironically, had links with Hitler.

George VI’s qualities helped ensure the crisis was short-lived, and his coronation in 1937 provides Heffer with an opportunity to assess the aristocracy, both its general problems and the criminality of the “Mayfair Boys,” who had assaulted and robbed a jeweler and were convicted: “There was widespread shock that a thug’s punishment should be meted out to ex–public schoolboys: but they were thugs.” Lord Chief Justice Hewart, who presided, was of the opinion that “justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

The closing section of the book takes on the approach to war. The attempt to contain the Axis powers short of conflict failed, but, however mishandled, the Realpolitik involved was not, as Heffer points out, inherently dishonorable. Furthermore, to add to the oft-misleading retrospective approach frequently taken since, it is unclear how modern commentators and publics who explain and welcome caution toward China, Iran, North Korea, or Russia, or uncritically observe America’s own long neutrality toward Hitler, can so glibly be critical of Britain in 1938. Then, a wish to seek a negotiated alternative to war was widespread across the political spectrum. Far from being a characteristic of reprehensible Conservatives, not to say fellow-traveling neo-fascists, the desire to avoid war and the related opposition to rearmament were also notably strong among liberal opinion and on the left. In the event, there was rearmament alongside a marked relaxation of fiscal restraint, and the government proved capable of supporting a powerful military-industrial complex, one that was to make Britain a formidable opponent for Germany.

The war itself was to help weaken, if not quite destroy, much of the fabric and practice of pre-war British society. Symbolically, Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) provided an account of how wartime road transport helped force through change:

“We laid the road through the trees joining it up with the main drive; unsightly but very practical; awful lot of transport comes in and out; cuts the place up, too. Look where one careless devil went smack through the box-hedge and carried away all that balustrade.”

Waugh himself is ably discussed by Heffer as part of a superb chapter, “The Twenties Roar,” which is an important as well as brilliantly observed account of society from sexuality to local government. We have the fashionable Kit-Cat Club raided in 1925 for serving drink after hours. The Prince of Wales had been there the previous night. The 43 Club and Chez Victor also feature in an account of Waugh’s earlier world of Bright Young Things.

Heffer has a fine eye for instructive and interesting changes across society. Thus, he argues that the upper classes were losing some of their superiority of dress. Technological advances, as he notes, were creating the synthetic materials that helped provide smart clothes at a reasonable price for the less well off, which, Heffer suggests, helped eliminate visible distinctions of class, since the three-piece suit was common to most men. Evening distinctions in clothing were clearer.

Eliot is here, but also Gracie Fields’s Sing as We Go (1934), a fairytale account of Lancashire working-class life, and one that Heffer discusses as part of his first-rate, perceptive, kind, and fascinating account of the films of the period. This brilliant book is superbly written, and one of which any author would be very proud indeed.


Our Reviewer: Jeremy Black, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Exeter, is also a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of an impressive number of works in history and international affairs, frequently demonstrating unique interactions and trends among events, including The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, Combined Operations: A Global History of Amphibious and Airborne Warfare, and The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon. He has previously reviewed The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, King of the World, Stalin’s War, Underground Asia, The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, The Atlas of Boston History, Time in Maps, Bitter Peleliu, The Boundless Sea, On a Knife Edge. How Germany Lost the First World War, Meat Grinder: The Battles for the Rzhev Salient, Military History for the Modern Strategist, Tempest: The Royal Navy and the Age of Revolutions, Conquer We Must and Firepower: How Weapons Shaped Warfare.

This review originally appeared in The New Criterion, Vol. 42, No. 8 (April 2024), which is available online at, and is used through the kind permission of Prof. Black and the editors.



Note: Sing As We Go is also available in hard cover and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Jeremy Black   

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