One of the pleasures of this immensely readable volume is its unapologetic emphasis on high politics, a historical fashion so old it’s new again ... Cannadine’s attention to parliamentary politics also lets him unspool the wranglings over Irish home rule, easily the most divisive issue in later 19th-century politics, and replete with legacies and lessons for the age of Brexit. Another satisfaction lies in Cannadine’s polymathic command of the cultural life of the period ... Cannadine has pulled off the hat-trick of commanding erudition, original interpretation and graceful writing.
Much of the narrative frame concerns high politics, and rightly so. A book like this one is particularly valuable in an age when history undergraduates often startle their teachers by their ignorance of basic facts ... In Cannadine’s lucid account there is the occasional slip (the 1833 Irish Church Temporalities Act suppressed 10 bishoprics, not 18). And there’s one subject that he deals with cursorily at the very end, but that was of the greatest importance in the second part of the century: the growth of organized games. He mentions the publication of Mill’s Utilitarianism in 1863, but not another and surely more important event that year, the meeting at a London pub that drew up a common code for association football. As A. J. P. Taylor said, 'By it the mark of England may well remain in the world when the rest of her influence has vanished' — words that may be given further force this summer.
Mr. Cannadine presents the liberal spirit of progress as the hero of his tale. It guided Britain through conflicts, social disparities and political transitions while pointing toward a better society. Other chroniclers might have taken more notice of the fact that such progress had significant trade-offs, but he tells his own story persuasively and exceedingly well.