The Age of Decadence

by Simon Heffer, Random House, £30

There is a view, commonly held, that grand narrative histories are a thing of the past. Like telegrams, smoking in trains and old maids cycling to Evensong, they have passed out of life and into collective memory. This view is mistaken, as Simon Heffer proves happily and beyond doubt with his latest book.

The Age of Decadence begins with Disraeli, Prime Minister of the greatest empire the world has yet seen, proclaiming Victoria Regina Imperatrix. It concludes with a beleaguered government clinging on to power by its fingernails, the nation itself on the point of disintegration.

The story of this period, equal in span to that separating us from the Falklands War, is one of inexorable decline. The decline of a class, as the aristocracy ate, smoked, drank and gambled its way into irrelevance; of a party, as the Liberals tore themselves to ribbons over the intractable issue of Home Rule; and of an economy, as agricultural depression and failure to keep pace with technological advances meant Britain was overtaken by America and, ultimately, Germany.

It was also a period of stupefyingly rapid social change, though standards of living for the working classes remained poor throughout. This was demonstrated by Seebohm Rowntree’s 1899 study of urban poverty in York, which discovered that 38 per cent of people lived in poverty and concluded that “the wages paid for unskilled labour in York are insufficient to provide food, shelter and clothing adequate to maintain a family of moderate size in a state of bare physical efficiency”.

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