Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

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

Department: History

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

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2019/20 Module Cap None.


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • 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 Britain’s 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 nation’s 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 Britain’s 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: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/
Key Skills:
  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/history.internal/local/PGModuleProformaMap/

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

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 10 Weekly in term 2 2 hour 20
Preparation and Reading 280

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 5000 words not including footnotes or bibliography 100%

Formative Assessment:

20 minute oral presentation 2000-word primary source commentary

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University