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The best books on Social History of Post-War Britain

recommended by David Kynaston

Until the 1970s, Britain was predominantly a working class society, says the historian David Kynaston. He tells us about books that explore how this changed, giving rise to the turbulent Thatcher years.

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You started your career as a historian in 1973 and have become well-known for your series about post-war Britain. What first got you interested in this subject?

My interest dates back to 1987 when I had nearly finished writing Financial Times: A Centenary History. That got me intrigued in the whole post-war story, which for the FT was obviously focused on the economic angle. Being born in 1951, I also remember some of the period myself. I was following politics by the age of 13 and I distinctly remember the 1964 election.

1987 was Thatcher’s third election win. By this time it had become increasingly clear that her and the Tories coming into power in 1979 had drastically changed life in Britain. Over the course of the eighties, Britain had become a significantly different society to what it was before. 1979, in terms of post-war British history, seemed to mark a kind of line in the sand. 1945-79 has therefore become its own period and its own story – and that timeframe is what I used for my series of books.

In what way did Margaret Thatcher’s Britain change the social fabric of the UK?

Crucially, it reversed the drift of a trend towards a more equal or egalitarian society. If you look at the wealth and income figures from the war through to the end of the seventies, the gap between the rich and the poor grew progressively narrower. Taxation was pretty high for the wealthy in the seventies.

There was an explicit determination on the part of the Thatcher government to change that. The argument was that we had to not worry so much about how the cake was divided but to increase the size of the cake. Related to that was the notion of trickledown economics – that if people were encouraged to become wealthy, and the wealthy held on to more of their money rather than paying it in tax, then they would spend money in such a way that the benefits would trickle down to the rest of society. That was a very fundamental difference. And there was the question of the trade unions, that had become very powerful in the seventies and pretty unpopular. Key to Thatcher’s political success in the eighties was reducing the power of the unions. In the mid-eighties she broke the miners’ strike [defeating the National Union of Mineworkers] who were seen as having huge political muscle. Breaking their strike was cardinal to her project.

Your book selections very much reflect the social history of the working classes in those years.

I was thinking about the four decades after the war. For much of that time, up to the seventies, Britain was predominately a working class society – the 1951 census gave it as 72% working class – but it changed through time and became less working class as the middle class grew. Looking at the whole sweep of the post-war period, however, if one is writing a social history of post-war Britain, the question of the character, assumptions and way of life of the working class and how those things changed through time are absolutely central, and haven’t been explored as much as they might have been.

Your choices most definitely do that. In Estates, Lynsey Hanley explores why council estates, which were built to help people, actually ended up doing so much harm. For those who don’t know, what is a council estate?

Council estates are public housing in which the person is a tenant rather than an owner of the house or flat. The state provides this housing for people who can’t afford to rent or buy themselves. It started in the 1890s and gradually expanded between the wars. But council housing really took off in the 30 years or so after the war. By the end of the seventies around 30% of all housing was council housing.

Hanley grew up on an estate herself.

Yes, she grew up on a huge estate that was built in the sixties. It wasn’t a high rise but a low rise estate, but many of the estates built at the time were high rise. Her book is part council housing history and part memoir. In particular, she brilliantly explores the way in which the experience of living on a council estate became ghettoised. The people living there were often physically apart from the town or city as well as mentally. There is a wonderful detail about how when she was about 16 or 17 she went to a public library and saw The Guardian newspaper in the reading room. She had always assumed that The Guardian was a special kind of paper that only professors could subscribe to. Going to a public library and discovering that anyone could look at it was an amazing revelation.

Aside from her entertaining descriptions, what did the book teach you about social history in post-war Britain?

Her descriptions have terrific historical value as a piece of testimony. And I am sympathetic to her argument that architects’ grand ideas of modern design were often not good places for people to actually live in. She is also indignant that when people were given the “right to buy” their properties under Thatcher, the proceeds weren’t put back into the upkeep of the estates.

One thing I think she underestimates, though, is the extent to which most people wanted to have their own bit of property and individualism, and that privacy was so important. Council housing was a brave and honourable social experiment, but beyond a certain point it was doomed as a form of mass housing. I would argue that is because it didn’t go with the grain of human nature. In the end, people want their own place to have as an expression of their individual character. This ties into my argument about the whole of the pre-Thatcher period – a lot of evidence shows that society was quite ready for Thatcherism when it came along. Whether one thinks it was a good or bad thing, many people already wanted the “me first, society second” policies that Thatcher promoted.

Your next book, The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class, examines how and why the reputation of the British working class has changed over the years.

This book goes into quite brave territory. Collins argues that the white working class has become the only bit of society left that can be demonised by the liberal intelligentsia. This gives him the starting point for a history of the white working class, based very much on where he grew up – the Elephant and Castle district in south London. So the book is partly a history of the working class in that area and partly, as it moves towards the present, a family memoir which taps into his parents and grandparents.

Why does he think the reputation of the working class has changed?

What struck me as very fresh about his argument is that he sees the white working class – previously seen as “the salt of the earth” – as having being destroyed by two key elements which were imposed on them without them having any say in the matter. The first was the re-development of their actual area with things like the slum clearance and the building of new estates – the physical environment of where the white working class lived changed out of all recognition. The other was mass immigration, which they had no say in either. This happened quite suddenly and was done by people who did not have to live with the consequences of their actions. Collins argues that the white working class who had this immigration imposed on them responded with remarkable tolerance and patience, which I think is broadly true.

Nevertheless, as a group of people the British white working class continue to be maligned by many people. I have spoken to hairdressers and shop owners who say they would rather have a foreigner working for them because they have a better work ethic.

I think there is some truth to that – but then you could argue that the white working class has been neglected for a long time, and that education has been substandard so it is difficult for them as a group to get on. It is partly because the solid white working class was broken up for the two reasons we discussed. It is a very complicated question, but I think that did have an effect. This is a pioneering book going into an area where few people have gone.

Next up is Roy Greenslade’s Goodbye to the Working Class.

This book is set in the seventies. After writing it, Roy Greenslade went on to become editor of The Daily Mirror. He is now a prominent media commentator in The Evening Standard and The Guardian. He comes, I think, from an upper working class, lower middle class kind of background. He went to a grammar school in Dagenham, which is a very working class part of the UK, and the grammar school wasn’t particularly prestigious or academic. Dagenham is famous for motor car manufacturing and it was home to a huge council estate which was built between the wars.

In this book, 12 or so years after he left his grammar school, Greenslade went back to interview the people he had been there with and find out what had happened to them. He spoke to around 120 contemporaries from his year. So the book takes a fascinating look at two periods. The first is the time that his friends were at school with him, and the second shows what has happened to them 12 years on. You get the sense of what a typical grammar school would have been like. What comes across very strongly is how important streaming was. You were streamed when you joined the school – if you were in the A stream you got the best teachers and facilities, and if you were in the bottom stream you were pretty much abandoned. Many of them ended up leaving school as soon as they were able to, which was at 15.

There was a huge division in society between grammar schools and secondary moderns – which are what you went to if you failed your 11-plus [exam] – but we forget that there were also huge divisions within the grammar schools themselves. What is even more interesting about the book, and what gives it its special importance, is that talking to people in their early thirties Greenslade finds that almost without exception they are essentially materialistic in focus. They have little interest in intellectual life or in public affairs generally, although politically they are kneejerk right wing and very hostile to immigrants. It is essentially a picture in the mid-seventies of people who were Thatcherite in outlook even before she came on the scene.

And these were the people she tapped into with her policies?

Absolutely. It also ties in with the television play that Mike Leigh directed in 1977, Abigail’s Party, which looked at the working class in an entirely different way. I remember watching it at the time and it was quite shocking. On the whole television had shown the working class as noble and heroic or down to earth and matter of fact, but Mike Leigh showed them to be vulgar and materialistic. In a way this book provides the background text to Abigail’s Party.

Ian Jack’s book Before the Oil Ran Out is also about life in Britain in the seventies and eighties, which for many was a very tough time.

Jack is a brilliant writer. This is a collection of essays written over a roughly 10 year period for The Sunday Times. They give you a sense, right from the frontline, of how Britain was changing in the eighties under Thatcherism. He specifically brings out the crucial consequences of deindustrialisation in the early eighties. In the space of about two years, we lost nearly a quarter of our manufacturing capacity. In places like Sheffield, which used to be “steel city”, by the mid-eighties it was an utterly different place with high unemployment.

And we are feeling the legacy of that to this day.

Precisely. Jack’s essays are now part of history. They show you it happening and the immediate consequences of it. He travels around England and Scotland, and touches on lots of different parts of society. He writes a kind of travel piece about the Cotswolds in the prosperous eighties, as well as talking to people in towns like Sheffield.

There is one other thing that this collection has, and this is what raises it from just being very good to being touched with greatness. That is the first piece in the collection. It is 50-odd pages long, called “Finished with Engines” – a semi-autobiographical piece essentially about his father, who was a Scottish skilled working man. Through him he recreates a whole banished working class world. I have read it several times and each time I read it I think it is as good as Orwell. Ian Jack still writes every Saturday in The Guardian.

Your final choice, Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman is an autobiography of her working class childhood in the 1950s.

This is quite a difficult book. It is essentially autobiographical but it’s also about her mother. Her mother came from a working class Lancashire mill background from the 1920s. There is quite a lot about that, and also about Steedman’s adult life as she was growing up in London in the fifties.

Her book is on one level an attack on Richard Hoggart’s book The Uses of Literacy, which was published in 1957. This was said to be the book that lay behind the British television series Coronation Street. It was in two halves, the first half about Hoggart’s working class childhood in Leeds between the wars, and he writes it in fantastically evocative detail. The second half was an attack on the Americanisation of popular culture. The book had a huge impact and was part of the working class coming in the late fifties into the centre of the frame. But in her book Steedman accuses Hoggart of seeing the working class in an over-homogenised way. In effect she says the working class are made up of individuals who are more interesting than Hoggart gives them credit for.

She uses her mother as an example of that, showing how her mother came out of a deprived childhood which gave her a great appetite for material things. As a young adult she was really keen on the New Look – the fashion that came in just after the war in 1947. And she became in her politics a working class Tory. For myself, I found that an incredibly helpful perception. Class is so important in Britain and we were a very class-divided society, but you have to drill deeper than just looking at class if you are actually going to see how society works.

Many people believe we are finally living in a classless society, and class is no longer important in defining our social history. Do you think that is the case?

History from below and a focus on class really came through in the sixties – people like EP Thompson with his book The Making of the English Working Class, which was an instant classic. History was no longer just about high politics and diplomacy. Social history also became important. Then in the eighties, for understandable and good reasons, there was less of an emphasis on class and more of an emphasis on gender and identity. Obviously this came out of the women’s movement of the seventies – and as we became more of a multicultural society, class got rather forgotten about.

How about now?

I can only talk for myself, but I think it continues to be a very important part of our social history alongside gender and identity. I think we underestimate class. I just watched the first of a three-part television series by Melvyn Bragg about class and culture. Bragg argues that class has been replaced by culture, which has a unifying effect that makes class less important. I’m not sure I agree with him. If you travel around the [UK] and go to different places, class is very much still a defining issue of people’s lives and how they live. You cannot say that class is dead.

March 6, 2012

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David Kynaston

David Kynaston

David Kynaston is a historian and author. Since 1973 he has written 18 books, including the widely acclaimed four-volume history The City of London. He is also the author of Austerity Britain, the first title in a series of books covering the history of post-war Britain (1945-1979). He is currently a visiting professor at Kingston University

David Kynaston

David Kynaston

David Kynaston is a historian and author. Since 1973 he has written 18 books, including the widely acclaimed four-volume history The City of London. He is also the author of Austerity Britain, the first title in a series of books covering the history of post-war Britain (1945-1979). He is currently a visiting professor at Kingston University