Alan Morrison on
Austerity Britain 1945-51
Bloomsbury (2007/08) 674pp
I broke off my reading of a history of Britain between the wars (which I’ll go back to) when David Kynaston’s already universally acclaimed red, Bible-sized Austerity Britain slapped down in the post. It was inevitable I’d not be able to resist diving straight in to what various commentaries have hailed as the most detailed and thorough social history of that crucial period in our political history – especially to those on the Left. Those oh-so-short but groundbreaking years of Attlee’s post-war Labour government, which saw, among many milestones, broad-sweeping, unapologetically ideological nationalisations of various industries, and the founding of the Welfare State and the NHS. Austerity Britain – comprising two volumes, A World to Build and Smoke in the Valley - is the first instalment of Kynaston’s ongoing series of tomes under the Blakeian umbrella title Tales of a New Jerusalem, which, with a Churchillian ambitiousness, seeks to enshrine the political history of this country right up to 1979 and the dawn of Thatcherism. That socially corrosive monetarist vicissitude that marked the abrupt end of the mid-century British drive towards greater egalitarianism. Kynaston tantalises the beleaguered modern veteran of post-Thatcherite moral decline with a colourfully written, accessibly analytical and culturally wide-sweeping documentation of a more idealistic and community-minded era. A past that is relatively speaking only a stone’s throw back, which makes the massively different nature of 21st century Britain all the more alarming by comparison.
In spite of Kynaston’s remarkably neutral tone, his very ethical historicism - in part down-playing the perennial rose-tinted spectacles of the modern Left regards a six year oasis of socialist agenda - a non-partisan commitment to telling the unglamorous truth regards the successes and failures of Attlee’s reign (for me, focusing on the latter a little too often perhaps), the less materialistically minded of readers can still emerge from this vast social document with at least the frames of their rose-tinted spectacles still intact, and the lenses only scratched, even if they have to acknowledge that, in this distinct period of cultural leftward shift, there were still the less inspiring nuances afoot in (Old, nay definitive) Labour: American appeasement, anti-Communism, over-ambitiousness and blunted radicalism (cue the detrimental party split ultimately over introducing NHS prescription charges in part due to a feckless commitment to war in Korea, which led to the party’s Left/Right divide between Bevanites and Gaitskellites). It would of course be wrong to try and perpetuate any leftist myth as to the true mixed realities of life in Attlee’s Britain, but at the same to it is vitally important to emphatically place this era in its post-War context (which Kynaston of course does) where a significant level of national privation and economic vulnerability was inevitable, and, ultimately determining of the political parameters of whatever government reigned at the time (just as much as actually during the war itself). That this was a period which, in spite of itself, was saturated in some astoundingly brave and ambitious social reforms. That the ‘planners’ and ‘activators’ of the day were bound to occasionally flounder in fulfilment of some of their higher ideals. Had Attlee secured a full second term, the face of Britain might have been transformed into something more thoroughly approaching a socialist (or 'good') society.
Through this unadulterated transparency, to my interpretation, the Attlee years still come through as a – albeit quixotically – radical era of massive social reform, hampered in the main only by the unavoidable austerity of a post-war economy, and the usual fiscal manipulation of the US; and not, significantly, by any power-complacency that has sadly emasculated later Labour governments. 1945-51 was a period that, in spite of its brevity (only six years of a pretty much undiluted Labour administration), saw arguably the most progressively seismic shifts in our country’s character of any other government (matched only antithetically by the retrogressive shifts of the Thatcher administration); a generally high-minded, idealistic egalitarian putsch of political and industrial dynamics whose legacy was to last for a further three decades, stamping an indelible mark on the British political landscape, even being begrudgingly absorbed by succeeding Tory administrations. And even in spite of Thatcherism’s anti-socialist agenda, its victimising of the unions and miners, its dismantling of the public sector, its divisive and inefficient privatisations, and its neoliberalist – and as we now see in recent economic events, ultimately fallacious – discrediting of redistributive Keynesianism, we still have, just about, an NHS. And the Welfare State, though constantly besieged by draconic ‘radical’ reforms – and never more so, with bitter irony, than under New Labour – is still a significant part of our society, albeit one detectably starting to dismantle (cue the newly proposed National Care Service, a Malthusian chimera in the camouflage of starchy altruism). Most startling of all though, is that the late Forties was an era in which this country was actually quite casually alluded to by certain quarters as ‘Socialist Britain’. For many of us, that remains an ever-distant fantasy, and it was only in part the true case even during the Attlee years. But there’s no doubt that any government with a left-wing firebrand, Aneurin Bevan, as its staunchly anti-capitalist Minister of Health, is about as near to a socialist government as this isle has ever seen and, tragically, is ever likely to see again.
So for those of us on the Left, Austerity Britain, in some aspects, reads a little like a wishful fantasy history for how we might like society to be today, with details mentioned matter-of-factly as to one Minister nationalising this and another nationalising that, and another, creating a universally free Health Service and setting up a welfare system that actually offers something more substantial than the privations and stigmas of the former ‘dole’, and who (Bevan, naturally) wouldn't (and didn't) wince in the slightest at saying of the deeply conservative general practitioners that he’d ‘stuff their mouths with gold’ in order to get the NHS past their filibustering, or denouncing the entire Conservative Party as ‘lower than vermin’. With figures like the rebarbative Bevan, and the hairshirted socialist Chancellor Stafford Cripps, in key governmental roles, it is rather like reading about a Fantasy Cabinet. Those were certainly the days, any left-winger of today would think.
But it seems, as mentioned previously, that Kynaston’s singular task, as well as providing such a thorough account of these radical years, is to also shed more light on the drabber, shabbier aspects to the Attlee days, overcast as they were by the inevitable austerity that settled like static over the nation for their duration. Kynaston is detectably left-of-centre, as betrayed in his clearly sympathetic documenting of many of the major social reforms of this period. But he is also detectably sceptical as to the ability of ideological politics to fully realise its ambitions, and is certainly conscious of dousing any rosy glow-lamps of modern left-wing readers regarding their almost engrained nostalgia for what is perhaps the only government Britain has ever had which was at least more than 50% socialist in its policies. Kynaston is keen to present this pocket of our past as truthfully as he can, in the tone of a conscientious objector if you like – as all good historians should – and in being so vigilant, one does sense perhaps a little too much effort in this direction on his part.
This very healthy but perhaps too anti-ideological approach might in part explain the wealth of – sometimes hyperbolic – blurbs from Telegraph and Times critics that take up about four solid pages at the front of the book (though the most hyperbolic ironically comes from the Guardian, 'Unsurpassed...a classic' - while it may be a classic in the making, small time has yet elapsed since its 2007 publication to justify the former term). These plaudits from the right-of-centre papers give a mis-interpretative disservice to this book and its deprecating title: the capitalist apparatchiks appear to be suggesting that Kynaston's tome might act as a clinching text in their ongoing crusade to discredit the historic left in this country. I doubt whether Kynaston in his retro-progressive tones, necessarily intended his magnum opus of the Atlee era to ingratiate the more reactionary of critics, but many of the quotes at the front of the book tend to lay testament to a worryingly smitten Torydom. One or two critics, rather shallowly in my view, wax lyrical about the book making one feel grateful to be living in a more affluent time: this is massively missing the point, at least, to the minds of anyone who looks at the healthiness of a society, not simply in material, but also spiritual and moral, terms. In that regard, the paradigm is absolutely the opposite: we presently live in a politically discredited period, fresh in the wake of arguably the biggest parliamentary corruption scandal in living memory, with a right-of-centre cross-party political consensus, no parliamentary party representing the working and lower classes, and, now – admittedly over a year since this tome was reprinted – without even the meagre consolation of wider material affluence of the last otherwise culturally bankrupt two and a half decades, due to the capitalist crash (the final ringing indictment of the post-Thatcher neoliberal ‘Prosperity Britain’). Whereas, in those deprecated austerity days of the late Forties, we had in power the most egalitarian-minded government in our history, who even in opposition were a viable left-wing party, with a One Nation Tory party far less viciously capitalistic than its post-1979 descendants, and a society more open to state planning, community solidarity and nationalised industry than any before or since. There was, too, a fundamental new drive in British thinking along the ‘more intelligent society’ ideal of the Fabians, which in turn saw the creation of the Arts Council – originally conceived to bring high culture to the masses – and the BBC’s ‘high brow’ Third Programme.
And this ‘austerity’ that inspires Kynaston’s title, whilst clearly very severe on many levels – particularly in the still sadly prevalent slums of many inner-cities, a hangover from decades of Tory neglect rapidly being lifted into sanitary salvation under Labour – did at least, by and large, affect the vast majority of the then-predominantly working-class population on a fairly level footing (as did the privations of war). This distinctly egalitarian sweep of national hardship seemed to both impoverish and inspirit the population, and so in turn pave the way to such bold state projects as a National Health Service and Welfare State. The far more selective austerity under Thatcherism and New Labourism, ghettoising the most vulnerable in society - the sick, disabled, unemployed, and those not capitalistically motivated - while a certain section of the country benefited at their expense from a gratuitous uplift in capital, has been far more divisive and non-ditactic on ethical terms as the Attleean austerity: it dissipated any former working-class solidarity and created a new underclass of impoverished and/or homeless citizens, still sustained today. [It also, more insidiously, uplifted a portion of the working classes in purely material terms, leading to a greater philistinism of popular culture; in effect, an indirect proltarianisation of the middle classes, rather than a genuine enbourgoisement of the working classes. Since arguably only socialism can achieve a true ethical and intellectual enlightenment in society]. Whereas in Attlee's days the majority of the populace felt at least the austerity was shared, in turn promoting a sense of commonality if nothing else; in Thatcherite Britain and beyond, it has been a far more unbalanced experience, affecting patches of society while others prospered, leading to a far vaster wealth gap between super-rich and abjectly poor. In the wake of the global recession, we are perhaps starting to approach a sense of common austerity, though still steeply stratified, and still not yet approaching the leveller ground of the late Forties.
Further, in contrast to today, as one more perceptive blurbist notes, the late Forties was a period of austerity but also one of hope. Precisely, and this is the point of the exercise which many critics seem to be missing: that in spite of the national austerity of the late Forties, the British still had the very real hope – as illustrated by the socialist innovations of the period – of a moral transformation of society. A ‘Socialist Britain’. Though ubiquitous allusions throughout the book to Mass Observation surveys and the State’s ‘planners’ and ‘activators’ might send some Orwellian shudders down the spines of neoliberal readers, one has to reassess what exactly is better for a society: to have an interventionist State that seeks to level and improve the lives of its citizens, or one, as we have today, that seeks only to intervene directly in the rights of the most disenfranchised in society – the unemployed and disabled – but never, not even noticeably now with the recent Bank nationalisations, in the usurious criminality of the City which has brought this country to its financial knees. We still have planners and activators, but of a wholly socially divisive kind. At least in the Attlee period, we had planners and activators who worked tirelessly to improve the lot of the poorer in society. That cannot be a bad thing, no matter how much post-Thatcherite scaremongering of 'big government' has embedded itself in our national psyche. And it was here in the making, actually being constructed, until a very untimely twist of fate saw the Attlee Government prematurely fall in the second of 1951’s General Elections, mainly due to the party’s split over Gaitskell’s new budget which imposed new charges on ‘teeth and spectacles’ on Bevan’s hitherto free NHS (in order to hike funds for the ill-conceived Korean War). In spite of this, Labour polled more votes than the Conservatives, but due to the absurd quirks of the FPP electoral system, gained less constituencies, and so fell. It is a pity that Kynaston doesn’t take us up to this climactic drama at the Hustings at the end of his first instalment of Tales of a New Jerusalem, instead going out with a whimper on a football-pitched metaphor.
[To digress in brief on the NHS (especially in light of the National Care Debate raging today as to how to finance a broader and more comprehensive social care system): in many ways it was both the transformative axis-point and the Achilees' heel of the Attlee government. While its idealistic commitment to free treatment for all, irrespective of background, was chivalrously munficent, it was as well a rather romantically non-confrontational egalitarianism, as if based on a principle that everyone already had similar means in society (though perhaps, in part, the War had given this illusion through its community-binding austerities); while the reality was that inequality was still deeply entrenched (slums were only just being gutted for new council housing projects). Bevan, above all, knew how much work Labour needed to do to getting anywhere near to a 'Socialist Britain', which makes it all the more perplexing that such an incredulous heart as his should have given itself so completely to such an undiscriminating - and thus unlevelling - concept. But on a mundaner level, this nascent NHS was also a problem in its economic optimism, and many on the left would argue that perhaps it might have been both more financially feasible, and more socialist, had it offered only free health care to those under a certain level of income and capital, a form of means-tested health treatment. This in turn would probably have meant that charges for 'teeth and spectacles' would never have come about; not for the vast majority, who couldn't afford any kind of health fees (hence the whole necessity for an NHS in the first place). Due to the uncompromising romantic egalitarianism of Bevan's original vision - as if its architect temporarily pretended to himself that British society was already a socialist state with citizens on equal material footing to one another - the end result in the long-term was for an unhappy imposition of appended charges for dentistry and optics for all, poor and wealthier alike. Throughout the last sixty years, this has - while the NHS in the main has undoubtedly improved the health and longevity of the whole population - with chronic irony also created an unwanted side-effect of a marked disparity in the quality of one's teeth and optics depending on one's ability to pay for treatments; not to mention ever-increasing waiting lists for most treatments (often including, with even more irony, a sizey number of more well-heeled left-inclined citizens who, in spite of having the means to pay for health care, refuse going private out of principle). In hindsight - always an easy thing - a basic Thomas More principle of each according to his Needs could quite justifiably have been applied from day zero, though no doubt accusations of 'envy politics' from the Opposition benches curbed any instinct towards such a discriminative system that Bevan might secretly have nursed. One can only suggest that maybe Bevan presumed the wealthier in society would simply remain in private health care, perhaps put off in part by the mass demand and inevitable queues this new macro-health system would likely induce; but if so, he sadly underestimated the British middle-class capacity for 'freebie'-greed, as well as our masochistic stamina for queuing].
The kitchen-sink vox pops from those living on the domestic front of the era’s changes, ordinary men and women, and many housewives, via the Orwellian-sounding Mass Observation’s social surveys of the times, while lending a gritty verisimilitude to the book, do also occasionally (being sometimes painstakingly mundane glimpses into the lives and attitudes of the more ‘middle brow’, 'lumpen' proletariat) rather grate after a while. They can also occasionally beg the question: why are these included in such inconsequential detail? Indeed, to my mind, many of these quotes seem rather arbitrarily chosen, tending in the main to the pessimistic regards the administration of the time, and very much reminding me of the line ‘every window grumbles’ from Harold Monro’s ‘Aspidistra Street’. Life writing is definitely a modern fixation, and though it can often be illuminating in ways that academic social history simply can’t be, this writer thinks it should be used only when it sheds significant light on the times in more than simply a parochially minded sense. In a similar vein, though a little more colourful in prose style, are the frequent patches of rationed polemic from various diarists of the times, including the impossibly snobbish-sounding Mollie Panter-Downs, whose grumbling commentaries certainly live up to her rather stuffy name. I challenge the view that these various extracts and vox pops provide irrefutable evidence of what it was really like in those days, and of what exactly the affects were of Labour’s courageous policies on the ordinary person. Mainly on the basis that these records, like all records, though with an inevitable verisimilitude of contemporaneous witness, are still ultimately subjective and, in some cases, ideologically biased, depending on the social status and political views of the sources, and in some cases perhaps not seeing the bigger picture (which of course is always understandable). They provide more a partially authentic, side-view record of the Attlee days. But undoubtedly any social history worth its salt would be severely lacking if such past ‘ordinary’ voices were absent altogether. The Mass Observation surveys, when they get statistical, can rather lose anyone who goes numb at the sight of numbers and percentages (as myself), and it is here that Kynaston gets a little academic. But naturally such figures – up to an extent – are germane to the purpose of this work, though to my mind a little too prevalent.
Another criticism of this book is its slight tilt towards sometimes irrelevant populist interest: for instance, while vignettes on what some future cultural shakers (John Lennon, Robert Bolt, Glenda Jackson, Tom Courtenay et al) were doing on this and that day in 1948 are of some vague interest, inclusions of less artistically influential fame-names (Bill Wyman, Harry Webb (Cliff Richard) etc.) can prove a little out-of-place in what is essentially a serious work. But the greater presence of working-class housewives’ vox pops and diary extracts – though a little too kitchen-sink at times – balances the sources out, creating a rather eccentric marriage of democracy and celebrity in Kynaston’s take on social history. More bewildering, for myself at any rate, is the thread of sports-related anecdotes, in particular football matches, that occupy random patches of this essential book, seemingly without much justification other to tap in to our modern day cultural peccadillo of ‘the footie’. That this landmark book actually ends on the near-metaphor of Newcastle’s (the Magpies’) win over Blackpool at Wembley, rather bolsters this criticism. I’d have rather it had, more crucially, ended on the 1951 election defeat of arguably the greatest government we’ve ever known. Indeed, a quote in the book from George Orwell writing in Tribune on the tribalism of British football is rather apt: ‘war minus the shooting’. This occasional lapse into the modern populist mindset, albeit noticeable so starkly due to its arbitrary randomness, can also now and then invade the very narrative itself in sometimes clumsy ways. ‘Baldrickian cunning’, for instance, stands out embarrassingly, and really should have been edited out (though presumably was edited in by Bloomsbury proofers?), since it is an invented phrase lazily rooted in modern day televisual allusion, and totally ill-placed in what is otherwise a richly authentic document to the late Forties. Colourful, laconic, insatiably detailed
and energetic as Kynaston’s prose style is, he can sometimes let himself down with such shabby phrases.
By contrast, there is as well a tendency for such a weighty study to sometimes overspill didactically. Inevitably, in a book which is trying to pack in so much unadulterated information – covering all major areas from social life, politics, industry through to the arts, and those two modern day ubiquitous bugbears, sport and celebrity – there are at times paragraphs simply overloaded with intricate caveats of indirectly related information. But for any genuinely interested reader, this is still a pleasurable labour, albeit one, for myself, rather protracted due to a compulsion to re-read such loaded passages until I’m satisfied I’ve absorbed all the information thoroughly. Passages such as these can sometimes feel like a bit of a bombardment of erudition, but this is not perhaps a very fair criticism of a social historian and writer who has overall produced about as accessibly written and structured account of an entire political period. In some ways a longer book might have been better, especially given the very distinctive and unique dynamics of this particular six year period, in political terms. The subsequent pursuit of cramming so much detail in the – symbiotic length? – of just over six hundred pages, while serving perhaps as an unconscious metaphor for the achievements of the Attlee period itself during just six years, does result at times in a sense of soundbite social history. Though I stress this is only ‘at times’, and not in general. There is the slightly disconcerting, affectedly dramatic avalanche of pithy, list-like sentences at the beginning of chapter 2: ‘Broad Vistas and All That’, that reads rather as if Dylan Thomas had suddenly hijacked Kynaston’s academic hand during a narrative séance, spurring him to spew a rather Latinate pastiche of Under Milk Wood:
...A Bakelite wireless in the home, Housewives’s Choice or Workers’ Playtime or ITMA on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together ...Milk of magnesia, Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s Germaline. ... Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, jam rationed, egg rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend’
where arguably ‘Thou Shalt Not on the wall ...the glasses of teeth and the tidy wives’, intoned in a Richard Burton growl, might not be altogether out of place. On the other hand, this is a very innovative staccato technique for the opening of a chapter on social history, and, no doubt designed to pull the younger reader in, probably succeeds, and might have been more cynically employed to open the book proper.
Thankfully though, such inventories of breathtaking info-bombing are not as typical of this book as are its more protracted and involving sections. Had I been its editor though, I would have recommended Kynaston to drop all the populist pandering to a modern audience with irrelevant digressions into cricket and football matches, as well as cutting back on the modern ‘before they were famous’ style celebrity namedropping, and thereby freed up a little more room for some deeper analysis of certain political and literary events of the times. But then that’s just me, and being someone almost allergic to any intrusion of sport or celebrity into a serious narrative, I’m only British in my addiction to tea: football, beer, pies, tabloids, cricket, Morris dancing - you can keep them all as far as I’m concerned. And preferably far outside the field of serious social history, wherein their presence is a distracting rash of Lilliputian irritants.
There’s little doubt though that Austerity Britain is a very impressive and accomplished tome, an addictive dip-in book for anyone interested in (True rather than New) Labour history, and who enjoys paragraphs peppered with a panorama of intriguing cultural figures such as Nye Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Gaitskell, Michael Foot, Tony Crosland, JB Priestley, George Orwell, Harold Nicholson, TS Eliot, Doris Lessing, and a dizzying legion other tantalising names from our past intelligentsia. There’s also a wealth of more obscure political and literary figures of the Left featured throughout the tome, providing some real esoteric treats for those readers fascinated by the many-layered facets of the ever-adapting dialogue of the old British Left in all its nuances (i.e. individualistic socialists versus centralists) and contradictions (those more dubious Social Darwinians affiliated to certain literary sets who tended to take an unhealthily Malthusian view of the Left’s mission, to the detriment of their credibility). Just by way of example, I can’t help quoting this rather picaresque passage relating to the critical reception of miner-turned-novelist Sid Chaplin’s The Thin Seam:
Chaplin’s novel won generally positive reviews from the provincial press but got a stinker from the... Times Literary Supplement. It was ‘an uneasy marriage of between the theological preoccupation with now in vogue and a description of eight hours’ work in a coal-mine’... .... ‘the self-educated narrator, who occasionally visualises himself as a latter-day Saint Francis of Assisi, comes at length
to identify the rock-face and the underground darkness with the heart of God’s mystery’.
That sounds pretty tantalising a metaphor to me, but not so to the TLS, nor presumably the Spectator or New Statesman, both of whom didn’t review the book at all. On reflection of such harsh drubbing from on high, Chaplin concluded that to working-class ‘upstarts’ as himself, the literary world was still a ‘closed shop’. Arguably little has changed sixty years on. Chaplin however managed to eke out a living from then on partly through fiction, partly through working as a journalist on the picturesquely titled magazine Coal.
It is indeed in examining the internecine feuds of the Labour left and right, and their various related thinktanks and intellectual groups, that this book really comes into its own, and, in its non-ideological candour, serves also as a brilliant insight into the particularly partisan, passionate and intellectually complex character of the British Left at its prime. Of particular fascination to the budding Labour historian is in the frantic and crucial debate raging in the Attlee government as to whether to ally itself diplomatically to the Communist East (Soviet Russia) or the Capitalist West (the US), at the dawn of the brewing Cold War. In spite of obvious old far-left ties among many of the party stretching back to the days of the Spanish Civil War’s anti-fascist crusade, it seems it was the USSR’s sudden invasion of Czechoslovakia that finally swung Labour, though still reluctantly, to the West. They had little choice. Nascent fears of Soviet encroachment on western Europe in time also led to anti-Communist blacklists – one Eric Blair (George Orwell) being eagerly employed in compiling some of these – and a less brutal McCarthyist witch hunt to root out any ‘Reds’ from the Unions and industries. Communism soon came to be discredited even in this neo-socialist Britain, the British Communist Party slowly imploding in time, but it is tantalising to contemplate how different the British character might have become had the Czechoslovakian calamity not forced Labour to turn its back on the Soviet forever. Equally intriguing are revelations, for instance, of the often entrenched conservatism of many Labour-funding Unions, which is especially eye-opening in its somewhat contradictory oddness. As is the ongoing struggle between British socialism and its political cousin – and greatest rival – Communism, discredited by the later machinations of Stalin’s totalitarianism, and rapidly abandoned thereafter by many left-leaning Oxbridge poets, WH Auden, Stephen Spender and C Day Lewis for three. Inevitably, left-wing but red-sceptic, George Orwell, rears his polemical head at these moments through slices of his unimpeachable prose, while allusions to the Communist-leaning shop stewards brings to mind the moustached self-importance of Peter Sellers’ pompous shop steward comrade Kite from the Boulting Brothers’ I’m All Right Jack (an ambiguous satire on Trades Unions filmed curiously in a Conservative 1959; a stark contrast to the Boulting Brothers' earlier film, in Attleean 1947, Fame Is The Spur, that charts the rise and compromise of an idealistic Labour politican, Hamer Radshaw, to ultimate Ministerial loss of principles, based loosely on the life of James Ramsay-MacDonald, notorious for forming a National Government in 1931 and thereby splitting the Labour movement - the Boulting Brothers were seemingly always ahead of their time polemically speaking, but it is an interesting choice of film in a period when arguably Labour was at least in part enacting grassroot policies).
Not wishing to tokenistically fly in the face of critical opinion, while I think Kynaston has produced a classic piece of social history, I do feel some of the praise heaped on it is a little hyperbolic in places, and frankly too unanimous across the spectrum to hold full weight. For me, when thinking of a masterpiece of social or political history, I’m more inclined to cite works such as Michael Foot’s definitive Aneurin Bevan (though admittedly a biography), or JB Priestley’s exquisitely written The Edwardians. I suppose the socialist in me also harbours a fondness for Priestley’s more ideologically leftist tone – but it’s also his beauty of prose style married with a salient eye for detail, that for me epitomises a true masterpiece in this field. Kynaston has produced certainly something comparable, in some aspects, to the latter classic, but due to its peppering of populist ingredients and over-reliance on sometimes rather dull facts and figures, and often inconsequential vox pops, is not quite in the Priestley league for me. Though the ubiquity throughout of diary extracts and MO survey answers, is both the weakness and strength to this book: as much so the latter, since this lends a social authenticity to the book, and gives us a fuller patchwork effect of social record which in a stuffier, more high brow academic book would have been lacking. But it is certainly one of the best reads I’ve had for a while, no doubt one of the most informative, colourful and enjoyable social histories, and a resource of detailed Labour history which I’ll use as a reference for the future. A significant achievement, and certainly the best thing to come out of the Hogwartian Bloomsbury imprint
for quite some time.
I’ll just end on what is for me the most moving quote I excavated from this ultimately enlightening and beautifully detailed work, one AH Halsey’s reference to the belief system of the auto-didactic economic theorist, Richard Titmuss – which, in its final clause, illustrates a brilliant indictment of the abject failure of unregulated capitalism to ever be conducive to a compassionate and even vaguely egalitarian society:
‘his (Titmuss’s) socialism was as English as his patriotism, ethical and non-Marxist, insisting that capitalism was not only economically but socially wasteful, in failing to harness individual altruism to the common good.'
This is a beautifully-put indictment of capitalism on ethical and social grounds: any system of unregulated speculation inevitably encourages the baser human instincts of greed and self-interest at the expense of others. There’s demonstably no such thing as ‘compassionate capitalism’, and the recent ruination of our economy by grasping City scoundrels has finally and brutally proven this. The doyens of Socialist Britain believed in creating a ‘good society’. That, to me, is what socialism is all about. How far we have degenerated from that most supreme of all societal endeavours. Kynaston’s epic work, in part, though sometimes a little apologetically in places, has now enshrined a frank but respectful account of arguably the most promising political period this island has ever known, one which, had it not been for the vicissitudes of American fiscal manipulation, the bowdlerisation of the NHS’s free-at-delivery principle, and the ill-conceived expenditures on the Korean War – and, possibly too, Bevan’s rebarbative ‘vermin’ comment – could and should have afforded at least a second full term for the Labour administration. As it was, by a perverse twist of fate, we had only six years of truly progressive and compassionate government, who had the time only to plant the foundations of New Jerusalem and nurture them into early bloom, but not the time needed to complete their ambitious plan to fully transform British society for posterity. The greatest missed opportunity in our history. Kynaston at least provides us with the chance to wallow in what might have been, effortlessly, colourfully and with a formidable turn of phrase, enshrining this most brave, vital and radically compassionate political oasis in our history for posterity.
Alan Morrison © 2009