on 23 June 2017
“There are some who inherit privilege, others who win it through luck or by chance, and then there are the vast majority of people, who have to fight for everything they get.” says Todd at one point in her conclusion. Let’s be honest, for better or for worse, the vast majority of social or political history written about the UK and the 20th Century are written by middle or upper class people who tend to paint a laughably out of touch, or insultingly narrow minded view of the working class, as chirpy salt of the earth types who are fine as long as they know their place and remain thankful for what they have. Often these are the same people who might tell you that class doesn't matter.
Along the lines of the “Forgotten Voices” series, Hall’s “Working Lives” and Kynaston’s seminal “Austerity Britain” much of this has been explored before, but that’s not to say that Todd doesn’t bring something fresh and valuable to the subject, in fact Todd takes a more politically bold approach than most of the others, which makes it all the more refreshing as a result.
We cover many significant events from 1910 onwards, like the general strike and the single minded policies of Stanley Baldwin and his Tory government, heavily influenced by the likes of Lord Rothermere who warned against “the flapper vote folly.” 1929 was the first time women between 21 and 30 could vote, though working class women had to be over 30. Todd reveals the many broken promises after WWI. Now the war was out the way, it was very much business as usual, a number of wage cuts were implemented sending millions deeper into poverty. This was how the working classes were rewarded for their invaluable part in the Great War.
Starting with the great depression and ending in the outbreak of WWII, the hungry thirties were certainly a brutal time in the UK, particularly if you happened to be working class. They weren’t punished for being poor, they were absolutely hammered. Not only were they subjected to dehumanising and draconian forms of means testing, they were routinely blamed and ridiculed for their situation by the very elite who created and profited from the circumstances they had put them in. An ignorant band of white, wealthy elite persisted in criticising the unemployed for their poverty and ill health, insisting that “they help themselves.” Sound familiar?...
If history has taught us anything it’s that if we hear words along the lines of, “We are all in this together.” coming from former public school boys, then we should be very afraid. This very phrase was banded around a lot during the war. Now where have we heard that saying before?...It was quite revealing to see how during the war, in spite of the government and retrospective propaganda, it was very much a case of some animals were more equal than others. “Many Labour Exchange officials conscripted working class mothers into the factories, but readily accepted that servantless middle class women were fully occupied with running their homes.” Todd says that, “It was certainly not an equal society, nor one in which either government or employers wanted to introduce social equality.” She later adds, “This was the people’s war-but the people were certainly not going to achieve equality.” The class divide even extended to rationing, rationing was never applied to restaurants as someone from the Women’s CO-OP guild said, “We have yet to hear of the wholesale dismissal of chefs employed by the upper classes.” The government’s response to bombing was all about doing the bare minimum, preferring to rely on voluntarily organisations. The evacuation policy was an entirely voluntarily scheme too. The middle and upper classes were far more reluctant to play their part, and were often intolerant towards taking in working class children often not helping at all.
When Churchill got booted out after the war, it paved the way for Labour’s game changing reforms, where the likes of Aneurin Bevan introduced the NHS and cradle to grave welfare provision that helped millions to get back on their feet and also enjoy some quality of life, for which many had fought and lost their lives.
It was very interesting to hear of some of the experiences of working class people at grammar school, the common myth that has persisted was that once you got into grammar school that was you pretty much set up for life, but as we see here, this was far from the case. Many complained of not being given the same attention, respect or advice as their middle class peers. Instead their experience actually embellished the class divide, as the elitist mentality was set securely in place.
She makes another good point about the explosion of pop culture in the sixties, as the government and media, both with vested interests, perpetuated the myth of meritocracy, by citing the emergence of people from the working classes being in the spotlight. But many soon became aware of, “The discrepancy between the rhetoric of the post war meritocracy and the meagre rewards that effort and ambition actually brought.” Often people who were far from working class were shoved into the category, like Lennon and McCartney and others. They made a huge, concerted effort to create the misleading impression that the tiny minority of working class breaking through were larger in number, to fool people into believing that the system must be working for everyone, even though the vast majority of the working class were suffering from huge inequality, and poverty still existed throughout the country.
I found the final section particularly fascinating, her analysis on the devastating effects of Thatcherism and Blairism was exceptionally well told. The stats speak for themselves. Thatcher got elected one year on the strength of Britain’s Not Working and yet when she got to power 1 in 10 people were on the dole and in some cases it was well above that up until the early 90s. Also, “Manual workers’ vulnerability to sickness and early death increased after 1979 for the first time in sixty years-the result of stress, unemployment and poverty.” In addition to this she tells us that, “In 1997, 4.5 million people of working age lived in households where no one worked. One is six Britons relied on state benefits to survive, a higher proportion than in any other western European country, and three times that of Germany.”
One of the things that was so revealing about this book, was how so much hasn’t really changed in terms of rich v poor. There is more spin around it, but if you dig beneath the surface you will find the same entrenched system. You don’t have to look far or hard to see that the art of ridiculing and blaming the poor for their conditions remains alive and well today. As the Tory government continues its ongoing policy of converting the UK into a low wage, tax haven economy to keep the rich richer, with the enthusiastic backing of the right wing media and tabloids, keeping their tax immune paymasters and shareholders happy. So Todd has produced a highly compelling piece of work and it’s refreshing to see social history written by someone from a relevant background, who isn’t afraid to confront the real issues behind the myths we’re so often lead to believe.