Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51 
by Ross McKibbin.
Oxford, 562 pp., £25, March 1998, 0 19 820672 0
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Ross McKibbin’s remarkable study of the way the cultures of class shaped English society has, at a stroke, changed the historiographical landscape. One learns more about almost any aspect of English society by reading this book than one would by reading, for example, A.J.P. Taylor’s English History 1914-45 – which makes it indispensable for anyone studying the politics, sociology or history of English society. Only once, while discussing the impact of The Goon Show, does McKibbin’s guard slip enough to reveal that, despite his sure touch for the niceties of English society, he is Australian.

Somewhat oddly, McKibbin never explicitly justifies his treatment of his subject. His study is exclusively of English society (it’s as if Wales, Scotland and Ireland had been amputated or never existed); and he is not much interested in regionalisms. Once, such a study would have dwelt on the enormous importance of being a Geordie, a Tyke or a Scouser; McKibbin is scarcely unaware of the regional basis of the classes but he prefers to treat English culture as a whole. Nor is any clear reason given for the dates 1918-51. It is typical of McKibbin’s quiet, understated style that the logic of these choices is left to the reader to divine.

In fact it is clear: 1918 saw the irruption of the Labour Party as a major force on the national scene, a movement which gathered strength so rapidly that within six years the Party was in office. By the same token, class became the major source of social and political cleavage, thanks mainly to the radicalising effects of the First World War. Labour, whose support was almost monolithically working-class in this period, quickly reached a plateau of around 35 per cent of the vote and it was not until 1945 that, with the population once again radicalised by war, the class cleavage further deepened and Labour shot up to over 48 per cent. This polarisation was sustained for six years, with Labour reaching its all-time record vote in 1951, after which it gradually slackened; and that process has continued ever since. McKibbin’s dates, then, mark off quite clearly the high period of class division and class consciousness. It lasted for a generation only, but English history built up to, and then down from, that period for many decades on either side of those 33 years.

The most vivid phase of class conflict was confined to the three or four years after the First World War, when the middle and upper classes reeled under the shock of a newly politicised and assertive working class and, as McKibbin shows, the movement of wages and prices sharply cut the differentials between classes, threatening the middle class with immiseration or, at least, with submergence into the ranks of the proletariat. The deflation that followed cut working-class real incomes and quickly restored the old differentials, but the anxiety and anger of that early confrontation lasted throughout the interwar period, reinforcing the middle classes’ sense of (anti-socialist) solidarity.

McKibbin shows how the overriding need for unity affected middle-class life and how a new world of male sociability blossomed in the interwar years – a sociability in which the Masons, Rotary, Chambers of Commerce and sporting clubs played a key role. As he points out, these clubs had little to do with sport: competitiveness was disruptive and therefore discouraged. Far more important was the ‘right atmosphere’ and keeping company with the ‘right sort’. This stress on social ease had the indirect effect of making most English sport uncompetitive, but the real point was to allow these institutions to serve as ‘neutral territory where social élites could meet unencumbered by other ties like religion’.

In smaller towns and even in newer suburbs this, in effect, meant bringing together Anglican and Nonconformist social traditions into a non-sectarian environment. There was usually a careful balancing of religious interests and a ban on any kind of contentious or politically divisive discussion. This was territory where individual businessmen and professionals could unite in political hostility to local trade unions and co-operative societies – though it would never have been put like that. Male sociability of this sort represented an ‘apolitical’ set of silent assumptions which were, in practice, deeply political. The way middle-class businessmen or managers of Nonconformist and Liberal background retreated into an ‘apolitical’ reluctance to discuss politics was actually the way they retreated into the Conservative Party.

Before the rise of Labour, the Liberal-Tory divide had rested on a set of religious and regional cleavages which cut through the heart of the middle class. If the threat of Labour was to be beaten back, then these cleavages had to be covered over and the middle class united. Specifically, the old Liberal Nonconformists had to be accommodated by and to the Conservative establishment. That, rather than training champions for Wimbledon, was what all those tennis clubs were about. Classes and Cultures is full of similar aperçus; McKibbin has a sharp eye and a wonderful sensitivity to nuance, as well as a willingness to follow his subject into the most eclectic byways. In that sense his book is about everything – the sociology of ballroom dancing, say, or ‘anyone for tennis?’; the social significance of Biggles or Richmal Crompton’s William. And he has noticed some intriguing details: that William, for example, starts his literary career in a semi-detached house which became invisibly detached over time, or that in 1941 W.E. Johns was pressed by the RAF to create a female Biggles to assist recruitment into the WRAF. The result: 11 books about Worrals.

McKibbin starts with a tour of the upper classes, the members of which he thinks amounted to some twenty to forty thousand during his period. He provides as good a snapshot of the Windsors, warts and all, as one could hope to find but he is more interested in Society and the immense fascination it held for a wider public, suggesting that it had taken over some of the roles Bagehot had attributed to the monarchy – above all, suborning the populace with shows of wealth, glamour and pomp. But the upper class proper, a mixture of nobility and great wealth, was gradually to decline, becoming an indistinguishable part of the upper middle class – largely, it would appear, because so much of its wealth was in land. The problem with land was not just that there was an agricultural depression as early as the Twenties, but that its value could not keep up with other kinds of asset; it also had the great disadvantage of high tax visibility. One cannot help feeling that our present upper orders are a great deal cannier, with their wealth locked up in trusts in the Bahamas.

The middle class showed a greater resilience than its betters but as McKibbin shows, it underwent dramatic change between 1918 and 1951. Many new professions appeared. Clergymen and engineers, scientists and lab technicians proliferated, with the ‘lower professions’ almost quadrupling in size. This huge increase in salaried professionals was matched by a sharp decline in the number of employers, down by a good third in the period. The ranks of the self-employed were artificially inflated by large numbers of unemployed trying their hand, often briefly, at shopkeeping and of smallholders with no more than a patch of land who were classified as farmers. Yet the really fundamental change was that, more and more, the middle class were working for others. This didn’t do much for women: the proportion of women in the higher professions moved from 6 per cent in 1911 to just 8 per cent in 1951 and in some of the lower professions, notably teaching, fewer women were employed. The striking fact is that the gains made by women in the early years of the century remained corralled off in the narrow area of the franchise and led to no corresponding advance in the world of work, or even in the number of women politicians.

The forging of a bland, allegedly apolitical, non-denominational middle-class unity was hampered inasmuch as the establishment this class had perforce to defend was buttressed by the established Church. Most of the time Anglicanism was so waffly and vague as to seem almost non-denominational, but every now and again the question of exactly what sort of Church it was had to be asked. The revision of the 1662 Prayer Book in 1927-28 was the outstanding occasion. There was no disguising the fact that the revisions, which sailed easily through all three houses of the Church Assembly, would be agreeable to those who defined the Church as Anglo-Catholic. This, however, was anathema to Low Churchmen and Nonconformists in the Commons. The revisions got through the Lords but were thrown out by an excited lower house, which insisted that the Church of England must, at all costs, be Protestant. The passion of the debate revealed the extent of the gap between High Church Toryism and a historic Protestantism implicit in the way that English people saw themselves.

The oddity about England in this, the high period of class consciousness, lies in the fact that in the most working-class country in the world that class was roundly trounced, both politically and economically. In 1951 the proportion of the population belonging to the working class was slightly lower than in 1918 but it accounted for almost three-quarters of the population. It is worth reflecting on this colossal figure, and on the fact that in France, not atypically in continental Europe, the working class never achieved the 50 per cent mark: the peasantry was simply too big and by the time it had begun to decline, the new middle class had begun to grow. Moreover, the European working classes were still strongly defined according to their position along the clerical/anti-clerical divide, which was not the case in England – the one country, in view of all this, in which you might have expected to see socialist governments regularly elected with thumping majorities.

McKibbin does not offer a single, direct solution to this conundrum, although in a sense his book offers a thousand solutions. One of the arguments he develops was that England was not truly, or certainly not completely, a democracy. This was evident in strange political survivals such as the power of the Lords, the university seats, the multiple vote and, until 1928, a separate voting age for women. Even more significantly, England did not enjoy a democratic culture. The crudely democratic form of political institutions actually ran against the cultural grain: whenever they were not constrained by the formal requirements of politics, public institutions were run on ‘naturally’ undemocratic lines. McKibbin finds this especially true in the sporting world. Cricket was perhaps the supreme example, its administration dominated by High Tory gents quite unrepresentative of the masses who played the game. McKibbin recounts how the young Tom Graveney (a Player) dared to congratulate David Sheppard (a Gentleman) on his century, and even called him ‘David’. Basil Allen, the Gloucestershire captain, rounded on Graveney – ‘He’s Mister Sheppard to you’ – and later called in at the Cambridge dressing room. ‘I must apologise for Graveney’s impertinence,’ he told Sheppard. ‘I think you’ll find it won’t happen again.’ The confidence with which such nonsense could circulate reminds us how distant that age now is.

What was true of cricket was true, too, of rugby, tennis and even soccer, the religion of the working classes to an extent the Premiership can only dream of: even with a smaller population, gates were often twice or three times what they are today. McKibbin has unearthed pathetic petitions from the massive supporters’ associations, begging to be given some consideration by the directors and management of the clubs they worshipped. They got absolutely nowhere, of course. The facilities provided for spectators were abysmally primitive and unsafe and the players were paid slave-wages. The profits from the game were enormous but no one seems to know where the money went.

McKibbin reproaches the Attlee Government for not attempting a wider democratisation of society and culture at large, but it is difficult to know where it would have begun. Public institutions of every kind – the AA, the RAC, school governors, the Armed Forces, the Police, the Civil Service, the BBC – were steeped in an instinctively undemocratic ethos. It was a matter of course under Reith that most of the top jobs in the BBC went to male Oxbridge graduates from the public schools, that radio announcers had to be anonymous and wear dinner jackets and that even when the Corporation ran a programme about the concerns of working men, none of the speakers had been to a state school. The atmosphere was prudish and intrinsically conservative. When Reuters supplied the Beeb with a royal story, ‘Princess Mary’s Babes Come to Town’, the Corporation objected strongly to its phrasing: ‘We feel for instance that it was unnecessary to use two particular phrases in last night’s bulletin – (1) that the babes were in a reserved carriage with two nurses and (2) that the younger one, nine weeks old, was carried on a white silk cushion. This sort of information, we believe, only helps to stimulate feelings akin to Bolshevism.’

McKibbin returns time and again to the sexually repressive climate of the time and finds in the tightly-observed repression of women one of the distinguishing marks of working-class culture. Role segregation there was sharper than it was among the middle classes and the culture wholly male-centred. In effect, the denial of democracy was crucial to the class that would have had most to gain by it. Some sort of Reichian thesis seems to lurk behind the arras here, but it is never quite unveiled.

Equally impressive, or depressing, is the sheer confidence with which the English ruling élites imposed this non-democratic culture on most of English life and the ready acquiescence of the working class. Strict social and sexual codes were undoubtedly part of the exaggerated sense of propriety with which the middle and upper classes surrounded themselves, just as the array of non-democratic public institutions enforced and carried the message. What McKibbin does not explore is the part played by the Empire in encouraging both the confidence and the acquiescence. An upper class which ruled much of the known world – and whose authority had never been successfully flouted, let alone defeated – could perhaps defy gravity in a way that others couldn’t.

Throughout the period, the greatest assault on these notions of authority and hierarchy came from Americanisation. From 1918 on, the influence of American films, dances, songs, radio and popular literature grew apace and was resisted furiously by the British Establishment. Above all, Americans had ebullience, a disdain for restraint, an enthusiasm for the new and a genuine sense of what democracy might mean in social life, all of which led English élites to rail in alarm and disgust against their influence, particularly since it was clear to all that the US was so overwhelming that even the Empire was no match for it. The challenge came to a climax during the Second World War, which brought 1.5 million GIs to England. Their cultural influence was enormous; and, most worryingly, women were more susceptible than men to its appeal, not just in the obvious but deeply painful sense that they preferred to go out with GIs rather than with British Tommies but because, less fond of sport and more attracted to film, music and dance, women were more open to Americanisation.

McKibbin believes that, but for the war, English class culture would have been quite stable. By the late Thirties it was clear that the working-class challenge had been seen off, the spirit behind it broken on the wheel of mass unemployment. There was a vast and solid Tory majority in power and nothing to suggest that its dominion or that of Society could be shaken, let alone broken. The toughest resistance it met was on the Celtic fringes but in England, its heartland, it was supreme. Everything suggested that the equilibrium thus reached was a ‘natural historical outcome’. ‘In this sense,’ McKibbin argues, ‘the Second World War threw British history, and, even more, English history off course.’ What it did was to revalorise the working class, breathe new life into the North, revivifying its political culture at the expense of the South, and thus greatly help the Labour Party, producing a new political settlement whose origins could not be traced back to the Thirties. The war integrated the working class into the same moral community as the rest of the nation, rescuing it from the ghetto from which there had previously been no real prospect of escape.

At the same time the war was a test which some older institutions could pass with flying colours, none more conspicuously than the monarchy. George VI’s refusal to seek safety in Canada rescued the monarchy from the ignominy into which Edward VIII had plunged it. This process of re-invigoration was actually part of a wider, international phenomenon: in the Soviet Union the war effectively re-founded and re-legitimated a Communist system which had been morally and politically exhausted by the purges and the Nazi-Soviet Pact. In the US, the war rescued Rooseveltian democracy from the consequences of a failed New Deal and allowed it to pass the baton to a new full-employment society.

In England’s case, McKibbin argues, the effect was to limit the Labour revolution; there was no translation of social democracy into civil society. He might have pushed this further, giving more attention to the significance of the halcyon year of 1947. The figures for attendance at cinemas, soccer and cricket grounds show that everything peaks in that golden year of Compton and Edrich, just as the birth rate, too, was peaking. Culturally this represented the voracious pursuit of leisure by a demobbed, employed (and thus more affluent) population as it sought to have the families it had deferred and return to the things that the Depression had prevented it from enjoying. Exploration of that massive cultural wave would, I suspect, have produced rich additional support for McKibbin’s nuanced verdict.

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Vol. 20 No. 12 · 18 June 1998

The immediate postwar period may have been the high point of a peculiarly labourist working class, as R.W. Johnson’s review of Ross McKibbin’s Classes and Cultures (LRB, 21 May) argues, but trade-union membership did not peak until the early Seventies. Johnson’s review appeared just as a member of the leftish Socialist Labour Party was elected as General Secretary of Aslef. This suggests that the kind of working-class attitudes which Johnson thinks have been on the slide since the Fifties are still a potent force in society. Perhaps because, beneath it all, the culture of the ‘other side ‘, the employers, has not changed a great deal either.

Keith Flett
London N17

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