For ever Walsall

Angus Calder

  • Rural Life in England in the First World War by Pamela Horn
    Gill and Macmillan, 300 pp, £25.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 312 69604 3
  • Britain in Our Century: Images and Controversies by Arthur Marwick
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £12.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 500 25091 X
  • Labour and Society in Britain: 1918-1979 by James Cronin
    Batsford, 248 pp, £8.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 7134 4395 2
  • Women in England 1870-1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change by Jane Lewis
    Wheatsheaf, 240 pp, £16.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 7108 0186 6

There are, of course, purely academic reasons for fresh syntheses of modern British history. The accumulation of new specialist studies must sooner or later compel wholesale revisions of the overall ’story’. But the underlying compulsion is social. There are no ‘pure’ sciences, and even if there were, history would not be one of them. Thatcherism, if it is to survive, needs to reconstruct our sense of history so as to legitimate itself. Its opponents must struggle towards a better understanding of how Thatcherism became possible. The battle is swung in their favour by the paradox that Thatcherism threatens to destroy the very feeling of deep-rooted continuity and steady evolution in British life which has always favoured conservatism – at least with a small ‘c’ But the anti-Thatcherite’s problem is to construct new perspectives which will make sense of the choices for which they ask, and will counteract that fatalism which is the Thatcherites’ best substitute for faith in continuity. How can we revise history so that imitation of the USA and support for US policies does not appear to be the only possible course for a superseded imperial power still on the skids? How can continued emphasis on communitarian values be reconciled with opposition to the state, now exposed as the violent creature that Hobbes claimed it was?

The first task is to complete the rout of continuity as a possible basis for synthesis. Its attendant mystifications remain dangerous and should be finally discredited. Writing about the centenary of the Fabian Society, Gareth Stedman Jones recently made the simple yet profound observation that ‘in no other country is it easy to imagine a socialist association able to celebrate a hundred years of continuous existence’ and suggested that this achievement ‘owes as much to the stability and continuity of the British State and the British political order as it does to the commitment and tenacity of socialists themselves’. But this continuity isn’t a ‘natural’ phenomenon. The state had to fight for its life in the 1790s, then against Chartism. It was in all kinds of trouble in the first quarter of this century and had its luckiest escape of all, perhaps, in 1940. Its hard-won success had permitted liberal historians to mystify historical experience. No revolution, no civil war (except in Ireland). The end of empire, despite the horrific violence which attended it, did not produce political trauma as in France and Portugal. The loss of Eire, the troubles of Ulster, the bloody wars of Kenya and Zimbabwe have not shocked the average Briton (or even, it seems, Professor Arthur Marwick) out of a deep trust in some gentle, wise and enduring essence of ‘Britishness’ commonly equated with ‘Englishness’.

Stedman Jones went on to point out that Fabianism was part of the continuous British political order, not adverse to it. The principled anti-colonialism for which the Society provided a centre, helped, by its gradualist and philanthropic character, to disguise rather than expose the brutal realities of empire. As the heyday of Fabianism ended in the 1950s, its comfortable assumptions were challenged by a vigorous native Marxism. Yet the influential new Marxist historiography often seemed obsessed with its own version of English continuity. As Cairns Craig has argued in Cencrastus, Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson see class struggle as fundamental to English history, but conceive that history to be ‘shaped as an autonomous inner trajectory defined by the conflicts and the accommodations between classes which do not need to be understood except in their relations with each other’. Their work can be defended as seeking to capture tradition and continuity from the Right so that Left dominance appear legitimate, and it might seem unfair to deny the English their own left-wing nationalism while the Irish, Scots and Welsh are permitted theirs. Yet as Cairns Craig suggests, no Scottish historian would dream of writing about the Scottish working class as if it had not experienced English influence. Despite their magnificent scholarship, there is something inherently implausible in Hill’s and Thompson’s views. They must concede that the Scottish Covenant of 1638 and the Irish Rebellion of 1641 between them dominate the proximate causation of the English Civil War, and that Robert Burns mattered perhaps more than Cobbett and certainly more than Blake to the Northern English working class of the mid-19th century. But their work takes it for granted that English history is in effect self-contained: the American experiences of Paine and Cobbett are left out of the story. The land, England within its ‘natural’ boundaries, is ultimately the key to everything.

Rupert Brooke did not suppose that some far corner of a foreign field would be for ever the back streets of Walsall. As that very effective exponent of One Nation Conservatism, Stanley Baldwin, put it in 1924: ‘To me England is the country, and the country is England.’ (He was addressing the Royal Society of St George, to whom he felt free to express his ‘profound thankfulness’ that he could ‘use the word “England” without some fellow at the back of the room shouting out “Britain” ’.) The myths of English rural life are of much more importance to recent British history than liberal empiricism has allowed.

Pamela Horn’s study is thorough, sensible social history by a scholar who has delved into a vast range of primary sources. It is a very good example of the type of specialised study on which Arthur Marwick, James Cronin and Jane Lewis have had to depend while putting together their syntheses. In this case, the omission of Scotland and Ireland might seem uncontentious. Ireland’s was another story. The Scottish narrative would be similar in respect of government policy, different because of distinctive geography and history. (I think there was no precise counterpart south of the Border to the North-East Scotland peasants of Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song.) But it’s not unfair to suggest that Dr Horn’s focus on English experience would have been sharper if she had taken her thoughts outside ‘England’. Wales is treated as an agglomeration of counties, not as a separate cultural entity, and doesn’t appear in its own right in her index. Her introductory chapter on ‘Rural Life Before 1914’ notes the emigration of energetic and able farm workers, especially to Canada, but, like most British historians, she seems incurious about the effects on this island’s social structure and culture of heavy transfers of population to North America and the Southern Dominions. Kipling’s remarkable ‘Chant Pagan’, projecting the feelings of an ex-Boer War soldier, might have caught her attention:

Me that ’ave been what I’ve been –
Me that ’ave gone where I’ve gone –
Me that ’ave seen what I’ve seen –
 ’Ow can I ever take on
With awful old England again.
An’ ’ouses both sides of the street
And ’edges two sides of the lane,
And the parson an’ gentry between,
An’ touchin’ my ’at when we meet –
 Me that ’ave been what I’ve been?

Was emigration a ‘safety valve’, securing an illusion of continuity by helping to syphon away potential troublemakers? Or did news of opportunities overseas help to cause psychological unrest among those who stayed? And if we attempt to assess, as Marwick and Cronin do, the strength of the British state in 1919, the degree to which revolution was really a danger, it is important to know what Welsh people felt. Not over-patriotic, at least in some areas, to judge from Dr Horn’s asides. Recruiting officers found it especially hard to catch farm labourers in the Principality in 1914-15. ‘In May 1915 parties of troops distributed 30,000 recruiting leaflets at hiring fairs in Lleyn, for a net gain of 23 men; at another where 200 men were individually canvassed, ten recruits resulted.’ At this stage, people in Cumberland were also resistant. But when in 1918 the Government strove to comb out farm labour for the Forces under a quota scheme, more Cumbrian men were found than were actually asked for, while Wales produced only half its target figure.

Baldwin’s evocation of the English ‘country’ assumed that various sights, sounds and smells are ‘imperishable’ and ‘eternal’ and so ‘strike down into the very deeps of our nature’. But Dr Horn’s sympathetic account of country life shows that when Baldwin spoke it had just gone through a rapid sequence of painful transitions. After the long agricultural depression of the late 19th century, the years before the First World War were a phase of prosperity for farmers. ‘Landowners, too, enjoyed an Indian summer as rent receipts revived.’ There were more than twice as many gamekeepers as policemen in rural districts. Huge staffs of domestic workers made possible lavish country-house occasions. But in 1909-14 land sales boomed. Land no longer conveyed automatic political influence, new legislation increased the freedom of tenants – and there were arriviste businessmen eager to pick up estates from disillusioned rural aristocrats, who themselves commonly took company directorships to supplement their unsatisfactory incomes. Meanwhile, agricultural labourers, except in parts of the North of England, had average earnings below the poverty line, commonly lived in rustic slums, and were understandably eager to get out – if not to Canada, to the coalfields or to a factory in a nearby town. Agricultural trade-unionism became significant, and in 1912-14 there were ‘countless strikes’, though mostly small.

The disruption brought by war must initially have been at least half-welcome to many country people. There was high-paid work in constructing Army camps which stimulated trade in local shops. As food shortages began to bite, the Government intervened to organise an increase in arable acreage through County committees. Soldiers, non-rural women and German prisoners were eventually employed in large numbers in agricultural work. Yet despite shortage of labour, and soaring rural trade-union membership, the lot of permanent agricultural workers was actually worsened by inflation. The war ended with increased distrust and hostility felt by workers against farmers, who mostly appeared to have prospered pretty well. In the ‘Khaki Election’ of December 1918, Labour polled respectably in a number of rural constituencies, and came close to winning King’s Lynn.

‘Overall between 1918 and 1921 perhaps a quarter of the land in England changed hands.’ Country Life suggested that many gentry and aristocrats had been ‘disheartened, not to say cowed, by the obloquy heaped upon them by agitators’ and were as ‘frightened as mice’. More to the point, perhaps, was the fact that the land was a precarious source of income. A world surplus of food after the war soon brought a calamitous drop in prices for agricultural produce. From the late 1920s, farm bankruptcies soared, to a peak of 600 in 1932. Arable acreage dwindled. ‘The countryside itself assumed a desolate and abandoned appearance in many places, and a brooding spirit of pessimism permeated the outlook of a considerable proportion of its inhabitants.’ Between 1921 and 1938 the total of agricultural workers dropped by more than 25 per cent, with the highest losses in the youngest age group. However, life for those who remained improved somewhat, thanks to falling consumer prices and the smaller size of families, ‘as contraceptive techniques became more widely known’. More country people could now afford to eat butter! Women’s Institutes, a First World War innovation, gave scope for discussion and activity outside the churches. Winifred Holtby, not a complacent person, rejoiced in the mid-Thirties over the improvements brought to her home parish by artificial light, telephones, motor-cars, better health services and regulated hours of work.

Hers is the kind of testimony which Arthur Mar wick likes to read. His new survey of Britain in Our Century deals with ‘Images and Controversies’. The Thirties supply one of the latter. Were they an era of ‘stability’ or ‘social conflict’? He recapitulates his familiar argument that ‘the coup de grâce to the view that Britain was so deeply divided, and so unstable, as to be on the brink of social disintegration, was given by John Stevenson and Chris Cook in The Slump.’ He immediately produces an ‘image’ – one of his book’s 149 illustrations – of the Jarrow Marchers. They look proud and determined. ‘But as the eye pans along to the left and we take in the British bobbie on his bike, this brave protest in the face of acts of great social and economic inhumanity assumes its place in the context of a British society, bitterly affronted but still essentially bound together by the bonds of secular Anglicanism.’

‘Secular Anglicanism’ is one useful concept we owe to Marwick – ‘a broad and deeply entrenched social consensus, which historians have traced back to the tolerant and undogmatic Anglican Church settlement of earlier, more religious centuries’. Another is that of ‘Middle opinion’ – a grouping in the 1930s of ‘cross-party and non-party individuals who advocated genuinely constructive policies against the failings of entrenched conservatism’. Each phrase vividly focuses attention on an impalpable but significant factor. And Britain in Our Century gives a lively and plausible account of its subject (though one which degenerates somewhat towards mere chronicle as it approaches the present day), which will leave its readers with the strong impression that its middle-opinionated, tolerant author is outraged by what has happened since 1979. ‘Privatisation’ prompts the word ‘disgraceful’, the Brixton riots involved police ‘provocation’, the Falklands War was a ‘tragedy’. However, ‘secular Anglicanism’, Marwick thinks, still ensures that ‘the amenities of British stability and tolerance’ compare ‘favourably with the social mores of other developed countries’. (The EEC Commission on Human Rights might not wholly concur.) The British ‘upper class’ or ‘Establishment’ is badly educated, unenterprising and foolishly committed to the idea ‘that British ways are not just best, but eternal’ – still, as the custodian of ‘the Anglican compromise’, it has helped to preserve our relatively blissful condition.

Britain’s serious economic problems go back, Marwick argues, only as far as the mid-1950s, when governments ‘allowed priorities to switch to consumption rather than production’. Britain has ‘suffered from too many of the wrong kind of compromises: nevertheless co-operation builds, conflict destroys.’ I suppose we may interpret these final words of the book as calling for a new consensus alert to Britain’s neglect of ‘industrial training’. Thus the Liberal-Fabian, ‘middle’ tradition of social history ends up in restrained confrontation with Thatcherism. It is manifestly good-hearted, but to survive it will have to do harder rethinking than has gone into this attractive work of popularisation.

Marwick’s introduction concedes that, ‘like all other sources, photographs are fallible,’ but suggests that newspaper images and ‘record’ photos are more trustworthy than pictures by “art” photographers such as James Jarché or Humphrey Spender’. This conjunction of names suggests some confusion. Jarché (see his 1934 autobiography, People I have shot) was a hard-boiled Fleet Street professional, talented enough to capture images which purvey the quality of ‘art’. Spender, whether working for Mass Observation or Picture Post, was admittedly an ‘artist’, but his methods (which included hiding his camera under his mac and pointing the lens out between its buttons) were commonly aimed at securing documentary truth. The main thing which these men have in common is that we can easily find out more about them than we know about most of their fellow professionals. The historical significance of a photograph depends, not just on what it depicts, but on who shot it, when and why. Hence, since we can ‘place’ them quite securely, Jarché and Spender have special historical value. Marwick’s collection of ‘images’ is rich and his discussion of some of them is illuminating, but it’s naughty of him to ‘read off’ secular Anglicanism from the surface of a picture when he can’t (or, at any rate, doesn’t) tell us more about the context of its production than that it was a ‘news photo’, and is now owned by the BBC Hulton Picture Library.

Common sense inspires Marwick to reject James Cronin’s argument that ‘there was a special “crisis” in Britain in 1919-20 which, but for the skilful containment policies of the government, might have issued in revolution.’ He is pleased to quote Cronin himself admitting that ‘the bulk of the working class were far from being committed socialists ... and the general situation was far from revolutionary.’ Marwick goes on to aver that ‘through the carefully articulated class structure there was a great residuum of national unity and faith in British institutions.’ But this is to give quasi-natural status to ‘British institutions’ and to suggest, rather comically, the idea of an invisible hand (that of some Anglican God?) hard at work ‘articulating’ social class: Marwick misses the point, I think. Granted the state survived – was it in danger? I return to the questions which I put, so to speak, to Dr Horn. What was this ‘unity’ from which people emigrated in droves? Why did Stanley Baldwin emphasise ‘England’ over Britain, and what were the implications for ‘unity’ of the ‘bolshie’ attitudes of Welsh farmers?

Marwick’s book ignores both Welsh and Scottish Nationalism. So does Cronin’s Labour and Society. It’s ironic that an American scholar should proceed like a typical British historian as if ‘English’ history were self-sufficient. He does, however, admit that British working-class life shows a ‘regional and ethnic diversity’ which he has felt compelled to neglect, in order to push through succinctly his overall argument. This is a most refreshing one, subtly presented, with a wealth of vivid documentation. ‘The working class thrust itself into the centre of Britain’s social and political life during an upsurge of militancy lasting from 1910 to the early 1920s.’ The rise of the Labour Party came with this upsurge. But there is no inviolable ‘natural’ connection between working-class consciousness and Labour politics. We cannot infer from the present plight of Labour the embourgeoisement or ‘decomposition’ of the working class. The 1945 Election does not provide a norm by which to measure Labour’s subsequent achievements – rather, it was ‘an aberration’, resulting from the exceptionally favourable context of world war. In the 1970s Labour let down its working-class support and paid the price. This does not mean that class has ceased to be crucial. Cronin’s views make a good fit with what we see in 1985 – strong centres of working-class expression in the mining villages and great cities unable to translate their vigour into national victory:

Working-class strength is overwhelmingly local in character, centred in the workplace or the community and best tapped by such forms of collective action as strikes or local elections. Projecting such loyalties into the arena of national politics is not so easy. The national organisation of unions may help to ‘globalise’ locally-rooted solidarities, but the unions have never successfully mediated the two levels. Nor has the Labour Party.

Cronin’s book does not crush personal experience under theoretical bulldozers. It respects working-class people and their own conceptions of their needs. It is thoughtful and generous, not dogmatic or harsh. But it does assume that conflict rather than unity is the basis of recent British history. Two world wars which swung the balance in favour of working-class self-expression were followed by middle-class backlash strengthening the Conservative Party (Alan Bennett’s hilarious and savage film A Private Function reconstructs some of the circumstances which made Conservatism after 1945 ‘even more of a class phenomenon than it had been between the wars’.) Class polarisation in politics ‘peaked in 1950-51, as did Labour’s share of the vote. If this was also the moment of consensus, it was probably due less to the convergence of party programmes or to shared values than to the delicate balance between the parties.’ The bland ‘secular Anglicanism’ of the Establishment was therefore, one might say, cosmetic upon, not integral to, the preservation of a contested state. Cronin argues that the strike wave of 1968-72, ‘with its climactic aftermath in the winter of 1973-4, was the most important domestic event, or series of events, in post-war British history’. It exposed ‘the essential bankruptcy of the social democratic vision’.

My reservation about Cronin’s approach is that it neglects the international dimension of British politics. Since 1940, the freedom of action of British leaders had been circumscribed by alliance with the dominant USA, neatly symbolised by the importation of Ian Mac-Gregor to crush the miners. It has been too little remarked that by 1939 Britain’s leading Marxist economist, John Strachey, had been converted to a ‘New Deal’ strategy as the way forward. In 1945, the victorious Labour leaders were almost certainly more in tune with Truman’s Democratic USA than a Cabinet headed by the imperialist Churchill could have been. Nor did such an alignment lack popular sympathy, despite the anti-Yank raspberries blown in opinion polls. American influences on the British working class and its world view are a grossly neglected subject. It is possible that research would confirm their superficiality, yet not unlikely that it might establish that the appeal of Roosevelt’s New Deal and of the apparent ‘classlessness’ of the USA was important, if not vital, in the 1940s triumph of Labourism. To those who retort ‘What about the appeal of Russia?’ I can cheerfully say: go ahead and show it – any approach which gets us away from the idea of Britain as a self-contained ‘unity’ should be welcomed. Again, what did large-scale emigration signify after the Second World War?

Cronin emphasises the ‘consumer consciousness’ of women as a factor in working-class history. It was seen in the struggle over housing from 1915 to 1924; the Clyde was never so ‘red’ as in rent strikes led by women. Between the wars, such industrial work as women could get was often monotonous and alienating. ‘Women’s jobs came to approximate most closely to the norm which the rationalisers and scientific managers held out for all of industry.’ While many men continued to achieve a sense of identity in their working life, ‘real’ life for women was found in the different relationships and values ‘around the home, around the neighbourhood, around the needs of family members’. Thus, Cronin suggestively continues, ‘they may have pioneered a path of development for working-class culture as a whole from the sphere of production to that of consumption.’

The state and its ‘continuity’ are male. But we have hardly begun to integrate recognition of this into our overall understanding of history. Jane Lewis’s compact study, Women in England 1870-1950, draws on a spate of work in the last ten years, and would be worth its price for its magnificent range of references alone. But beyond that she tackles with unflagging clarity and intelligence the complex history of conditions affecting women since industrialisation, and of their responses to them.

The state wanted children. Otherwise, it was feared, the Empire would slip from the grasp of a numerically wasted race. Somehow or other, in our century, wives and husbands combined in defiance. It seems likely that ‘couples whose worlds increasingly centred on the home rather than on the culture of the workshop or on the spouses’ respective circles of friends, most frequently achieved their ideal family size’ – usually via withdrawal rather than rubber appliances. The shift towards domestic consumption might be seen as self-reinforcing: people with smaller families could afford more enjoyable goods in their homes. The state had cause to be grateful, since genuine advance towards ‘affluence’ mitigated class and regional grievances.

Yet, as Lewis points out, ‘the most startling development in the post-war period has been the huge increase in the number of married women working.’ Part-time employment has provided the largest increase. ‘Low-paid, menial jobs’ preponderate. Women have sought such work to pay for goods which they need as wives and mothers. The idea that a man must ‘support’ his wife if possible seems to have lost a great deal of ground. In 1979 women’s earnings contributed over a third of income in half Britain’s households and were the major source in 10 per cent. A recent analysis predicts that ‘70 per cent of the new jobs likely to be created between 1983 and 1990 will go to women.’ Lewis stresses that this cannot be held to confirm a benign progressive ‘continuity’, with women more and more emerging into the sunlight of ‘equality’ along with other deprived groups. ‘Women in the late 20th century find themselves in the paradoxical position of having more freedom and opportunity than ever before and yet facing inequalities that seem as deeply entrenched as ever.’ Nor has it ever been clear what kind of equality women should seek. Should they strive to match men in what has been the male ‘sphere’ or ‘prioritise what have always been regarded as “women’s”, rather than human, issues (the conditions of maternity, for example)’?

What is clear is that any respectable historiography must now seek to retell the ‘British’ story so that the role of women is always in focus. The demystifying effect will be enormous. Take the Second World War. Despite all its horrors, many men can be said to have had ‘a good war’. The phrase seems absurd when applied to female experience. Although horizons may have been widened for many (Lewis thinks that the war probably ‘raised consciousness’), very few women can have come out of it with a better footing on the career ladder, or with enhanced personal prestige. The war trampled roughshod through woman’s sphere, the home. There were losses on the ‘Home’ Front to be made up, and it is not at all surprising that the end of the war produced leaps in the rates of marriage and birth, and a movement back to domesticity – a movement which displeased a government anxious to keep women at work.

To reconstruct recent wars from a womanly perspective, as Ian McEwan did so well in The Imitation Game, is implicitly to question the state and its presumptions. As ‘Welfare State’, the state donned a caring womanly mask. Now, ironically under a woman’s leadership, our Warfare State battles, physically, legally and financially, against Greenham women, miners, local self-government. It calls its own validity into question and undermines faith in the popular conception of ‘British’ history to which it appeals with a rhetoric as distant from factual experience as Baldwin’s. The latter, after sixty years, seems much more humane, until we remember what happened in Ireland, the behaviour of sound ‘English’ chaps in Kenya, and the anger in British coalfields. ‘One Nation’ humbug served vicious enough ends in those days, and did so rather more effectively than Churchill’s explicit class-war talk and unembarrassed imperialism. Marwick’s ‘image’ of Baldwin broadcasting – a master of the medium who looked like an amiable bishop – is a pretty fair representation of ‘secular Anglicanism’.