Not Pleasing the Tidy-Minded

Ross McKibbin

  • Austerity Britain, 1945-51 by David Kynaston
    Bloomsbury, 692 pp, £25.00, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 7475 7985 4

As a child in an Australian kindergarten in the 1940s one of my first memories is of wrapping up dried fruit to send to the children of Britain. Since I strongly disliked dried fruit and thought no one would eat it unless they had to, I felt deeply the level of deprivation to which British children had been reduced. These memories were refreshed by reading Austerity Britain, David Kynaston’s huge history of the country between 1945 and 1951. It is difficult for anyone familiar only with the shimmering prosperity of contemporary Western Europe to realise just what it was like in the years immediately after the Second World War. In Britain, conditions were, if anything, even more stringent than they had been during the war itself. Rationing of most things was severe and after each balance of payments crisis became even more severe. Indeed, the Attlee government was obliged to ration bread, something which hadn’t happened during the war. Americans in Britain could be recognised by the quality of their clothing, and the contrast between American opulence and British immiseration was responsible for considerable anguish. (Princess Elizabeth, in common with other brides, was given 200 extra clothing coupons to use for her wedding dress.) Apart from dried fruit, my other main memory of this period is of the ‘dollar gap’ – a phrase then on everyone’s lips. Today the world is awash with dollars, but in the 1940s they seemed as rare as hen’s teeth and the stringency of British life was due in part to this. To bridge that ‘gap’ the government did everything it could to maximise dollar earnings and minimise dollar spending. This even led to a major dispute with Hollywood. American movies were among Britain’s most expensive imports and in 1947 the government attempted to impose a 75 per cent duty on the receipts of American films. It was a dispute Britain predictably lost. Domestic consumption was consistently held down in order to divert resources to exports. Nature, however, conspired with scarcity and so when, in 1947, Europe had its coldest winter in living memory, a combination of utter dependence on coal for electricity and heating and too few coal-miners produced a season few forgot.

The result of such stringency was an increasing shabbiness, a grimness captured by the grainy news films of the era. Greyness, wetness, smokiness, run-down-ness are what we see. Britain was a highly regulated society in which people constantly ran up against petty officialdom, and that in combination with austerity served to give ‘socialism’ a bad name. According to Kynaston, Ronald Reagan spent four months in Britain in the winter of 1948-49, and came to the conclusion that if this was social progress he wanted none of it. He froze, he almost starved (‘what they do to the food we did to the American Indian’) and he abandoned ‘the last ideas I’d ever had about government ownership of anything’. Although many people did better out of the Labour regime than they had out of any other, most probably felt that there should be more to life, however equal the sacrifice. Austerity Britain, while also providing an account of more hopeful things, tends to confirm what they felt – partly by its choice of photos, partly by the often desolating commentary of those from sunnier and less austere societies. (There is a soul-destroying description of London in 1950 by the South African writer Dan Jacobson.) This is the story of a society and an era almost immeasurably different from our own.

Kynaston is an enormously productive historian. He has written on the working class, on cricket and, above all, on the City of London. His range of interests is well represented in this book, which is, he says, actually two books, ‘A World to Build’ and ‘Smoke in the Valley’: it begins ‘a projected sequence about Britain between 1945 and 1979’ – in other words, Attlee to Thatcher. Austerity Britain is about almost everything. Politics, economics, industrial relations, foreign policy; but also food (the influence of Elizabeth David is probably overrated), fashion, sport, popular music, unpopular music, radio, the beginnings of television, the press and its readers, literature (high, middle and lowbrow), sex, housing and architects, leisure and holidays (he is very good on Butlins), men, women and their often fraught relationships. The range of sources is equally wide: newspapers, novels, social surveys, autobiographies, biographies, films, public records – archival and printed – above all, the huge Mass-Observation archive. He has shown great pertinacity in hunting down sources unfamiliar to all except specialist historians. He has a sharp eye for issues like race, which in 1951 were no bigger than men’s hands, but were to change Britain as much as Attlee or Thatcher, and he usefully tracks the careers of individuals who typified the period.

Austerity Britain is entertaining and in many ways absorbing, yet it is also frustrating. The reader will learn much about Britain in austerity but will not really learn what to make of it. The book is an awkward mixture of the thematic and the chronological. The thematic chapters, for instance on the economy and industrial relations, are the easiest to read. By using well-chosen ‘case studies’, Kynaston makes a coherent general argument about the weaknesses and strengths of the British economy. But many of the other chapters do not have such coherence. Some provide a narrative of daily events. There might, for example, be a crisis in Downing Street at the same time as a test match is going on at the Oval, and we move uneasily from one to the other. It would be less disconcerting if all the chapters had been organised in a thematic manner, even if this meant a loss of colour.

The second difficulty is both the argument itself and the way it is presented. The argument is announced at the beginning. The book, Kynaston writes, is about the ‘overlaps and mismatches’ between the hopes and expectations of policy makers and those of ordinary British people. These mismatches ‘would be fundamental to the playing out of the next three or more decades’. The policy makers are what he calls the ‘activators’ who seek a New Jerusalem: his projected sequence is to be called ‘Tales of a New Jerusalem’. As well as policy makers, these activators are, in Kynaston’s slightly pejorative description, ‘the planners, the intelligentsia, the readers of Penguin Specials, everyone with an occupational or emotional stake in “the condition of the people”’. We are clearly in Correlli Barnett country here. Barnett is the historian most hostile to the New Jerusalemers. In his view they bear much of the responsibility for Britain’s postwar decline, and he has argued this trenchantly. Kynaston’s activators bear a strong family resemblance to the New Jerusalemers, though his treatment of them and of the political elite generally is more measured than Barnett’s. Their arguments, however, have the same implication, if a different focus. Whereas Barnett believes Britain’s comparative failure after the Second World War was primarily the responsibility of the political and economic elites, a result of their cultural training and their refusal to see the reality of Britain’s new position in the world, Kynaston believes that the ‘problem’ lies in the flawed relationship between the elites and ordinary people. ‘It hardly took a Nostradamus,’ he writes, ‘to see that the outriders for a New Jerusalem – a vision predicated on an active, informed, classless, progressively minded citizenship – were going to have their work cut out.’ Ordinary people are depicted as introverted, private and individualist. A culture ‘still holding its own was that of the improving, intensely respectable, wanting-no-hand-outs working class’, Kynaston says, but he also portrays them as pessimistic, apolitical and expecting little of life. Most of them doubted they ever would see the New Jerusalem.

In arguing this Kynaston goes along with the dominant view of the 1940s. The ‘social-democratic’ idea of that decade, which emphasised patriotic solidarity, democratic egalitarianism, political radicalisation and an optimistic assumption that the future could be made better by the actions of the state, is unfashionable. Now what is emphasised is the ambiguity of the whole business: the fragility of wartime solidarity, the weakness of both political commitment and radicalisation, the popular suspicion of the state and the political class, the continued sense of helplessness felt by many people. I am sceptical of the full-blown version of this argument. Some of it is almost certainly true but there is too much evidence against other aspects. There was political radicalisation during the Second World War, even if the expression of grievance was often muddled. And what is remarkable about popular attitudes to the Attlee government – an activators’ government par excellence – is how favourable they remained despite the genuine hardships it visited on the nation. Furthermore, the turnout at the general election of 1950 – 84 per cent – does not suggest a politically disengaged electorate. Kynaston himself points out how intently the results of the 1950 election were followed.

Part of the difficulty is the nature of the sources – especially Mass-Observation – on which Kynaston draws. Mass-Observation is a wonderful archive – in many ways it contains the best information we have on the routines and attitudes of everyday life. But it is also a problematic source: it is hard to capture the everyday. The mass observers tend either to emphasise the extraordinary and odd (as in the study of King George VI’s coronation day) and the quirky gripe – like the observer quoted here who noted that in his neighbourhood the black market was based ‘in the local Conservative Clubs’ – or the reverse: the boring flatness of life, the extreme social distance between ordinary people and the elites, and the popular indifference to political parties and programmes. This can lead to a type of non sequitur, as in the case of the ‘apolitical’ man who told Mass-Observation that he was ‘not all that interested’ in the election, ‘but I’m going to vote all the same, for Labour, of course.’ It is that ‘of course’ which actually matters. Very few of us express our opinions in ways that please the tidy-minded; they are usually partial, fragmented, often scattered by the daily struggle of life (not least in the 1940s). But that doesn’t mean people don’t have opinions, often strongly held ones. We are, in a sense, imprisoned by sources like Mass-Observation: we can’t do without them but we aren’t sure what they really tell us.

Kynaston provides a great deal of social detail, but it isn’t clear to what end. His book ends abruptly with Stanley Matthews failing to get an FA Cup winner’s medal (he eventually managed to), and the reader is left unsure quite what Kynaston is arguing. One interpretation is that he is describing the life and culture of an individualistic, privacy-loving, garden-tending people on whom the activators worked to little effect. But much of ordinary life in the 1940s was collective, not individualistic: from the huge football crowds to the immense numbers who attended cinemas and dance halls, not to speak of the collectivity of Butlins holiday camps or factory life. The other interpretation is that life does not fit into any pattern, and this seems to be where Kynaston’s argument is heading.

The third problem with Austerity Britain is its lack of a wider perspective. Even if we agree that Britain was grim after 1945, that wartime hopes were frequently disappointed, in a European context life in Britain was comparatively abundant. This is one reason so many Poles and Eastern Europeans allowed themselves to be recruited to the British labour force, and, more surprisingly, that so many German and Italian POWs stayed in Britain or returned there after repatriation. (Bert Trautmann, the Manchester City goalkeeper, is a good example.) The British themselves were aware of how desperate the situation had become in western Germany, partly via Victor Gollancz’s campaign on behalf of the German population, and partly as a result of the widely held view that bread rationing had been introduced in Britain in order to save the Germans from starvation. Allied soldiers were shocked by the poverty of southern Italy when they occupied it, while Eastern Europe’s situation made Britain seem like a cornucopia. Visitors were struck by the pessimism of French life immediately after 1945, whereas Britain at least seemed to have some sense of direction. British austerity was an example of a general European phenomenon and in many ways a relatively mild one. Furthermore, comparison should be made between pre and postwar Britain. Studies of the 1950 election found that in working-class constituencies austerity, if we mean by that rationing, was not a major issue – though it certainly was in middle-class constituencies. That is because for much of the working class, life before 1939 was even more austere. Whatever else can be said of the 1940s, unemployment, one of the major causes of interwar poverty, was abolished. People did not eat well in 1945, but they did not go short. As to the look of the country, one of the reasons Britain in the 1940s seems so grey, dirty and smoky is because it was the world’s most industrialised economy operating at full tilt before the implementation of the Clean Air Act. Much of what happened in the 1940s turned out to be permanent. Although Kynaston suggests that 1979 began a new era, Thatcher – whatever she might have wished to do – did not significantly modify the welfare and health systems that the postwar Labour government had established and to which the British remained stubbornly attached.