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Selina Todd’s The People is a very welcome and successful assertion of the centrality of working-class experience and power in the history of the twentieth century

The People

Selina Todd, The People. The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (John Murray 2014), 456pp.

As Owen Jones has pointed out in Chavs, for much of the modern media and establishment, the working class is effectively synonymous with the underclass, unemployed and unwanted. In a similar way, in many mainstream histories of the twentieth century, working-class people have been reduced to walk-on parts, perhaps cheering Churchill as he visits a bomb site, or unemployed and leaning on a lamppost in the Depression of the 1930s. In The People, Selina Todd offers an important corrective to this view, pointing out that the working class, far from being marginal, made up more than 75% of the British population until 1950 (defined as manual and low-grade clerical workers and their families) and more than half of the population in 1990. Employers, on the other hand, made up only 4% of the total number of people broadly defined as ‘in work’ in 2000.

Histories of the twentieth century which ignore working-class experience are therefore ignoring that of the vast majority of the country. Such history can hardly be taken to be representative, but the error in marginalising the working class in twentieth-century history goes beyond mere numbers. By the Second World War, in fact, politicians were regarding the working class not as an underclass but as ‘the people’, ‘the backbone of the nation, on whose labour Britain depended’ and whose interests were synonymous with those of the country as a whole (p.121). Similarly, Todd shows how it was specifically working-class experience which was at the centre of some of the headline social developments of the century.

No social history of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, would be complete without an account of the rise of the teenager as a defined group, but what is not always made clear is that this was a phenomenon led by the working class. Middle and upper-class teenagers were mostly still at school for the bulk of their teens, whereas young working-class people were more likely to be employed and, with no responsibilities, to have disposable income. It was these working-class young people who bought rock and roll records and scooters, who went to dance halls and hung out in coffee bars, who became the teenagers constituting one of the significant social changes in post-war Britain.

Where working-class people have featured in mainstream history, there is a tendency to portray them as passive victims or beneficiaries of twentieth-century developments, whether propelled from domestic service to factory work following the First World War, unemployed in the 1930s, or the recipients of council housing and jobs who had ‘never had it so good’ in the 1950s. Todd’s project here is not only to recount what happened to working-class people in the twentieth century but to restore them as the actors in their own stories.

Partly she does this through the decision to use largely personal histories, which inevitably stress the individual decisions people make to shape their lives within the objective circumstances they face. She also however stresses the role of organised struggle in achieving gains like improvements in wages and conditions, and legislative changes to mandate them for all workers, and of course the welfare state. In the Second World War, for example, ‘the government struck a contract with the people: work hard in return for a guaranteed job, a living wage and care in times of need.’ (p.120) but it is clear that this was not so much given to the people by the government as won from the elite.

Todd shows the importance of organised struggle in her account of one defeated struggle, the 1926 General Strike, which she argues convincingly ‘explodes the myth that the British are essentially a moderate people, whose differences (including class) are less important than a shared interest in peaceable, law-abiding governance’ (p.58). Despite the defeat of the strike, it had rocked the British establishment and demonstrated for a generation the collective strength of the class. Todd quotes Winifred Foley, the daughter of a striker who was twelve in 1926. Eight years later, on her last day in her servant job before leaving for the independence of waitressing work, she ‘sang the Red Flag as loud as I dared among the clutter of pots and pans, and thought of my Dad and all the down-trodden workers of the world and nearly cried’ (p.60).

The gains fought for by generations of working-class people produced those new teenagers of the late 1950s and 1960s, working-class young people with money in their pockets, but prosperity is not synonymous with political power. Full employment and welfare provisions may have lifted many people out of poverty after the Second World War, although Todd rightly points out that for many the 1950s were still a period of insecurity and struggle, in which the gap between rich and poor increased, but Britain was still very far from being an equal society. The account of the grammar schools here is a good example.

The 11-plus system, in which the minority who passed the exam were admitted to grammar school while the majority who failed went to secondary moderns, is usually portrayed, both by historians and by its modern defenders, as a driver of social mobility for the able working-class children who passed. It is this assumption which enables supporters of selection to claim that it is meritocratic: only working-class kids who do not deserve an academic education fail to get one. What Todd demonstrates however is that the 11-plus not only consigned the majority of working-class children who did not pass the exam to a poor education, but also failed to open the doors of middle-class privilege for those who did. While a minority may have been able to use their attendance at grammar school to escape their background, it is clear that many working-class grammar school pupils were treated differently by the schools than their middle-class counterparts and were much less likely to be encouraged to go to university or aim for highly-paid or influential positions.

The reality of the grammar school system for working-class children is a demonstration of the key point about the heyday of the welfare state in the 1950s and 1960s. For all the advances gained in struggle, and cultural celebration of working-class identities as both ordinary and special, it was not as if the class struggle was over. The gains were vulnerable to reversal when, at the end of the 1960s, politicians began to see such economic and political power as the working-class had through organisation as a threat. Barbara Castle’s 1969 anti-union white paper, In Place of Strife was a key development, demonstrating as it did the view that rather than a necessary part of a democratic state, an organised working class was an undesirable element to be eliminated. Workers’ rights had clearly become incompatible with the needs of big business, so it was the workers’ rights which had to go.

Castle’s white paper did not become law, but it was in many ways the first salvo of the war on the working class which was to become the neo-liberal project from Thatcher’s election in 1979. Todd has less to say about the attacks and defeats of the 1980s and 1990s than about the gains of previous periods; as she says in her introduction, she sought to write ‘a hopeful history’ (p.9). The hope, after more than thirty years of neo-liberalism, lies in the majority of people who, despite repeated statements from politicians that we are a classless society or that we’re all middle class now, still identify themselves as working-class. We are repeatedly told that this society is as good as it can get and it is the working-class experience of the twentieth century which tells us that this is not so, ‘that life has not always been thus, and that it can change again.’ (p.10)

Todd intersperses her account of working-class history with interludes from the life of Viv Nicholson. Viv became briefly famous when in 1961 her husband had a record win on the pools, making headlines with her declaration that she was going to ‘spend, spend, spend’. The story of her life, from a poor, working-class childhood and early marriage, to wealth and back to poverty again, reflects the shape of the wider story of the working class. Viv also rose to what turned out to be only temporary prosperity which did not carry with it any real political or economic power. She has been held up by some as an example of the typical improvidence of the working class, for having the temerity to spend money when they have it, which is a bit rich considering the enormous efforts expended to encourage people to hanker after consumer goods. As Todd points out, Viv, like many working-class people, and not as hoped by middle-class social reformers, did not want prosperity so that she could become ‘respectable’. She wanted security and to have a good time. A pensioner now, back in her home town, she claims to have ‘no regrets’ and it is that defiance in the face of adversity which is the real message of this book. The history of the working class both provides a rebuttal to the demonisation of the working class as shiftless, idle and irresponsible, and shows how we are the only class which can organise and fight for a better world.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 


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