- Telling Stories about Class
This is a book about class-based stories. It tells us how predominantly white manual workers, both male and female, came to identify themselves as working-class in Britain between 1910 and 2010. Class, notes Selina Todd, had been present during the nineteenth century, but it was during the twentieth century that manual workers, who constituted a majority of the population for much of that period, ‘claimed to belong to the working class’ (p. 1). Even though greatly weakened by changes in occupational structure and the growth of neo-liberalism, racism, individualism and austerity, working-class economic and political power and identity have recently ‘fallen’ rather than been ‘destroyed’ or ‘disappeared’, according to the author. ‘In the early twenty-first century’, writes Todd, ‘polls suggested that more than half of British people still considered themselves working class’ (pp. 338–9, 355, 360). Based largely upon ‘the stories of scores of ordinary people’ as revealed in ‘published autobiographies and unpublished oral [End Page 296] history and social survey interviews’, and personal testimonies largely ‘narrated in the years after 1979’ (pp. 4, 367–8, 373, 421–2), The People sets out to chronicle ‘their story’ of class belonging – the ‘real’ story as opposed to the ‘nostalgic’ or ‘romanticized’ accounts often presented, she says, by ‘left-wing politicians and academics’, by ‘sympathetic charity workers’ and others mainly from outside the ranks of the working class (pp. 5, 8–9). In the process the author claims to uncover ‘a huge, hidden swathe of Britain’s past’, including the ‘intimate history’ of her own family. This past was not revealed to Todd during her years as a history undergraduate at Warwick University, while she ‘continued to search for it fruitlessly throughout the next decade’. ‘Eventually’, she concludes, ‘I realized that I would have to write this history myself’ (p. 4). The end product is a book described by the publisher and the book’s cover as telling a story ‘ignored until now’, the ‘hidden story of an entire nation, told in the words of its people’. Whether these claims to novelty, originality and major historical significance are justified is a major concern of this review.
Todd’s thesis – ‘The Rise and Fall of the Working Class’ – is developed in the course of the Introduction and in three chronological Parts: ‘Servants, 1910–39’, ‘The People, 1939–68’, and ‘The Dispossessed, 1966–2010’. These Parts comprise sixteen chapters, among them ‘Defiance Below Stairs’, ‘Bobbed-Haired Belligerents’ and ‘Politics at the Palais’ (in Part 1); ‘The People’s War’ and ‘New Jerusalems’ (Part 2); and ‘Trouble and Strife’ and ‘Hard Times’ (Part 3). Part 1 charts ‘the emergence of a modern working class’ from the ‘watershed’ year of 1910 up to the eve of the Second World War in 1939. Todd maintains that in these years large numbers of working people, including domestic servants, working-class women more generally and sections of the non-skilled, moved from ‘knowing their place’ to a more self-confident, independent and assertive class-based stance. The period from 1939–68, covered in Part 2, is seen as the high-water mark of working-class consciousness, influence and power. Constituting the majority of the British people, workers after the Second World War asserted their material, cultural and labour-based power in unprecedented ways during this period. The working-class interest became synonymous with the national interest, the manual workers became ‘the People’, according to the author. Yet if the Second World War constituted a positive ‘major turning point’ for the twentieth-century working class, the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 signified a second ‘watershed’ which presaged reversal and negativity. From 1979 to 2010, observes Todd, ‘for the first time in forty years, the gap between the richest and the poorest began to widen rapidly, and Britain witnessed the fall of the working class as an economic and political force’ (p. 8). These developments form the subject matter of Part 3.
What immediately strikes this labour-history...