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Book Review: Austerity Britain: 1945-51 by David Kynaston

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The title is Austerity Britain: 1945-1951. The cover image is of a grey and dreary Newcastle on Tyne from 1950, and it weighs in at a wrist-wearying 692 pages. You wouldn’t pick David Kynaston’s combined social and political history as a non-fiction bestseller, which it is.

But you don’t have to get far into its pages to find its combination of anecdotal accounts (drawing heavily on the Mass Observation Survey) and descriptions of a society trying to rebuild itself from the ground up, compelling. In fact I found it so compelling I devoted two days of a recent holiday to little else, skipping easily through its pages.

The interest is multiplied by the fact that many of the debates that fill its pages — about the form of the foundational NHS, about the nature of a more equitable schooling system, about housing shortages and the problems of building new communities, about Britain’s economic place in the world — are being revisited today — or perhaps were never adequately solved.

Some of the stories about the NHS should be force-fed to everyone who’s now trying to dismember the fabulous free-at-the-point service provision. Kynaston reports the words of Dr. Alistair Clark, an “ordinary GP”: “For the first six months I had as many as 20 or 30 ladies come to me who had the most unbelievable gynaecological conditions… at least 10 who had complete prolapse of their womb, and they had to hold it up with a towel as if they had a large nappy on.”

The biggest early pressures were on “drugs, spectacles and false teeth” — the first and last of these reflecting modern-day debates about drug costs and dental provision today.

The housing debate started from a very different place from today’s — in a Sunday Pictorial account of “100 Families” in July 1946, only 14 owned or were buying their own homes — but one big issue, as today, was about mixing the classes. Bevan placed much hope in this: “You have colonies of low-income people, living in houses provided by the local authorities, and you have the higher income groups living in their own colonies. …It is a monstrous infliction on the essential psychological and biological one-ness of the community.”

Kynaston reports in 1946 a patchy start to housing construction, handicapped in part by a desire to build quality rather than quantity and marked by a significant squatter’s movement, but by September 1948, 750,000 new homes had been provided. But several million more were needed, without even counting the renewed impetus in the slum clearance movement.

It’s astonishing to learn that, perhaps just for a moment, there was a point in 1944, with the Fleming report, that there might have been a real push for the abolition of fee-paying schools. Yet with Attlee at the top — “the deeply middle-class (son of a City solicitor” (and graduate of Haileybury), there was scant real hope. Instead, Education Secretary Ellen Wilkinson hoped “to make the schools provided by the State so good and so varied that it will seem quite absurd to send children to these schools.”

The idea for government-funded schools was a mixture of grammars, secondary moderns and secondary technical schools. Kynaston says that the last barely got off the ground, in part because of their cost (equipment for engineers and technologists did not come cheap), and Wilkinson’s “instinctive opposition to narrow vocationalism.” (And the limits of Britain’s technical education are still a cause for much debate today.)

Industry was also starting from a different point: Britain had 52% of the world’s car exports, but it was stagnating, in technology and techniques, just as the world was taking off. When Sir Stafford Cripps declared that the Standard Vanguard was not going to be a success because he couldn’t sit in the back with his top hat on, he was right, if for the wrong reasons — a disastrous trail of breakdowns and lack of spare parts around the world being the real cause of its spectacular failure. Leonard Lord, dominant in the management at Longbridge, when told that his cars did not stand up to Australian roads, said they should build roads to suit.

Industry was also a cosy little closed shop. It was estimated that for 50-60% of manufacturing output in the mid-1950s the price was affected by collusion among the producing companies. One manager recalled of the steel industry: “Orders were reported first to the respective trade and association committee, and at the end of the day they would tel you what prices to quote.” And managers were specifically not meant to be too managerial, and certainly not to worry about the details. The economist Alex Cairncross looked at Glasgow shipbuilding in 1951, finding that in a yard of more than 5,000 workers, below the board the organisation was in the hands of a yard superintendant, “who was distinguished from the other workmen by his bowler hat and not much else…The work was devolved to the foreman on the job, and he set about it like a foreman on any building site. Each ship was built as a one-off job.” Management in the industry was “almost non-existent.”

There was concern about Britain’s economic place in the world, as today, but it was focused on macroeconomics. Micro was hardly on the agenda, on Kynaston’s account.

Still a further concern reflected today, particularly in progressive circles, was about most voters’ lack of interest in current affairs. The “gifted (and now almost completely forgotten) sociologist Pearl Jephcott,” who had been working anonymously for several months in a light engineering factory in London, reported in 1948 on her fellow employees:

“The girls’ talk hardly ranges beyond two themes, personal appearance and personal relations. The latter means fellows — mine, yours, hers. Even among the older women the only public event in the last three months which has fished folk out of the sea of personal and domestic affairs has been the Derby. What we need is some mental stimulant connected with our working life.”

But political life was very different: at elections in the early Fifties more than half of the electors could expect to be canvassed by one or more of the main parties: “testimony to the armies of unpaid activists the two main ones could rely on (Reginald Maudling, standing for the Tories in Barnet, had no fewer than 12,000 members at his disposal.)” Not that they had many of the means of communication available today: the BBC, except for election broadcasts, banned almost all mention of the contest, warning that special care needed to be taken in monitoring outside broadcasts from music halls.

As you’d expect from a social history, Austerity Britain is also good on women’s issues, starting with the young Barbara Castle, one of only 87 women candidates out of a total of almost 1,700 in 1945, telling a smoke-filled, packed, almost entirely male hall in Blackburn to forget she was a woman: “I’m no feminist. Just judge me as a socialist.”

That gender division in politics was reflected across the rest of society. David Kynaston writes:

“… 88 per cent of women working for wages in 1901 had been in occupations dominated by women by 1951 the proportion was virtually unchanged at 86 per cent. Teachers, nurses, clerical workers, cleaners, waitresses, shop assistants, barmaids, textile-factory hands — these were typical female members of the workforce, often with not a man in sight, at least at a non-supervisory level. Most of that work, pending greater employer flexibility, was full-time: of the female workforce of just over 6 million in 1951, only 832,000 worked fewer than 30 hours a week…”

In the early 1950s the BBC ordained that national news bulletins on radio were henceforth to be read only by men. “Experience has shown that a large number of people do not like the news of momentous or serious events to be read by the female voice” was the official explanation.

Yet despite all the restrictions, the women keep popping up, usually as a voice of sense. So it was that a meeting in April 1948 of the Society of Women Housing Managers tackled the question of how slum clearance and community relocation might be made to work: “Miss Thompson said the breaking up of an old community was a serious thing, as there was often a strong social bond in these areas. The key, she thought, was to get to know the people first, find out the forces making the social cohesion, and try to work in harmony with them.”

Not a bad place to start really, today, as Britain once again starts to rebuild, not after war, but after catastrophic economic failure. There’s much here to ponder today, as well as to be entertained. And who knows, understanding rationing is something we might also need to grasp…

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.