Issue 81 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1998 Copyright International Socialism


Lindsey German

A review of R McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998), 25

The cover of Ross McKibbin's book has a photograph of two obviously rich people (he in top hat and tails, she in furs) contentedly walking along a street while ignoring the plight of a homeless man lying on a bench. Like Thomas Dugdale's famous painting of a glittering couple in evening dress who gaze from their Mayfair window as the Jarrow unemployed march passes by, the image encapsulates the popular view of the inter-war period, where the rich got richer and the poor suffered. The information provided by McKibbin produces all the evidence that could be needed to demonstrate the truth of this view, and shows that only by plunging into its second world war in a generation could the world begin to reverse these priorities, end unemployment and start to create a more equal society.

This work is part social history--looking at how different classes behaved in relation to sex, sport, cinema and reading--and part an analysis of class, from the very top with the monarchy down to the working class. All this is interesting enough, but the period covered gives the book a further dimension: its social history has to be set against a British ruling class whose fortunes were declining both sharply and rapidly, and a working class which underwent a process of change in these years which was very dramatic and far reaching. In 1918 Britain emerged victorious from a war which saw its major European rival defeated and faced with revolution. With the exception of Ireland, Britain's colonial empire was still intact. Its transatlantic rival was becoming all powerful but this was still not apparent to many people. By 1951 there was no such ambiguity. The US dominated the Western world economically, politically and increasingly culturally. Britain had been forced to borrow from the US to finance its war effort, and its post-war austerity was in part due to the US calling in the debt. Meanwhile the empire's greatest prize, India, had won independence, and Britain's other colonies were heading the same way.

The traditional working class of the 'workshop of the world' had been in decline throughout the period: mining, shipbuilding and textiles were for much of the inter-war years 'depressed' and economic growth occurred increasingly in new areas--the south and Midlands of England--and in new industries such as motors, aircraft, electrical goods and food processing. For all workers these three decades signalled great change: for example many had access to domestic electricity for the first time, opening up communications such as radio; cinema became the most popular pastime; and the changing world of work meant that women increasingly sought employment in new industries and in clerical jobs which had hardly existed before the First World War.

Britain was (and still is) often described as a very class ridden society. This is not meant in the Marxist sense, that there is an exploited and an exploiter class which defines the whole of society, since this would be equally true of, say, Germany or the US, whatever the superficial differences of politics or culture. Rather it is meant in the sense that the class divisions in Britain seem particularly acute and obvious. They are underlined by, on the one hand, a hereditary peerage and monarchy and by an education system which entrenches archaic privilege both in public schools and in the Oxbridge system; on the other hand, the working class is the oldest and in some ways most ingrained and traditional in the world, and has famously built up layers of defensive networks in order to protect its interests. It is beyond McKibbin's remit to analyse why the class structure in England turned out this way, but he develops a number of important and interesting insights. His view of the monarchy, for example, shows how a combination of luck and opportunism (plus, no doubt, access to great quantities of wealth) allowed the Windsors to maintain their hold through this period. The dullness of George V, his preoccupation with the minutiae of etiquette and country house living and his lack of interest in any wider intellectual or cultural questions, did not prevent him from very astutely preventing his cousin the Russian Tsar Nicholas, who had been deposed by the Russian Revolution, from coming to live in England. The king's private secretary wrote to the foreign secretary in April 1917 that 'the residence of the ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public, and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen'.1 The monarchy was careful never to openly alienate workers or the labour movement, according to the author, even though the royal family's instincts were Tory to the last and even though they were part of a wider ruling class which, in the 1920s particularly, was engaged in open clas war.

What of the working class? It was the first developed working class in the world. The size of the working class and its relative social weight were unique in a country where the peasantry had been destroyed by industrial development and modern agriculture. The working class had also developed a fairly distinctive lifestyle and cultural life; industrial villages such as those around coal mining or the industrial areas of the big cities typified this lifestyle with their terraced housing, pubs and working men's clubs, keenness on sports and (except in the textile areas) a rigid sexual division of labour. This 'traditional' working class life changed in the period described by McKibbin. Of course, it was never as 'traditional' as all that: roughly it dated from the last quarter of the 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th. But the pressures of war, slump and capitalist competition were to destroy it forever and to change the ideas and attitudes of the working class. Even in the inter-war period those ideas and attitudes were very contradictory. English workers are often thought of as insular and xenophobic, but in many respects their industrial background, with its lack of religious or conservative family ties (compared to most of continental Europe, for example), made them outward looking, adventurous and open to new cultural influences. The English were, for example, the greatest cinema goers per head in the world in the 1930s and 1940s, and this attendance was heavily concentrated in the working class and lower middle classes:

The dominant influence in cinema along with music and dancing was heavily Americanised and this was generally welcomed by working people. They took to various forms of American popular music from 1918 onwards, including jazz influenced black music; the dances which became staples of English ballroom dancing (itself a worldwide cultural phenomenon) such as the quickstep and foxtrot were derived from American 'rag' dances. The huge dance halls such as the Hammersmith Palais and the Streatham Locarno came into their own in the 1920s and 1930s. The English often preferred American films to the indigenous variety, especially in the 1930s, because they were thought 'vigorous, materialist and democratic. Those who disliked British films disliked them because they were none of these. Most widely disliked was the accent of the actors and, even more, the actresses'. McKibbin continues: 'The working class part of the audience was also unsympathetic to the extreme emotional restraint of many British films--even the most widely admired, like Brief Encounter (1945), which was by almost universal consent a "classic" British movie, yet not really popular in England outside the suburbs. People were offended by Celia Johnson's "prissiness" and found her moral dilemma incomprehensible'.3

That English workers could accept much of American culture without accepting some of the worst aspects of US society was demonstrated during the Second World War when, despite the British authorities trying to maintain US army segregation between black and white soldiers, this was repeatedly opposed by ordinary people:

English people--again in contrast to many other nationalities--had relatively weak adherence to religion. This adherence went into steady decline during the inter-war years, and much of the supposed commitment, especially to the Anglican church, was only nominal. Women adhered instead to various forms of spiritualism, astrology or other forms of mysticism:

Working class women certainly lacked control over their sexuality. Indeed contradictory and often hypocritical attitudes to sexuality in England seem to characterise this period. English people seemed very keen on chastity outside marriage (in the early 1950s, 52 percent were opposed to men and 63 percent opposed to women having any premarital sex) but themselves did not follow such strictures, so in 1938-1939 some 30 percent of all women conceived their first child before marriage. At the same time many women clearly felt that sex was something they had to endure reluctantly rather than to enjoy--'working class women repeatedly expressed either hostility or indifference to marital sexuality'.6 Although this changed between 1918 and 1951, and probably changed even more dramatically in the two decades afterwards, it was clearly a widespread view. The other side of the coin, however, was a more open attitude to non-sexual relationships between men and women. McKibbin describes how what was often called the 'puritanical' attitude to sex had this positive effect: 'in the early 1950s more than half the English thought it possible for people of the opposite sex to have non-sexual friendships a proportion unlikely to be found in many other European countries.' But he goes on, 'The negative consequence of puritanism was a sexual prurience and a delight in pornography famous throughout Europe'.7

The contrast between the attitudes of the various classes is shown most dramatically in relation to sport. This section is one of the strongest in the book, perhaps reflecting the overwhelming importance of sport in this period. McKibbin writes:

Yet the history of sport in these years can also be seen as a microcosm of British capitalism. A country which led the world in inventing and developing sports in the 19th and early 20th centuries suddenly found other nations catching up and overtaking it. The extremely popular football clubs made money for directors but nothing was invested in new or improved grounds. England began to win much less: