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The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010
In the autumn of 1961, Viv Nicholson became one of the most famous women in Britain. Born into a mining family in Castleford, she was getting ready to go out one Saturday evening when she heard her husband shouting from the sitting room. They had, it turned out, won the pools. Only the day before, the television-rental man had come to demand their arrears; now they were worth more than £152,000, the equivalent of nearly £3m today. After Bruce Forsyth handed over the cheque to the couple, Viv told the press that she planned to 'spend, spend, spend'.
To the tabloids, she became a symbol of the supposedly greedy materialism of early-1960s Britain. Alas, it all ended in tears. The money ran out, Keith was killed in a car crash in 1965 and Viv was reduced to performing in a sleazy Soho cabaret. By the 1970s she was back in a Castleford council house. Like so many of her contemporaries, she had never quite broken out of the prison of class.
For the Oxford historian Selina Todd, Viv's rise and fall 'echoes the history of the working class from 1910 to 2010'. During the two world wars, Todd explains, working-class people, who accounted for roughly 75% of the population, had few rights and opportunities, and had to fight for even the smallest gains. Then came a brief age of relative prosperity and promise from 1945 to 1979, when free education, full employment and the welfare state brought ordinary people chances and comforts that their predecessors had barely imagined. But the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 brought it all crashing down. To be working class, writes Todd, now meant lacking something. I'm from a council estate,' explained a man from Rotherham in 1988. 'We've got no money, we've got no jobs ... we've got nowt.'
In her introduction, Todd claims to be uncovering a huge, hidden swathe of Britain's past, overlooked by writers obsessed with the rich and well-born. Given the success of social historians such as David Kynaston and Juliet Gardiner, this seems extremely dubious. Even so, it is good to have more ammunition against Downton Abbey's rose-tinted tosh, and Todd's early chapters offer a valuable reminder of the gruelling realities of factory work and domestic service. One 15-year-old girl from Keighley in Yorkshire, Edith Green, was expected to take off her employer's shoes and put his slippers on, while another Edith, who entered service when she was just 12, was always addressed as Annie because her mistress already had a friend called Edith. Some servants stood up to their employers; most, however, gave in. Before long, one girl later recalled, her mistress 'had broken my spirit completely so I just became very obedient. I didn't question anything.'
Todd's narrative follows the British working classes past some distinctly familiar landmarks, from the general strike of 1926 and the dole queues of the Hungry Thirties to the rise of the affluent society and the advent of Thatcherism. She is good at showing how ordinary people, particularly women, pushed for change, from the 'bobbed-haired belligerents' who demanded greater financial independence after the First World War to the pioneering sewing machinists at Ford's Dagenham plant who fought for equal pay in 1968. And she makes a powerful, although perhaps overstated case that Tony Blair's Labour government was too quick to abandon its traditional working-class supporters, who often faced a choice between an insecure, poorly paid, dead-end job, or no job at all.
Unfortunately, Todd's book suffers from some glaring weaknesses. Whenever she talks about politics it is like being trapped in a lift with a member of the Socialist Workers' party. The Liberals, we discover, passed the pioneering welfare reforms of the 1910s only because they wanted to undermine the Labour party. Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle only wanted to reform the trade unions because they were lackeys of the CBI. Ted Heath, who in reality tried harder to work with the TUC than almost any prime minister of the century, apparently treated the unions as 'enemies of the state', while Thatcher was pure evil from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.
At one point, Todd even laments the introduction of secret ballots before strikes, which 'denied workers the right to decide quickly when to use this powerful weapon'. It is like reading 1066 and All That, as retold by Arthur Scargill.
A bigger problem, though, is that the book is just so dreadfully dull. The best social histories, such as Servants, Lucy Lethbridge's recent book on domestic service, are often enormously entertaining, but The People lacks any zest or sparkle.Oddly, it is not even particularly angry, just thoroughly miserable. Nobody ever has any fun, and although Todd has interviewed people in Coventry and Liverpool, the only character who really comes alive is Viv Nicholson, whose story is hardly representative.
Todd has nothing at all to say about working-class games such as football, darts and snooker, nothing about food and drink, little on music or television, nothing on what newspapers and books people read, nothing on clothes or fashion, nothing on gardening, nothing on religion. This is working-class life as seen from the seminar room, not the street. At one point she tells us that 'the package holiday had arrived', and you look forward to hearing how the first working-class holidaymakers got on in Benidorm. In the very next sentence, though, she goes back to bashing the Tories. We never hear about holidays again.
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