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Lindsey German

In a Class of Its Own

(Winter 1998)

From International Socialism 2:81, Winter 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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 class 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:

In 1950 the average Englishman and woman went to the pictures 28 times per year, more than 10 percent of total world cinema attendance, a per capita figure not even exceeded in the United States. Throughout the 1930s there were 18–19 million weekly attendances ... By 1945 it was 30 million. In 1946, the year when cinema attendance was at its highest, one-third of the whole population went to the pictures at least once a week, and there were a total of 1,635 million attendances. [2]

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:

There were several well-publicised cases, some violent, where English civilians took the side of black GIs against white American servicemen. Both the British government and the American authorities were compelled to recognise indigenous attitudes: on arrival white Americans were warned that segregation did not operate in Britain and urged to accept that. The issue of segregation was not marginal to Anglo-American relations: it was widely discussed, widely disliked and, outside official circles, did not enhance the appearance of America in English eyes. [4]

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:

The social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer thought a substantial proportion of the population ‘holds a view of the universe which can most properly be designated as magical’ – a passive cosmology where there was no perceived connection between effort and outcome. That so many more women than men – especially married working class women – held to such a cosmology suggests among many of them a real social powerlessness, a feeling that they had little control over their lives. [5]

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:

The English were a sports loving people, and that was one of their characteristics which outsiders immediately identified. But they loved different sports; only cricket is a possible exception. At the extremes some sports were so socially specific as to be undefinable except by those who played them. And at all levels the sport people played or followed was, like what they read, determined by class, modified, though not by much, by place of birth or residence. [8]

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:

Throughout this period one of the striking features of English sport was the decline in its international competitiveness. Since every major international sport, with the exception of basketball, was English (or, in the case of golf, British) in origin; since, therefore, England had enormous advantages in experience and tradition, such decline was for the English surprising and depressing. [9]

Much of this decline can be attributed to the systems of amateur and professional players in games such as cricket and golf, which were both incredibly snobbish in their disdain for any sort of ‘professionalism’ – working people trying to make a living from their sporting skill – and terribly wasteful of talent as a result. It is also clear, however, that this system, coupled with a reluctance of the state to spend large amounts of money training and promoting sportsmen and women, meant that England was increasingly at a disadvantage competitively against countries such as the US and pre-war Germany which provided far more resources. The British relied on the traditional structures of sport, the public schools and universities, and sport sponsored by private industry.

The same piecemeal approach could be seen with education, where McKibbin describes how the grammar school system between the wars was quite inefficient in terms of the needs of British capitalism. The schools were beyond the reach of most working class children, but even those who attended them found them quite unsuitable training for later life – they left both underqualified and overqualified, as the author puts it. They were underqualified because the schools refused to teach any practical skills, such as shorthand typing, which might be useful in gaining work. They were overqualified because they were trained for the matriculation system, needed for university entrance – but before 1945 hardly any grammar school children went to university.

The structures of life in Britain were, in virtually every respect, different for members of different classes and very heavily influenced by class considerations. If these seemed particularly archaic this was perhaps to do with Britain’s original pre-eminence as a capitalist power; by the 1920s and 30s the ruling class felt its decline but was hampered by many of its institutions from changing rapidly. The Second World War altered some of that, but the previous decades also saw substantial change. The growth of a salaried middle class and of a clerical workforce, the advent of mass media, communications such as cars, aircraft and telephones can all date their mass use from towards the end of the period studied here. The effect of mass unemployment and migration to find work – ‘not dead but gone to Slough’, as the Welsh used to say – also broke up the old traditional working class communities around mining and shipbuilding.

It is here that McKibbin’s analysis is flawed in a way which, by and large, does not detract from his study but which makes for an unsatisfactory conclusion. His assumption is certainly that the working class can and does change during the period he studies, but he always assumes that this working class is composed of manual workers. He states quite explicitly that clerical workers, even the low paid shop workers or clerks, were middle class: ‘What mattered was occupation and the social aspirations and manners which occupation demanded. On this ground, and one other – their very strong sense of not being working class – those in clerical work must be regarded as middle class’. [10] Now it is true that probably the majority of clerical workers thought of themselves as in some way ‘a cut above’ manual workers in the inter-war years. It is also true that they very often worked in proximity to but segregated from manual workers, in offices attached to factories, much more than their equivalents would now. But that was already beginning to change in McKibbin’s period. There were typing pools and large accounts offices, telephone exchanges, American style shops such as Woolworth’s. The employees in such work were in most respects becoming more like manual workers in terms of wages, conditions and control over their work (McKibbin himself mentions the bedaux system or ‘time and motion’ studies). With the benefit of hindsight we can see this process of ‘proletarianisation’ has become much greater advanced to include bank clerks, many finance and insurance workers, health and education workers as part of a class which is exploited and which has no fundamental difference in interests, income or lifestyles from its manual counterparts.

A failure to understand white collar workers as part of the working class might not appear to matter but its weakness is revealed in McKibbin’s conclusions. He sees the working class as a declining class (which it is if we simply judge it by manual workers) and therefore sees 1951 as its high point. Manual workers had come out of the war in employment, better off and having elected a government which supposedly represented them. The middle class, having done very well during the early 1930s, was now relatively worse off, according to this view. McKibbin talks of the traditional working class having been recreated in the 1940s and this leading to the Labour landslide. Its decline led to the decline of Labourism.

Since then, however, we have seen the biggest rise in trade unionism ever (reaching its high point in 1979), a wave of strikes in the early 1970s involving both ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ working class militants, and more recently the beginning of reorganisation following the major defeats of the 1980s. In 1997 Labour won its biggest landslide ever, largely from working class votes. The history of that modern working class and, hopefully, its future struggles is still to be written.

However, that is outside the range of this book. Its conceptual weakness in its definition of class does not prevent it covering a whole range of issues about how people lived and worked in these years, how women coped with pregnancy or debt, how workers distrusted the union leaders, how working class children’s talent in writing or expressing themselves was ignored or marginalised. It also demonstrates the elitist, patronising and authoritarian way in which the ruling class tried to maintain its rule and how ordinary people found many ways to avoid or circumvent such restrictions. Some things don’t change. This book is a valuable history of the specific period; it is also there at the birth of a working class we can recognise today.


1. Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918–1951 (Oxford 1998), p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 419.

3. Ibid., pp. 433–434.

4. Ibid., p. 525.

5. Ibid., pp. 291–292.

6. Ibid., pp. 296–297.

7. Ibid., p. 327.

8. Ibid., p. 528.

9. Ibid., p. 377.

10. Ibid., p. 45.

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