The Audit of War by Correlli Barnett (1986)

‘The time and energy and thought which we are all giving to the Brave New World is wildly disproportionate to what is being given to the Cruel New World.’ (British economist J.M. Keynes, quoted page 40)

The full title of this book is The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, which very accurately states its aim and its Manichaean structure. It is not your average leisurely, rather reassuring history book but a fierce and forcefully argued polemic which, if you’re British, is intellectually and emotionally devastating.

The basic premise is this: When Barnett wrote the book, received opinion tended to think that Britain fell behind its industrial competitors (America, Germany and Japan) and prey to the so-called ‘British disease’ of abysmal industrial performance, in the decades after the end of the Second World War. During the war itself, the nation had pulled together and demonstrated wonders of industrial production, showing what you can achieve if your economy is planned and centrally controlled towards one great aim i.e. fighting for survival. Celebration of the scientific, industrial and manufacturing triumphs of central planning – radar, the Spitfire, countless ships – helped to justify the 1945 Labour government’s policy of nationalising ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy – namely the coal and steel industries, gas, railways, and so on – in order to continue that spirit of wartime unity and success. It was only in the decades that followed that timid management and obstructive unions undermined the crowning achievement of the war years in the 1950s and 60s. Thus received opinion.

Barnett is at pains to show that this entire narrative is completely untrue, a myth, the product of wartime propaganda which those in charge knew at the time was profoundly misleading.

Barnett ‘drew on a mass of once secret and hitherto unpublished Whitehall and Cabinet-committee files’ which had only just become available in the early 1980s, as well as published reports, surveys and data, to show in excruciating detail that far from being a shining beacon of industrial success, the war years in fact represented the shambolic climax of over a century of mismanagement, short-sightedness, governmental and business failure at all levels.

In other words, it was during the war itself that the worst aspects of British economic mismanagement came to a head and set the tone for the post-war decline. These included:

  • the shameful lack of technical schools and colleges, resulting in chronic shortages of decently educated let alone skilled workmen, supervisors and management
  • the fragmentation of all Britain’s industries into small, scattered, often family-run companies overseen by narrow-minded and jealously protective sons and grandsons of the founders
  • the dominance of what Barnett calls ‘the practical man’, the man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and learned on the job and worked things out by rule of thumb – a pitiful contrast to the regiments of highly trained, superbly educated engineers found in America and Germany
  • the ruinous, lazy, jobsworth attitude of the workers in every industry who generally a) hated the management b) rejected any changes or improvements or suggestions for greater efficiency c) clung on to petty privileges through d) the mechanism of scores of petty-minded trade unions and their stroppy shop stewards who used almost any excuse to stage a sudden wildcat strike, or walkout, or go-slow

Chapters three to nine depict in excruciating detail – really mind-blowing, life-altering detail – the deep-rooted and profound failings of Britain’s core industries – coal mining, steel-making, shipbuilding, tank and truck manufacture – and then goes on to highlight the failings of the ‘new’ technologies like radar and radio.

Reading in such detail about the bad design, the failure to co-ordinate design and manufacture, the failure to invest in the right plant and factories, the refusal of trade unions to accept new technologies or working methods, the excruciating delays, and then the crappiness of the end products (Britain’s tanks and lorries being good examples) is more than depressing, it is devastating.

All the more so because Barnett polemically opened the book with a portrait of the high-minded, bien-pensant, liberal elite of left-leaning politicians, ethical thinkers, art directors, liberal columnists and so forth who focused all their thinking and powerful rhetoric NOT on how the British economy needed to be rescued from its parlous state and comprehensively overhauled, but on how society needed to be changed and improved after the war.

He is excoriatingly, blisteringly critical of what he calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ which produced numerous books, articles and pamphlets calling for the end of the war to be followed by the creation of a welfare state, the building of a ‘New Jerusalem’, a national health service free to all, millions of new houses – he shows in detail how these purely social and reformist aims became the top priority of politicians from all parties – rather than retooling British industry to compete in a harsher economic world.

This opening chapter is flagellates what Barnett satirically calls ‘New Jerusalemism’, the anti-science, anti-industrial mindset cultivated by hundreds of posh public schools which taught their pupils Horace, cricket and little else – an education in high-minded uselessness which melded with the parallel, non-conformist religious tradition which lies behind the Labour Party – to create a high-minded, loftily ‘moral’ concern for welfare and social security – without giving any thought to who would pay for it.

(In this, Barnett echoes the conclusions of the American academic Martin J. Wiener in his 1981 book English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, which was, to quote Wikipedia:

a concerted attack on the British elite for its indifference to and wariness of industrialism and commercialism. Although the commercial and industrial revolutions originated in England, Wiener blamed a persistent strain in British culture, characterised by wariness of capitalist expansion and yearning for an arcadian rural society, which had prevented England – and Britain as a whole – from fully exploiting the benefits of what it had created. He was particularly scathing about the self-made industrial capitalists of the 19th century who, from the middle of that century onwards, increasingly sent their children to public schools where ‘the sons of businessmen were looked down upon and science was barely taught’.)

Chapter two investigates in more detail the precise policies of the ‘New Jerusalemers’ – that Britain must be rebuilt whatever the cost as embodied in the famous Beveridge Report of November 1942, which is generally seen as setting out the framework for the post-war Welfare State, guaranteeing every citizen a decent standard of living, good housing and free education. Barnett shows how Beveridge very successfully publicised his report, through the press and via the army’s influential Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), and how allies recruited powerful liberals in the media such as the owner of the best-selling weekly magazine Picture Post, along with scores of other opinion formers, creating an unstoppable momentum. All this had far more impact than the cautious, sometimes very pessimistic, reports about the economy commissioned by the Treasury under Chancellor Kingsley Wood. Barnett shows that even Labour figures like Clement Attlee were aware of the economic plight; but chose to ignore it in order to fulfil what they thought of as higher, moral and political obligations.

In chapter three Barnett examines more closely the state of the economy which all the New Jerusalem zealots were assuming would steam ahead in the post-war period, providing the money for the new welfare state and the promised massive rebuilding programme. It makes very bleak reading, key points being:

  • Barnett’s previous book, The Decline of British Power, had anatomised the failure of British industry to invest, modernise and compete between the wars. Instead it was able to rest on its laurels and export sub-standard products to the captive markets of the colonies.
  • This helps explain why Britain’s economy and industries only survived the war because of American money. The Lend-Lease scheme provided the tooling machines, raw materials and food which kept Britain afloat. Lend-Lease was cancelled almost immediately the war ended, leaving Britain to fend for itself and facing certain bankruptcy.
  • American money allowed the British ruling and industrial class for six long years to completely drop all thoughts of competitive exporting i.e. being a commercial success, in order to entirely focus on producing war munitions and goods.
  • Barnett quotes a riveting report produced by the Board of Trade which extensively surveyed the likely post-war effectiveness of individual British industries: out of 53 sectors, only two evinced unqualified optimism (cosmetics and sewage systems)
  • He shows how British goods produced during the war (guns, trucks, tanks) were consistently poorer in design and performance than those produced by the Americans or Germans. I was brought up to think the world-famous Spitfire fighter plane outclassed the German Messerschmitt: but it takes Barnett to point out that it took nearly double the man hours to produce a Spitfire as to produce a Messerschmitt. This is one example from hundreds which he provides in devastating detail demonstrating over and over again the uncompetitive, low productivity, bad design, go-slow trade unions and incompetent management which, once the war ended and industry returned to having to sell things abroad, produced worse products at higher prices than their European and American competitors.

Just reading the contents page of the book gives you the main message:

Part 1 Dreams and Illusions
1. The Dream of new Jerusalem
2. the Illusion of Limitless Possibility

Part II – The Industrial Machine
3. ‘The prospect is bleak’: 1943-45
4. An Industrial Worst Case: Coal
5. ‘In Great Need of Modernisation’: Steel
6. ‘The Fossilisation of Inefficiency’: Shipbuilding
7. A Mass Industry Improvised: Aircraft 1936-39
8. New technology and Old Failings: Aircraft 1939-44
9. The Dependence on America: Radar and Much Else

Part III Reality – Human Resources
10. The Legacy of the Industrial Revolution
11. Education for Industrial Decline

Part IV The Limits of the Possible
12. New Jerusalem or Economic Miracle
13. Tinkering as Industrial Strategy
14. The Lost Victory

The guilt of ‘the practical man’

Each chapter in part two is a brutally critical analysis of the failure of a key British industry. Since virtually all energy was provided by coal (coal playing the central role in the economy now taken by oil), Barnett makes you want to weep tears of frustration and grief at the complete failure of the coalmine owners, managers, workers or government to devise any workable plans to modernise the industry and bring it up to the levels of efficiency and productivity achieved by mines in America, Germany, France and Belgium.

One vast theme which emerges is the fragmentation of these industries which stretches right back to the origins of the industrial revolution when any landowner who discovered coal on their land set up their own mine, run their own way, with their own quirky systems, layout, technology and ad hoc railways lines.

In coal and steel it was this fragmentation which dragged down productivity, with the promise made by the national government during the second World War to guarantee wages and prices, merely delaying the howling need to close down unproductive pits and consolidate profitable ones and invest in more modern (i.e. German) equipment.

But Barnett also has it in for the type of management which ran so many of these small to medium size operations. Early on he starts calling this figure ‘the practical man’, and uses the same rhetorical device of scornful repetition to castigate this bogeyman as he used with his mocking repetition of ‘New Jerusalemites’ in the opening chapters.

‘The practical man’ is an amateur, who has learned on the job, is proud of his practical experience and uses rule of thumb and intuition to make decisions. All this is contrasted with Germany, in particular, which by the mid-1800s, yes, a century before the Second World War, had already set up a network of technical schools and colleges, and – as Barnett shows – were consistently turning out ten times as many skilled workers with useful apprenticeships, as well as trained industrial chemists, physicists, scientists of all kinds.

Barnett lays out side by side the systematic way in which the German state set about creating an education system which guaranteed a highly educated general population, from which it then selected the best and brightest to go on to world-leading technical schools, colleges and universities, next to the shambolic, uncentralised, ad hoc way the British relied on individual cities, local councils and even parishes, or the occasional philanthropist to rig up a ramshackle unco-ordinated mosaic of half-cocked and inefficient schools and colleges. The result was the ‘deep ignorance’, the illiteracy and lack of education of the vast bulk of the British population which appalled visitors during the 1930s.

With, of course, the notable exception of reams of graduates from top public schools and Oxbridge who had been drilled in Classics – that vital requirement for ‘the English gentleman’ – but didn’t know one end of a steam lathe from the other.

Big ideas

Britain only survived the war because of American funding Britain was bankrupt by 1941. It was given a loan of gold by the Belgian government which would have tided it over for another year at most, but was rescued from complete collapse by the signing of the Lend-Lease arrangement with America which prevented Britain actually going bankrupt. Britain was only able to fight the Second World War because of American money, materials and equipment.

Britain’s good luck on stumbling across industrial production was also its doom Britain was lucky to stumble into the Industrial Revolution but the seeds of its later failure were sown by the very thing which made it the pioneer. This was the lucky confluence of iron, coal and water in a number of places – Lancashire, South Wales, some parts of the north-east – which tended to be far from centres of population.

It was the convenient proximity of these raw materials which enabled the industrial revolution to take place in Britain first – but it had the fatal effect of fragmenting the companies and industries which were set up to exploit it. It led to a huge number of disparate enterprises scattered all over the UK.

It also created a tradition of strong independent founders of each individual mine and factory, ‘masters’, practical men, with little or no education or training. It entrenched in their minds and the minds of their descendants the notion that profitability stemmed from long hours and hard wages, not from fancy new technological innovations. We’ll be ‘avin’ none of your fancy new university ideas, Obadiah.

It led the great industrial towns to grow like mushrooms from little villages, with no urban planning at all, little more than barracks with no water or sewage for the new armies of the proletariat who were worked, literally, to death by their masters.

And it was this, the untrammeled brutality and naked exploitation of the Georgian Industrial Revolution (i.e. up to about 1837) which led the British working class to become a race apart, living in slum work camps, working seven hours a day, filled with anger and resentment, and determined to cling on to every scrap of privilege and entitlement, resolutely set against any kind of change to long-established practices.

It led to the smouldering war between employers and employees which even a sympathetic witness, like Harold Wilson, noted in his 1945 study of the British coalmining industry. And which continued down to the catastrophic 1970s, when I grew up, and burst into flames during the great miners strike of 1984-5.

Barnett shows in unrelenting detail how all these ills derived directly from the unique conditions pertaining at the birth of the industrial revolution in the 1770s, and then never went away. In 1945 people were still living in damp, filthy slum terraces with no running water and no sewage facilities which had been built in 1800.

Thus was born the tradition of the British muddling through, while the Germans planned A Frenchman touring British industry between the wars noted that because of this lucky confluence of coal, iron and running water in key parts of Britain, from the start, an enterprising ‘master’ who could raise a little capital could just build a factory or works close to coal and iron deposits and on the nearest river to start making money.

Whereas in Germany and France, where iron, coal and water were not so conveniently placed together, potential industrialists had to carefully plan how to transport the raw materials they needed and how to process them to make the maximum profit from a more elaborate operation.

From the very start of their industrial revolutions, the French and Germans were forced to think and plan more carefully than the British, and so were motivated to set up technical and managerial colleges and courses to teach the skills of production management and planning – something which the British didn’t think of doing until generations later.

The workers the most reactionary force in society Reading Barnett’s innumerable accounts of the workers’ and trade unions’ stubborn resistance to any kind of change, to any kind of technological development or improvement in working practices, reading about their fierce opposition to women doing any work in the factories – all this forces on the reader the conclusion that – diametrically opposite to what Marx and all his followers down to E.P. Thompson claimed – the ‘working class’, far from being the spearhead, the avant-garde of society, was in fact the most conservative, small-minded, narrow and reactionary part of society.

This insight sheds new light on the entire kitchen sink, working class school of literature which grew up in the late 1950s / early 1960s and which I’ve been reading about in David Kynaston’s sequence of post-war histories. All the protagonists of those ‘new’ novels about working class life – in the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner or Saturday Night, Sunday Morning or Billy Liar – want to escape not just the poverty of their slums, but much more so the narrowness of expectation and the poverty of imagination, the profoundly repressive conservatism of the culture they’ve grown up in.

Reading Barnett gives you a whole new appreciation of the depth and scale of working class ignorance and fear of any change or innovation. From very early on, from the time of the Luddites, the appallingly mistreated workers in the cotton areas of Lancashire or coal minders learned to associate the introduction of any new machinery with layoffs and outright starvation. No wonder they resisted change. Change meant unemployment and inconceivable misery. Resistance to any kind of change became bred in the bone, an attitude which lasted for nearly 200 years (1770 to 1970).

Some doubts

1. Critical rhetoric

The impression given by the opening chapters which lampoon and satirise the high-minded feelings of a bien-pensant liberal elite gives the impression that the wish to create a welfare state, a national health service, and build decent housing was a vast conspiracy by the ruling class to foist feelgood social welfare on the nation.

It is rammed home by his strategy of repeating his ironic references to ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ and ‘New Jerusalemism’, and highlighting the exceptional privilege of the key opinion formers by emphasising how they all, from the Archbishop of Canterbury on down, went to jolly good private schools where they had imbibed what Barnett takes to be a fatal combination of high-minded Christian principles and profound ignorance of industry or trade.

In fact, all his facts and figures may well make an excoriating case, but I also noted his rhetorical devices, deploying a powerfully sarcastic vocabulary when describing the New Jerusalem do-gooders who are always described as ‘prophets’, zealous, they ‘proselytise’ with ‘quenchless fervour’, they conduct ‘New Jerusalem evangelism’ and have ‘visions’ of a Brave New World, in fact they act ‘on the best romantic principle that sense must bend to feeling, and facts to faith’ (p.37). It is a sustained rhetorical attack which helps to give the book its powerful emotional charge, much more so than is usual in a history book.

Sometimes his language becomes virulent and intemperate:

The message that it was no longer politically possible openly to try to block or stall New Jerusalem was thrust down Conservative throats by the results of six by-elections held that February, all held in Conservative seats. (p.31)

‘Thrust down Conservative throats’ is obviously emotive and loaded language. It sounds like the Gestapo have taken over. More temperate phrasing might have been to say that in six by-elections in February 1943 the Conservative vote dropped by 8% or so, which told party leaders that the national mood was moving in favour of Labour and its support of the Beveridge Plan. There need not be any ‘thrusting down throats’. It is symptomatic of the barely concealed anger and contempt which fuel the book and make it such a thrilling read.

2. Brings into question the nature of democracy

Barnett describes how the 1942 Beveridge Report was greeted with enthusiasm not only by the working class newspapers, the Daily Mirror and Herald, but by the Times and the Telegraph too i.e. by all shades of political opinion. He claims that those newspapers, along with the influential magazine Picture Post, the BBC, the ABCA, and a host of other organisations, have all been ‘captured’ by the ‘romantic delusions’ of the ‘New Jerusalemites’. In other words, at various points, he gives the impression that there was a kind of conspiracy to foist the new Jerusalem, the welfare state and the NHS on an unsuspecting public.

But, at some point, I think almost any reader will step back from Barnett’s virulent rhetoric, and be tempted to think – well, everything you say about the absolutely dire performance of British industry and the British economy is obviously correct; and everything you say about the entire war effort only existing because of huge American subsidies is true; and everything you say about a huge cross-section of society – from the Archbishop of Canterbury to communist coalminers – refusing to face these economic facts, and instead agreeing that a new society must be built after the war, is also true, but…

But that is what the people wanted. The people had fought for six long years. Hundreds of thousands died and lost their homes, the entire nation suffered from the blackout and rationing and the prolonged psychological impact of war. It was not altogether irrational of them to want all this sacrifice to have been for something. And those old enough to remember it emphatically did not want a repetition of the last war when the politicians promised a land fit for heroes and a few years later there was a great slump, unemployment and the slums stayed as wretched as ever.

Barnett’s interpretation may be 100% correct and the decision to spend on a welfare state may have been, from the purely economic point of view, a disastrous choice and waste of resources when the rational thing would have been to invest in a comprehensive overhaul of every aspect of Britain’s creaking infrastructure and lamentable industrial base.

But I can see at least three objections to his thesis:

  1. It was what the overwhelming majority of the population wanted and in a democracy, like it or not, you have to do what the majority vote for. To have resisted the calls for reform which swept over all aspects of British society in 1945 would have required a dictatorship.
  2. If it had not been done then, when would it have been done? If successive governments had embarked on the plan for complete economic overhaul which Barnett advocates, does he think the social and economic conditions which allowed the creation of a welfare state would have ever come again? It’s one thing to say you have to earn the money before you can spend it, any child can grasp that message. But in the enormously complicated running of a huge country, does he imagine that one year, five years, ten years later on, the same unity and determination to create a centralised welfare state and national health system would have still existed? I doubt it.
  3. Lastly, the very power of his case undermines itself. What I mean is that Barnett shows in harrowing detail how economic fragmentation, bad management, terrible industrial relations and an appalling education system had placed Britain fifty years behind America or Germany by 1939 and were far more profoundly and deeply rooted in every aspect of British culture than is usually thought. In which case: what makes him think that a mere five years of economic investment, directed by the same old Oxbridge-educated mandarins who had presided over the previous hundred years of decline, would have made very much difference? If the problem was really as deep-rooted as he very persuasively shows it to be, who knows whether even ten years, or fifteen years, of systematic retooling and investment would have been enough. Would anything have been enough to cure the British disease, short of asking the Germans to come and run our entire society for us?

Agree or disagree, this is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.

Related links

Modernity Britain: Opening the Box 1957–59 by David Kynaston (2014)

Opening the Box is the first book in volume three of David Kynaston’s epic social history of post-war Britain.

It opens on 10 January 1957 as Harold Macmillan drops by Buckingham Palace to be made Prime Minister, and ends on Friday 9 October 1959 as the final results show that the Conservatives have won a staggering majority of 100 in the General Election: so the book covers about two years and nine months of British domestic history.

I say ‘domestic’ because there is no, absolutely no, mention of the British Empire, the independence struggles / small wars the British Army was fighting, or the impact of foreign affairs on Britain. The Suez Crisis was dealt with briskly and briefly at the very end of the previous volume: this book is utterly focused on the domestic scene.

In its end points Kynaston provides the usual bombardment of quotations from hundreds of diverse sources, from housewives and soldiers, social planners and architects, young and thrusting writers and crusty old critics, politicians idealistic and cynical, commentators on rugby, cricket, soccer and horse-racing – alongside summaries of scores of numerous sociological reports and surveys carried out during these years into all aspects of social life, and social policy – on housing and new towns and flats, consumer behaviour, ideas of class, the family, and so on.

Unlike a traditional historian Kynaston skips quickly past even quite major political events from the period (and even these tend to be viewed through the prism of his diarists and journal keepers) in order to measure their impact on the ordinary men and women caught up in them.

This is his strength, his forte, the inclusion of so many contemporary voices – experts and ordinary, powerful and powerless – that immersing yourself in the vast tissue of quotes and voices, speeches and reports, diaries and newspaper articles, builds up a cumulative effect of making you feel you really know this period and have lived through these events. It is a powerful ‘immersive’ experience.

But in this, the fifth book in the series, I became increasingly conscious of a pronounced downside to this approach – which is that it lacks really deep analysis.

The experience of reading the book is to be continually skipping on from the FA Cup Final to the Epsom Derby to the domestic worries of Nella Last or Madge Martin to a snide note on the latest political developments by a well-placed observer like Anthony Crossland or Chips Channon, to a report by the town planners of Coventry or Plymouth alongside letters to the local press, to the notes of Anthony Heap, an inveterate attender of West End first nights, or the thoughts about the new consumer society of Michael Young, to the constant refrain of excerpts from the diaries of Kenneth Williams, Philip Larkin and even Macmillan himself.

This all undeniably gives you a panoramic overview of what was happening and, like the reader of any modern newspaper or consumer of a news feed, to some extent it’s up to you, the reader, to sift through the blizzard of voices and information and opinions and decide what is interesting or important to you.

The downside is that you never feel you’ve really got to the bottom of any of the issues. Even the big issues, the ones Kynaston treats at some length (20, 30, 40 pages) never really arrive at a conclusion.

The housing crisis

The housing crisis existed before the war, as social reformers became increasingly aware of just how many millions of British citizens were living in squalid, damp, unlit, unventilated Victorian slums with no running water, baths and only outside toilets – the kind of conditions reported on by George Orwell among others. But the situation was, of course, greatly exacerbated by the German blitz on most of Britain’s major cities, from Plymouth to Glasgow. By 1957 it was estimated there were some 850,000 dwellings unfit for human habitation in the UK.

The result was city councils who were well aware of the need to modernise their cities, to get rid of the old slums and rebuild not only houses but, potentially, the entire layout of the cities. Arguably this was the key issue for a generation after the war and Kynaston reverts to it repeatedly. He quotes town planners and architects as they engaged in fundamental debates about how to go about this task, the most obvious division being between ‘urbanists’, who thought working class communities should be rehoused within the city boundaries, if possible close to or on the same location as the existing slums, once they’d been demolished and new houses built – and ‘dispersionists’, who thought a large percentage of big city populations should be moved right out of the inner cities to a) brand new model estates built on the outskirts of the city, like Pollok outside Glasgow or b) to new towns, overspill towns built 20, 30 or 40 miles away, which could be planned and designed rationally from scratch (places like Stevenage or Harlow).

This debate overlapped with another binary set of alternatives: whether to re-accommodate people in houses or in blocks of flats, with barrages of argument on both sides.

Proponents of flats made the simple case that building vertically was the only way to accommodate such large populations a) quickly b) within the limited space within city borders. They were backed up by zealously modernist architects who had an ideological attachment to the teachings of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus and thought, at their most extreme, that the new designs for living would change human nature and bring about a new, more egalitarian society. So aesthetics and radical politics were poisonously intertwined in the strong push towards flats.

Ranged against them were a) the tenants, who didn’t want to move into flats, pointing out that flats:

  • are noisy and poorly sound-proofed
  • have no privacy
  • have no gardens
  • so that the kids have to be penned up inside them (‘awful places for families to live in’ – diarist Marian Raynham)
  • the rents are higher

And b) the more conservative or sensitive architects and planners who recognised the simple fact – which comes over in survey after survey after survey that Kynaston quotes – that people wanted a house of their own. Interestingly, this wish turns out to itself be based on an even simpler idea – that almost everyone interviewed in numerous surveys, by writers and newspaper journalists – wanted privacy.

  • ‘I think that the natural way for people to live is in houses,’ Mrs E. Denington, vice-chair of the London County Council’s Housing Committee.
  • ‘Houses are preferred because they are more suitable for family life,’ Hilary Clark, deputy housing manager Wolverhampton

Kynaston emphasises that the years covered in his book were the tipping point.

1958 was the year when modernism indisputably entered the mainstream. (p.129)

During 1958 it became almost a cliché that London’s skyline was changing dramatically. (p.132)

Through the four books so far, and in this one as well, Kynaston gives extensive quotes from slum-dwellers, flat occupiers, new home owners, planners, designers, architects and the sociologists who produced report after report trying to clarify what people wanted and so help shape decisions on the issue.

But – and here’s my point – we never really get to the bottom of the problem. Kynaston quotes extensively and then… moves on to talk about Tommy Steele or the new Carry On film. But I wanted answers. I wanted to hear his opinion. I wanted a systematic exposition of the issues, history and debate which would lead up to conclusions about how we now see it, looking back 65 years.

But there is nothing like that. Kynaston just describes the debate as it unfolded, through the words of reports and surveys and sociologists and architects. But his debate never reaches a conclusion. And after a while that gets a bit frustrating.

Industrial relations

The 1945 Labour government famously nationalised a range of major industries and then, just as famously, ran out of ideas and lost the snap 1951 election.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s industrial relations remained poor, with Kynaston repeatedly mentioning outbreaks of strikes, sometimes on a big enough scale (like the London dockers strike of 1949) to affect food supplies and spark a range of outraged opinions in the housewife diarists who are among his core contributors.

As the 1950s progress we get snippets of middle class people taking student or holiday jobs down among the working classes and being shocked by the widespread slackness and the culture of skiving which they discover. To balance the picture out, he also gives us, from time to time, vivid portraits of some of the ‘captains of industry’, heads of large companies who turn out to be eccentrics or egomaniacs.

Altogether, as usual, the reader has a vivid sense of the feel of the times and the experiences of a wide range of people living through them. But there are no ideas about industrial policy, trade union legislation, its impact on industry, the economy and the Labour Party which was often seen as being in thrall to stroppy and irresponsibly organisations.

In fact I did glean one idea from reading well over 1,500 pages of Kynaston’s history: this is that around about 1950, the British government and British industry had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the industrial and commercial advantage across a wide range of industrial and consumer goods. German and Japanese industry still lay prostrate after the war and the Americans were focusing on their home markets. If the right investment had been channelled by a capitalist-minded government into the right industries, and if Britain had adopted German-style industrial relations (e.g. having worker representatives on the boards of companies) to ensure unified focus on rebuilding, then Britain might have anticipated what became known as ‘the German economic miracle’.

But it didn’t. The trade unions preferred the freedom of collective bargaining (i.e. found it more convenient to be outside management structure so that they could blame the management for everything and go on strike whenever it suited them), the Labour government was more concerned about a Socialist-inspired programme of nationalising industries in the hope of creating ‘the New Jerusalem’, and many managements found selling the same old products to the captive markets of the Empire and Commonwealth far easier than trying to create new products to market in Europe or America.

At all levels there was a failure of nerve and imagination, which condemned Britain to decades of industrial decline.

The catch is: this isn’t Kynaston’s idea – he quotes it from Correlli Barnett’s searing history of post-war failure, The Audit of War. In a nutshell, Kyanston’s wonderful books present the reader with a Christmas pudding stuffed with a vast multitude of factoids and snippets and post-war trivia and gossip and impressions deriving from an incredibly wide array of eye witnesses. But it is precious thin on ideas and analysis, and at the end of the day, it’s the big idea, the thesis, the interpretation which we tend to remember from history books.

The consumer society

This volume definitely depicts the arrival and triumph of ‘the consumer society’. I had thought it was a later phenomenon, of the 1960s, but no. By 1957 56% of adults owned a TV set, 26% a washing machine, 21% a telephone, only 12% a dishwasher, and 24% of the population owned a car. Aggressive new advertising campaigns promoted Fry’s Turkish Delight, Ready Brek, Gibbs SR, Old Spice, the Hoovermatic twin tub, Camay soap and Blue Band margarine.

People faced with ever-widening products to choose from need advice: hence the Egon Ronay Guide to restaurants, launched in 1957, followed in October by Which? magazine.

Even Mass-Observation, which started with such socialist ambitions in 1937, and has provided Kynaston with such a wealth of sociological material for the previous four books, had, by now, become ‘an organisation devoted to market research rather than sociological enquiry.’



  • January – Bolton Wanderers beat Leeds United 5-3, the third series of Dixon of Dock Green kicks off, the Cavern nightclub opens in Liverpool, Manchester United beat Bilbao 3-0 to go into the semi-finals of the European Cup, Lawrence Durrell publishes Justine, Flanders and Swann open a musical review at the Fortune theatre, strike at the Briggs motor plant, 20-year-old Tommy Steele continues to be a showbiz sensation, end of the Toddlers’ Truce the government-enforced ban on children’s TV programmes between 6 and 7pm,
  • February – launch of BBC’s weekday new programme Tonight, publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, publication of Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott (‘urbanists’ arguing that extended kinship networks in Bethnal Green provide emotional and practical support which Bethnal Greenites who’d moved out to new estates in Debden missed),
  • March – the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition visited by the Queen and Prince Philip, a Gallup survey showed 48% wanted to emigrate, start of big shipbuilding and engineering union strikes,
  • April – opening night of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer
  • May – Manchester United lose the FA Cup Final 2-1 to Aston Villa, petrol comes off the ration after five months
  • June – British Medical Council report linking smoking to lung cancer (reinforcing Richard Doll’s groundbreaking 1950 report) the government refuses to intervene; ERNIE makes the first Premium Bonds random draw, brainchild of Harold Macmillan; end of the pioneering photojournalistic magazine Picture Post founded in 1938, whose star photographer was Bert Hardy;
  • 20 July Prime Minister Harold Macmillan speaks at a Tory rally in Bedford to mark 25 years’ service by Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, as MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and claims that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’; national busman’s strike; publication of Room at the Top by John Braine.
  • September – the Wolfenden Report recommends the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private; Ted Hughes’ first volume of poetry, The Hawk In The Rain, published; film version of Lucky Jim released, criticised for watering down the book’s realism
  • October – at Labour Party conference Nye Bevan comes out against nuclear disarmament, disillusioning his followers and creating a rift between the party and much of the left-leaning intelligentsia; 4 October Sputnik launched into orbit by the Russians; fire at the Windscale nuclear power plant; publication of Declaration, an anthology of essays by Angry Young Men (and one woman): Doris Lessing, Colin Wilson, John Osborne, John Wain, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Hopkins, Lindsay Anderson and Stuart Holroyd.
  • November – top of the charts is That’ll Be The Day by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; the Russians launch a second satellite, this one with a dog, Laika, aboard; the General Post Office introduces postal codes; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament set up in response to Britain’s detonation of a H-bomb;
  • December – the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast, from Sandringham;


  • resignation of the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft after his insistence that government spending should be cut was rejected; launch if Bunty comic for girls
  • February – launch of Woman’s Realm magazine; 6 February the Munich Air Disaster in which a plane carrying the Manchester United football team, support staff and eight journalists crashed on take-off, killing 23;
  • March 1 BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop opens;
  • April – publication of Parkinson’s Law and Dr No; first CND march to Aldermaston; Balthazar, second volume in The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Raymond’s Revuebar opens in Soho; London bus strike;
  • May first performance of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker;
  • July The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates; introduction of Green Shield Stamps; the first Little Chef; the Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff;
  • August – release of the first single by Cliff Richard; Kenton and Shula Archer born; the Empire theatre in Portsmouth closes down, replaced by a supermarket; Notting Hill Riots, the most serious public disorder of the decade, petrol bombs, knives, razors, huge mobs chanting ‘Kill the niggers’ – the race problem Winston Churchill had fretted about in 1951 had arrive with a vengeance with about 165,000 non-white immigrants living in the UK; coincidentally, the launch of The Black and White Minstrel Show; Christopher Mayhew presents a TV series titled Does Class Matter?
  • September – Carry On, Sergeant, first of the Carry On films, released; publication of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, which more or less founded ‘cultural studies’;
  • October – first editions of Grandstand and Blue Peter;
  • November – publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young;
  • December 3 National Coal Board announces the closure of 36 coal mines, as a result of falling demand due to coal being ‘brutally undercut’ by oil (p.236); 5 December Macmillan opens the 8.5-mile-long Preston bypass, first stretch of motorway in England, which will become part of the M6; John Betjeman’s Collected Poems published, representing one strand of middle class culture, while A Bear Called Paddington is published, first in a series of books, plays and films which continues to this day; 30 the government announces the full convertibility of the pound, meaning it won’t have to run down gold stocks defending it, but at the same time becomes vulnerable to speculation;


  • January Henry Cooper becomes British and British Empire heavyweight champion;
  • February 3 Buddy Holly dies aged 22; film version of Room at the Top released marking ‘the start of the British new Wave in the cinema’; debut of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East; March To Aldermaston a documentary about the 1958 march, edited by Lindsay Anderson with Richard Burton reading Christopher Logue’s script;
  • March release of Carlton-Brown of the Foreign Office starring Terry-Thomas; the year’s most popular film, Carry On Nurse; Goldfinger published, the seventh James Bond novel; march from Aldermaston to London; expansionary Budget;
  • May: C.P. Snow gives his lecture about the two cultures (ie most people who run things knowing masses about the arts and nothing about science); Sapphire directed by Basil Dearden is a whodunnit with strong racial overtones; 17th a black student Kelso Cochrane is stabbed to death in Notting Hill leading to raised tensions in West London and ‘Keep Britain White’ rallies and worried reports about the lack of ‘racial integration’ in Birmingham;
  • June
  • July: The Teenage Consumer, a pamphlet by Mark Abrams defining them as aged 15-24 and unmarried;
  • August: Cliff Richard number 1 with Livin’ Doll; President Eisenhower makes a state visit and is on TV chatting with Harold Macmillan;
  • September: City of Spades by Colin McInnes and Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse published;
  • October: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe; Noggin the Nog created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin; and the General Election: Conservatives win 49.4% of the vote and 365 seats, Labour 43.8% and 258, the Liberals 6, giving the Conservatives an overall majority of 100.

Studies and surveys

Being a list of the studies and surveys carried out during the period by sociologists, universities, newspapers and polling organisations:

  • 1954 Early Leaving a study of who left state school early, and why (children of the unskilled working class made up 20% of grammar school intake but only 7% of sixth forms)
  • 1957 Abrams study of 200 working class married couples (they lacked the ambition required to push their children on to further education)
  • 1958 Edward Blishen survey of TV’s impact on families (too much violence; difficult to get the kids to go to bed afterwards)
  • 1958 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed 250 families who’d moved to an overspill estate in Worsley from Salford
  • 1959 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed families who’d moved to Swindon
  • Floud et al study of grammar schools in Hertfordshire and Middlesborough (over half of working class parents wanted no further education for their children after school)
  • Margot Jeffreys interviewed housewives in an out-county LCC estate in Hertfordshire (1954-5)
  • 1957 Maurice Broady conducted interviews on the huge Pollok estate outside Glasgow
  • Eve Bene survey of 361 London grammar school boys on attitudes and expectations (45% of working class kids wanted to stay on past 16, compared with 65% of middle class pupils)
  • 1958 Ruth Glass investigation of racial prejudice
  • 1958 Geoffrey Gorer study of television viewing habits (families don’t talk as much)
  • 1958 Television and the Child by Hilde Himmelweit (kids routinely watch TV till it stops, TV is a great stimulator but fleetingly, shallowly)
  • 1962 Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden Education and the Working Class a study of 88 working class kids in Huddersfield who went to grammar school (charts the parents’ progressive incomprehension of what their children are studying)
  • 1958 The Boss by Roy Lewis and Rosemary Stewart, about the social background of captains of industry e.g. family connections and public school still paramount
  • 1959 The Crowther Report, 15 to 18 (children of unskilled working class over-represented, the kids of non-manual workers under-represented: i.e. they were a sink of the poorest)
  • 1959 Ferdynand Zweig survey of working class men and their attitudes to washing machines
  • 1960 Michael Carter survey of 200 secondary modern schoolchildren as they left school
  • 1961 William Liversidge survey of grammar school and secondary modern school leavers

Patronising and condescending

Although Kynaston several times harps on the fact that Macmillan (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963) was an Old Etonian, that his first Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, was another old Etonian and when he was sacked he was replaced by Derick Heathcoat Amory, another old Etonian, that in fact nearly half of the Macmillan cabinet went to Eton – there turns out to be surprisingly less condescension and patronage from these phenomenally upper-class toffs as you’d imagine. In fact the reverse: Macmillan’s diaries worry about all aspects of the political and international scene but when he tours the country and meets people, I was rather touched by his genuine concern.

No, the really condescending and patronising comments come, as so often, not from the politicians (who, after all, had to be careful what they said) but from the intellectual ‘elite’, from the writers and cultural commentators and architects who all too often looked right down their noses at the ghastly taste and appalling interests of the proles.


Throughout the book, most of the modern architects regard themselves as experts on human nature, experts on what people want, and are bravely, boldly undeterred by the actually expressed opinions of real people in places like public meetings, letters to newspapers and suchlike bourgeois distractions. Alison and Peter Smithson were among the leaders of the British school of Brutalism. For them architecture was an ethic and an art. As Alison wrote: ‘My act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use.’ They helped to develop the notion of ‘streets in the sky’, that ‘communities’ could be recreated on concrete walkways suspended between blocks of flats, a form of ‘urbanism that abandoned the primacy of the ground plane in favour of a rich spatial interplay of different layers of activity’.

No matter that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people opposed these plans. The architect knows best. And the planners. Kynaston lists scores of chief architects and planners in cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry, London, who oversaw a quickening pace of mass demolitions, of slums, of old buildings of all kinds, in order to widen roads, create urban dual carriageways, build new blocks of flats, taller, more gleaming, more visionary, streets in the sky! And if the poor proles who would then be shepherded into these badly built, dark, leaky, anti-social blocks murmured their reluctance, they were ignored, and patronised. Kynaston quotes an article written by Raphael Samuel on the Labour council of Aberdare in South Wales who devised a plan to demolish a third of the town’s houses despite vehement opposition from the inhabitants.

The Glamorgan planners did not set out to destroy a community. They wanted to attack the slums and give to the people of Aberdare the best of the open space and the amenities which modern lay-out can provide. It did not occur to them that there could be any opposition to a scheme informed by such benevolent intentions; and, when it came, they could only condemn it as ‘myopic’. (quoted page 320)

My point is – neither the planners nor architects who refused to listen to ordinary people were Old Etonians; the opposite; they tended to be locally-born, Labour-voting architects and administrators which made their frustration with their own people’s obstinacy all the more pointed.


The situation was different in the humanities where the most vociferous Marxists tended to have had staggeringly privileged upbringings. Take the Marxists historians E.P. Thompson (educated at the Dragon Preparatory School in Oxford, Kingswood private School in Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and Christopher Hill (St Peter’s Private School, York and Balliol College, Oxford), they took it on themselves and their tiny cohort of like-minded communists and academics, to define what the working classes really wanted, and it turned out it wasn’t clean accommodation with hot and cold running water, a washing machine and a nippy new car out the front – Thompson and Hill knew that the working classes really wanted to create a new kind of man for the modern age!

Thus Kynaston ironically quotes E.P. Thompson ticking off Labour politician Anthony Crosland for the crime of suggesting, in his pamphlet The Future of Socialism, that after a decade of austerity and rationing what the people wanted was cafés, bright lights and fun. No no no, lectures Thompson:

Men do not only want the list of things which Mr Crosland offers; they want also to change themselves as men.

Says who? Says Edward Thompson, Kingswood School Corpus Christi College.

However fitfully and ineffectually, they want other and greater things; they want to stop killing one another; they want to stop this pollution of their spiritual life which runs through society as rivers carried their sewage and refuse throughout nineteenth-century industrial towns.

‘This pollution of their spiritual life’ – Thompson is talking about television, specifically ITV, which was polluting the working class with poisons like Gunsmoke and Opportunity Knocks. The actual working class has always been a terrible disappointment to men like Thompson and Hill. Kynaston details at length their agonising about whether to leave the communist party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then how they go on to set up independent Marxist magazines and write articles for other like-minded over-educated academics who fondly thought their little articles made a bit of difference to anything.

But it wasn’t just the privately educated Marxists, genuine men of the people like playwright Arnold Wesker, son of a cook and a tailor’s machinist, who had a really tough upbringing and meagre education in  Stepney and Hackney. He is quoted as attending a left-wing meeting addressed by Raymond Williams (grammar school and Trinity College, Cambridge), author of the pioneering book Culture and Society and then Labour front-bencher Richard Crossman (Winchester and new College), who wrote a column in the Daily Mirror. This is Wesker describing the meeting in a letter to his wife:

How could he, as a Socialist, support a paper [the Mirror], which, for its vulgarity, was an insult to the mind of the working class; a paper which painted a glossy, film-star world. (quoted p.143)

The point is that, at this distance, I admire Crossman for writing a column in the Mirror, the bestselling newspaper of its day i.e. the most-read by the ‘working classes’ – for addressing the world as it is, for making the most of it, and find it hard not to dislike Wesker for his arrogance: ‘the mind of the working class’ – where is that exactly? how does he, Wesker, know what ‘the mind of the working class’ is thinking, or wants?

A little later Kynaston quotes the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (Charterhouse and Jesus College, Cambridge) who wrote a series of articles about television in which ‘he came down hard on working class viewers’:

Not only did they eschew ‘topical programmes, discussions and brains trusts, serious music and ballet,’ instead obstinately preferring ‘films and serials, variety and quizzes’, but almost half of them were ‘addicts’ (defined as watching at least four hours a night), with as a result ‘all sense of proportion lost in their gross indulgence, and their family life, if not wrecked, at least emptied of nearly all its richness and warmth.’ (p.152)

My point being that is it not Macmillan and his Old Etonian chums saying this; it was left wing architects, planners, historians, intellectuals, writers, anthropologists and sociologists who were most critical and patronising of the actual working class as it actually existed (despairing that ‘the workers’ were not the idealised heroes of communist propaganda, but lazy blokes who liked to drink beer from cans in front of the Benny Hill show).


There is a similar sense of disconnect on the issue of race and immigration, which Kynaston explores in some detail à propos the Notting Hill Riots of August 1958.

He shows how almost all the reporters, journalists, sociologists and so on who visited Notting Hill and other areas with high immigrant populations (the West Midlands was the other hotspot) discovered, not the virulent hatred of the American South, but nonetheless consistent opinions that immigrants got unfair advance on the housing waiting lists, exploited the benefits system, lived in overcrowded houses and made a lot of noise – all leading to a strong groundswell of popular opinion that immigration needed to be controlled. (There were 2,000 immigrants from Commonwealth countries in 1953, 11,000 in 1954, 40,000 by 1957).

But all the leading politicians, and most MPs, stood firmly against introducing immigration restrictions and were careful not to blame or stigmatise the coloured communities, even when there were gross incidents of racially aggravated riots, like at Notting Hill. The politicians realised it would be very difficult to devise any form of immigration control which wasn’t, on some level, based on the fact that you were trying to stop people with black skins entering the country i.e. naked racism, tantamount to apartheid in Wedgwood Benn’s opinion.

The handful of Tory MPs who did call for restrictions accompanied were shouted down. At one parliamentary meeting, one Tory MP, Cyril Osborne, accompanied his calls with accusations that blacks were lazy, sick or criminal, and drew down such a tsunami of criticism that he was reduced to tears. All MPs observing this realised that immigration was not a topic to speak out on. If any mention was made of it, it must be in the most positive and emollient terms. Thus the political class, the men who ruled the country, painted themselves into a position where free and frank debate of the issue was impossible.

But the actual population of the country, ‘the people’ which all parties claimed to speak for, disagreed. There is a surprising paucity of sociological research, field studies and surveys on the subject (compared with the welter of research done into the endlessly fascinating subject of ‘class’). But Kynaston quotes a Gallup poll taken at the time of the riots, in August 1958, which revealed that:

  • 71% disapproved of mixed marriages
  • 61% would consider moving if significant numbers of coloured people moved into their neighbourhood
  • 55% wanted restrictions on non-white immigration
  • 54% didn’t want people from the Commonwealth put on housing waiting lists on the same level with locals

People’s opinions were simply ignored. The rulers of the country knew best. No attempt was made to limit immigration which continued to grow throughout the 1960s and indeed up to the present day, which has resulted in our present blissful political situation.

Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Austerity Britain: Smoke in the Valley, 1948–51 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contained two books:

This is a review, or notes on, book two of volume one, Austerity Britain: Smoke in The Valley, which covers the years 1948 to 1951 i.e. from the inauguration of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948 to Labour’s defeat in the October 1951 general election.

In 1940 Somerset Maugham published a collection of short stories titled The Mixture As BeforeSmoke in the Valley continues with the mixture exactly as before, carrying right on with exactly the same approach as its predecessor, mixing daily diary entries from the core of housewives, teachers and minor civil servants which he used in the first book, along with notes and memoirs of more senior political figures involved in the big issues of the day, and the third element is the reports and findings of ‘experts’ – the observers of Mass Observation, and reports and papers by economists and sociologists.

The book continues seamlessly on from its predecessor, with no preface or introduction, the opening paragraphs leaping straight in to describe the opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games held after the war, in London. This took place on Thursday 29 July 1948, only three weeks after the National Health Service came into operation – a celebration of health following straight on from a recognition of the nation’s massive unhealth.

The few pages about the Olympics lead onto a description of that year’s Bank Holiday weekend with trippers heading to the warm seaside, then onto the way the holiday was marked by some of the earliest race riots in England, starting in Liverpool white gangs attacked an Indian restaurant and then groups of blacks in the street. Then Kynaston describes Don Bradman playing his last Test match at the Oval on 14 August, then we’re on to Nella Last, housewife in Barrow, queueing for rationed food and grumbling, and then a consideration of that evening’s wireless programmes on the BBC Light Programme and then onto the first professional win, a few weeks later, by the 12-year-old Wunderkind jockey, Lester Piggott.

Thus the opening pages declare that it will follow A World to Build in being a social history of the period, which follows the people’s priorities i.e. sport and food, and that the dominating note is the people’s experience of austerity, dinginess and impoverishment, mental and physical. As Gladys Langford, a schoolteacher in North London, complains:

Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby, and their tables are bare,

But as winter 1948 turned to spring 1949 rationing, for the first time, began to ease off. All consumer goods were still expensive, but there was a ‘bonfire of restrictions,’ supervised by the young and canny Harold Wilson, President of the Board of Trade, who knew how much good that catchphrase and the public ending of some ration restrictions would do his own political career. In April 1949, after seven years, sweets came off the ration (though there was such a burst of demand, that they went back on in August).

Domestically, a major ideological struggle opened up within the Labour Party between the ‘consolidators’ who thought most of its work had been done by 1948, and the ‘continuers’, led by Nye Bevan, who thought there was much left to do, though they were a little short on the details of what.

Iron and steel nationalisation proved the last and most difficult of the nationalisations to carry out, but the book powerfully conveys the sense, even among its own activists and think tank wonks, that the Labour government had run out of steam and ideas.

I learned that the NHS almost immediately went over budget, revealing the previously unsuspected depths of poverty and ill health throughout Britain.

The Cold War deepened with the establishment, in April 1949, of NATO as an explicitly anti-Soviet alliance.

The fundamental economic weakness of Britain was exposed by the Devaluation crisis when the pound sterling was devalued from $4.03 to $2.80 in 19 September 1949. Britain had to negotiate a loan from the U.S. which we were still paying off at the beginning of this (the 21st) century.

Kynaston paints a vivid picture of how it felt to be living in Britain during these years, though – in terms of history – I could have done with a clearer explanation of why – really clearly laying out the economic fundamentals of the weakness of sterling and the need for all products to be chanelled into an export drive which left pitifully little left for domestic consumers. I deduced this from the book, but it was nowhere really explained.

The cast

As well as continuing with the well-known voices from book one such as the housewives Nella Last, Vere Hodgson, Marian Raynham, Judy Haines and the author of a regular ‘Letter to America’, Mollie Panter-Downes, we are introduced to new members of the cast, including:

  • Michael Blakemore, Australian actor
  • Stewart Dalton, grew up on a council estate in Sheffield
  • Ian Dury, catching polio in Southend open air swimming pool aged 7
  • Alec Cairncross, stern adviser to Harold Wilson
  • Valeie Gisborne, 16-year-old employee who goes on a Leicester clothing factory outing
  • Cynthia Gladwyn, diarist
  • Frankie Howerd, up and coming comedian
  • Harold Hamer, President of the Association of Headmasters, Headmistresses, and Matrons of Approved Schools
  • Evelyn S. Kerr of Gidea Park, Essex
  • John Mays, sociologist
  • Paul Vaughan, BBC science broadcaster

among many more.

Culture high and low

One of the joys of the book is the happy acceptance of low or popular culture placed right next to the Big Political Issues. Thus we learn that Noddy Goes To Toyland, the first of the Noddy stories, was published in late 1949. On the third Monday of 1950, at 1.45pm on the Light programme, Listen With Mother began.

Here’s an example of Kynaston’s strategy of interweaving high and low: He starts a section with a summary and brief analysis of the 1949 film The Blue Lamp, which helped to make young Dirk Bogarde a star – before moving on to consider the results of a number of sociological studies carried out at the time into crime rates, and the best form of policing – before naturally segueing into something that was considered then and ever since as a major brake on crime, National Service. Between 1945 and 1960 some 2.5 million men were called up. Why? To police the British Empire, although many of them, when they saw what it amounted to, i.e. repressing native movements for independence, came back as fierce critics.

This gives an idea of how the text flows fluently and easily from one topic to the next, from the ‘trivial’ to the weighty – carrying you effortlessly through brief summaries of the political, economic, social and cultural highlights and issues of the day.

However, the obvious risk is that the whole thing, immensely lengthy and stuffed with anecdote and story though it is, nonetheless comes over as superficial. As mentioned above, despite reading 650 pages of detail I don’t really understand why Britain’s economy remained so weak for so long after the war, or why rationing continued for so long.

Similarly, the little section on National Service is interesting, but there is nothing at all about the massive events of the independence of India/Pakistan (15 August 1947) or Israel (14 May 1948). I appreciate that this is a history of Britain but there must have been some domestic response, from British Jews, say, or the politicians and civil servants involved. But events from the empire are glossed over in almost complete silence.

More social sciencey

Also, having started off in the same vein as its predecessor, I think Smoke in the Valley betrays a noticable shift in content i.e. the nature of the contributors.

In this volume there felt to be more material from and about ‘experts’ than in the first book, from- for example – a steady stream of contemporary economists and, in particular, summaries of more polls and surveys – from his central and abiding source of information about attitudes, Mass-Observation, but also from new polling companies such as Gallup, or Research Services Ltd run by Mark Abrams.

Thus we hear a lot from Ferdynand Zweig, a Polish émigré sociologist, who did extensive fieldwork for a series of books whose findings Kynaston liberally quotes, namely Labour, Life and Poverty (1948), Men in the Pits (1948), The British Worker (1952) and Women’s Life and Labour.

Other sociologists and social scientists quoted and referenced include:

  • Norah M. Davis, University of London psychologist, 1946 study of 400 building workers
  • Allan Flanders, author of The System of Industrial relations in Great Britain
  • Geoffrey Thomas of The Social Survey, author of Incentives in Industry
  • Stanislas Wellisz, industrial sociologist
  • the Acton Society Trust
  • Coal is Our Life (1956) by sociologists Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques, Clifford Slaughter
  • Hilde Himmelweit’s study of 13 and 14-year-old boys at state schools
  • K.C. Wiggans, author of a 1950 survey of life and living conditions in Wallsend, Newcastle
  • The 1948 sociological study of Coventry carried out by Birmingham University

The main point

Maybe this reflects the way that, if the period 1945-48 was about rebuilding a ruined society, 1948 to 1951 was much more about trying to rebuild a ruined economy.

If the lasting impression of A World to Build is of rationing, austerity and impoverishment, the dominant theme of this volume is the failure of planning and investment. As he introduces this theme Kynaston refers repeatedly to Correlli Barnett’s scathing indictment of the post-war government, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, published in 1986.

The general idea is that in every conceivable way the British government muffed the opportunity to rethink and retool Britain for her role in the post-war world. All the senior figures in the Labour Goverment agreed that Britain needed a seat at the top table, needed a nuclear capability, must cling on to her empire. This resulted in the cost of Britain fighting to repress small wars of independence around the globe (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya – though none of these feature in the book) and led to decades of self-delusion.

Economically, in about 1950 Britain had a window of opportunity to systematically invest in its industry and infrastructure, but catastrophically failed. While Germany and Japan rebuilt their manufacturing sector from scratch, while the French embarked on a well-funded programme to make its railways the best in Europe, the Labour government nationalised the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ and then chronically failed to invest – in manufacturing, in railways or roads, in telecommunications or higher education.

The clash between the actual strength of the economy, and politicians’ delusions as to Britain’s role in the world issue, was highlighted when the Korean War broke out.

As soon as the government heard about it, all the Labour ministers lined up as one to immediately support the USA, and what became the UN response, to Korean aggression. The Labour government saw that, in the environment of the worsening Cold War, Britain needed to show unflinching solidarity with America, but also that by leaping in to support South Korea, Britain maintained the impression that it was still a global player with global interests to protect.

But critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether the money that was then redirected into war production (the MoD budget doubled as a result of the Korean War), and for the next three years, came at exactly the wrong time and delayed or derailed the investment which was so badly needed in home infrastructure.

The problems of domestic industry are exemplified in the fascinating little section on Britain’s motor industry which – despite all the bad things I grew up hearing about it in the 1970s – back in the post-war decade was still the largest car exporter in the world. It was fascinating to read about the plants of the different motor manufacturers in Dagenham, Luton, Cowley and so on, the particular brands of cars they made, and the oddities and shortcomings of the various owners and managing directors.

These are indicative of the way the failure of government to invest in new infrastructure went hand in hand with the pitiful amateurism to be found in lots of British industry, which was led by sons or relatives of founders, or chaps who went to the right school, or were members of the right gold club, a tendency raised to a rule in the stuffy and parochial world of the City of London.

Away from the housewives and films and FA Cup Finals, at a deeper level, when he looks at the economy, government, industry and finance, Kynaston paints a grim picture of the start of the Long Decline which lasted well into the 1970s, arguably into the 1980s.


Quite a few writers were quoted in the previous volume. In this one we hear for the first time from:

  • Alan Sillitoe b.1928 – author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
  • Hunter Davies b.1936 – author, journalist and broadcaster, grew up in Carlisle
  • Walter Greenwood b.1903 in Salford, famous for Love on the Dole
  • Norman Hunter, author of the hit play Waters of the Moon

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