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Review: The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010

Updated Tuesday 6th May 2014

Selina Todd's book can take its place alongside EP Thompson and Owen Jones, says Ruth Percy.

The cover of The People Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: John Murray Publishers The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 by Selina Todd; published by John Murray Todd's book is a thoroughly researched, well-written, ambitious, and engaging study, and in that it belongs on shelves along with E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. But it is also political. It speaks to contemporary debates about the 'deserving' versus the 'feckless' poor—debates that continued throughout the century—and exposes the inequalities of the capitalist system and in that it also belongs on shelves along with Owen Jones' Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Todd's is a book about the nature of class in British society and about a century of class struggle. In many ways this isn't just a story of the working class, but a story of class in Britain.

As an academic book this is well crafted. Todd creatively uses a wide variety of sources to paint a diverse and comprehensive picture. She relies heavily on oral histories, for the most part ones that have been collected by various researchers and studies over the years, although she and her research assistant also conducted some themselves. This method enables her not only to construct a history that the reader can relate to on an individual level, but also to highlight a wide range of oral history collections readily available for others to use. The centrality of these oral histories also enables Todd to successfully combine local and individual stories of work, family, and community with a broader national story.

Telling a national story through the lens of these individual lives allows Todd to draw the reader in on an emotional level. Instead of being abstract, the effect of not being able to afford to see a doctor, redundancies, or the endless wait for a council house has far greater resonance, and this is where Todd's political message comes. This is not a polemical book, far from it, but it does clearly critique the capitalist dream, and in doing so is particularly timely, being published a month after Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century.

Todd's argument is manifold. In focusing on working-class lives, and telling the story through the eyes of individuals, Todd debunks various myths that have been constructed, of the affluence of the 1950s or the destructive power of the workers' greed of the 1970s, for example. Elsewhere, she emphasises the importance of trade unions and challenges the idea that they are simply destructive and their power should be limited. Indeed, for the majority of the century, trade unions were the only real workers' representative to have a voice at the table, even if they did so without being a parliamentary party: "it was through trade unions that these workers participated in the democratic society in which they lived".

Early on, Todd challenges the idea that the century began with a fragmented working class made up of a semi- or unskilled industrial working class, a skilled (male) working class, an isolated servant class, and a home-based family that lived separate lives. Instead she demonstrates the ways in which these were all members of a single working class, thoroughly integrated through family networks and local communities and sharing a constant underlying anxiety over job security, a theme that continues throughout the book. This depiction of a singular working class counters the recent trend of highlighting diversity among the working classes (plural) and connects to another way in which Todd is returning to a class-centred analysis of British history. Several reviews have positioned this book as a return to class in a historiography that has rejected class as the defining characteristic of twentieth century Britain in favour of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and other identity politics.

Todd shows that identity politics were certainly a part of this story, but that class was the defining identity—when servants bobbed their hair, wore make-up and stockings it was as much about asserting independence in a work-place environment, about resisting the dominance of their employers, as it was about the strength of consumer culture and a new gender identity for working class women. Through the 'interludes'—short sections that follow the life of 1961 £152,000 pool's winner Viv Nicholson—we see that these alternative personal identities have a much shallower base than class. While Todd notes in the introduction that the interludes serve to give a story 'so markedly different from the archetypal narrative of the "traditional" working class, striving for either respectability or revolution' they also reveal the strength of class identity. In that sense Viv's story is no different from the others featured throughout the book. It is Viv's class identity that both encourages her to spend, spend, spend in the first place and to ultimately realise that "work … defined who you were", and she was never going to escape her working class roots.

This is a book about ordinary people, not only about the radicals, the union leaders, the winners of strikes who leave more sources and thus have a greater presence in history books. Todd depicts every aspect of the people's lives and in doing so provides an unusually complete picture of working class life, both highs and lows. We can smile along with the protagonists as they win strikes, benefit from free health care for the first time, or do well at school, or get angry with them as they lose benefits, are ignored by the political class, or are laid off.

But there is also a far bigger story than these individual experiences. Todd successfully manages not only to talk about Britain's working classes in isolation, but to locate them in a familiar story of twentieth-century Britain. Thus we read of World War I, expanding suffrage in the inter-war years, the 1930s depression, and World War II, then the 'affluent' 1950s, the swinging '60s, the arrival of immigrants in the post-war years, the struggles of the 1970s, Thatcher's Britain, and the new economic order that took us into the twenty-first century.

As I read this, I found it hard not to reflect on how class has changed but is still present, still dominating British society. As Todd points out, 'class sprang from inequality' and twentieth century British history is a story of the haves and have-nots. The People also reminds us how far we've come and should give us pause for thought in light of current attacks on the public sector. Do we really want to go back to a time before the NHS, to a time when children's fate was decided at age ten with the 11+, or to a time when workers had no role in the economy other than as another cog in the machine? While this is certainly a powerful read, what it has to say about British society in the 2010s is not particularly positive, but it's not all negative. Todd offers an image of the power of collective identities, aims, and organization from which "we can begin to imagine a different future."

 

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