Review - Selina Todd's, The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010

An important and compelling history of Britain’s workers, especially women, yet not as original as it claims to be. If they seem little known and studied maybe this is because every history of Britain’s workers is conveniently forgotten.

Paul Thompson
26 September 2014

Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

Selina Todd, The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010, London: John Murray, 2014.


Selina Todd had an ambitious and admirable aim in writing this book: to tell the social and political story of the British working class in all its diversity, whether of gender or region or ethnicity, from 1910 through to 2010, and to illustrate it throughout with quotations from personal testimonies taken both from printed autobiographies and recorded interviews. She wanted to write ‘a story about modern Britain, one based on the stories of scores of ordinary people’ (p. 4). The project stemmed from her own family experience. Now Vice Principal of an Oxford college, she grew up working class, her parents originally from Kent and Leeds, rising socially as trade union activists and meeting at Ruskin College – the other Oxford.  Selina ended her schooling in the early 1990s at a Newcastle Comprehensive – and for this book interviewed some twenty of her former classmates. She says ‘I looked in vain for my family’s story when I went to university to read history, and continued to search for it  fruitlessly throughout the next decade. Eventually I realised that I would have to write this history myself’ (p. 4).

So how successful is the outcome? The book is based on a narrative structure with turning points from the Edwardian crisis to the General Strike, the Second World War and post-war consensus, and finally the Thatcherite counterattack. Todd’s own voice dominates, so that most of the testimonies are illustrative, rather than used to open up new issues. Overall there is not much difference between her present narrative and the story she heard as a child in the family ‘about the increasing economic and political clout of the working class – especially during and after the Second World War, when factory workers and soldiers became “the people”, and increasingly central to political debate and British culture. But it was also a story about fighting for everything you got, whether by escaping from domestic service in the 1920s... or throwing orange peel and jeering at Winston Churchill when he appeared on cinema screens in the early 1950s, because it was Labour who had ensured that the “people’s war” brought a “people’s peace” of welfare and full employment. Despite the post-war reforms, theirs was also a story of anger, that made clear that class inequality – and the indignities it caused – was never eradicated, and came back with a vengeance after 1979’ (p.2).

While her overall interpretation may not be new, Todd does have three sensitivities which give special strength and originality to her account. The first is regional difference: the testimonies come from right across England, highlighting contrasts for example between booming Coventry and declining Liverpool. (Unfortunately there is little from Scotland apart from Clydeside, and nothing from Northern Ireland.) The second is that her book is as much about the experience of women as of men. She interweaves the male and female stories throughout with a rare skill – to my mind the best feature of the book. The sections on servants are especially interesting. The third is her fascination with working class people who looked for fun—in films, dancing, or holidays—and also for more chancy ways out of poverty. Her father was brought up by grandparents who were gamblers so this was part of the family story. And somewhat surprisingly given her main message of hard struggle, the whole time-frame of the book is punctuated in eight ‘Interludes’ by the story of a gambling woman.

Viv Nicholson was born in 1936, the daughter of a drunken ex-miner and potato-picking mother in a Yorkshire mining village. She worked as a cinema usherette, got pregnant and married a miner, Matt, whom she said never loved, but who proved good to her. They had one child. Nevertheless she had an affair with another miner, Keith, she divorced, and remarried. In 1961 Keith made a huge win on the pools. Viv’s reaction was not to think of the long-term, but to ‘spend, spend’. They went on exotic holidays, send their children to boarding schools, and bought a new house in a middle class suburb, where the neighbours were annoyed by their loud parties and would not speak to them. They both increasingly felt their lives were empty. Then in 1965 Keith was killed in a car crash. They had spent most of the money, so Viv tried to recoup with a Soho cabaret act, but failed to make it. She made a third marriage with a man who broke her jaw when he realised she was poor. She was rescued when her story was made into a TV play of her life, Spend, Spend, Spend, as she put it herself, ‘a dizzy flight from the bottom to the top and back again’ (p. 317). For Todd, this story is a mirror of the rise and fall of the working class as a whole. In other ways it seems an odd choice for the most important symbolic story of the book.

So this is a readable book which enlivens a descriptive social and political narrative with some good stories. But how effective is it in explaining the changes which it describes? Todd’s approach is largely a-theoretical. She avoids class definitions, arguing that the working class was never homogeneous: ‘class is a relationship defined by unequal power, rather than a way of life or an unchanging culture’ (p. 7). She does give an interesting discussion of John Goldthorpe’s interpretation of social class from the ‘Affluent Worker’ interviews. But there is no mention of the ‘labour aristocracy’ issue, so long debated by Eric Hobsbawm and other labour historians, or the work of Stuart Hall and others at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies on working class politics and Toryism. Politically, Todd’s narrative takes a broad left line, rarely suggesting alternative paths which could have been taken. For example, could not British trade unions have followed the German and Italian model, campaigning not just for wage increases, but for employers to invest more in their plants and in their technical education, so as to secure their long-term chances? Or did Arthur Scargill have to fall for Thatcher’s trap?

Equally fundamentally, the book would have been greatly strengthened by a coherent introduction explaining the key structural changes in Britain’s position over these hundred years: from workshop of the world exporting to a huge tariff-protected empire, to a key centre for banking and financial speculation in a globalised economic world, no longer with substantial manufacturing. Essentially this is a ‘little Britain’ account. Todd ignores the parallel histories in the rest of the world which had so much impact on our own. Joining Europe is not part of the narrative, nor is the Empire and its post-1945 loss.

Nevertheless, from the First World War onwards there were workers in the empire who were also struggling, and fighting for freedom, in India, in Africa, in the Caribbean. It was no accident that when the family size of British couples dropped to its lowest ever in the 1930s, so that the population was barely reproducing itself, it was from precisely these countries that immigrant workers came to fill the gaps in the labour force. In 1910 there were many white middle class families scattered across the empire, but because of immigration and mixing, working class transnational families have also become very common, bringing with them new cultures – food, music, gender attitudes and religion. It would have been good if Todd could have incorporated these migrants more fully into her account of the last fifty years.

Todd’s use of written and oral personal testimony is very substantial and there are plenty of quotes which bring life to her narrative. Take two examples of the working class drive for education and social mobility, from Chapter 10, ‘The Golden Age of the Grammar School’.  Bernard Harris, Luton car worker, wanted his son James to get ’a nice technical job, nice office, nice white shirt, really classy draughtsman... It’s more interesting than my job and ... it’s a job you can take with you wherever you go’. And Ian White, Lancashire miner’s son, recalls how ‘my dad took me to the top of the pit, and he said, “you’ve two things now, you get educated, or else you go down this place”, and we stood at the top of the colliery, and the updraught was coming up from it, you could smell sulphur, it was like being in hell. So I thought, it’s education for me!’ (pp. 222, 217).

There are also telling quotes on housing and on community relations, both positive and negative. She introduces us to drunken fathers. Ann Lanchbury recalled how her father could be violent when drunk, but more often ‘he didn’t look angry, he looked sort of – “Look at me, I’m a peacock... I rule this place”’ (pp. 207-8).  But she also presents rebellious women, like Judy Walker, stepdaughter of a Coventry publican, whose sense of adventure led her to an early marriage with Roy, an engineer, and emigration with him to South Africa. Finding expat life expensive and ‘snobbish’, she came back to Coventry, and by 1972 was divorced and living in a tower block flat with three young children. The estate was barren of facilities: no nurseries, no playground within walking distance, ‘no after-school clubs or the like, to allow you to work’. To fight for these facilities she was instrumental in setting up a local women’s group. ‘My place was like a meeting house, we would all sort of meet and talk and have coffee and put ideas together. Things were very hard but we used to have meetings to talk about what we were going to do with the kids in the holidays and everyone would come along – especially the students that would come and help’ (pp. 305-6). Because so much of the women’s movement of the 1970s was informal, and left very little written documentation, testimony like this is invaluable in providing the evidence for future history.

Apart from Viv Nicholson, most of these testimonies are given very little space, quite often with a very brief quotation of less than a line, so that the speakers have no chance of emerging as personalities. I think the book would have been stronger if the eight Interludes could have presented eight different stories, to convey something of the diversity of working class experience; and at the same time the examples in the main text pruned. It would also have been helpful, and normal in a book using interviews, to have a description of her own interviews in terms of method and type of interviewee. She uses and cites many other interview collections, but appears not to cite her own. I wonder if she is planning to put them in an archive, so others can use her work, just as she has mainly used the interviews of earlier researchers? She does not explain if there was any system in her choice of interviews – for example, as  she could have done, to make them representative of the working class in terms of gender, occupational level, etc. It would have been good to know how she found the use of personal testimonies changed her interpretations of history. And lastly, using people’s memories for history raises crucial issues concerning evidence, which unlike Todd (aside from a passing reference), most scholars would discuss seriously.

I am puzzled too by the text of the book’s cover, and also in the publisher’s leaflet. It says: ‘In 1910 three-quarters of the population were working class, but their story has been ignored until now... Todd tells their story for the first time, using their own words’. The claim is absurd. Is Todd not aware of the Society for Labour History and the Oral History Society? She does mention Richard Hoggart, but surely she also knows the later work in cultural studies of Stuart Hall and Paul Willis, or Jonathan Rose on working class intellectuals, or in sociology of Stan Cohen, or of the anarchist researcher Colin Ward? Why are they not cited? A large part of the strength of her book is based on revisiting the interviews of earlier researchers focussing on working class culture. She lists this ‘unpublished’ material in her bibliography. She includes two large collections of my own interviews, some 700 altogether. The first set was the basis for The Edwardians, published in 1975 and still in print, but strangely she makes no reference to the book, although I had many similar aims to hers. At the other extreme, surely she has come across some of the innumerable local projects in our cities which publish working class oral history?  Cumulatively these many omissions to the numerous researchers who have preceded her do not seem innocent. Todd looks too keen to live up to the mythical originality which her publishers have foisted on her. Her book needs to be evaluated in its own right for its many positive qualities, rather than sold through such exaggerated claims.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData