There is almost a surfeit, these days, of British social historians combing over the ashes of the second half of the century. Dominic Sandbrook’s (rather controversial) work now extends to four volumes, covering the period from Suez in 1956 to the election of Margaret Thatche in 1979r.
Chroniclers of the 1970s include Andy Beckett (When The Lights Went Out), Francis Wheen (Strange Days Indeed) and Alwyn W Turner (Crisis? What Crisis?), to name just the most celebrated handful.
Moving on to the 1980s, we have Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! , Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain, Jackson and Saunder’s Making Thatcher’s Britain, Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing As Society and, most recently, Graham Stewart’s Bang!
For the 1990s there are Alwyn Turner’s books Things can only get Bitter and A Classless Society; Britain in the Nineties
But one social historian surpasses all that – David Kynaston sequence entitled Tales of a New Jerusalem: 1945-1979, whose mission is to document the story of “ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the monumental”. Austerity Britain: 1945-51 was his first 700-page in the series and makes for gripping reading (in 2 days I am at page 426). His notes and references cover every published source you can imagine - including the comments of ordinary people as captured in the publications of Mass Observation.
Kynaston accomplishes this in his first volume with a prose style that balances entertainment with erudition and in-depth historical assessment with gorgeous, fact-laden word pictures, all fused together in an exemplary narrative of a fascinating period. On a particular Bank Holiday Monday in 1945, for example, he records that thirty-five extra trains had been added at Liverpool Street to make the London-to-seaside rounds and yet station queues still snaked around the block; 30,000 people were at London Zoo and only 4,500 at the V&A; and 100,000 people tried to gain entry (only half-managed) to an athletics meet at the White City stadium to see British pre-war champion Sydney Wooderson best the Swedes.
What elevate Kynaston’s Austerity Britain out of the encyclopaedic and dryly academic and into the transfixing is a potent blend of the seismic and the banal. Its breadth of geographical and socio-economic perspective distinguishes it from the wealth of other social histories written about the mid- and postwar periods: The legacy of Beveridge’s report gets expert treatment … as do postwar marital trends, cricket and racing preferences, the rise of Aneurin Bevan, the reception of David Lean’s Brief Encounter by working class audiences (hearty guffaws), the fabrics available to seamstresses and the Liverpool race riots.
Kynaston’s sources are equally diverse, ranging from government publications to industry manuals and from unpublished journals to the ubiquitous Mass Observation diarists (although he is scrupulous in drawing attention to their middle class biases).
Prospect Magazing looked at the second Kynaston blockbuster in the series and asks how we might explain this obsession with raking over the ashes of the recent past
Does it signify anything, however, apart from the fact that they are good writers with a knack for traversing recent history in a likeable, accessible way? Can we infer anything more interesting from their success, something which is peculiar to the times we are living through now?
I can think of a couple of plausible interpretations. One is that these histories offer us an unexpected kind of consolation. Marooned as we are in a state of great political and economic uncertainty, we have become prey to a habitual sense of unease. However often we are told that history repeats itself, we never really believe it: we live in the moment, convinced that the problems we face are new and unprecedented. Modernity Britain gives the lie to this belief. It’s not just that it transports us back to an era when the cabinet was stuffed full of old Etonians comically unfamilar with the everyday anxieties of most British men and women. It shows us that in the very texture of life, in the moral temperature of the country as a whole, things were not so different back then. Here is Kynaston, for instance, quoting a BBC report on the attitude of late-1950s teenagers towards the political establishment: “Teenagers are bored by politics,” it claimed. “This is rather a bald statement, but it does seem to be true of an astonishingly large proportion of them… ‘It’s sort of corrupt.’ ‘They’re too dogmatic.’ ‘It’s all fixed.’ ‘They’re just keeping to the party line.’ At the back of it seemed to be the feeling that… they didn’t honestly believe what they [the politicians] said… and that discussion between, say, Labour and Conservative was pointless since neither was open to persuasion by the other.”
Does this not equally, and exactly, encapsulate our conviction that young voters today have become detached from mainstream politics, and are already numbed by a weary cynicism about political discourse? Again and again, reading Modernity Britain, you come upon these spectral echoes of the present day: the sense of “’twas ever thus” grows inescapable, and helps to dismantle, piece by piece, one of the most pervasive and misleading fictions about our current situation: that it is somehow unique.
For the other, more deep-rooted explanation of why this new breed of historian has struck such a resonant chord, we need only look at one recent, much-reported event: the death of Thatcher, and the barrage of contradictory responses it provoked in print and online. The election of Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 provides either the fulcrum around which these books revolve, or (in the case of Kynaston) their future climax. Thatcher, so divisive while in office, remains such a contentious, polarising figure in British mythology that even now, more than 30 years later, there remains a profound fracture running through the body politic. Cameron’s line to the effect that “we are all Thatcherites now” will either strike you as a joyful affirmation or will send a shudder coursing through every fibre of your being: either way, you have to recognise that it has a certain chilling truth.
However strong most of us are, individually, in our convictions on this subject, the country as a whole has still not, and cannot, make up its mind about 1979: still can’t decide whether it was the moment which saved the nation, or whether it marked a disastrously wrong turn. And, as a nation, we will probably never be “at ease with ourselves” (to use perhaps the only memorable phrase which Thatcher’s successor ever came up with) until we begin to understand that moment clearly and see it for precisely what it was. If Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem helps us to do that—if it succeeds in its objective of showing us, on a scale both panoramic and intimate, exactly what the postwar governments struggled to build, and which Thatcher, just as determinedly, sought to dismantle—then it will surely come to be seen not just as one of the present era’s most important histories, but as one of its most illuminating works of literature.