TIGHTENING THE BELT
Austerity Britain 1945-1951
By David Kynaston (Bloomsbury 635pp £25)
Having already won acclaim as the author of a groundbreaking, four-volume history of the City of London, David Kynaston has now embarked on another marathon enterprise. Austerity Britain 1945-1951 is the first of a projected trilogy on British history between the end of the war and the coming to power of Mrs Thatcher. This is more familiar terrain for historians but, as Kynaston rightly claims, his approach is distinctive. His aim is to tell 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 seismic, of the mute and inarticulate as well as the all-too-fluent opinion-formers, of the Singing Postman as well as John Lennon'.
This first volume amply fulfils the prospectus. A skilful blend of statistical data, personal testimony, and obscure but entertaining detail, it is remarkable for the freshness of the materials on which it is based. Alongside familiar sources like Picture Post and Passport to Pimlico, Kynaston has unearthed long-forgotten social surveys, radio scripts, local newspapers, and the unpublished diaries of 'ordinary people' whose voices bring home the petty frustrations of everyday life during the 'age of austerity'. This is social history fashioned into narrative on the grand scale, though it comes to an abrupt and peculiar end with the 1951 Cup Final, missing out the Festival of Britain and Labour's General Election defeat. Stanley Matthews, we read, 'slipped quietly away from the scene'. With that, the author slips quietly away as well, but no matter: Austerity Britain is an outstanding portrait of an age.
In wartime it was generally understood that austerity - rationing, shortages, thrift and 'making do' - was a patriotic necessity. It was no less essential during the first few years of the peace, but as Attlee and his colleagues discovered, appeals to the 'Dunkirk spirit' were no substitute for the real thing, and with the return of party politics the Conservatives were free to pin the blame on the government. Austerity was now simply a condition to be endured with the aid of a safety valve, the black market, to which almost everyone turned for little extras. Nor were spivs the only entrepreneurs. Farmers, shopkeepers and milkmen often traded illegally on the side, and we meet a Methodist parson with a profitable line in eggs, silk stockings and marmalade.
The heaviest burden fell on the housewife, queuing in all weathers at one shop after another. Joining a queue outside a baker's shop on a Friday afternoon, a Mass Observation investigator recorded the complaint of one working-class woman: 'I've been queueing since eight o'clock this morning what with one thing and another. I'm about done for. I'd like to take that Attlee and all the rest of them and put them on top of a bonfire in Hyde Park and BURN them.' Other women joined in: 'I'd 'elp yer', 'Same 'ere'. The loudest and longest protests came from middle-class housewives who were now bereft of domestic servants but not yet in possession of washing machines or dishwashers. Mrs Irene Lovelock, who founded the British Housewives' League and harried the Labour government over food rationing, was surely a prototype of Mrs Thatcher, whose memoirs leave no doubt of the anti-socialist conclusions she drew from the period. Felicitously, David Kynaston has discovered that Ronald Reagan's anti-socialist prejudices were also confirmed by a winter spent filmmaking in Britain. He particularly recalled a hotel in Cardiff where he ran out of shillings for the gas fire and finished a freezing night wrapped in his overcoat.
Austerity was like a fog that got in everywhere. People were shabbily dressed, trains grubby and overcrowded, homes drab with the paint peeling from doors and windows, the microscopic meat ration a constant affront to a nation of carnivores. Hardest of all to bear was the fact that shortages worsened after the convertibility crisis of 1947. Now it was Cripps with everything and an opinion poll in the spring of 1948 reported that 42 per cent of the population wished to emigrate, a view patriotically repudiated by Richard Dimbleby: 'Nothing on earth would ever persuade me to have my home anywhere but in England, where my ancestors have lived ever since they sacked and burned the farms of East Anglia fifteen hundred years ago.' As Kynaston records, there were positives as well as negatives. The cinemas, the dance halls and the football stadiums were packed. You might be rationed to one egg a week, but cricket fans could rejoice in the sight of Compton and Edrich at the wicket, or the commentaries of the incomparable John Arlott. Comedians like Tommy Handley and Arthur English were on hand as therapists, though none was quite as funny as the BBC's Green Book, which listed all the topics strictly forbidden to radio humorists: 'honeymoon couples, fig leaves, prostitution, ladies' underwear, eg winter draws on, animal habits, eg rabbits, lodgers, commercial travellers'.
As a nation the British were impoverished, but it is easy to forget that parts of the country which had suffered the blight of mass unemployment before the war were now humming with industry while poverty was much reduced by Labour's welfare reforms. Even the middle classes, though very reluctant to admit it, were beneficiaries of the universal welfare state which the Labour government was patiently establishing. At a deeper level, however, democratic socialism was not working. Here Kynaston acknowledges a debt to a trio of historians - Fielding, Thompson and Tiratsoo - who pointed out that the collectivism of the Labour Party was at odds with the far more individualistic culture of the working classes whom they claimed to represent. With few exceptions, manual workers had no wish to become active citizens in a co-operative commonwealth. Family, home and the wage-packet were their prime concerns, community and public affairs a realm in which they took little interest. Kynaston's sympathetic but realistic assessment of popular attitudes confirms that Ernest Bevin was right when he claimed that the working classes suffered from 'poverty of desire'. In his reflections on the cul-de-sac to which the educational 'system' condemned the majority of working-class children, the dismal landscape of the industrial areas, and the inefficiency of key industries, Kynaston's analysis comes close to that of Correlli Barnett, though he does not share Barnett's antipathy to the welfare state. What, then, were the British good at? On the evidence of Austerity Britain they were best of all at maintaining an orderly and stable society - but only at the cost of complacency at the top of society and passivity at the bottom.