Saturday 3rd May 2014
Joe Gill speaks to writer and academic SELINA TODD about her new social history of the British people
What has been the response to the publication of your book The People: The Rise And Fall Of The Working Class?
I’ve been very pleased that the people I wrote the book for have responded in an overwhelmingly positive way.
It is great to have had so many warm reviews from writers and historians, but I’m even more delighted to have received so many emails and letters from readers telling me that The People tells their story — or that of their parents or grandparents.
I was naively surprised by how damning the political right have chosen to be, though flattered that they appear so threatened by my writing.
Why did you want to write the book?
I wanted to write a history in which working-class people were not at the margins but at the centre, and to ask what does that do to our understanding of the last century?
I consider my generation to have experienced the golden age of comprehensive education. When I was at school, the history we studied was the history of ordinary people.
The very first history project I was asked to do at comprehensive school was to interview the oldest woman I knew and think about history as told from her perspective.
So it was a shock when I got to university in the post-modern early 1990s to discover that class was dead.
The only working-class history on offer was conventional labour history — which is great, but it did mean that the only working-class people you ever heard about were those involved in trade unions or the Labour Party.
That wasn’t the full history of working-class life as I knew it from my peers at school and my own family.
Over the years I’ve got tired of hearing that working-class people wanted to be respectable, that they climbed the social ladder using grammar school education, or that they did best when they kept quiet and listened to the Labour leadership.
Those myths fuel a romanticism for a lost “golden age” of working-class life, against which the “chavs” and “scroungers” of the early 21st century are compared and found wanting.
For those who haven’t read it, what is your book about and how did you go about researching the material?
The People is a history of the working class between 1910 and 2010. I chose these dates because I could see some striking similarities between 1910 and 2010 when I started writing.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, Servants, argues that until 1939 Britain was divided between those who served and those who were served.
Service framed a mindset of generations of the ruling class, who believed that they were owed deference and that democracy threatened this.
The second section, The People, examines the relatively good years of 1939-68. I argue that the gains of these years — full employment, a welfare state — were not gifted to people by benevolent politicians but fought for by strikers as well as serving soldiers in World War II.
The third section, The Dispossessed, brings the book up to 2010. This part of the book examines the impact of deindustrialisation, Thatcherism and neoliberalism on working-class people’s everyday lives, political convictions and aspirations.
Throughout the book, I rely heavily on personal testimonies, gained from interviews and from unpublished and published autobiographies.
I combed local studies libraries across the country to find the testimonies of over 200 people, and then I added to these by using the archives of some social surveys of working-class life in the 1950s and ’60s.
Is the title deliberately provocative? The implication is that the working class has “fallen” or disappeared.
I hoped the title would be thought-provoking, because superficially it engages with some important myths about working-class life — most profoundly, that there used to be a “good” working-class, whether heroic trade unionists or conformist grammar school boys — that has now disappeared.
But what I argue in the book is that we need to distinguish “fall” from “disappearance.”
I argue that since the 1980s the working class has declined as a political force and that this is the result of class struggle.
But I also argue that a working class still exists — how can it not, when more than 60 per cent of us still identify as such?
What’s needed now are new political forms of mobilising people and expressing shared aspirations.
What does your understanding of “history from below” have to offer those engaged with socialist politics and trade unionism?
I wouldn’t presume to try and teach comrades anything from the privileged position of my Oxford ivory tower, but I do think that those involved in politics need to be bolder and more imaginative in their approach.
What I heard and read from the people whose stories my book tells was not that they swallowed Thatcherism whole. Far from it. An important continuity through the century and the generations who lived through it was a strong desire for greater control over their life.
That could be expressed individualistically — and the Conservatives have done a good job at tapping into that by promising to make people business entrepreneurs and home-owners.
At times, Labour managed to do likewise, most clearly in 1945 when they did build a broad alliance of “workers by hand” and “workers by brain” against those Labour called “vested interests” — profiteering capitalists.
Labour had great success because the party had a positive and bold agenda for change which included progressive taxation, full employment and decent welfare provision.
But then they stopped listening and didn’t bother heeding workers’ call for greater industrial democracy in the 1970s. We really need new ways for people to come together and articulate their shared aspirations, and I think that this is most likely to happen outside the trade unions, because so many people are casual workers and in part-time work and — I’m sorry to say this — most protests that work tend to happen at the grass roots.
How important is feminism to your analysis of the changes seen in the working class in recent decades?
Throughout the century, working-class women fought for greater recognition and appreciation of their paid and domestic work — individually and also at times collectively.
The history of the Women’s Liberation Movement really needs extending beyond London and middle-class women, to encompass the many tenants’ rights groups and mothers’ groups that sprang up across the country and which had some important victories, including an increase in nursery places.
More recently, women have become an increasingly important part of the workforce, but they have often had to organise outside the trade unions.
To what extent does a Marxist or class understanding of history influence your work?
Very much so. People make their own history, but not in circumstances that they have chosen.
Class is a dynamic relationship that happens in different ways according to place and time, but the struggle between the classes drives historical change.
It is possible to have a historically sensitive account of the past while still drawing on Marxist theory.
My book differs from some social history in not dismissing Marx or EP Thompson for failing to look at groups other than industrial workers.
I hope that The People shows that we can use a Marxist framework to understand the lives of servants, schoolchildren and white-collar workers as well.
You have written about the importance of looking at private life and “selfhood” in studying working-class history. Is this an attempt by some to downgrade the importance of collective social history in favour of “private history”?
There has been a proliferation of work on identity over the last 30 years. Some of this came from feminist historians like Carolyn Steedman who rightly pointed out that the history of class, as written by labour historians in the 1970s, excluded women’s experiences as workers but also as mothers and neglected whole swathes of life including family life. We have to recognise that people over the last century grew up and lived in a society where individual and private life were valued, endorsed politically and at times reified — by the left as well as the right.
What role does immigration play in the social history of the working class from your perspective?
I think it is important to write migrants into the heart of the working-class story.
Some of the people we hear from in The People are themselves migrants and their experiences demonstrate that so much depends on the responses of politicians to migration.
We also hear from those who have voted for far-right parties like the BNP and Ukip.
It is clear to me that many of them were casting protest votes because they feel that politicians don’t listen to them. Owen Jones put this well in Chavs when he said that the only legitimate political claim that working-class people have nowadays is their whiteness.
You have written about the role of domestic service in Britain before the war. Do you think we are returning to some of the class relations of that period?
Definitely, in some very worrying ways. Before 1939 domestic service was the largest single employer.
Servants had no fixed working hours, no entitlement to collective representation and could be sacked at a moment’s notice. Too many workers today are back in that position.
The difference between then and now is that people have had the chance to see that life does not have to be like that. Whatever the problems of the 1950s and ’60s, they are widely recalled as being better times in some ways than life today.
I argue at the end of the book that this memory that the world does not have to be organised in the way that the neoliberals claim is immensely powerful as a foundation for building a different sort of society.
Dr Selina Todd is a lecturer in Modern British History and a Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
DAVID PEEL sees the parallels with today at an event to mark the 30th anniversary of Thatcher’s war with the miners: here.