David Kynaston. Austerity Britain, 1945-1951. New York: Walker and Company, 2008. 704 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8027-1693-4.
Reviewed by Jerry Brookshire (Department of History, Middle Tennessee State University)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton
Labour Government's Programs, British People's Concerns
David Kynaston takes the reader on an impressionist, kaleidoscopic, somewhat leisurely, somewhat long (633 pages of text--no paper shortage here) journey through Austerity Britain, 1945-1951. A well-respected and prolific writer, Kynaston is best known for his social and cultural history of King Labour: The British Working Class, 1850-1914 (1976), and his four-volume study of The City of London (1994-2001). Austerity Britain actually contains two books, A World to Build and Smoke in the Valley, which he projects as beginning a series on Britain in 1945-79 to be called Tales of a New Jerusalem. These years--a full generation--saw Britain move from the establishment of the welfare state to the advent of its reversal by the Thatcher revolution. Kynaston states that he is exploring the relationship of how politicians, planners, etc. (the "activators") viewed the future and how "ordinary people" perceived their future, as well as how they lived through the times (p. 22).
Kynaston's analysis of the activators is essentially standard. Labour Party leaders were conservative parliamentarians who proceeded through constitutional parliamentary channels. This in itself slowed their reforming impetus. They produced a solid expansion and coordination of the welfare system, highlighted by the concentrated and centralized National Health Service. Nationalization of sectors of the economy basically dealt with older, declining ones, with lackluster results. The boldly proclaimed economic planning, although obviously more extensive than in the interwar years, was less than that on the continent, and its pattern shifted from physical planning to a mixture of physical and fiscal.
Five successive chapters focusing on the economy of the late forties and early fifties tell the sad story. Britain should have reduced its overseas military and colonial commitments and concentrated more on production for exports. British labor lacked flexibility in work patterns. Management mistakes were made at Morris Motors. Pride in work declined. The list goes on and on. In foreign policy, the Labour government sought close ties with the United States, and Kynaston provides a fine treatment of Britain's motives to support and even to try to influence the United States early in the Korean War. Kynaston explicitly seeks to debunk some legends; for instance, he stresses that the British electorate did not enthusiastically support Labour and its socialist program in 1945, although frankly, one doubts that currently many believe that "legend."
The strength and appeal of Kynaston's book is that within this political and economic framework, it integrates coverage of the lives of ordinary people: their aspirations, their frustrations, their diversions, and even their banalities. His primary sources are varied: Mass-Observation records, governmental statistics and reports, contemporary surveys and planning documents, published and unpublished diaries ranging from common (even bizarre) citizens to activators themselves, memoirs of people who became important in the future, press stories, and so forth. Many of Kynaston's points are nuanced and ambiguous, as should be expected in describing a complex society. The clearest impression of this entire period of austerity is that the British people were essentially stoic, determined, uncertain, disenchanted, jaded, or even apathetic; they were not usually overly optimistic. Their grimness matched the sooty grimness of their buildings. But they endured. Governmental actions that most affected their lives were rationing, shortages, the National Health Service, and for many the abysmal housing conditions; little was written about full employment. The middle class became the most discouraged, and that paved the way for a Conservative revival in the 1950s.
One major issue that Kynaston confronts is housing and town planning. Prewar and wartime planners debated the merits of population concentration with high-rise and five-to-six story flats as against modest population disbursement with suburbs and even "New Towns." Postwar Britain did both, but it mostly built inner city flats, as most decisions were left to the local authorities. Minister of Health Nye Bevan insisted on quality public housing units, with a minimum nine-hundred-square-foot area and with suitable bathrooms, for he believed the public would favor quality over quantity in the long run. Most Britons, though, preferred immediate housing in quantity, even if prefabs. The citizens of Coventry favored restoration rather than abandonment of their beloved city center when it was being rebuilt. Overall, housing and town planning faced many hurdles--controversies over plans, impatience by the public, shortages of materials and labor--and proved to be a successful Conservative campaign issue in 1951.
A rambling multitude of topics are covered. Quite interesting is Kynaston's treatment of the spivs. These black marketers operated at every level. Generally criticized in the immediate postwar years, they became begrudgingly accepted as a necessary part of life and routinely were subjected to variety performers' comedy by 1947. He criticizes the lost opportunity of educational reforms, modest efforts that retained the anxiety of the eleven plus exams, benefiting mostly middle-class children who dominated the ranks of grammar schools and entered into middle-class careers. He reveals the squalor and hopelessness of the unsuccessful secondary moderns and its mostly working-class students. He goes into the Bultin Holiday Camps, those mass-planned vacations mostly attended then by the middle class. On these and many other topics, Kynaston writes with a journalistic flair of wit or poignancy. And there are many other topics and episodes, usually reflecting wide-ranging views of the British public--movies, radio, and the new television; interest in the Royals; women leaving the wartime workforce; women in queues waiting for meat; families on shopping trips; mining villages; problems with public transportation; impact of the Cold War and the Korean War; the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the first postwar black immigrants; and self-service stores--the list goes on and on.
With so much mentioned in the book, quibbling over omissions may be inappropriate, but neglected topics include Northern Ireland, rural people and agriculture (coverage of only slightly over a page), and military service personnel themselves (though demobilized ones are covered). And the dog that (almost) did not bark is the empire, for a theme may be that empire and withdrawal from empire was of little concern to the British public. Nevertheless, Kynaston successfully confronts many issues in the context of their times, issues that later will become important, but without overtly projecting their future significance or development.
Thematically, the book has no clear beginning and no clear ending, although it is basically organized chronologically. The reader is taken back in time to witness various people on VE Day, is ushered through six years of encounters with Britons from many walks of life, and is abruptly left at Wembley as Newcastle United wins the Cup Final in 1951. The reader is led to wander through Britain's time of austerity as if one were Forrest Gump, encountering people and episodes but having no control over events and wondering what to make of them. Some chapters have a discernable focus; others seem merely to ramble through the vagaries of those few specific months. All chapters have catchy titles, but only a few help identify its chapter's theme, perhaps because often none exists. Some issues need more precise information; for instance, the fine discussion on black immigration does not clearly explain the British Nationality Act of 1948.
Kynaston brings together the findings of many scholars and analysts, with references carefully cited in his voluminous endnotes. In the text, he sometimes praises their work (a few examples are Jim Tomlinson on the period's economy, Democratic Socialism and Economic Policy: The Attlee Years, 1945-1951 , and Nick Tiratsoo on Coventry's reconstruction, Reconstruction, Affluence and Labour Politics: Coventry 1945-60 ) and sometimes disputes with them (most noticeably with Correlli Barnett, The Audit of War: The Illusion & Reality of Britain as a Great Nation , as do most scholars). A very selective annotated bibliography would have greatly aided a reader seeking understanding of a particular subject, for the book's organization is not designed to produce clarity on specific topics, many of which trickle into several chapters.
The total impact of Austerity Britain achieves Kynaston's purpose. The individual parts are less important than the whole. The reader is immersed into experiencing Britain in austerity. The reader, as did most Britons, moves through those six difficult years, attempting to cope and occasionally enjoying diversions. It is an experience that will forever color one's impressions of postwar Britain.
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Jerry Brookshire. Review of Kynaston, David, Austerity Britain, 1945-1951.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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