Open a newspaper in today’s age of austerity politics, and it is clear that the British are as obsessed with class as ever: dividing lines are drawn between strivers and scroungers, the aspiring middle and the welfare workshy. However, the working class is today, as it always has been, a complex social group that cannot be easily distinguished. Selina Todd explores the more nuanced history of class in her new book The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. Jamie Beckett saw her talk at Durham Book Festival.
Love it or loathe it, discussions about social class remain central to our conception of British culture. In a time such as ours when the politics of identity and nationalism is gaining traction – invoking the values which supposedly define us – Selina Todd offers some useful qualifications in her latest book, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class.
Born and raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to working-class parents, Todd’s firm identification with the North East and its inhabitants resonated well with a large and enthusiastic audience. Her talk, chaired by Professor John Tomaney of University College London, forms part of the “Durham Moot” strand of this year’s Festival – a forum for discussing political, social and cultural issues facing the North East.
Interview the oldest woman you know, and find out about her life
Todd, Professor of Modern History and Vice Principal of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, began the discussion with a brief overview of her work and the experiences which shaped her approach. Her interest began in Newcastle with a simple piece of homework set by her history teacher: “Interview the oldest woman you know, and find out about her life”. Swiftly following this was a warning not to actually tell the interviewee she was the oldest person they knew – advice which, Todd tells her, has left her in good stead ever since.
This approach to history has shaped her dealings with the past, and fuelled her desire to unearth the stories which, she argues, many historians have ignored – those concerning the ideas, challenges and triumphs of the working class, a group which in 1910 made up three-quarters of the British population.
She begins in the late 19th and early 20th Century just as workers were first coming together and pushing for improved standards and fixed rights. In this period, she argued, the average member of the working class was not a miner or a steel-worker but a young female working in domestic service. Here she raised the examples of the hundreds of young women, often the daughters of pitmen, who worked as servants in the great houses of the North East – though she was quick to say that the working class wasn’t just a northern phenomenon.
Todd’s focus on women and their little-discussed history as members of the working class has provided the backbone to her research. Rather than giving us an account based on the history of the largely male-led trade unions, her focus is upon those who operated beyond this traditional narrative. She deftly dispels the myth that most working class women kept the home whilst their husbands acted as the breadwinners, and attempts throughout her work to go beyond what she calls the normal “script” of working class history.
From a focus on servants and service in the early 20th Century, Todd moved on to talk about the later movements for social justice and workers’ rights. So hard-won and almost inconceivable to those of a previous generation, from the late 1940s a new confidence emerged within the working class characterised by vast improvements in social security and the momentous founding of the NHS. She is careful not to talk about these as “golden years,” however. Although a period of great action, the age of merit symbolised in the grammar school system offered improvement only to a chosen few – there was always a limit to the number of “golden tickets” available.
Todd regards the 1970s as the beginning of the fall in confidence that the working class had been given a taste of. She argues that that the politicians of the day made an ideological choice to limit the institutions of working class power, but painted it as the necessary hardship of economic reality – a narrative familiar from those surrounding the idea of austerity today. From the 1970s onwards, Todd claims, the working class lost a sense of pride and concrete identity that is yet to be recovered – despite brief flirtations in the Britpop era where it was “cool to be working class”.
The character of Todd’s research is shaped by a focus on the individual stories of working class people. She draws heavily upon the transcripts of hundreds of interviews carried out regionally by local community groups in the 1980s, as well as her own extensive interviews with working class people from Coventry and Liverpool in the early Noughties. Several times she referenced the inspiration she gained from the pioneering work of E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, who revitalised the study of social history and the experiences of those usually reduced to figures in the margins.
She also tried to include stories that would unsettle traditional ideas of the working class of previous generations as unstintingly virtuous, industrious and worthy of new rights. The relationship between workers and their employers was not simply one where the benevolent higher classes handed privileges down to their deserving underlings. Workers’ rights had been hard-won, Todd argued, and they were now again on a slow path of erosion.
Framing the history of the working class as the story of “good, honest and hard-working” people, while reflective of the experience of many, has allowed modern politicians to summon up the chimerical image of the “scrounger”, a working class burden on the state. This, she argued, has split the modern working class, many of whom now respond to the idea of individual or familial aspiration over calls for societal change. Todd noted that the language of meritocracy is central to this – the pervasive idea that everyone can do well in contemporary society, as long as they work hard enough. For the Left to regain ground, she added, this language has to be re-analysed.
Fielding a variety of questions taken from the audience, her comments were full of passion; Todd is certainly not afraid to engage in contemporary political discussion. Alongside this necessarily partisan stance, however, comes a great deal of humour and warmth; her riposte to the question “Are the Tories the new party of the working class?” was a weary groan, followed by a reminder that we’d heard it all before.
A question which provoked special interest was one regarding the intense popularity of television programmes such as Poldark or Downton Abbey, dramas set in the past which often portray a cosy relationship between those of the working class and their employers. Rather than dismiss these period dramas as frivolous nostalgia or sentimental pap, she interpreted the high number of viewers as demonstrating a genuine interest in social history. These television programmes represent a way into the varied stories of the working class at a time when many other avenues for this have been closed.
Todd’s engagement with the audience, as well as her ideas and accomplished delivery, made for a highly successful event which roused as many questions as it attempted to answer. She demonstrated that the rich history of the British working class remains in equal parts controversial and compelling, and is as relevant as ever to the politics of today.
Durham Book Festival continues until the 17th October, with many more talks and interviews with leading authors, writers, and poets. See the full programme for more.