Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951

Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951

Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951

Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951


Ross McKibbin investigates the ways in which `class culture' characterized English society, and intruded into every aspect of life, during the period from 1918 to the mid-1950s. He demonstrates the influence of social class within the mini 'cultures' which together constitute society: families and family life, friends and neighbours, the workplace, schools and colleges, religion, sexuality, sport, music, film, and radio. Dr McKibbin considers the ways in which language was used (both spoken and written) to define one's social grouping, and how far changes occurred to language and culture more generally as a result of increasing American influence. He assesses the role of status and authority in English society, the social significance of the monarchy and the upper classes, the opportunities for social mobility, and the social and ideological foundations of English politics. In this fascinating study, Ross McKibbin exposes the fundamental structures and belief systems which underpinned English society in the first half of the twentieth century.


This book is about the fundamental mentalities and structures of English society from the end of the First World War until the mid-1950s. These were years when the English came to believe that England was now 'democratic'. Before 1914 England was not conventionally described as a democracy: people thought of it as 'free' or 'constitutional' but not, or not yet, as 'democratic'; and by any serious definition of democracy it was not. Even in the early 1920s use of the word'democracy'to describe the English polity was not universal. By 1939, however, it was universal. For most of the years which occupy this book, therefore, the English lived in what nearly all agreed was a democracy. They were not, however, necessarily agreed on what democracy meant or should mean.

At the centre of this book is a familiar trinity: class, status, and power, of which here the most important is, for all its imperfections, class. England in this period was a country of social classes into which the English freely categorized themselves. Classes were, of course, not rigid; nor were all their members as one on how they saw the world, but as a categorizing principle class seems to me less flawed than any other. It allows us to generalize while accepting that there are exceptions to every rule. Status, of course, is not the same as class and I have tried to recognize that whenever appropriate. As for power, it would probably be more exact to say that I am concerned with 'authority': that is, something which individuals possess which induces other individuals to respect and obey them. Power is not quite the same as authority; it is what happens when authority is exercised.

I am also concerned with why, on the whole, those who had authority in 1918 still had it, more or less, in 1951, despite the fact that the Second World Warsignificantly recast social relationships. Furthermore, they retained it in a society with a greater potential for conflict than contemporaries were ready to admit. I have attempted to answer these questions by examining England's cultures. I have used this term broadly to mean not only the world of ideas and ideals but also their physical and domestic basis: work, income, family relations, housing, and community. As to the cultures themselves, I have not attempted to write their total history, which would be difficult for any one individual to write. I have, therefore, chosen a number of cultures which I hope to be representative: broad enough in their scope to allow us to reach general conclusions with reasonable confidence.

This means omission. I have excluded two kinds of material. The first is 'formal' politics: high politics, party politics, England's relations with the empire . . .

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