Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Highs and Lows of a Century's Struggle

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Highs and Lows of a Century's Struggle

Article excerpt



by Selina Todd (John Murray, PS25)

OXFORD historian Selina Todd's stated motive for putting workers at the centre of 20th-century British history is simple. Not only do a majority of Britons still identify themselves as "working class", Todd, from a working-class background herself, feels they have been left out: she says that at university "I looked in vain for my family's history".

This is a surprising claim. It is more than 50 years since EP Thompson vowed in The Making of the English Working Class to rescue working people from "the enormous condescension of posterity". We have since seen an avalanche of working-class history, and more general works with rich detail on working-class lives -- recently, for instance, David Kynaston's threevolume survey of the years 1945-59 and Dominic Sandbrook's four even bigger volumes covering 1956-1979.

This is a national survey: there isn't much significant local detail, allowing her to make some sweeping judgments -- for instance about working-class apathy at the start of the Second World War -- from a few examples. And Todd isn't interested in working-class popular culture either: you would hardly know from her that workers went to the pub, or out dancing, or indeed had much fun at all. For this is a history of work, hardship and struggle.

She is optimistic about any workingclass resistance: of the failed 1926 General Strike, she concludes that "a generation of men and women would never lose that inspirational feeling that unity was strength". But she does a good job of putting women at the centre of the story (she is much weaker on black and Asian workers). She emphasises the transformative effects of both world wars: the first ending the dominance of domestic service and leading to new political struggles, the second forging the British working class, self-consciously, as "the people".

Yet despite the 1945 Labour government, life remained hard. …

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