Austerity Britain, 1945-51

Austerity Britain
David Kynaston
(Bloomsbury, 2007)

Kynaston brings together social, economic and political historical documents to create a picture of Britain between 1945 and 1951 in this first part of his history of modern Britain. The whole series will cover 1945 to 1979: from the day the country celebrated victory in Europe to the day we voted in Margaret Thatcher. Those are telling dates: the whole set will document a period in which an attempt was made to build ‘a new Jerusalem‘, to bring in equality and a social – if not outright socialist – state. That experiment in altering a nation’s culture was finally called to an end with the rise of Thatcherism and the cult of the individual.

Reading the 1945 sections, as people struggle with increased rationing and the removal of ‘wartime spirit’, the politicians find it hard to believe the voters will reject a wartime leader in favour of a socialist party. Yet it happens. Even as the rations become tighter, Nye Bevan drives through the creation of the National Health Service. It seems like a long-distant age.

Yet the real revelation of the book is not the unsurprising desire of people to have a better life after the economic depression of the 1930s and the privations of total war: it’s in how little people have changed. Mass Observation records conversations about the upcoming election where people say that “it’s time for a change” and that they don’t really have time for politics, or that all politicians are the same. A social survey of young working men in a surburb of London reveals that, though they do some dreary job, they dream of escaping by becoming “a champion cyclist, a footballer or a dance band leader“. Really not so different from modern dreams of escape via sport or music.

There are big changes, of course. There’s big manufacture and big industry for one. There’s the nationalisation of the mines and the railways. But there are people complaining about the trains being worse than they were under private hands just as now people mutter about how things were better under British Rail.

What makes this book fascinating is how the fundemental attitude of people is so recognisable despite the massive environmental difference – you laugh at the similarities whilst marvelling at how truly austere life was.

It takes a long time to read: Kynaston’s desire to cover so much material means it took me from before Christmas till just last week. But I’ve the next volume, Family Britain, already on pre-order. A real delight, and something anyone thinking about writing stories set in the period should read.

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