Bloomsbury 25 (776pp) 22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Family Britain 1951-1957, By David Kynaston

One of the most arresting passages in Family Britain, the second instalment of David Kynaston's projected four-volume account of the period 1945-1979, takes in the opening of the controversial Kidbrooke school in Hunstanton, West Norfolk. Designed by the "iconoclastic" young husband-and-wife team of Peter and Alison Smithson, acclaimed by certain architects as a stunning example of the Le Corbusier-influenced New Brutalism, it featured what Peter Smithson's obituarist called "a brilliant planning solution of classrooms and staircases over two storeys and around a succession of small courtyards that eliminated all corridors". There was talk of the "clarity and simplicity" of its design, not to mention the "elegant integration" of its services.

There was one drawback about the Smithsons' bracingly unapologetic exercise in neo-futurism. As the Architects' Journal noted, "In that this building seems often to ignore the children for which it is built, it is hard to define it as architecture at all." A member of the school staff, JTA Shorten, later catalogued some of the deficiencies: the leaking concrete roof, cracks in the glass going off like rifle-shots during lessons, dangerous glass panels in the gym, too much heat in summer and not enough in winter, congestion at lesson-change and non-soundproofed classrooms. All in all, "it was probably more suited to being a prison than a school".

In the context of early 1950s Britain, the Kidbrooke project arguably designed to tickle the sensibilities of a peer group rather than serve the community had a deeply symbolic significance. For all the eclecticism of its sources, and striking originality of its insights, the note sounded by Kynaston's previous volume, Austerity Britain 1945-1951, was a familiar tocsin about British institutions not being democratic and accountable but oligarchical and impenetrable, a matter of quiet words and discreet soundings, gentlemen in Whitehall who knew best and decisions imposed on the great mass of ordinary people that, by and large, they had no means of resisting.

On one level, the 700-plus pages of Family Britain are simply a succession of confidence tricks, "Establishment" (a word coined in the 1950s) sleight-of-hand designed to bamboozle a credulous public into balmy acquiescence. To judge by the weight of diligently assembled vox pop and once again Kynaston's research is impeccable in its depth and precision the post-war public did not want its Blitzed town centres refashioned along modernist lines. Yet such consultations as took place were ignored. It did not want to be re-housed in out-of-town high-rises, but the planners carried on regardless. Its innate social conservatism was outraged by everything from immigration to the suspension of the death penalty, and yet the liberal agenda was everywhere enforced. As to how this process worked, Kynaston is excellent at itemising what might be called the "progressive consensus". Cross-party, as keenly supported by emollient Conservatives as New Statesman subscribers, finding its figurative outpouring in the 1951 Festival of Britain, it included virtually all government bureaucracy, and found its locus classicus in the BBC.

Yet, here and there amid the bright, purposeful pronouncements, comes an odd note of bafflement, a puzzled awareness that people might not actually desire the amenities with which they were constantly showered. "I am not at all convinced that the Estate people want an organised community life," an Observer journalist wrote about the new Borehamwood development. Mass Observation's visitor to the 1952 Register Your Choice exhibition ticked off its working-class audience in pedagogic terms: "There is much failure even to appreciate the aesthetic attractions of contemporary styles, much emotional resistance... much tendency to withdraw into the security of the familiar." It was the same with listener response to a BBC broadcast of TS Eliot's The Confidential Clerk, which complainants found difficult, wordy and "highbrow".

As Kynaston shows, the intellectual left was, by and large, deeply pained by the consequences of post-war affluence. They had hoped for uplift and enlightenment, and what they got was a hankering for what a character in Simon Raven's Eden-era novel Friends in Low Places (1965) calls "cars, cookers and fancy cans". It is difficult to criticise the materialism of the 1950s, if only because it contrasted so with the privations of the previous decade.

Hearing the myriad individual voices collected here, noting the response to such epoch-defining events as the Coronation of 1953 (plausibly represented as "an act of national communion"), you are invariably struck by a terrific sense of decency, humility, reserve, an ability to extract pleasure from a very restricted social compass. The Chingford housewife Judy Haines, one of Kynaston's regular witnesses, was delighted by the weekend recreation of a drive into the Essex countryside, a picnic with her family and the Test match unwinding on the radio.

Kynaston's reluctance to generalise is one of his most attractive characteristics. "So many individual lives," he reflects; "it makes one wonder about the validity of terms like 'class', 'culture' and 'community.'" It does, and yet his diagnosis is of a "frozen period", a ten-year gap following the war's end in which the old social patterns resumed, with rock'n'roll, Suez and a less deferential press lining up to blow them away.

If it was an increasingly prosperous world, then it was also one in which countless thousands were left behind in the attritional wake of "progress". The novelist Catherine Heath, who worked on advice bureaux, noted "the utter helplessness of these people in the face of the complexity of modern society". As for its most serious consequences, one is an increasingly neurotic middle class, desperate to preserve its status against virulent assaults from above and below. The second is the effect of rising living standards and greater wealth on that social conservatism Kynaston identifies as one of post-war Britain's animating characteristics. One doesn't have to be a political theorist to feel that practically all the tensions that afflict us in the early 21st century stem from this source.

DJ Taylor's latest novel, 'Ask Alice', is published by Chatto & Windus

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