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The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Classes 1910-2010 by Selina Todd, book review

This excellent account charts the highs and lows of the working classes

What an excellent book this is. For well over a century, Britain's working class has been celebrated, demonised, romanticised, despised and downtrodden, but rarely has this inhomogeneous yet huge sub-section of society been studied in such detail as afforded by Selina Todd.

Ms Todd, an academic herself of working class stock, approaches her task – to chart the fortunes of the working classes throughout the last 100 years – much as a journalist might.

She listens to and reports on the lives of ordinary people: we hear the story of Ms Todd's own parents – both working class people who attended the trade union college, Ruskin, in Oxford – a couple who wanted everyone's lot to improve but who never “idealized working-class life;” we meet Vivian Nicholson, who was down to her last few pounds in 1961 before winning the then biggest bounty on the football pools (she was penniless again a decade later after telling newspapers of her intention to “spend, spend, spend”).

But we also hear about scores of domestic workers; factory hands; the unemployed and, of course, the upwardly mobile. None in their own right is fascinating, or more interesting than the family next door, but taken together they paint a detailed picture of life for the vast majority of people in Britain over the past 100 years.

Indeed, the fact that the book is peppered with anecdotes of real people, from those working in what was little more than domestic servitude in some cases in the early part of the last century, to the militant trade unionists of the 1960s and 1970s, to the consumers of today is what sets it apart. We learn about those whose lives were changed by fame, fortune and in Vivian's case, the pools (before the greater riches of the National Lottery), to those who became the first property owners under Margaret Thatcher.

The century was marked by more social movement than ever before, but we also hear of the disappointments of those whose attempts at social elevation were thwarted.

But if The People is a social study of the working classes, it is also a warts-and-all political review of the last century. Not only does it chart the hope that came with the formation of the modern Labour Party and its ultimate conversion to the post-Thatcher consensus, it also demonstrates the expedient changes made by the Conservatives to make the agents of the landed and wealthy attractive to those who might naturally eschew such trappings.

The book's final chapters are its best, not because the stories of the people it studies are more interesting or contemporaneous, but because it provides an analysis of what we have all lived through.

For all the gains made by the workings classes, John Major's assertion that Britain is a “classless society”, or the claim made by John Prescott (himself arguably little more than a tease for the less affluent when Tony Blair courted the middle classes in 1997) that we are “all middle class now,” simply doesn't stack up, according to Ms Todd's analysis.

The book concludes in 2010, but it appears that little has improved since the advent of the Coalition government. Indeed, the successors of Mr Blair and Mr Prescott have done little to help the lot of the working classes. The reaction to the economic crisis of recent years has been a crackdown on the “benefits culture” – little more than a naked attack on the poorest.

The focus on “hard working families” or “alarm clock Britain” is simply offensive to the millions who live by hard work but who have been stymied at every turn by a government run in some departments by ideologues.

Ms Todd's great ability as an academic is to avoid writing like one, and that makes her book an accessible and entertaining read. She does not hide her political views, but that makes the book more readable. It also serves as a social history of Britain, and even for those who are not engrossed by the politics, the tales of the ordinary people whose lives spanned the last 100 years are compelling.