John Murray, £25. Order at a discount of £20 from the Independent Bookshop

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz