'We Danced All Night', by Martin Pugh

The birth of Middle England
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The Independent Culture

Simon Raven's novel of 1950s haute politique, Friends in Low Places (1965), contains a choice scene in which the magazine editor Somerset Lloyd-James deviously confers with the Marquis of Canteloupe, a battered aristocrat elevated to the post of "Parliamentary Secretary for the Development of British Recreational Resources". Early talk of the national mood, which apparently inclines to "civic virtue, respectability, married love", gives way to gusts of professional cynicism. "When the chips are really down," Canteloupe insists, "it'll be cars, cookers and fancy cans, and up yours I'm laughing." Here, in a nutshell, lies the theme of Martin Pugh's social history of inter-war Britain: the incremental, all but unstoppable rise of bourgeois self-interest.

A brisk, revisionist tide has begun to flow through 20th-century British social history. It could be seen in Dominic Sandbrook's White Heat, which maintained that the "Swinging Sixties" were largely confined to a couple of square miles of central London, and it pitilessly inundated David Kynaston's Austerity Britain 1945-51. Kynaston's thesis was that, far from ushering in a Socialist Jerusalem, the Attlee era brought only the imposition of a pettifogging, statist bureaucracy. If the late 1940s had a symbolic moment, it was the not the erection of signs proclaiming the transfer to public ownership outside coal mines and gas show-rooms, but the vengeful townspeople flocking to planning enquiries to yell abuse at ministers.

Essentially, Pugh has taken the Kynaston line back a couple of decades. While he doesn't ignore the Jarrow March and the rusting shipyards, his study of inter-war life is much more interested in the origins of the "property-owning democracy" (a phrase coined by a Conservative MP in 1924), the increase in suburban leisure pursuits, and the somewhat grisly spectacle of Middle England stirring in its cradle. It is the kind of book in which my Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook rate as many references as the Labour politician JH Thomas, and the victories are won not by the workers at the factory gate but by the manifestations of bourgeois-cum-Philistine taste. Betjeman's poem about the ruin of Slough by post-war planners is quoted, but as Pugh points out, Betjeman and his friends were a highbrow minority. The middle classes liked Surrey mock-Tudor and high-street milk-bars; "sophisticated critics" could go hang.

Pugh doesn't quite say that most of the regrettable tendencies in modern British life have their roots here, in a Home Counties landscape defiled by golf courses and ribbon developments, but he comes closest in a newspaper headline from 1939 that read BRITAIN BECOMES DUMP FOR NAZI EXILES. The book's drawbacks, on the other hand, are less to do with its theories – these are spiritedly advanced – than its design, which is repetitive, stylistically shaky ("presently", "eke out", "decimate" all used incorrectly), and sometimes too fixated on raw data. How reliable is a statistic claiming that 19 per cent of women in 1904 had had sexual experience prior to marriage? Pugh's eye-witnesses, too, tend to come from a small range of recently published memoirists, such as Paul Johnson (representing the middle-class Potteries), William Woodruff (northern urban proletariat) and Bryan Magee (working-class East End.)

This reliance on statistics tends to crowd out those abstract questions of "taste" and "sensibility", which any social historian worth his salt eventually addresses. Here, Pugh sets up half-a-dozen promising lines of enquiry only to duck the challenge of following them through.

He notes that the churches never recovered from their propagandising role in the First World War, but has little to say on the deeper shifts in "belief" that underlay this. He dilates on Northcliffe's influence without going on to examine the relationship between newspapers and their public, whose consequences are still being worked out. And however bracing the partiality, it has a habit of excluding areas of the 1920s and 1930s from view.

Quite probably the lifespan of Macdonald and Baldwin's National Governments did mark the rise of the "British obsession with owner occupancy"; equally, the volume of municipal housing stock even in a provincial city like Norwich soared beyond 70 per cent. Certainly, bourgeois individualism whipped up a terrific storm, but a politician like Arthur Ponsonby, a high-minded Labour MP of aristocratic descent who spent much of his parliamentary career opposing re-armament, still seems a representative figure of his age.

One key issue to which Pugh does seriously apply himself is the reason for Labour's failure to begin to achieve genuine economic and social change. Here he settles for, in the red corner, the Labour Party's inherent timidity, its deference to established interests, its refusal to politicise the General Strike of 1926, or even to offer formal support to the hunger marches; and in the blue corner a growing sense of middle-class solidarity. If it was a class-conscious age, then most of the class-consciousness seethed behind the privet hedge. Even in the early 1920s the newspapers talked about the "crushing of the middle classes".

This is not an entirely successful book. It will enrage Lord Hattersley (whose Borrowed Time is a left-wing counterweight), but this is the modern social historian's occupational hazard. Yet as a survey of the birth-pangs of 21st-century Britain's dominating social force, the Marquis of Canteloupe could hardly have done better.

DJ Taylor's 'Bright Young People' is published by Chatto & Windus