They bought semis near the by-pass and tuned in to the Gay White Coons: Bernard Crick on the roots of Middle Britain; Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 by Ross McKibbin Oxford University Press, pounds 25
Ross McKibbin is one of a precious few academics who writes to the highest standards, but not just for fellow academics. Each time I am about to junk the London Review of Books for favouring opinionated essays over serious reviews, a shrewd essay on contemporary politics by McKibbin - always in an historical perspective, far removed from the common mania that all explanations must be in terms of personalities - makes me forgive all. His latest book is demanding but perfectly accessible to non-historians or to those who only hold the social sciences in distant awe.

Previously he wrote The Ideology of Class 1880-1950, but this fascinating new work is only incidentally on the politics of class. It is a vividly detailed, highly readable account of the actual cultures of the classes. Separate chapters characterise the three main classes, followed by cross- cutting studies of education, social mobility, sex and morality, sport, popular music, "listening in" to the radio, and language.

McKibbin sees no common culture in England; only overlapping cultures. He avoids the question "what holds it all together?", or perhaps, sees it as perfectly obvious: tradition, convenience, lack of any real alternative and, of course, political and legal institutions and management. But how the last two work is largely a product of their culture, or cultures.

McKibbin is careful to make clear that he limits himself to England. Fair enough. He does not confuse "English" with "British" in the period he studies, when the Irish question was thought to be solved and Scotland, if clearly a different national culture, as yet showed few serious signs of separatist nationalism.

Certainly, the top-down, pre-war culture of Edwardian England persisted entre deux guerres, even if clear distinctions between aristocratic and new-rich culture were breaking down - as, indeed, were distinctions between the education, manners and beliefs of the aristocracy and the upper-middle class. The working class still wore cloth caps and - despite Old Labour legend - doffed them too readily.

The top and the bottom McKibbin delineates brilliantly. But I would like to sit down, along with Richard Hoggart, and pick a few bones with him about Hilaire Belloc's "uncomfortable and embarrassed" people in the middle. Hoggart would point to the uncertainty of a whole section of "lower-middle- class" folk about whether or not they were "really middle class".

George Orwell, like his Geordie friend Jack Common, saw the lower-middle class as the pivot: the masters of the new technical know-hows, who could go Fascist (as in Germany) or socialist (as in the false dawn of Attlee's government). In the event, it was neither, as they moved away from paying rent in the side-streets of cities to owner-occupation in the suburban by-pass developments of the 1930s.

McKibbin is fascinating and informative on home ownership. But, according to his own argument that property is a crucial social indicator, there should be a more precise delineation of that bottom section of the middle class. They were always fiercely assertive that they were not working class but uncertain if they were (or what it meant to be) really middle class.

My parents were like that. My father, Harry, a successful businessman, came from the working class. My mother, Florence, was the daughter of a commuting city clerk a century ago - but a self-educated reading man, mind, thanks to the public library movement. I was sent to a public school, but, mercifully, a day one.

My friends' parents were mysteriously different from mine. So kind to me, they often said that they admired my parents' house - as they passed by, but never called. These things have changed very little, as McKibbin shows from documents and statistics, not merely from anecdotes.

But I would challenge, from childhood memory, his account of the dance bands and Hollywood. Thanks to cinema and the BBC, "light music" permeated all the classes; but the old songs did not vanish overnight. The major metropolitan music halls survived until the Second World War, strong if declining bastions of working-class and lower-middle class culture. Those were the songs sung in the charabancs or the barracks, and the songs I learnt at mother's knee - or rather, while we washed up together.

Also, I imagine one big craze of the 1930s that he misses was not not popular with the upper-middle class and the comfortable middle class. This was the BBC's revival of minstrel shows: the Kentucky Minstrels, the Black and White Minstrels, and - incredible to relate - the Gay White Coons.

McKibbin's treatment of religious belief is shrewd. Yes, there were still great class differences between the Church of England's congregations and those of the nonconformist churches, even if both were in decline. As late as 1950, while a majority of the population no longer believed in the devil and all this works, one half-believed in an after-life. But he points out that it is almost impossible to probe what the church-goers actually believed. When I was a young boy, I thought that churches were war memorials and that Christ had died in the poppy fields of Passchendaele.

His analysis of the condition of women is salutary to false optimism about necessary progress - especially from London perspectives. Women still thought of the home as their exclusive and only domain, and were bound to it, even if the new domestic conveniences left more time for middle-class women to meet socially in whist clubs in the afternoons, while the lower-middles gossiped over the fence or took tea with their immediate neighbours.

The lasting effect of wartime jobs and service is shown to have been as small by 1951 as it was by 1919. Quite simply, the men came home and took the jobs back. The proportion of women in the professions was as low in the early 1950s as in 1914.

Certainly, the war showed that planning and mass welfare could work. When our backs were to the wall, civil servants who believed in neither - and who, before the war, did not believe that either could work effectively - actually planned.

The official histories of the war show that we achieved a degree of mobilisation of men, women and resources greater than that of Germany under the Nazis - despite the myth of totalitarian efficiency. But our post-war belief that this led directly to the greater equality of women is also a myth, though, indirectly, the war proved what women could do. Yet it was the war that enabled Labour to campaign in 1945 with the great slogans "Planning Works" and "Fair Shares for All": another age, indeed.

Why McKibbin ends his narrative in 1951 becomes bitingly clear at the end. "Anyone who visited England in 1939, and then in 1950, would have been astonished at the political transformation", he says; but they would have found the institutions of civil society almost unchanged, "the old 'ideological apparatus of the state' largely intact".

He reminds us that 1939-1951 was the high point of the size and influence of the old industrial working class. Perhaps they did not ask for more than Attlee gave. At the time, the relative gains seemed great; but "the Labour Party let slip an opportunity which was never likely to recur".

The public schools continued and the working class was assimilated into a "moral consensus" as a result of the war - not something, he says, that seemed especially likely in 1939. There followed, he concludes, "an awkward compromise" between a middle-class individualism and "an all-too-limited social democracy which had worked itself out even before the Attlee government left office in 1951". That would explain a lot.

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