‘A society out of joint’

Those calling for more austerity to combat consumer greed are historically illiterate and morally warped. The last time austerity ruled Britain, it increased hunger, ill-health and authoritarianism, and seriously harmed community spirit.

Neil Davenport

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The announcement last week of a 1.5 per cent drop in economic output officially confirmed what many of us already knew: Britain is now in recession. And it looks set to be the worst recession for 30 years. As in the 1970s, many ordinary people will face hardship. Once again, there are dramatic headlines about economic crisis, government ministers juggling fiscal policies, and plenty of fresh claimants down at the local benefits office.

Yet, in some ways, the response to the anguish caused by economic hardship today could not be more different to the response in the 1970s and 80s. Where once opposition politicians, church leaders and newspaper columnists might have pontificated about the destructive impact of unemployment and poverty, now many of them actually welcome the return of penury as a way of curbing our apparently greedy and gaudy spending habits (1).

Initially, the ‘bring on the recession’ cheerleaders were from the environmentalist lobby. For them, a reduction in people’s spending power can only be a good thing, since it will mean having fewer cars on the road, fewer washing machines, fewer fridges and fewer cheap flights. Austerity should be welcomed because it will shrink people’s ‘carbon footprint’ and help tackle global warming. Some critics of this toxic green dogma have rightly pointed out that concerns for the environment merely provide a new intellectual justification for old-fashioned class snobbery.

Although the green champions of poverty unwittingly exposed the black heart of environmentalist thinking, they also helped to popularise a malign framework through which the recession is now being discussed. Of course, anti-consumerism and anti-mass sentiment have been around for a long time. But it is one thing to sound off about the ugliness of the high street and the shopping mall in broadsheet newspapers, and another thing actually to advocate poverty as a solution to the apparent problem of runaway climate change. Increasingly, even outside of the world of saloon-bar class prejudice, the idea that poverty has certain ‘benefits’ is increasingly seen as commonsensical. Nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary fetishisation of postwar, ration-era Britain.

A few years ago, it was widely reported that British people would be far healthier if we lived on the strict food rations that existed from the 1940s to the early 1950s (2). Normally, health moralisers argue that the best way to lose weight is to eat fewer fatty foods. But to argue that government rationing of food should be welcomed as a health initiative suggests that it is personal freedom, rather than simply excess flab, that some commentators would like to see drastically slimmed down. In our anti-materialist times, it is often forgotten that freedom only has real meaning when people have the resources to make proper choices in their lives. In this sense, attacking the masses for having better living standards by default expresses a loathing for the personal freedom that accompanies increased living standards. One reason why the 1960s are so frequently demonised is because in that decade working people gained a greater degree of both affluence and freedom than ever before.

The link between affluence and meaningful choice is drawn out in David Kynaston’s absorbing masterpiece Austerity Britain: 1945-51. Drawing on countless primary interviews, Mass Observation Studies, personal diaries and memoirs, Kynaston expertly brings to life a grim and grimy world of damp lodgings and dingy bedsits, powdered eggs and paltry rations, rotting meat and making ends meet in wartime and postwar Britain. Austerity Britons still had the cinema for escapism, but many cinemas had disease-carrying rats to keep you company while you watched the latest Hollywood drama. Summing up life in 1945, one writer said: ‘Housing, food, clothing, fuel, beer, tobacco – all the ordinary comforts of life that we’d taken for granted before the war, and naturally expected to become more plentiful when it ended, instead became more and more scarce and difficult to come by.’

In terms of everyday shortages, the greatest concern for most people was the lack of food. Kynaston does a superb job of weaving in interviews from the Mass Observation Studies, detailing how, for housewives, trying to buy basic groceries involved a day-long hunt and haul around small shops and markets. And they often returned home empty-handed. Today, many commentators would like to see the closure of convenient supermarkets, where everything is available under one roof, forcing people to shop exclusively at small shops and markets. The housewives interviewed in Austerity Britain looked upon local shopping as nothing more than a time-sucking, back-breaking, never-ending drudge.

In February 1946, government food rationing became even more austere: ‘The minister of food, Sir Ben Smith, announced cuts in bacon, poultry and egg rations – the last cut made much worse by the simultaneous decision to end the importing of dried eggs.’ How did this impact on people? One housewife wrote: ‘Our rations now are 1oz bacon per week, 3lbs potatoes, 2oz of butter, 1oz cooking fat, 2oz cheese, 1/ of meat, 1lb jam or marmalade per month. My dinner today consisted of two sausages which tasted like wet bread with sage added.’ Yet many clueless commentators today argue that such a subsistence diet made people fitter and healthier in the past than they are today. It is patently not true.

Indeed, according to Kynaston, an authoritative British Medical Association report published in the late 1940s expressed alarm at the ‘significant deterioration’ of the ‘human needs’ diet. The report said: ‘The shortage of fats made it difficult for adults to obtain a sufficient calorie intake without considerable strain on the digestion, this being the cause of the “recurrent complaint” that “people have not enough to eat”.’

If the gnawing hunger pains and preoccupations with ration books and food vouchers were not bad enough, the ‘enforced exposure to frequent displays of petty authority’ were a ‘bigger source of oppression’, records Kynaston. The writer Rupert Croft-Crooke expressed his disgust at how ordinary people were being trampled upon by ‘loud mouthed bullies in uniform, such as policemen or public transport officials’. However, despite the unremittingly awful conditions that people lived in, the authorities were not faced with civil unrest. Kynaston puts this down to the conservatism of the British working classes – a prejudice that is echoed today, by both old and new radicals.

In truth, the picture that emerges in Austerity Britain is of a class thoroughly demoralised and politically defeated. The experiences of living through the 1930s slump, the war and rationing all took their toll on working-class subjectivity. A malaise crept into working-class life, as scarcity became all-pervasive and intrusive. The more that people internalised a sense that society would never change for the better, the more it debilitated their subjectivity. The narrower and smaller people’s life experiences became, the more their horizons lowered, too. Above all else, austerity-era Britain generated a sense of political and social impotency in people. ‘There was a strong feeling that the fate of the individual under the capitalist system had little to do with merit and depended on nebulous and unpredictable social forces. If only these could be controlled’, writes Kynaston.

Kynaston disapproves of ordinary people’s reading habits and stresses how they were not interested in politics. However, he vastly underestimates the destructive impact that the all-class alliance during the Second World War had on working-class independence and political development. In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose makes the point that the aftermath of the Second World War destroyed a culture of autodidactism that was once rich within working-class communities (3). (The historian Richard J Evans makes a similar point about the German working classes after the Second World War.) In Austerity Britain, it becomes clear that a constant preoccupation with combating hunger, and the demoralisation that came with that, meant that people deprioritised higher and more stimulating activities.

Nevertheless, class resentment was never far from the surface. Although in 2002 Winston Churchill was voted as the Greatest Briton in a TV poll, in the 1940s he was deeply unpopular. The Conservative Party, still the widely perceived ‘bosses party’, was seen as being responsible for the miseries of war and its corrosive aftermath. Kynaston writes: ‘In London Churchill’s appearances met with a less positive response. As he drove down Royal Avenue making the inevitable but now anachronistic “V” sign, nobody cheered, and the silence was dire; in Islington it was the same, reducing the great man to taking off his hat to a passing bus, bowing to it and saying “Good night, bus!”; in Camberwell he was booed, and in Southwark he even had to be rescued by police from a crowd turning ugly.’ Elsewhere, there was bitter resentment that the royal family appeared well-fed and clothed compared with ordinary Londoners.

The most depressing aspect of Austerity Britain is its depiction of communities falling apart in the face of extremely low living standards. Today, there is the idiotic idea that austerity makes humans become more ‘spiritual’ (whatever that means) and benign. It doesn’t. Scarcity and the struggle for survival stunt rather than enhance an individual’s moral and intellectual development and can damage community life, too. As rationing became even more stringent, coupon fraud and petty criminality were taken up by many people. ‘I suspect there’s more dishonesty in this country today than for many years’, said one writer at the time: ‘Rationing, controls of material, very high income tax, a feeling of despair at the state of the world – all these contribute to it.’ A returning serviceman, Thomas Hanley, said at the time that ‘helping hands were weighted by self-interest. Even persons of the utmost integrity, after six years of war, were motivated by self-preservation.’

Kynaston provides plenty of evidence of ‘a society out of joint’. ‘A Chelsea householder had recently come home from the cinema one evening only to find that burglars had visited for the third time and taken his last overcoat, some tinned sardines, a pound of tea and two pots of marmalade.’ It hardly sounds like the spiritual and ethical utopia that today’s anti-materialists dream about when they demand a return to austerity. So why are so many contemporary commentators and activists so keen on reducing our living standards?

The current drooling over 1940s-style austerity is not only about making us consume and waste less – it also springs from an innately authoritarian instinct, a feeling that people must be controlled and their actions curtailed. What is most striking about the miserable lives portrayed in Austerity Britain are the strict limitations that were imposed on individual choice. Going to work and then trying to salvage food and warmth was about the size of many people’s day-to-day existence. It seems that today, many in authority feel a strong temptation to recreate this fundamental lack of options. New Labour, and various local authorities controlled by any of the three major political parties, increasingly restrict and control people’s activities in the public sphere. Whether it’s the war on smoking and drinking in public spaces, congestion charges or curfews, there has been a relentless drive to try to force people to stay at home, or certainly to move about less and make less of a ‘mess’ in public. This isn’t a conspiracy; it is a consequence of ‘security’ and ‘order’ becoming the only games in British politics. And the few remaining areas where British citizens congregate in public, such as shopping centres, fast food joints and football matches, are now subject to intense criticism and hatred; football matches are monitored and policed more than ever before.

From this perspective, public gatherings are increasingly recast as ‘public order problems’ – as an official for the ex-mayor of London Ken Livingstone once described New Year’s Eve celebrations in Trafalgar Square. That is why many commentators welcome the prospect of austerity and hardship, because these things create the ideal conditions for a ‘stay at home’ society, for a less rowdy, risky or inquisitive public life. This is what the Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley had in mind when he discussed the ‘benefits’ of an economic downturn – that is, more people ‘would spend more time at home’ (4). And this is ultimately why 1940s Britain is looked upon as a positive period: back then, not only did officials decide what could and could not be eaten – the economic conditions also forced the masses into the privacy of the family home. No binge drinking exploits for them! Stability – a forced, impoverished stability – reigned.

The best thing about Austerity Britain is that Kynaston provides the winning arguments for having the exact opposite of austerity. By exposing the suffering, the degradation and the desperation of the majority of people in the mid- to-late 1940s, Kynaston also helps to expose the poisonous mindset of today’s austerity cheerleaders. Who in his right mind would want anyone to return to ration-era Britain? As Kynaston reminds us: ‘Britain in 1945. No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobile phones, no Pill, no trainers, no Starbucks.’ If they had their way, environmentalists and well-to-do commentators would make sure that the vast majority of people didn’t enjoy access to any of these comforts, either. This is why, as millions of people fear for their jobs and livelihoods, they are hoping that the worst recession in 30 years will do that job for them. If you want to know why they are wrong, and morally warped, read this book about the last time austerity ruled Britain, when it did not liberate us or make us more spiritual, but rather punished, degraded and alienated working people across the country.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Austerity Britain: 1945-51, by David Kynaston is published by Bloomsbury. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See New Year, New Low, by Neil Davenport, 7 January 2009

(2) Study shows wartime rations were better for children, Observer, 4 January 2004

(3) The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, by Jonathan Rose, Yale, 2002

(4) ‘Recession’s good for us – we smoke, eat and drink less’: Row over Tory frontbencher’s ‘joke’, Daily Mail, 26 November 2008

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