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This polarisation was sustained for six years, with Labour reaching its all-time record vote in , after which it gradually slackened; and that process has continued ever since. It lasted for a generation only, but English history built up to, and then down from, that period for many decades on either side of those 33 years. The most vivid phase of class conflict was confined to the three or four years after the First World War, when the middle and upper classes reeled under the shock of a newly politicised and assertive working class and, as McKibbin shows, the movement of wages and prices sharply cut the differentials between classes, threatening the middle class with immiseration or, at least, with submergence into the ranks of the proletariat.

McKibbin shows how the overriding need for unity affected middle-class life and how a new world of male sociability blossomed in the interwar years — a sociability in which the Masons, Rotary, Chambers of Commerce and sporting clubs played a key role. As he points out, these clubs had little to do with sport: competitiveness was disruptive and therefore discouraged. In smaller towns and even in newer suburbs this, in effect, meant bringing together Anglican and Nonconformist social traditions into a non-sectarian environment. There was usually a careful balancing of religious interests and a ban on any kind of contentious or politically divisive discussion.

This was territory where individual businessmen and professionals could unite in political hostility to local trade unions and co-operative societies — though it would never have been put like that. Before the rise of Labour, the Liberal-Tory divide had rested on a set of religious and regional cleavages which cut through the heart of the middle class.

If the threat of Labour was to be beaten back, then these cleavages had to be covered over and the middle class united. Specifically, the old Liberal Nonconformists had to be accommodated by and to the Conservative establishment. That, rather than training champions for Wimbledon, was what all those tennis clubs were about. And he has noticed some intriguing details: that William, for example, starts his literary career in a semi-detached house which became invisibly detached over time, or that in W. The result: 11 books about Worrals.

Class System 19 Century

McKibbin starts with a tour of the upper classes, the members of which he thinks amounted to some twenty to forty thousand during his period. He provides as good a snapshot of the Windsors, warts and all, as one could hope to find but he is more interested in Society and the immense fascination it held for a wider public, suggesting that it had taken over some of the roles Bagehot had attributed to the monarchy — above all, suborning the populace with shows of wealth, glamour and pomp. But the upper class proper, a mixture of nobility and great wealth, was gradually to decline, becoming an indistinguishable part of the upper middle class — largely, it would appear, because so much of its wealth was in land.

The problem with land was not just that there was an agricultural depression as early as the Twenties, but that its value could not keep up with other kinds of asset; it also had the great disadvantage of high tax visibility. One cannot help feeling that our present upper orders are a great deal cannier, with their wealth locked up in trusts in the Bahamas. The middle class showed a greater resilience than its betters but as McKibbin shows, it underwent dramatic change between and Many new professions appeared.

This huge increase in salaried professionals was matched by a sharp decline in the number of employers, down by a good third in the period. The ranks of the self-employed were artificially inflated by large numbers of unemployed trying their hand, often briefly, at shopkeeping and of smallholders with no more than a patch of land who were classified as farmers. Yet the really fundamental change was that, more and more, the middle class were working for others.

The striking fact is that the gains made by women in the early years of the century remained corralled off in the narrow area of the franchise and led to no corresponding advance in the world of work, or even in the number of women politicians. The forging of a bland, allegedly apolitical, non-denominational middle-class unity was hampered inasmuch as the establishment this class had perforce to defend was buttressed by the established Church. Most of the time Anglicanism was so waffly and vague as to seem almost non-denominational, but every now and again the question of exactly what sort of Church it was had to be asked.


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The revision of the Prayer Book in was the outstanding occasion. There was no disguising the fact that the revisions, which sailed easily through all three houses of the Church Assembly, would be agreeable to those who defined the Church as Anglo-Catholic. This, however, was anathema to Low Churchmen and Nonconformists in the Commons. The revisions got through the Lords but were thrown out by an excited lower house, which insisted that the Church of England must, at all costs, be Protestant.

The passion of the debate revealed the extent of the gap between High Church Toryism and a historic Protestantism implicit in the way that English people saw themselves. The oddity about England in this, the high period of class consciousness, lies in the fact that in the most working-class country in the world that class was roundly trounced, both politically and economically.

In the proportion of the population belonging to the working class was slightly lower than in but it accounted for almost three-quarters of the population. It is worth reflecting on this colossal figure, and on the fact that in France, not atypically in continental Europe, the working class never achieved the 50 per cent mark: the peasantry was simply too big and by the time it had begun to decline, the new middle class had begun to grow.

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McKibbin does not offer a single, direct solution to this conundrum, although in a sense his book offers a thousand solutions. One of the arguments he develops was that England was not truly, or certainly not completely, a democracy. This was evident in strange political survivals such as the power of the Lords, the university seats, the multiple vote and, until , a separate voting age for women.

Even more significantly, England did not enjoy a democratic culture. McKibbin finds this especially true in the sporting world.

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Cricket was perhaps the supreme example, its administration dominated by High Tory gents quite unrepresentative of the masses who played the game. What was true of cricket was true, too, of rugby, tennis and even soccer, the religion of the working classes to an extent the Premiership can only dream of: even with a smaller population, gates were often twice or three times what they are today. They got absolutely nowhere, of course. What of the working class? It was the first developed working class in the world.

Published Reviews for: Classes and cultures : England 1918-1951

The size of the working class and its relative social weight were unique in a country where the peasantry had been destroyed by industrial development and modern agriculture. But the pressures of war, slump and capitalist competition were to destroy it forever and to change the ideas and attitudes of the working class. Even in the inter-war period those ideas and attitudes were very contradictory. English workers are often thought of as insular and xenophobic, but in many respects their industrial background, with its lack of religious or conservative family ties compared to most of continental Europe, for example , made them outward looking, adventurous and open to new cultural influences.

The English were, for example, the greatest cinema goers per head in the world in the s and s, and this attendance was heavily concentrated in the working class and lower middle classes:. In the average Englishman and woman went to the pictures 28 times per year, more than 10 percent of total world cinema attendance, a per capita figure not even exceeded in the United States. Throughout the s there were 18—19 million weekly attendances By it was 30 million.

In , the year when cinema attendance was at its highest, one-third of the whole population went to the pictures at least once a week, and there were a total of 1, million attendances.

The dominant influence in cinema along with music and dancing was heavily Americanised and this was generally welcomed by working people. The huge dance halls such as the Hammersmith Palais and the Streatham Locarno came into their own in the s and s. Those who disliked British films disliked them because they were none of these. That English workers could accept much of American culture without accepting some of the worst aspects of US society was demonstrated during the Second World War when, despite the British authorities trying to maintain US army segregation between black and white soldiers, this was repeatedly opposed by ordinary people:.

There were several well-publicised cases, some violent, where English civilians took the side of black GIs against white American servicemen. Both the British government and the American authorities were compelled to recognise indigenous attitudes: on arrival white Americans were warned that segregation did not operate in Britain and urged to accept that.

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The issue of segregation was not marginal to Anglo-American relations: it was widely discussed, widely disliked and, outside official circles, did not enhance the appearance of America in English eyes. English people — again in contrast to many other nationalities — had relatively weak adherence to religion. This adherence went into steady decline during the inter-war years, and much of the supposed commitment, especially to the Anglican church, was only nominal.

Women adhered instead to various forms of spiritualism, astrology or other forms of mysticism:. That so many more women than men — especially married working class women — held to such a cosmology suggests among many of them a real social powerlessness, a feeling that they had little control over their lives. Working class women certainly lacked control over their sexuality. Indeed contradictory and often hypocritical attitudes to sexuality in England seem to characterise this period. English people seemed very keen on chastity outside marriage in the early s, 52 percent were opposed to men and 63 percent opposed to women having any premarital sex but themselves did not follow such strictures, so in — some 30 percent of all women conceived their first child before marriage.

The other side of the coin, however, was a more open attitude to non-sexual relationships between men and women. The contrast between the attitudes of the various classes is shown most dramatically in relation to sport. This section is one of the strongest in the book, perhaps reflecting the overwhelming importance of sport in this period. McKibbin writes:. The English were a sports loving people, and that was one of their characteristics which outsiders immediately identified.

But they loved different sports; only cricket is a possible exception. At the extremes some sports were so socially specific as to be undefinable except by those who played them. And at all levels the sport people played or followed was, like what they read, determined by class, modified, though not by much, by place of birth or residence. Yet the history of sport in these years can also be seen as a microcosm of British capitalism. A country which led the world in inventing and developing sports in the 19th and early 20th centuries suddenly found other nations catching up and overtaking it.

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The extremely popular football clubs made money for directors but nothing was invested in new or improved grounds. England began to win much less:. Throughout this period one of the striking features of English sport was the decline in its international competitiveness.