Austerity Britain, 1945-51

Austerity Britain, 1945-51

by David Kynaston

Coursing through Austerity Britain is an astonishing variety of voices - vivid, unselfconscious, and unaware of what the future holds.

Many of these voices will stay with the reader in future volumes, jostling alongside well-known figures like John Arlott (here making his first radio broadcast, still in police uniform), Glenda Jackson (taking the 11+) and Doris ing (newly arrived from Africa, struck by the levelling poverty of postwar Britain.

  • Series: Tales of a New Jerusalem
  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.16
  • Pages: 692
  • Publish Date: July 1st 2007 by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
  • Isbn10: 0747579857
  • Isbn13: 9780747579854

What People Think about "Austerity Britain, 1945-51"

As an aid and encouragement for non-Brits attempting to tackle this book, I have assembled and posted a searchable glossary of obscure (to me) names, places, and words used (in my opinion) without sufficient explanation. I chose to exclude from this glossary all names, places, etc., that I felt were sufficiently explained in this book. Also, I chose to exclude names, etc., that I felt were sufficiently famous, i.e., that I had heard of before I read this book.

It approaches things chronologically and just occasionally it would be good to know what the long term implications of some of the things described were (this is normally hinted at but something more thorough going would be good). For example there is a masterly account of the situation at the UK's major motor manufacturers, all of whom had a different approach to labour relations. This is a masterpiece of social and economic history (which it needs to be - this offering deals with 6 years and is over 600 pages long, the whole project is on course to be longer than Proust!) (A gratifying footnote: it is interesting to note how many of the major contributors to the debate were Routledge - often Allen & Unwin authors - I counted more than a dozen including Beveridge, Titmuss, Laski, Michael Young, and, not forgetting, Attlee himself...)

This is far from crippling to the overall effect of the book, however, which gives a (to my mind) remarkably even-handed account of the development of English society in the immediate postwar years. Certainly, anyone arguing that Thatcherism is un-English can find much in this book to correct them--although, and I think this is a virtue, Kynaston also identifies ways that modes of collective planning responded to immanent national needs and wants.

And while the quotes from individuals, famous and ordinary, from the period do offer interesting insight, after a while one gets the impression that Kynaston is determined to include a quote from every single person who ever lived in or visited Britain during those years. I read an greatly enjoyed the second book of this series a couple of years ago; I'm glad to say that the first is just as good, a detailed internal history of England (with a bit of Wales, less Scotland and no Northern Ireland) during basically the term of Attlee's Labour government. The last British cabinet minister to die in office, of this writing, was Lord Williams of Mostyn in 2003; the last of the same weight as Wilkinson or Bevin was Anthony Crosland in 1977.) The Labour government's reputation for competence was hit early on by an event for which it bore no responsibility and whose consequences it would have been very difficult for any government to mitigate: the exceptionally cold winter of 1946/47. Six weeks of very cold weather from late January to early March were followed by heavy rain, which added to the thaw to flood towns and countryside.

It had been an extraordinarily hard six years since the end of the war--in some ways even harder than the years of the war itself.David Kynaston, Afterword From what gets dutifully reported in this huge volume, the battle with austerity and desperation was a fearsome fight in Britain following the war. Neglected or ignored concessions to modernity had to be faced up to in the postwar era, and new solutions were disconcertingly the only solutions : The very first thing to win is the Battle of Planning. We shall need to have planning on a national scale, boldly overstepping the traditional boundaries of urban council, rural council, County Council. In Kynaston's book the planning never ends, even in the rear-view mirror; the Labour government headed by Atlee is at once lionized for symbolizing a new, integrated Britain and then derided for the fact that no symbolism could leverage an entire nation out of the ditch. There is much that is judged to be integral to any new plan-- new philosophies about class and education-- but there was no budging on policy by those interests described by Sir Wm. Beveridge as 'vested'. Wobbly on its feet the new government proved very susceptible to public opinion, as after all the whole war effort had been shouldered by that public to defend and preserve, but also the public had changed. From urban design to the new National Health service Britain would embark on a more humanitarian path.

It's a history book, but told through diaries of the people who lived during those times. This gives a unique personal touch and is much more enjoyable than classical history books.

While this is cold comfort to British government workers facing layoffs and UK citizens dealing with service cuts, todays Coalition-imposed austerity just isnt that austere compared to the post-War version. I can now blame the dourness of Labours Britain for Reagans turn to the right: "For almost four months the American film star Ronald Reagan spent his working days at Elstree Studios, making an instantly forgettable movie, The Hasty Heart, set in a hospital compound in Burma. At Elstree itself he was also unimpressed by the contrast between the tremendously talented, creative people he was working with and the incredible inefficiency that makes everything take longer than it should, not helped by union restrictions on the hours available for filming." Witnessing the planned nationalization of coal and steel, the unremitting use of ration books, and a fastidiously censured BBC, a contemporary right-wing observer might be forgiven for writing a crank pamphlet warning of Sovietization.