Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957–59

Francis Beckett considers the latest in a series of books on postwar Britain, focusing on the final years of the 1950s

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Reviewed by: Francis Beckett
Author: David Kynaston
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £25

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When I was a young journalist it was common to be asked for a ‘cuttings job.’ I never shared the faint disparagement with which older colleagues said the words: a good cuttings job, I thought, could extract genuinely original insights out of facts that someone else had already discovered and published.

Modernity Britain, the latest in David Kynaston’s series of books telling the social history of Britain from 1945 to 1979, is the Rolls Royce of cuttings jobs. Kynaston has an eye for the phrase that sums up a mood, or provides an unexpected link between the late 1950s and today. Here is Daily Mail theatre critic Edward Goring’s wonderful review of Shelagh Delany’s A Taste of Honey at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, after the 19-year-old working-class playwright had the effrontery to put working-class folk and their lives and problems on the stage: “Once, authors wrote good plays set in drawing rooms,” he wrote. “Now, under the Welfare State, they write bad plays set in garrets.”

John Osborne and Look Back in Anger are often seen as the moment that theatre broke away from what Kenneth Tynan called “dododramas” set in Colonel Bulstrode’s library, somewhere in Hampshire, but one of Kynaston’s insights is that the key figure was the much more political dramatist Arnold Wesker, with playwrights Delaney and Bernard Kops among his outriders.

Kynaston catches Harold Macmillan in the act of formulating the dilemma that has preoccupied all his successors as Conservative leader, none more so than David Cameron. “If we cannot bring back the traditional strength of the party to the fold – small shopkeepers, middle class, etc – we have no chance,” Macmillan noted. “But we also need at least three million trade union votes. We have a war on two flanks.”

That thinking is behind my own favourite Macmillan story: the letter that he sent to the head of the Conservative research department. “I am always hearing about the middle classes,” he wrote. “What is it they really want? Can you put it down on a sheet of notepaper, and I will see if we can give it to them?”

But of course, Macmillan the great realist knew the answer: it’s the economy, stupid. That’s why, against all the odds, he won the 1959 general election: despite Suez, despite a cabinet at times at war with itself, despite defending an undistinguished eight years of Conservative rule. Kynaston’s summary is surely right: “Whatever the attractions or otherwise of Labour’s case, the electorate just did not want to change horses at a time of such welcome prosperity.”

Macmillan liked to imagine that it also had something to do with ‘one-nation’ conservatism; that it was a sign of the end of class warfare. Kynaston quotes his letter to the Queen: “The most encouraging feature of the election, from Your Majesty’s point of view, is the strong impression that I have formed that Your Majesty’s subjects do not wish to allow themselves to be divided into warring classes or tribes filled with hereditary animosity against each other.”

But in this he was surely wrong, and the last word in Kynaston’s book goes to the man who proved it: one G Barraclough of Stockton-on-Tees, Macmillan’s first constituency. In a letter to Viewer, the Tyne Tees TV magazine, Mr Barraclough complained about a quiz show: “I have never seen an ordinary working-class person on it, they are all middle class – and most of them, no doubt, already have the prizes which they win. I might add that my friends and neighbours think the same!”

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Francis Beckett is the author of What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? (Biteback, 2010)