Working-class history, like working-class politics, can sometimes feel like a lost art. E P Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963, influenced a generation of social historians to rescue the lives and experiences of ordinary Britons from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. By the end of the 20th century, however, the concept of class was in retreat both politically and within academia, with historians, sociologists and cultural theorists basing their analyses on a more individualistic politics of identity.
Selina Todd’s The People, like Michael Collins’ The Likes of Us and Lynsey Hanley’s Estates, is a work of history refreshingly fuelled by personal experience of working class identity and awareness of the social, cultural and political changes that this has undergone in the past century. Through first-person accounts by servants, factory workers, miners and housewives, her account challenges clichés and stereotypes.
Todd follows Thompson in understanding class as something enacted through culture as well as production. Her emphasis on consciousness as a determinant of what it is to be working class, rather than rigidly policed economic or occupational status, is helpful in a contemporary discourse in which the shrinking of the working class’s industrial base is often used to argue that it no longer exists. Instead, Todd observes that ‘what really made people working class [was] lack of power’. Todd’s tracking of rhetorical references to ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’ by politicians of all parties is a useful contribution to the British left’s attempt to reclaim the concept of ‘the people’ from right‑wing populists.
The People is more than a work of nostalgia, and more than a swansong or retrospective tribute to a ‘working class’ that once existed and now no longer does. Rather, it serves as a reminder that class, like a history, is an ongoing process under which a neat line cannot be drawn.
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