Jon Lawrence, a Reader in Modern British History, outlines his interest in the social and cultural history of politics in Britain from the later nineteenth century to the present.
Originally from Bristol in the English West Country, I studied at Cambridge in the 1980s and then held a succession of posts at University College London, the University of Liverpool and Harvard University before returning to Cambridge, and a fellowship at Emmanuel, in 2004. I work principally on the social and cultural history of politics in Britain from the later nineteenth century to the present. I am probably best known for arguing that historians need to take the language of politics seriously; that we need to subject politicians’ utterances to the same level of rigorous analysis we would use to understand a philosopher or poet. However, my main interest has always been to understand the relationship between politicians and the people they seek to represent, or put more cynically, the people whose votes they need. I know from personal experience (having been one for many years) that political activists are not like ordinary people. Many content themselves with berating the public for being ignorant or apathetic, but those who are more reflexive or astute realise that they must find ways to bridge the gap between their own all-consuming enthusiasms, and the much less overtly politicised world of the average citizen. This has never been easy.
Until the last few years I worked mainly on popular politics between the 1870s and the 1930s, the period during which Britain emerged as a full-blown democracy (universal adult suffrage was only secured in 1928 when women finally gained the vote on equal terms with men). This meant analysing the Tories’ populist politics of beer and Britannia in the late nineteenth century, the Liberals’ equally populist politics of cheap food (‘the Big Loaf’) in the 1900s, and Labour politicians’ always difficult relationship with working-class culture and politics in the years before the Second World War. But my research is creeping inexorably towards the present. I recently co-authored a study of Margaret Thatcher’s own difficult relationship with the politics of class in the 1970s. Determined to escape her stereotyping as a suburban reactionary, Thatcher sought to develop an alternative language of politics which insisted, not that Britain was, or could become, a ‘classless society’, but that Britain’s obsession with socio-economic class was a major cause of its perceived decline and must therefore be jettisoned.
This study of Thatcher and the politics of class is part of a much larger project on the politics of social identity in Britain since the 1930s currently supported by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (Oct 2013 – Sept 2015). At the heart of this study is a simple question – how can we best explain the collapse of working-class politics since the 1960s? My money is on politics and culture, rather than the brute forces socio-economic change, as the decisive factors. Trade Unions didn’t just gradually decline, they were decisively weakened by legislation, and, in the case of the miners, by the large-scale mobilisation of the coercive powers of the state. But, ironically, what destroyed political conceptions of the ‘working class’ was not Thatcherism, or even the radical shift to neo-liberal economic orthodoxies that it licensed, but the crass and wholly counter-productive way in which the Left sought to mobilise the politics of class in the two decades that followed the revolutionary excitement of 1968.
Labour had long recognised that appeals to class identity had to be handled with sensitivity in a socially conservative society where talking about ‘class’ was as likely to be interpreted in terms of ‘status’ as economics. Worker-politicians could happily proclaim themselves the champions of ‘working-class interests,’ especially at the local level where their bona fide credentials would be known to the men and women they sought to mobilise. But Labour’s national leaders, most of whom were distant from the hardships of manual labour even in the 1930s, knew that something more subtle was required if they too were to appear as plausible leaders in the struggle to improve the life chances of working people. They spoke of representing ‘the people’ more than the ‘workers’, and when they did stress the special claims of working people they went to great lengths to insist that they meant all workers (or as the party’s 1918 famously put it: ‘workers by hand or by brain’). But in the wake of 1968, Britain was awash with the sharper language of class, and though nationally most Labour leaders clung to the populist formulations that have served them well in the 1945 and 1966 election landslides, the wider labour movement went with new discursive tide. But the more Labour politicians insisted on their determination to represent ‘the working class’, the more workers’ weakened in their allegiance to the party. Thatcher did not cause what political scientists came to refer to as ‘class de-alignment’, but she instinctively knew how to reap its benefits by pioneering the socially ambiguous populist language that has come to dominate British politics since the 1980s: the language of ordinary, respectable ‘hard working families’ determined to do what’s best for themselves and their own. Her brand of family-centred individualism crowded out alternative languages, but this was not inevitable, and it could yet be reversed.