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December 02, 2008

An important and valuable book let down by too many errors: We Danced All Night: A social history of Britain between the wars - Martin Pugh

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

We Danced All Night: A social history of Britain between the wars
by Martin Pugh
London: Bodley Head, 2008
Hardback, £20

Interwar Britain is normally depicted in a dark and sinister light: twenty years of Depression and mass unemployment sandwiched between two catastrophic world wars. When it is not portrayed in this way - and many "revisionist" histories, especially those by economic historians, have shown it in a more optimistic light - it is viewed as a series of tabloid, newsreel events from a Sunday Supplement: famous murders and sporting events; the Abdication; Chamberlain's return from Munich.

Martin Pugh's generally excellent history shows that there were serious historical lessons to be drawn from Britain's social history between 1918 and 1939, and these were generally very positive. Despite mass unemployment, living standards and real incomes rose for most people, including those in the working class; social class barriers were far less absolute than before 1914; and at least the beginnings of the post-1945 Affluent Society were to be seen even in the dark shadows of interwar Britain.

Pugh also examines the range of topics normally covered in social histories of this kind, and finds something original and interesting to say about most: diets improved and food became cheaper and more readily available; home ownership increased considerably; violent crime almost certainly decreased, despite press obsession with a crime wave, as almost certainly did most of the worst aspects of Victorian society such as chronic alcoholism and prostitution.

Movies, the radio, and mass circulation newspapers altered almost everyone’s notions of culture and entertainment; women found new forms of employment, especially in the clerical sector, which did not exist before 1914. While the traditional aristocracy plainly became less powerful than before 1914, middle-class values and middle-class standards of living became much more general, albeit in a haphazard way and without the general rise in affluence of the past fifty years.

Pugh's book is an important one, and has already been heavily criticised in left-wing reviews for downplaying the realities of working-class poverty and unemployment. It is, however, almost certainly accurate - to speak in very general terms - and represents the most fruitful way to view the interwar period in Britain. If anything, in some respects it does not go far enough, and does not acknowledge sufficiently the sheer strength of Great Britain and its Empire during the interwar period: certainly the strongest European power; its Empire larger than ever; its institutions left intact by the War, unlike most of the Continent; its upper classes still in a surprisingly dominant position.

Adjustments of course had to be made, and Pugh has an excellent chapter on how the Monarchy successfully transformed itself from a European-oriented institution to one centred exclusively on Britain and the Empire, as well as successfully accommodating Labour and the trade unions.

What most distinguished interwar Britain from post-1945 Britain was, as noted, the haphazardness of beneficial social changes and rises in living standards. For instance (p. 72), by 1939 about 75 per cent of British households were wired for electricity, a vastly greater proportion than in 1914, but a figure which also means that one-quarter of all households did not have electricity by the outbreak of the Second World War, a figure which was presumably higher in the Celtic areas and the north of England than in London and the south.

The provision of medical care - as in today's America - was a hodgepodge of inadequate schemes of provision and insurance policies, in which the poor, and even the lower middle classes, were poorly covered. It took six years
of wartime socialism, six years of peacetime Labour socialism, and then thirteen years of a Tory government committed to creating general affluence, for these conditions categorically to change.

For a distinguished former professor of history (chiefly at Newcastle University) and the author of well-known books, Pugh has made a surprising number of minor errors of facts. Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon's father (p. 131) was of course the Earl of Strathmore, not Strathclyde; W. H. Auden termed the 1930s "a low, dishonest decade" (p. 326), not T. S. Eliot; Franz Joseph, the Austrian Emperor did not (p. 368) see "his territories dismembered and [he] become a fugitive," since he died in 1916 (presumably his successor, the Emperor Charles, is meant). "Nearly three-quarters" (p. 360) of the 338 Conservatives elected as M.P.s in 1918 - that is, about 250 men - did not "subsequently receive peerages," (although this might be an accurate figure for those receiving baronetcies and knighthoods as well as peerages).

One might also have wished for a fuller discussion of religion, still a surprisingly important topic, as the great controversy generated by the attempts at Prayer Book revision in 1928 shows. Pugh's discussions of anti-semitism consistently exaggerate its importance; it is important to remember that Mosley's British Union of Fascists did not elect a single M.P.

Nevertheless, this is an important and valuable book, placing the interwar period in an historically accurate perspective. It is an excellent counterweight to the negative views of that era which - however correct in depicting its mass misery - fail to show that for many, perhaps most, there was another side to the coin.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Israel, the Jews, and the West: The Fall and Rise of Antisemitism, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

To read Richard D. North's take on We Danced All Night, see: Richard D. North argues, the 1930s were a good time to be British.

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