Vernacular social democracy and the politics of Labour.

AuthorLawrence, Jon

Last year I published a history of post-war England focused on the key political question of how people have reconciled the competing claims of self and society in their everyday lives. (1) In Me, Me, Me?, I re-analyse personal testimony collected from more than a thousand people in ten different social-science projects conducted between 1947 and 2008. But because this is a book first and foremost about how people made sense of their own lives across six decades of rapid social and cultural change, formal party politics remains largely in the background. Most of the social scientists involved in these projects may have been intensely political, but their respondents generally were not. Being faithful to their world view meant framing the project through terms more deeply embedded in vernacular usage than the totemic labels of party politics: terms such as family, community, nation, and, yes, me. But if 'social democracy', or even 'Labour politics' are not concepts that tend to turn up randomly in popular discourse, there is nonetheless plenty of evidence to support the claim that post-war 'social democracy' put down deep roots in British popular culture, and that these traditions remain potent resources for the left to draw upon, despite the reverses of recent years. In short, social democracy may find itself in crisis, both here and abroad, but it is far from dead.

So, what does vernacular social democracy look like in modern Britain? It is often claimed that post-war welfare politics were so deeply entwined with the nationalist myths of the 'People's War' that they broke asunder when obliged to adapt to the transition to a multicultural society. As we have seen in recent months, those wartime myths certainly remain potent political forces, but they did not represent the bedrock of popular social democracy in its heyday. When people talked about entitlement to welfare in the 1950s and 1960s they conjured up folk memories of the hungry 1930s more often than they appealed to the blood sacrifices of the two world wars. Crucially, most also worked with a narrowly contractual understanding of welfare which appears to have been based on a deep-rooted internalisation of the logic of Beveridge's Edwardian National Insurance scheme, reinforced by even older popular distinctions between the 'hard-working' and the 'idle' poor.

A heated debate about Enoch Powell and immigration recorded between a group of Tyneside shipbuilding workers in 1968 nicely captures this outlook. When one of the blacksmiths claimed to support Powell, a workmate initially appeared to agree before commenting 'But if they work a year before drawing National Assistance I don't mind...

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