by Toby Gill

When Theresa May announced her snap election, I was travelling across Japan. At the time I was spending a lot of time on a variety of very slow trains (the famous bullet trains were somewhat beyond our budget). This gave me a lot of down-time to ponder my electoral choices, and consider which way I should vote. It also gave me a lot of time to read the latest tome of modern history I had picked up: Martin Pugh’s State and Society; a social and political history of Britain since 1870. It is not a politicised book; it markets itself as a rigorous work of academic history, designed to introduce new undergraduates to the period – a task it performs superbly.

However, this is a politicised book review.

That is because, for me, State and Society simply blew this election wide open. The revelations contained within its pages added a much needed (and, frankly, terrifying) new perspective on the choice we now face. So what I offer you is not only a review of Pugh’s (excellent) piece of work, but also a chance to explore its implications, and what they can tell you about your vote on June 8th. A call to arms, if you will. I hope Martin would forgive me…

the range and detail employed by Pugh give him the necessary perspective to make some powerful and incendiary conclusions.

Pugh’s work is most notable for its ambitious scope – covering very nearly 150 years of history, with the latest edition even including the EU referendum in 2016. This is remarkably achieved without any compromise in detail. The book divides the period into 5 parts, each spanning several decades. Although each chapter is slightly different, as a general rule, within each chapter Pugh begins with an economic analysis, looking ‘under the hood’ of British society and picking apart the numbers. Next comes a political history, examining the characters which charted party-politics in the period. Then a social history, which uncovers the changing mores of everyday life. Following hot on its heels comes an exploration of national identity, and a discussion of the relationship between the various nations which make up Great Britain. Finally, Pugh covers British foreign policy and Britain’s changing place in the world. In addition, the work is dotted with contemporaneous comparisons of other countries, which keep British developments in perspective. In short, it is a profoundly thorough analysis of a considerable time-span.

To achieve this in his 511 pages, Pugh keeps the paragraphs short and punchy, and the tone factual. Each part is broken into many chapters, which in turn are divided into a multitude of sections, each only a few pages long (this does give a pleasing impression of progress, as you slug your way through it). Nevertheless, despite the factual tone, the range and detail employed by Pugh give him the necessary perspective to make some powerful and incendiary conclusions.

( Meal time in St Pancras workhouse, 1911. Public Domain. )

Although from 1870-1979 Britain underwent remarkable and constant change, this span of time was united by some consistent trends. Over this period, the Victorian laissez faire economic consensus was increasingly challenged – at first from the fringes, but with increasing popularity. This led to an evenly pitched ideological battle in the early 20th century, and, finally, a new ideological consensus in the 1950s and 60s in favour of the interventionist welfare state. At the same time, the state successfully carried out a continual redistribution of wealth from rich to poor (which, ever since Asquith’s and George’s 1909 ‘People’s Budget’, was considered natural and healthy by the political establishment at all times). This culminated in the period from 1945-1970; a ‘Golden Age’ of sorts, in which Britain enjoyed both full employment and, relative to other nations, living standards higher than at any point before or since. In 1979, with the election of Thatcher after the disastrous late 1970s, both of these trends were sharply thrown into reverse. In the nearly 40 years since, the role of the state has been constantly rolled back, and inequality has risen interminably.

the role of the state has been constantly rolled back, and inequality has risen interminably.

The devil is in the detail, which Pugh delivers in spades. He shows the decrease of total income for the poorest levels of society from 1979 to 2014, scathingly criticises the privatisation of all major national financial sources, including cemeteries – highlighting the subsequent rise in prices, and the decreasing trust of the public in the new companies. Pugh examines changes in the norms of politics, with the trend seen from Thatcher through Blair, to May, of a more ‘Presidential government’, in which Prime Ministers become increasingly isolated from Parliament. All of this taking place alongside ever-growing corruption, corporate influence, public contracts granted to large donors of the ruling political party, resulting in a series of important concessions, including limitations on bank reforms and corporate taxation.

( Company donations to political parties in 2015 via City AM )

Pugh ends his work with damning conclusions. He says that, although we seem to have progressed, in many ways the country we live in is now more similar to the Victorian Britain of 1870 than at any other point in the last 100 years. He asks whether the Victorian dock worker, who turned up to work on a Monday not knowing whether he would be sent away, was in reality much different to the modern retail employees, who go week to week never sure of their hours. He asks whether the unemployed and disabled, who receive harsh and punitive treatment at Job Centres, are really so far removed from the poverty-stricken Victorians, who shrank from the Poor Law workhouses. The institutions, devised by the state in the 20th century for the collective good of all, either no longer exist or are in a disastrous fiscal condition. Once more we find our economy riddled with inequality and poverty, and once more we are confronted by successive governments who purport arguments against resolving the problem by taxing the wealthiest.

We have, for the last 40 years, been travelling backwards at a remarkable rate. And, most terrifyingly of all, after all these decades, not only have we come to consider the current state of affairs normal, but we have become incapable of even imagining an alternative. However, Pugh, by revealing to us other times and other places, shows us that that the society we live in is not normal.

We must, at all costs, avoid thinking that these structures are normal.

Since his election, Jeremy Corbyn has proposed a program of renationalisation, economic stimulation through investment, increased funding for health services and education, wealth redistribution through taxation and more humane treatment of those affected by poverty. At every turn he has been labelled as incompetent, unrealistic, dangerous, and even a lunatic. And yet, all these policies have been tried successfully before, and are being tried successfully elsewhere right now. It is little short of depressing that these policies now lie so far beyond the acceptable norm that they are considered unelectable, or even unhinged.

The society we live in is profoundly unbalanced; more so than at any point in the last 150 years. As a result, we are experiencing a far-reaching economic and political malaise. We must, at all costs, avoid thinking that these structures are normal. They can, and they must, be changed. But in order to achieve this change, we must vote for it. Corbyn’s labour party offers us, for the very first time, a plausible chance to step outside the bleak ideological consensus of the last 40 years. It is a chance we must take.

Featured image via


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