Social collapse, always a long time coming, usually owes as much to good intentions gone terribly wrong as to malevolent design. The rot creeps in through weak seams and unattended fissures. It insidiously spreads and corrodes, thanks to humanity’s usual admixture of hubris, fecklessness, and evil. Once conditions are beyond repair, the manifold causes of the damage are readily apparent—say, the lead sutures in ancient Rome’s water pipes, the vacillation of good men, the determination of bad ones—but singly, or even in aggregate, they rarely seem sufficient to account for the scale of the catastrophe. In the end, trite as it sounds, a society’s breakdown is inexplicable.
And so last August experts and advocates, journalists and politicians, most seeking the truth and not a few trying to conceal it, offered up institutional pettiness, bureaucratic shortsightedness, official negligence, and political correctness as some of the factors that had contributed to an enormity: the systematic sexual grooming, rape, and trafficking of more than 2,000 pre-teen and teenage girls, white and overwhelmingly working class, by gangs of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Afghan men in England’s industrial (or post-industrial) North and Midlands—largely Sheffield and its environs, including, most notoriously, the Borough of Rotherham—from 1997 to 2013.
Certainly the explanations propounded last summer help account for the state’s failure to stop these crimes, as did the blind eye of a significant portion of the largely self-segregated Muslim population in Britain’s North. And certainly these crimes emerged from facets of that population’s peculiar sexual culture. But that these horrors were visited upon so many underage victims who were presumably under the care of others, that the crimes were so widespread and spanned so many years (all evidence, by the way, suggests that similar crimes are being perpetrated today), and that virtually all these girls had been left adrift—unmoored from and unprotected by the guidance, love, and authority of their families and community, which left them wholly exposed to predation at once brazen and methodical—reveals a wrecked society that has failed in its most essential purpose.
The extent to which the once resilient, sober yet vibrant society of the British working class has been hollowed out, demoralized, and rendered dysfunctional represents a tragic collapse that itself demands some attempt at explanation. Surely, ultimately—and with a nod to Marx and Engels—that collapse emerged from the profound and unstoppable dynamics of global capitalism. Its creative destruction engendered the English working class and its way of life, and then, by turn, made that class redundant and etiolated its culture. Just as surely—and with another nod to Marx and Engels—the values that modern capitalism has extruded have undermined the ethos and institutions, the family paramount among them, that gave the working class much of its strength. As the great sociological team of Michael Young and Peter Willmott observed in the 1950s when considering the underlying forces that might transform the British working class:
Our time has its own values, perhaps prizing more the individual and less the group, whether of family or any other kind. To grow up may mean increasingly to go away. The virtues of movement, from one area to another, from one job to another, from one set of beliefs to another, may be stressed more than the virtues of stability, tradition, and community, and where the new is praised and the old reproved, perhaps the strength of the time spanning family is bound to be less than in a more steady state.
Not for nothing did the Labour Party’s hero Aneurin Bevan rail against the “ugly,” morally corrosive, and socially destructive effects of the “acquisitive society” and its pursuit of self-fulfillment, embraced by the market-friendly Tories—a stance that prompted the socialist critic Raymond Williams to say that “Labour seems the conservative party.”
But if world-historical forces made inevitable the transformation of working-class society, the ferocity of that process and the savagery of its results cannot be fully attributed to those lazy and tired shibboleths, “deindustrialization” and its concomitant, “chronic unemployment.” After all, as any good Gramscian knows, culture and social norms can take on a life of their own, shorn from the peculiar material conditions from which they arouse. During his sojourn in the industrial North in the grip of the Depression, George Orwell, who spent considerable time in Sheffield and its environs, including Rotherham—the area was “one of the most appalling places I have ever seen,” though he had “seldom met people with more natural decency” than the working class family who had put him up—wrote one of the most famous, and famously romanticized, portraits of British working-class life:
I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat.
True, Orwell noted that the happiness of that scene “depends mainly upon one question—whether Father is in work.” But even when the working class was suffering economic ravages unknown ever since, Orwell fathomed that “in one way things in the distressed areas are not as bad as they might be. Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken up.” Despite “the frightful extent of unemployment,” he observed:
Poverty—extreme poverty—is less in evidence in the industrial North than it is in London. Everything is poorer and shabbier … but also there are fewer people who are obviously destitute. Even in a town the size of Liverpool or Manchester you are struck by the fewness of the beggars. London is a sort of whirlpool which draws derelict people towards it, and it is so vast that life there is solitary and anonymous. Until you break the law nobody will take any notice of you, and you can go to pieces as you could not possibly do in a place where you had neighbours who knew you. But in the industrial towns the old communal way of life has not yet broken up, tradition is still strong and almost everyone has a family—potentially, therefore, a home. In a town of 50,000 or 100,000 inhabitants there is no casual and as it were unaccounted-for population.
To be sure, the very bulwarks that braced working-class life—the family and the community—have long been under siege. But the assaults themselves immeasurably toughened those bulwarks. As Richard Hoggart noted in the 1950s, “generations” of working-class experience “opposing the chief home-breaker—drink—have helped to build a solid resistance to new potential destroyers.” Again, implacable forces would have inevitably altered and even eroded working-class society. But what additional forces or events so accelerated and intensified that process such that the result would be the putrefaction made plain in the revelations of the Rotherham scandal?
To begin to answer this question, it might be illuminating to compare the picture of childcare and family structure that has emerged from investigations of the Rotherham scandal to two classic, detailed portraits of working-class life—The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-class Life, with Special References to Publications and Entertainments by Hoggart, a former scholarship boy from the industrial slums of Leeds who had become a lecturer in English, and Family and Kinship in East London, by Young and Willmott, a work that grew out of their immersive study of the working-class East London borough of Bethnal Green. Both books were published in 1957, when the working class made up about 75 percent of Britain’s population, and both were paeans to a society and culture that was thriving but increasingly at bay.
The books delineated a society characterized by close, extended family relationships and by a solidarity born of intense neighborliness and a cultural and moral—rather than an overtly political—class-consciousness. Both showed that working-class life was defined by an idiosyncratic approach to what is “always one of the great and indispensible functions of any society,” as Willmott and Young put it: the task of caring for children. That approach emerged from the distinctive relationship of the working-class mother—the sainted, mythic figure known as “Mum”—to her married daughters, a relationship that had developed from a universal truth: “Child-rearing,” Willmott and Young wrote in a deceptively obvious observation, “is arduous, it is puzzling, it is monotonous…” But a daughter’s “work can be less arduous because it is shared; her life less lonely because she has someone to talk to; the behavior of her children less perplexing because she has someone whose experience she can draw on.”
For a married working-class daughter whose husband was at work, her Mum was “the person with whom she can share the mysteries as well as the tribulations, the burdens as well as the satisfactions, of childbirth and motherhood.”
The result was a flourishing matriarchy, in which a woman’s authority and stature grew with age and in which—thanks to the proximity of employment for the menfolk and the geographically compressed layout of working-class districts—the households of Mum and of her married daughters’ families were, and in fact had to be, nearly always at most a few blocks away and often on the same street. (In a 1956 study of a Liverpool neighborhood, the sociologist Charles Verker revealed a not-atypical arrangement in which the households of one extended family—mother, daughter, father-in-law, sister-in-law, uncle, three cousins—occupied eight of the 22 houses of a short street.)
Children were raised as much in Mum’s house as in their own; married daughters would see their sisters and their sisters’ children at Mum’s, usually daily; their husbands would regularly have their supper after work at Mum’s; family “popping in” for a cup of tea and a chat was the norm—Mum and her daughters saw each other on as many as a dozen separate visits each day. The sons-in-law who gathered at Mum’s were usually drinking friends, and the friends and workmates of each became part of the others’ vast network of acquaintances.
In this world, Willmott and Young explained, in which daughters turned to Mum “in the great personal crises and on the small domestic occasions,” daughters and mothers would “share so much and give such help to each other because, in their women’s world, they have the same functions of caring for home and bringing up children.”
Separate clusters of extended families formed the working-class neighborhood. Its residents knew each other with an intimacy of detail and often through several points of connection—the people a young mother encountered while doing her marketing were her or her parents’ childhood playmates and the friends and relatives of her husband or her brothers- and sisters-in-law. Characterized by these informal, intimate, multilayered social networks, and by what Willmott and Young called “a sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries”—in which the local pub was at the end of the block, the store for daily provisions around the corner, and a destination five minutes’ walk away was considered in a different neighborhood entirely—this was a largely static, tremendously local, intensely parochial realm.
The culture of the working class, as Hoggart wrote, “was embodied in the idea of, first, the family, and second, the neighbourhood.”
No surprise, then, that the most highly prized social virtues were “respectability”—an amalgam of thrift, sobriety, and dignity, born of a determination not to succumb to what was always a harsh and tenuous economic environment and embodied in the scoured doorsteps of the squalid back-to-backs on dingy, treeless streets—and “neighborliness.” This strong group-sense no doubt arose from a combination of the dense web of relationships originating in and radiating from family life, from the packed conditions of the working-class slums—“you are bound to be close to people with whom, for example, you share a lavatory in a common yard,” as Hoggart wrote—and from the rigidities of industrial capitalism and the class system.
The inhabitants of a circumscribed world in which everyone was on roughly the same material level and that allowed virtually no outlet for personal ambition could lapse into a squalid state of quiescence. But that situation could also engender a proud and egalitarian class solidarity, along with a seemingly antithetical sensitivity to and interest in individual idiosyncrasy. (Hence what Hoggart called “the novelist’s fascination with individual behavior, with relationships—though not so as to put them in a pattern, but for their own sake” that he saw as characteristic of the working class.) And, most important, it could produce—perhaps especially among a people who, as Orwell discerned, “retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling” and “a vague reverence for the Christian moral code”—a conviction that the individual’s worth is determined not by whether one rises in the world but by personal character.
Undoubtedly Young’s deep engagement with the attitudes and worldview of Bethnal Green’s working class helped inspire this stirring evocation of his social ideal, from his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy:
Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and their sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes to the lorry driver with unusual skill at growing roses? The classless society would also be the tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life.
Although Willmott and Young and Hoggart were alive to the narrow features of the working class’s ethos and social world—and although the authors made clear that they could not and would not wish to live in that world—the picture they drew of what Hoggart assessed to be largely “a good and comely life, one founded on care, affection, a sense of the small group if not of the individual” was unquestionably idealized and at least somewhat partial. Nevertheless, that good and comely life, conditioned by insecurity and want, was a treasured endowment of Britain’s society, worthy of the ministrations and nurturance of that wider society—and the state.
Of course, such ministrations were prominent features of Britain’s post-1945 welfare state. And for all their shortcomings, most of them—particularly Bevan’s National Health Service—were not just triumphs of decency but of conservatism, because they buttressed the core of that good and comely life, the working-class family. But one element of those ministrations—urban and housing policy—though undertaken for mainly laudable purposes, inadvertently assailed that good and comely life in ways as targeted and with results as pernicious as if it had been designed with malicious intent.
This story forms the leitmotif of David Kynaston’s recently published Modernity Britain: 1957-1962. This volume—which was published as two in the UK, Opening the Box: Britain, 1957-1959 and A Shake of the Dice: Britain 1959-1962—is the latest installment in Kynaston’s ongoing, many-volume chronicle of the British people from 1945 to 1979, collectively titled Tales of a New Jerusalem. I’ve written at length about the previous volumes. This new one only reinforces my conviction that Tales of a New Jerusalem is a literary and historical masterpiece.
Kynaston, a supremely wry writer with a genius for the deadpan anecdote, has the lightest touch. He’ll develop and build themes—the most prominent of which is probably the complex ways that private life absorbs, deflects, and ignores the guidance and directives from those on high—yet he eschews not just crude judgment but pretty much anything resembling conventional analysis. To be sure, he’s engaged in sophisticated inquiry, and the attentive reader emerges from his books with an unusually intricate understanding of the ways that social change plays out. But as befits a writer with an essentially comedic sensibility, his tone and approach so sedulously shun the insistent that I was surprised by how determinedly Kynaston brings his narrative back to housing and to his dogged efforts to ensure that readers grasp “the seemingly ever-accelerating change to Britain’s built environment” that took place in these years.
In fact, Kynaston devotes far more pages to the genesis, realization, and immediate consequences of urban and housing policies than to any other subject. The very title of the second book in this volume, A Shake of the Dice, refers to the colossal, reckless, revolutionary social gamble that those policies entailed—policies that had already between 1948 and 1958, before the massive slum clearances that Kynaston chronicles here, uprooted more than one in six of all the families in Britain (overwhelmingly working class families) and put them in newly built housing estates and tower blocks on the periphery of cities or even far outside them.
Not that such a drastic gamble wasn’t a response to an awesome problem. Even though Willmott and Young had described Bethnal Green’s Victorian terraced slum houses as “dilapidated but cozy, damp but friendly,” the conditions in which much of the working class lived were abysmal. In the early 1950s, two million British households had no electricity or gas, which meant cooking in ranges or on open fires and lighting by candles or oil lamps. As late as 1961, 15 percent of the households in the industrial city of Birmingham didn’t have exclusive use of a toilet, and 32 percent didn’t have their own fixed baths; nearly 20 percent of Manchester’s households lacked a hot-water tap—the percentage of working-class households living in these conditions was naturally higher.
And not only was the overwhelmingly Victorian-era housing stock of the working class at best in need of rehabilitation and at worst beyond saving, there wasn’t enough of it. Britain suffered a severe housing shortage even before the Second World War. By war’s end, German bombs had destroyed or severely damaged some 750,000 mostly working-class houses and virtually no new ones had been built for six years, and all the while the population had grown.
Nevertheless, the solutions that architects, city planners, real estate developers, civil servants, and local officials—what Kynaston calls the “activators”—imposed upon the population, while sometimes humane if suboptimal, were regularly devastating and often monstrous in their consequences. Occasionally this was thanks to the collaboration (by no means limited to mid-20th-century Britain) between naïvely build-happy public servants and opportunistic developers and contractors delighted to build superfluously and not above cutting corners, to shoddy and at times dangerous effect. Far more frequently, however, it was thanks to a combination of high-flown architectural ideology; short-sighted civic boosterism; the Keynesian faith that linked national prosperity to spending on large-scale construction and to the transformation of the working class from producers to consumers through large-scale social engineering; and to the attitudes of the activators toward those acted upon, which ranged from the paternalistic to the condescending to the scornful.
In a process that began in the late 1940s, took off in the late 1950s, and petered out in the late 1970s, those activators—possessed by a vague understanding of Corbusian notions; by an enthusiasm for a Scandinavian-style communal life wholly foreign to deep-seated popular preferences; by an insecure yearning that their cities and the nation embrace the modern, the up-to-date, the space age; and by the concomitant drive to make a tabula rasa for the creation of the Radiant City—unleashed a juggernaut that laid waste all before it. Medieval, Georgian, and Victorian city centers were gutted in a Procrustean effort to make working conditions and civic life conform to the needs of the automobile, complete with pedestrian tunnels and underground pubs. Once-lively downtowns were transformed into homogenized and ill-functioning office and shopping centers.
Most radical of all, in London and Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, Hull and Bradford, Sunderland and Bolton, Liverpool and Manchester, Salford and Leicester, Nottingham and Stoke, Birmingham and Coventry, Bristol and Portsmouth, Southampton and Cardiff, and in dozens of smaller cities and boroughs, including Rotherham, working-class districts—some horrendous slums but many others vibrant, intricate communities—were demolished wholesale in a process that would engulf over 10.5 million people. The child-centered kinship networks and neighborly connections that had enriched and stabilized their lives were ripped apart. Owing to the complex, bureaucratic mechanisms and ruthless procedures inherent in so vast a national effort, their households were scattered piecemeal, without regard for their long-established associations, into outlying, isolated housing estates, where they were increasingly stacked into forbidding, often egregiously built, crime-ridden tower blocks.
In this way, the inevitable waning of a good and comely life was quickened and made appalling. The conditions were created for the birth of a new underclass.
Those subjected to these ministrations usually submitted fatalistically, in accord with that deferential age; as one woman told a reporter when asked about the razing of her neighborhood, “The Council want it and they’ll have it. Nobody wants to move but we’ll all be uprooted and that will be it.”
But they did not submit blindly. As Kynaston repeatedly demonstrates—and as Young and Willmott had made clear—when asked, people consistently said that they did not want to be moved out of their neighborhoods and did not want to be moved into flats. Just as consistently, the activators moved those people far from their old neighborhoods and into flats.
Usually the activators didn’t bother to ask, or even to contemplate, the preferences of their charges. As Ian Nairn, the great architectural writer and scourge of the planners put it, “Most Cockney families like to live in the kitchen. The architect’s job is not to ask why, nor to persuade Cockneys to live like young married architects, but to build big kitchens… . But do they?—not on your life…”
On the rare occasions when the activators were challenged, they were dismissive. When, for instance, 1,700 of the 2,000 adults in a Durham mining village protested the removal of 620 of them from their antiquated back-to-backs to a new housing estate, citing “the community spirit of 120 years of living and working together,” the local planners declared them “myopic.” As the University of Birmingham economist Philip Sargant Florence explained, the predilections of “architects and planners” trump “the inarticulate yearnings of the average working-class housewife.”
Given what Young—who had written the Labour Party’s historic 1945 manifesto—condemned as this “contemptuous attitude which the intellectual department of the Establishment seems to have towards the working classes,” it’s not surprising that a question asked plaintively and persistently by those subjected to rehousing seems never to have been addressed: why not rewire, replumb, and otherwise rehabilitate the many slum houses that could be made structurally sound and install baths and toilets? And why not sacrifice the open urban spaces and parks that the planners told the people they needed for what Willmott and Young recognized was “the only reason which would justify so grave a step, that on balance people would much rather have houses than spaces”?
(Plainly, such measures could not have saved every rooted and intact community. Nonetheless, tolerable degrees of “density” have proved far greater than mid-20th-century planners deemed desirable, and it should be noted that by the late 1960s Leeds found that its Victorian slum back-to-backs could relatively easily and cheaply be renovated along the lines that had been so frequently proposed earlier.)
Those pitchforked to the new estates responded in complex ways. For the sake of their children, parents were mostly delighted with the hot water, inside lavatories, modern kitchens, and baths. And in what was still the age of coal, they were happy that their children could play in cleaner air. But instead of playing hopscotch and running errands in the sociable neighborhood streets, children were often isolated in their flats high up in the tower blocks. Describing a typical transplant to the estates, Willmott and Young wrote: “as a day-to-day affair, as something around which her domestic economy is organized, her life arranged, the extended family has ceased to exist.”
A 1961 assessment by the Ministry of Housing concluded that “it is doubtful whether the neighbourliness and intimacy typical of urban life at its best can ever be reproduced” on the housing estates and that “for those who are unable or unwilling to adapt themselves to completely new conditions, for those who are shy or worried by financial troubles and miss the ready help of relatives and friends close by, life can be lonely and isolated” (emphasis added).
Orwell put it in a nutshell decades earlier: “The central difficulty of the housing problem,” he wrote, is that “when you walk through the smoke-dim slums of Manchester you think that nothing is needed except to tear down these abominations and build decent houses in their place. But the trouble is that in destroying the slum you destroy other things as well.”
To be sure, the vast social disruption begat by what Kynaston calls “the slum-clearance/high-rise/urban redevelopment orthodoxy” helped destroy a largely good and comely life—and with it the social solidarity and outlook Young had glorified in that passage from The Rise of the Meritocracy, as well as any hope of social transformation latent in that outlook. But the results in themselves, though jarring and even tragic, needn’t have been socially catastrophic. After all, an increasingly prosperous, atomized society anchored in the increasingly prosperous, atomized, inward-looking, and intact nuclear family is now pretty much liberal democracy’s definition of the Good Life. In 1956, that progenitor of New Labour, Anthony Crosland, declared in his revisionist tract The Future of Socialism:
We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafés, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating-houses, more local river-side cafés, more pleasure-gardens … more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing-estates, better designed street-lamps and telephone kiosks, and so on.
(To that catalogue of with-it desiderata the historian E.P. Thompson, a socialist dedicated to the working-class tradition of responsibility, community, and “steady humanity,” could only respond: “Are we sure this is what socialists mean by the ‘full life’?”)
Given luck and the right set of historical circumstances—beginning with a vastly more thriving and even more widely shared prosperity than Britain enjoyed in the decades following the slum clearances—the dispersed and dispirited working class could have been transformed into an army of consumers contentedly ensconced in council flats. And indeed, much of it has been, just as the planners and policymakers at the time had hoped. But of course, vast social disruption is usually cancerous—or more precisely, such disruptions allow the cancer, always at best dormant, to metastasize. In truth, historians and social scientists have just started to examine in an exacting way the wider, long-term impact of the immense transformation in working-class life wrought by postwar housing policies. So for now, any arguments are speculative. But we do have the ironic fact that, within 10 to 30 years of their construction, many of the tower blocks erected to house the members of the working class cleared from their demolished neighborhoods were themselves demolished, condemned, or abandoned.
Some were torn down because of their slipshod construction, but most had become uninhabitable owing to the dangers posed to their residents—many of whom were single mothers, chronically unemployed or underemployed—from the criminal and in other ways antisocial behavior of a sizeable minority of their fellow inhabitants, mostly young men, chronically unemployed or underemployed.
It’s difficult to account for the malignant tenacity of Britain’s underclass, a group that came into its own in the years following the gigantic social experiment of slum clearance and that includes both the victims and the victimizers on the housing estates, as well as many children and teenagers who lead shockingly chaotic and vulnerable lives, such as nearly all of the Rotherham victims. Some on the right blame a culture of welfare dependency, just as some on the left blame chronic unemployment. No doubt there’s some truth to both explanations.
But the fact remains that this group emerged from a working class that, even allowing for a good deal of rose-colored retrospection, prized, inculcated, and enforced what Verker called, fewer than 60 years ago, “ordered and respectable living.” Bethnal Green, the poorest and most identifiably working class of London’s boroughs, had London’s lowest illegitimacy rate.
Deracinated from the family and social networks that nurtured and sustained that ordered and respectable living, that good and comely life, the working class has been left denuded, ill-equipped to withstand the assaults that have confronted it, be those assaults—depending on your point of view and political allegiances—the temptations and laxities of an increasingly permissive and antinomian society, the ruthless austerities of Thatcherism, the flowering of New Labour’s “knowledge-based” economy, the transformation of family life attendant on the flood of mothers into the labor market, or the activator-encouraged economic and cultural encroachments of immigrants. The usual pathologies have ensued.
At this preliminary stage, and awaiting the illumination that the forward march of Kynaston’s chronicle promises, perhaps we can only conclude that rarely has such precious social capital been so heedlessly squandered than with that shake of the dice.
Benjamin Schwarz is national editor of The American Conservative. He answers seven questions from Jeremy Beer here. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.