Hungry for justice

November 30, 2007

The spectre of starvation in 1930s Britain was a spur to the creation of the postwar welfare state until it was called into question by the 'new Right' in the 1970s. James Vernon steps back in time. I was 14 years old when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. Politically, I came of age while "Thatcherism" was being articulated as a critique of the twin pillars of British social democracy - the mixed economy and the welfare state - that had defined the lives of my parents' generation since 1945. By the time I went to university to study politics and history in 1984, the miners' strike was in full swing and Thatcherism appeared to be here to stay. It was clear that the politics of the Left was unravelling and that a good deal of intellectual work would be needed to put it back together. In many ways I became a historian because historians seemed to be at the forefront of the debate; the accounts of class formation, the forward march of the labour movement and the rise of the welfare state that I had been taught no longer made much sense.

It was in this context that I started the work on the politics of hunger that forms the basis for my new book, Hunger: A Modern History . I wanted to know why, for example, since hunger is always with us - there are still more than 2 million Britons suffering from malnutrition - it is discovered only at particular moments. But I also wanted to understand the place of hunger, especially the hunger of the Thirties, within the political unconsciousness of postwar Britain and, more specifically, the debates unleashed more recently by Thatcherism about the efficacy of the welfare state.

In the Thirties, while nutritionists argued over the measure of malnutrition and coroner's courts debated the number of deaths caused by starvation, it was generally accepted that a third to half of the country's population was malnourished. At issue was whether poverty was the main cause and, if so, whether the fledgling form of unemployment relief was sufficient to prevent it.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) organised a series of national, regional and local hunger marches to demonstrate the scale of malnutrition caused by unemployment as well as the inadequate and bureaucratically punitive nature of its relief. Making the case that the unemployed did not deserve to suffer hunger or to be treated as supplicants for meagre forms of relief, they helped establish the claim to welfare as a universal right that anticipated the Beveridge Report of 1942 and the postwar welfare state.

And yet the Communist-led hunger marches were reviled by much of the labour movement, pilloried by the press and ignored by the general public. It was not until the bipartisan march from Jarrow in 1936 attracted headlines and public sympathy that the hunger march came to be seen as a legitimate form of protest. Only later did the Labour Party conveniently adopt memories of Jarrow to characterise the misery of what became known as "the hungry Thirties".

Throughout the Attlee Government of 1945-51, when its achievements often appeared precarious and attenuated by continuing austerity measures, the Labour Party assiduously cultivated memories of the hunger and unemployment of the Thirties. The phrase "Never Again" became the rallying call for the construction of the welfare state. At almost every opportunity Labour MPs invoked bitter memories of the dashed hopes after the Great War as unemployment spread and hunger followed. When the long- reviled Poor Law was finally abolished in 1947, Liverpool's first woman MP, the formidable Bessie Braddock, bore eloquent testimony to the shameful indignities endured by those forced to wait for scraps of food at local soup kitchens. "These are the things we are repealing," she insisted. "These things remain with us. We remember them."

During the Fifties, images of hunger marchers adorned Labour's election posters and youthful new voters were told to "Ask Your Dad" about his "bitter memories" of the 1930s. Labour's manifesto in 1951 compared the insecurity and want of the Thirties with the achievement of social security and full employment, and a series of official party histories ensured that the defeat of hunger became critical to the story of social democracy in postwar Britain. In the following decades, memories of hunger also permeated the autobiographies and testimonies of those who came to measure their affluence by their distance from it. As the subjects of social democracy, those for whom the state now claimed to govern, the working classes were increasingly encouraged to speak for themselves, to narrate the story of their salvation from the hunger of the Thirties.

The injunction to write from their own experience and recover their own histories may have began in the school classroom and with adult education, but by the Seventies it had also become a central feature of community publishing, social history, documentary film, oral history and women's groups. Many of these testimonies focused on the hardships of growing up in the hungry Thirties and invariably ended with the Second World War. That decade became a signifier of deprivation that marked out subsequent prosperity, of a hunger once known but now passed. Even in Carolyn Steedman's postwar childhood, wonderfully captured in her Landscape for a Good Woman (1987), hunger and poverty "hovered as a belief. It existed in stories of the Thirties, in a family history" that enabled her mother to remind her that "not being hungry and having a warm bed to lie in at night (meant Steedman) had a good childhood, was better than other people; was a lucky little girl".

In keeping with the social democratic framework in which working-class self-expression was encouraged, hunger was always remembered in social terms. There is little discussion of the self, no sense of what it felt like to live with perpetual hunger or to inhabit a hungry body. Instead, these texts vividly capture the social community in which hunger was endured. There is an amazing similarity in the way that they detail how hunger was managed across the institutions that dominated working-class life in the first half of the 20th century: the family, the street, the corner shop, the market, the fish-and-chip or pie shop, the pawn shop, the church, the school or the Poor Law Guardians.

Several autobiographies feature stray relatives, family friends or acquaintances who preach the gospel of socialism and promise the day when no one will hunger, but these are marginal figures or local "characters". The heroes of these texts were not hunger marchers or leaders of the labour movement, but ordinary men and women who daily struggled to feed their hungry children. These tales of endurance and survival are always gendered. Women tend to detail the daily struggle of everyday domestic life: shopping, cooking, pawning, making do and mending; men rarely mention food but focus on work or the quest for it. For men and women alike, the script of hunger is dramatised around the remembrance of small heroic acts: a child's crafty theft of a longed-for tasty morsel, the fooling of an inspector or philanthropist, the generosity of neighbours, and, above all, the sacrifices and ingenuity of mothers who made impossible ends meet, despite invariably hopeless, drunken and violent husbands. The story of Angela's Ashes has been told many times.

In these testimonies, the ties of mutuality and community, pulled closer as poverty and hunger descend, are contrasted with the cruelty and inhumanity of those who sit in judgment on these families and determine the levels of welfare relief they can receive. Men who have to face the indignities doled out by welfare officials never have a good word to say about them. "Their main concern," recalls an unemployed man from Lancashire, "was to cut you down and pay out as little as possible ... by assuming you guilty of wilful idleness before you even opened your mouth". It was this rich seam of resentment that the NUWM had mined when its hunger marches demanded the right to welfare.

That these memories of the hungry Thirties had helped legitimate social democracy after the war was realised by economic liberals on the Right who, like the economic historian T. S. Ashton, joined Friedrich Hayek's attempt in Capitalism and the Historians (1952) to prevent free-market capitalism from getting a bad name. As Britain's 19th-century achievement of rapid industrialisation with relative political stability became a model for modernisation theorists in the Fifties, historians furiously debated whether standards of living had actually improved or declined in the world's first industrial nation. When the historian C. L. Mowat followed Ashton's lead by describing the "myth, sedulously propagated later, of the 'hungry Thirties'", the plenty or want of that decade became the new battleground.

By the Seventies a revised and more optimistic account of the Thirties had become the orthodoxy: unemployment and hunger were confined to localised pockets of deprivation; rising standards of living led to improved nutrition and falling infant mortality rates; the decline of old staple industries was offset by the rise of new industries; the plight of working-class men was balanced by the advances of young women who produced and consumed the goods of the new industries.

It was no coincidence that the hungry Thirties were demythologised at the very moment when the cracks in the postwar social-democratic settlement had begun to show. During the Seventies, politicians and intellectuals of the "new Right" gathering around Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher increasingly characterised the Thirties as the last decade before the mixed economy and the welfare state created a culture of dependency that had rendered self-reliance redundant for individuals and nationalised industries alike.

When, in 1981, unemployment figures reached levels similar to the Thirties, Norman Tebbit infamously related how his father had got on his bike and looked for work rather than demand the right to welfare. In response, historians of the Left insisted that these revisionist accounts of the Thirties were uncritically dependent on misleading Government sources. Renewed attention was again paid to the politics of unemployment and the hunger marches of the Thirties, drawing heavily on the new evidence of oral histories. When the spectre of Thatcherism finally appeared to lift with the election of Tony Blair's new Labour Party in 1997, a victory that briefly drew parallels with Labour's success of 1945, historians once again sought to retrieve and unpack the memory of the hungry Thirties.

Those determined to revitalise British social democracy would do well to remember that decade, when, as in the Eighties, welfare was felt to be more a punishment than a right.

James Vernon is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of its Center for British Studies. Hunger: A Modern History has just been published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, £19.95.

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Reader's comments (1)

You have failed to mention the effect that subsidies had on British agriculture. These subsidies together with the annual negotiation with the National Farmers Union on prices called the 'price review' made much of British agriculture profitable for the first time since the repeal of the Corn Laws. That profit was ploughed back into R&D and so in the eighties the UK (Thatcher) became a net exporter of food.

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