Afterlives: Excavating the Political Ruins of the Twentieth Century

Session Abstract : John Maynard Keynes once claimed that we are all “the slaves of some defunct economist.” The past coheres in buildings, institutions and policies that long outlive the political moment in which they were created. While Britain’s mid century social democratic settlement drew from and reorganised political ideas and urban forms from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Britain’s neoliberal turn was a partial negotiation of the stubborn remnants of social politics. Our panel offers three reflections on how the ruins of victorian liberalism, social democratic planning and financial infrastructures had strange before and afterlives. By looking beyond high politics to the built environment, the provision and experience of healthcare, and institutional market competition for small investors, we show how older political landscapes sometimes constrained or opened up the potential for new ideas and political formations.

What does the history of social democratic planning look like from an industrial complex in Manchester? How does the longer history of ‘neoliberal’ ideas like ‘choice’ seem from the waiting room of an NHS hospital? Or from the pages of the financial press? Sam Wetherell looks at how the development of Trafford Park trading estate on the outskirts of Manchester in the 1890s established a model which would be used to reorganise and nationalise British industry in the 1940s. Andrew Seaton reveals the early NHS as an unlikely survivor of the social democratic ethos, highlighting how it overcame initial opposition to embed itself in British life. Amy Edwards traces the history of the financial advice industry in post-war Britain to demonstrate the emergence of a mass investment culture that would provide a constraining discursive and institutional framework for Thatcherite visions of ‘popular capitalism’.

Session Chair: Erika Hanna, Uni of Bristol

Paper 1 Abstract : Trading Estates and the Strange Origins of Britain’s Industrial Policy

Sam Wetherell, Columbia University

One of the most important and short-lived innovations of the British state in the 1940s was its industrial policy. In the inter-war period politicians and planners had become concerned that the country’s nineteenth century industrial economy had frozen in place an urban and infrastructural arrangement that, like an unwanted tattoo, was awkwardly persisting. While small suburban assembly plants were thriving in the South East and the Midlands, a slump in heavy industry had left places like the North East, parts of Scotland and Lancashire in precipitous decline.
In order to retrofit an economy built around roads, electricity and consumer goods into a built environment shaped around steam, coal, railroads and capital intensive forms of production the government sought to irrigate areas of high unemployment with jobs and capital, using subsidies and planning controls. In order to do this the government built an extensive network of nationalized trading estates in declining areas. If the government was creating an irrigation scheme for jobs and capital, then trading estates were to be the pipes and wells through which new industry would flow.

This paper is about the late nineteenth century origins of the government-owned trading estate. While many imaged that these estates would usher in a new kind of state-managed capitalism, a “slum clearance of factories” that would revolutionize working life in Britain, their origins stem from Trafford Park, a private venture in Manchester founded in 1896. In reconceiving factory-owners as “tenants”, and offering them access to cheap and comprehensive systems of energy, transportation, labor and advertising, the founders of Trafford Park created a portable tool for industrial development, one that would transform Britain’s economy in the 1940s and 1950s. I argue that an attention to the technical forms and economic relationships which made Britain’s mid-century industrial policy possible disrupts an easy story about the 1940s birth of Social Democracy in Britain.

Paper 2 Abstract : Difficult Beginnings: Choice, Privacy, and the Family in the Early National Health Service

Andrew Seaton, New York University

The NHS undermines any straightforward idea of a ‘Broken World’. Though clearly changed, a universal nationalised service born in the 1940s endured the ‘neoliberal transition’, increasing its popular emotional purchase as ‘the closest thing the English have to a religion’.

This paper argues, however, that while the NHS is the paragon for those searching for an enduring social democratic spirit in Britain, it is a peculiar choice when viewed historically. Mass Observation (MO) material and personal accounts in the period just before and after 5 July 1948 reveal ambivalence or outright hostility to the idea of ‘state medicine’. This is often missed by historians emphasising the immediate ‘popularity’ of the service. Early individual concerns instead centred on personal ideas of ‘choice’ and ‘privacy’: Will I be able to choose my doctor? Will I be on a hospital ward rather than in a private room? No automatic link consistently existed between ‘free’ healthcare and supporting the NHS, and certainly not in the immediate postwar years.

Yet, the NHS embedded itself in British life. I shall posit that particular facets of the NHS that addressed concerns over ‘choice’ and ‘privacy’, and its deliberate association with the family, allowed the institution to assuage early opposition. MO sources and individual patient accounts reveal the parts of the new service that appealed to the public and a changing conception of the ‘state’; especially among middle class patients whose support proved vital to the continuation of welfare provisioning. Looking at the institutional, gendered, and generational dynamics of British healthcare across the 1948 transition reveals the support that even ‘free medicine’ had to secure to survive the political ruins of the twentieth-century.

Paper 3 Abstract : Money Makers: The financial advice industry and the limitations of popular capitalism.

Amy Edwards, Uni of Bristol

Popular capitalism has been understood as one of the defining features of Margaret Thatcher’s political project in contemporary Britain. In particular mass share ownership, encouraged by a series of privatisation share offers, has become central to our understanding of the period, and of the shift from social democracy to privatised industry and neoliberal market reforms. However, the rise of a mass investment culture in Britain did not begin with Thatcher-era privatisations. Nor did it end with the apparent failure of popular capitalism to enfranchise the nation in democratic share ownership. The predominant trend in the UK’s domestic markets was the rise of the institutional, not the individual investor.

This paper will argue that the rise of a mass investment culture propitious to institutional forms of share ownership, as opposed to widespread individual ownership of equities, cannot be easily explained within a framework of Thatcherism. Popular capitalism simply does not capture the nature, scope or mechanisms through which market reforms occurred within Britain’s financial services sector in the late twentieth century. By exploring the history of the financial press, and particularly the emergence of ‘money pages’, this paper argues that instead post-war Britain experienced the rise of a mass investment culture characterised by financial consumerism. That is to say, there was a growing consumer culture around financial services and the ownership of capital. This culture was largely shaped by institutions with an interest in profiting from the market potential of small investors. The financial press in fact formed but a small part of a rapidly growing financial advice industry which engaged with readers as consumers, teaching them how to negotiate and select from the new ranges of products on offer from financial institutions.

Exploring this aspect of mass investment culture enables us to trace the rise of certain institutional infrastructures which significantly shaped and constrained the nature of Thatcherite reform and the political project of ‘popular capitalism’.