Tag Archives: The Guardian

Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith and Austerity Bites by Mary O’Hara – reviews

Big Society? More like Battered Society. Melissa Benn on two books that expose the ‘war on the weakest’ in Cameron’s Britain

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era as Britain’s finest moment destroyed a half-century or more later by neo­liberal economics and unrestrained finance capital.

Right now, some inventive literary festival programmer is probably trying to set up a staged discussion between Harry Leslie Smith and Mary O’Hara. If not, they should – it would be fascinating. Smith, a mere 91 years of age, is boiling with anger at what he sees as the UK’s return to the indignities of his Great Depression childhood. O’Hara, an experienced reporter, brings a cool head to her story of the impact of the cuts over the last four years.

Yet for all the difference in age, experience and literary voice, these writers, both of whom began their lives in poverty, speak of remarkably similar things. And both books add to a mounting body of work on the growing economic divide in modern Britain: “an emergency”, according to Smith, “as dire as the economic crisis of 1933”.

Only a few pages in, I decided that the best way to read his unusually structured book was to approach it as a kind of epic poem, one that moves in circular fashion from passionate denunciation to intense autobiographical reflection. Smith’s early childhood – he grew up in Yorkshire in the 1930s – was one of almost Dickensian deprivation: his older sister Marion died aged 10 of tuberculosis in Barnsley’s old workhouse, and his unemployed miner father of alcoholism and loneliness. Wartime service in the RAF at least brought Smith regular meals and a reliable wage, and he met his German wife, Friede, in the ravages of postwar Berlin. The couple moved to Canada where moderate economic prosperity and ordinary family contentment rescued him from the bitterness of his early years.

In a manner suggestive of Ken Loach’s magisterial 2013 film The Spirit of ’45, Smith sees the postwar era, in particular the creation of the welfare state, as Britain’s finest moment, a compact between industry and labour, the middle and working classes, destroyed a half-century or more later by neoliberal economics and unrestrained finance capital. (Unlike Loach, he also puts a bit of the blame on what he sees as the over-mighty trade unionism of the 70s.)…

Man-Made: Why So Few Women Are in Positions of Power by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds – review

In the topsy-turvy world of British politics, with Labour seeking the centre ground and the Conservative party projecting itself as the party of the workers, Man-Made feels heaven sent. With an unerring lucidity, it lays out the multiple ways that inequality continues to frustrate the aspirations of half the population. Given that its female interviewees include the chief executives of the Association of Drainage Authorities and Yorkshire Water, the vice president of (environmental) Upstream BP and the chair of the Civil Aviation Authority, as well as a range of top lawyers, journalists, arts administrators and politicians including Harriet Harman, this book not only covers the centre ground but all that runs beneath, or flies above, it.

Tutchell and Edmond’s starting point is the gross imbalance of power in contemporary Britain, with women still heavily outnumbered at the top of public, corporate and political life. (The exceptions are primary school headships and chairs of magistrates.) The dismal figures on women’s representation are the direct consequence of three decades of stagnation since the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination acts, the implementation of which has been “patchy, uncertain and incomplete”.

The Conservatives place their faith in voluntary action, particularly in relation to the low number of women on company boards, and, while more women are elected to parliament and appointed to senior ministerial positions (particularly in the runup to general elections), we have achieved nothing like the near parity of the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, which have also, incidentally, promoted strong female leaders.

Man-Made is a mix of tough empiricism, sound analysis and human storytelling. Through its extensive interviews (admission of interest here – I am quoted on a couple of occasions) the authors pick their way through the minefield of contemporary working life. How depressing to be reminded of the many pitfalls that still exist from the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures around dress (“avoid dowdiness, flamboyance and sexiness”) and behaviour (a strong woman is still considered a hard bitch; a more consensual female dismissed as weak) to the kind of shocking sexual discrimination that seems particularly rampant in Britain’s orchestras, of all places. It is interesting to learn that the informality of the new media companies masks some very old practices and prejudices.

Beware of wearing black and white, successful women are still advised, or you will at some point be asked to refill an empty glass or find a coat draped over your arm.…

Latest writing


The crisis of the meritocracy: Britain’s transition to mass education since the Second World War


Oxford: Oxford University Press

361pp, hardback, £25, ISBN 9780198840145

Cambridge historian Peter Mandler has a fundamentally optimistic story to tell about the growth of universal education in Britain over the last seventy years and one can sense his stubborn resistance to any more sceptical interpretation on almost every page of this dense and impressive history. Since the close of the ‘people’s war’ in 1945, Mandler argues, we have witnessed the rise of mass education, initially at secondary level, and more recently in higher education where participation rates currently nudge New Labour’s much vaunted promise of 50 per cent. Contrary to established narratives that have put this development down to economic growth or significant pieces of legislation, Mandler identifies the expansion of educational opportunity as the result of a constantly shifting interplay of demand and supply that has reinforced ‘the deepening compact between the individual citizen and the state which came with formal democracy and the idea of equal citizenship’. Education continues to be seen by the public as one of the ‘decencies’ of life’; hence the inexorable rise in demand for what Mandler often refers to as ‘more and better’.

In short, the people (sort of) did it themselves.

On the face of it, this is an attractive proposition, yet one that is oddly tricky to grapple with, given the mass of contradictory or partial information available to us concerning what the ‘people’ have wanted at any given historical moment or, indeed, who exactly the people are. Mandler deliberately employs ‘a promiscuous array of methods and sources’, sifting through realms of evidence from official publications, interviews, academic studies, pollsters’ findings and demographic surveys in an attempt to clarify the complex relationship between government policy, public demand and social change. This promiscuity encourages him to prosecute his subsidiary critique of the alleged tendency of academic disciplines to work in unhelpful silos. Economists and social scientists, he charges, have paid scant attention to educational expansion while educationists and political historians tend to ‘chop up long-term trends into short political segments’ with many on the left falling into a ‘declinist narrative’ in which the failures of a ‘divided’ Labour party feature heavily as a reason for a lack of genuine progress (an analysis Mandler anyway rejects). But we shall return to the problem of we whingeing progressives in a moment.…

Latest news & events

A Cold War Tragedy

Melissa will be in conversation with Anne Sebba about her new book, ‘Ethel Rosenberg – A Cold War Tragedy.’

Weds 15th September 2021, 5-6pm, in the Robert Graves Tent at the Wimbledon Book Festival.

More information here.