The science of ourselves

Seventy years ago this week, a letter in the New Statesman launched the Mass-Observation project. It

It all began with a letter published in the New Statesman 70 years ago, on 30 January 1937. The letter was jointly written by three diversely talented young men: Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (a painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (a poet and Daily Mirror journalist). It invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, an "anthropology at home . . . a science of ourselves". Its list of suggested topics for investigation read like a surrealist poem on the hidden strangeness of mundane life: "Behaviour of people at war memorials . . . Shouts and gestures of motorists . . . Anthropology of football pools . . . Beards, armpits, eyebrows . . . Female taboos about eating".

The letter announced the founding of Mass-Observation, an organisation that aimed to investigate daily life in modern Britain in the same way as anthropologists were studying remote, tribal societies. It soon acquired an enthusiastic army of lowly paid or unpaid researchers. They interviewed people in the street, wrote down conversations overheard in pubs, factories and public toilets, and observed people carrying out ordinary activities such as smoking, drinking and dancing. Baffled journalists dismissed these quotidian researchers as "busy-bodies", "snoopers" and "psycho-anthropologic nosy-parkers". The NS's critic joked that the typical mass-observer must have "elephant ears, a loping walk and a permanent sore eye from looking through keyholes".

But there was a point to all this nosiness. Mass-Observation wanted to plot "weather-maps of public feeling", to make ordinary citizens' lives and thoughts better known to the people who governed them. It was less than a decade since every adult over 21 had won the vote, and there were few systematic attempts by either politicians or the press to find out the views of electors. Ordinary people were rarely seen or heard on film or radio: the newsreels did not bother with vox pops, and Lord Reith's BBC was staunchly upper-middle-class and dinner-suited. Mass-Observation was annoyed by the lazy assumptions about "the man in the street" by this media/political elite - "a tiny group, with different habits of mind, ways of life, from those millions they are catering for".

Mass-Observation produced some fascinatingly quirky domestic anthropology, but never quite lived up to these ambitious political aims. It churned out millions of words on countless subjects, from the contents of sweet-shop windows to the way that smokers held their cigarettes - far more than it could ever get round to collating, never mind interpreting. After the Second World War, the project petered out as its volunteers dispersed and its founders moved on to other projects.

By then, academic sociology had taken over some of the same territory. Compared to the more rigorous sampling techniques of social science, Mass-Observation's statistical obsessions - using stopwatches to time people drinking pints in pubs, say, or working out the percentage of men wearing caps on a Sunday - seemed somewhat lacking in scholarly rigour. The general democratisation of cultural life after the war also made it more awkward to look at people anthropologically. Harrisson's stated aim of applying anthropological methods to the study of "the cannibals of Lancashire, the head-hunters of Stepney" now carried a whiff of Old Harrovian hauteur. Standing in public toilets to make field notes takes a certain kind of self-assurance; and it would not survive the scrutiny of an academic ethics committee today.

But the fizzling out of Mass-Observation after the war was more than an academic question. It is also a story about changing understandings of British politics and culture, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. After the war, as daily life became more comfortable and less politically contentious, non-academic social research shifted away from anthropological observation towards the narrower analysis of consumer choice. Mass-Observation gave way to the new growth industry of market research, which was also interested in recording the views of ordinary people, but which understood "public opinion" to be the statistical aggregate of lots of different private opinions. It saw people as the autonomous authors of their own lives, calmly making rational choices as individual consumers; it was not interested in deciphering their unconscious collective habits. Mass-Observation bowed to the inevitable in 1949 and itself became a market-research firm, reduced to conducting consumer surveys of products such as soap powder and fish fingers.

The same methods of deciphering individual consumer choice began to take over British politics. Harrisson railed against what he saw as the new "holy sanction" of opinion polls which were interested only in bald yes/no responses and treated the growing number of "don't knows" as a mere statistical residue. Politics was not just about putting a tick in a box, he claimed, but about participating in or feeling excluded from political culture as a whole. Simply recording people's opinions treated them as "slot-mechanical spectators semi-supine on the sideline".

It is sometimes assumed that voter apathy and cynicism are recent phenomena. But Mass-Observation was conducting pioneering studies of public distrust and ignorance of politics as early as the late 1930s. It explored the ways in which new forms of mass culture such as astrology, ballroom dancing and all-in wrestling created a sense of democratic participation conspicuously lacking from general elections. It noted how new working-class enthusiasms such as the Pools and newspaper "spot the ball" competitions caricatured the rituals of elections, asking participants to use their skill and judgement to put crosses in particular places, just as they did on a ballot paper. The Pools companies even managed to persuade people to pay to register their "votes", when many of them refused to do so in elections at no expense to themselves.

Does this sound familiar? It is a media truism that more people voted using premium-rate lines to evict housemates on Big Brother than for Labour at the 2005 general election (although the truism is not necessarily true, because no one knows how many votes on reality-TV programmes can be ascribed to multiple calls by the same person). According to recent research by Stephen Coleman on the 2005 election, the typical Big Brother viewer is actually no less likely to vote than the average citizen. Sixty per cent of sampled BB viewers voted in that election, almost exactly the same proportion as in the population as a whole. Among younger people, those who watched Big Brother were more politically active. Only 39 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds voted, compared with nearly half (49 per cent) of BB viewers in the same age group.

Coleman concludes that "the image of Big Brother as a refuge for a politically distracted generation, which squanders its precious votes on televised popularity polls while refusing to meet its civic obligations at the ballot box", is misleading. Voters do not have finite reserves of political energy; ringing up to vote on Big Brother eviction night makes you no less likely to exercise your democratic right at elections. They are simply different activities. The conventional model of pol itical participation treats electors as rational, deliberative citizens, making clear-cut choices at the polling booth. Yet people do not always engage with public life in this way: they can be emotive, irrational and more interested in gut responses than in reasoned debate. Reality-TV voting caters for these melodramatic impulses, directing them towards fairly banal issues, such as who did the best rumba on Strictly Come Dancing. Yet these phone-in votes also engender the kind of public fascination and sense of national community that Mass-Observation found in the Pools, and which are still missing from political culture.

There is one area of modern politics where this interest in popular intuitions and passions survives: the focus group. In some ways the focus group is the direct descendant of the Mass-Observation project. It has the same chaotically eclectic mix of sociology, psychology and anthropology, the same sense that politics is not simply about measuring fixed opinions, but about uncovering more nebulous thoughts and feelings. However, unlike Mass-Observation, which made its findings publicly available, focus-group researchers conduct their work in secrecy. Their interest in what people think and feel is limited to getting a small number of target voters to change their choice at election time. So focus-group politics comes up with cartoonish approximations of average voters - Basildon Man, Worcester Woman, Pebble-dash People. They are another example of what so irritated Mass-Observation's founders: the tendency of elites to invent versions of "ordinary people" for whom they could then presume to speak.

Joe Moran's "Queuing for Beginners" is published by Profile Books in May

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

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Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt