A new Jerusalem

<strong>Austerity Britain, 1945-1951</strong>

David Kynaston<br /><em>Bloomsbury, 704pp, £25</em>

Rochester in late autumn 1945, and David Lean takes a break from filming Great Expectations to treat the locals to a test screening of Brief Encounter. An allegory of the strictures and strains of wartime dislocation, the picture might be expected to go down well with an audience consisting largely of couples only recently reunited. But no. "At the first love scene," Lean recalled, "one woman down in the front started to laugh, the audience caught on and they all joined in and it ended in an absolute shambles."

To be sure, Brief Encounter's hysterical sexual decorum can never have looked anything but ludicrous. But as Austerity Britain, David Kynaston's magnificently refulgent take on the immediate postwar years makes plain, it wasn't just the absence of a spot of how's-yer-father that had Lean's audience ho-ho-hoing. Though the majority of marriages did survive the renting pressure of long-term separation, they did not always do so with ease. As men came home blithely expecting to take up the family reins, the womenfolk, liberated by their war work, couldn't help feeling put out.

Marriage's miniature despotisms, Austerity Britain makes depressingly plain, were of a piece with the high-handed theoric of the new Labour government. Kynaston is no apologist for those New Right naysayers who dismiss the postwar settlement wholesale, but nor is he blind to the autocratic impositions the Attlee administration gave licence to. While Herbert Morrison believed that the war effort's all-pull-together tenor had engendered "genuine social idealism [and an] altered moral sense of the community", the community itself seemed less convinced.

Certainly, it had no time for the legions of experts the new government kowtowed to. When the modernist architect Ernö Goldfinger was commissioned to convert a bomb-damaged Farringdon warehouse into new premises for the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star), he insisted - to the sound of much communist caterwauling - that the building's traditional Victorian mouldings be removed. Worse, the lavatory pans he chose for the office loos were of the low-slung, European variety. Journalists and printers who griped about the depths to which they were being forced to sink were told by Goldfinger that the Continental crouch made for a more complete clear-out. He was right, though that isn't to say the workers affronted by Goldfinger's ablutionary absolutism were wrong.

Nor is there much sense in telling people that the finer things in life are not the things they already find fine. And yet that hard-headed northerner J B Priestley was so enchanted by the dictatorial rationalism of the new age that he was to be found arguing for the inauguration of a new leisure culture for what he fondly dreamed would be the newly leisured classes. "We do not," he rasped in Picture Post, "want greyhound racing and dirt track performances to be given at all hours of the day and night, pin table establishments doing a roaring trade from dawn to midnight, and idiotic films being shown down every street." Yet while a middle-class Birmingham housewife called Mary King thought the "continual stream [of] jazz & what nots" emanating from her neighbour's radio "did not go in rhythm with my mangle", most people seemed to like the burgeoning pop culture.

They definitely preferred it to the burgeoning new towns. "It is no good your jeering," the new minister for town and country planning Lewis Silkin told a packed meeting in Stevenage town hall in May 1946. "The project will go forward because it must go forward." And so it did - even though the result of the local referendum was a majority "entirely against the siting of a satellite town at Stevenage". Silkin merely pronounced himself entirely against the majority and brought about the Stevenage we all know and . . .

Little wonder, perhaps, that a poll taken two years into Labour's new Jerusalem found that, while 15 per cent thought the government "not socialist enough", almost three times as many people - 42 per cent - thought it "too socialistic" by half. In other words, as Kynaston keeps on making plain, the postwar settlement was no kind of settlement at all. Just as very few of the people who voted for her wholeheartedly endorsed the Thatcher revolution, so did few of those who ushered in the Attlee administration think in devoutly collective terms.

Alarming though it may be to progressives, most people just don't like change. A couple of months before the Attlee landslide, Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited, that bestselling high-Tory paean to a lost age. A couple of years after Margaret Thatcher took office, a TV adaptation made Waugh's vision of a sweet and innocent past more popular than ever. Nearly 700 pages long, Austerity Britain is only the first in a projected series of books that will take us all the way from Brideshead to Brideshead. I, for one, can't wait.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state