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It was the high summer of 1939. In July, weeks away from the outbreak of war, a thousand people gathered at Holland House in Kensington in West London to celebrate the eighteenth birthday of the debutante Rosalind Cubitt. Rosalind was the granddaughter of Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII. Her mother, Sonia Keppel, had married Roland Cubitt, later the 3rd Baron Ashcombe, heir to the giant global building firm. Camilla Parker Bowles, who later married Charles, the prince of Wales, is Rosalind’s daughter.

Set in seventy acres of landscaped gardens and parkland, the sixteenth-century Holland House was one of Britain’s pre-eminent private mansions, long the centre of political and society intrigue, and once described as a ‘temple of luxury’.1 Loaned for the occasion by its owner the 6th Earl of Ilchester, the palace played host to one of the most memorable parties of ‘the season’, when Britain’s wealthiest classes came together in a whirl of social and sporting events. The guest list was a roll call of the leading members of Britain’s wealthy elite. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth together with Queen Eva of Spain and the playwright Noël Coward mingled with the country’s political and literary figures, foreign ambassadors, press barons, financiers and popular entertainers.

Despite the wider privations and the deepening shadow of war, what one insider dubbed the ‘ornamental class’ showed no inclination for restraint.2 Across Britain, the champagne continued to flow at lavish social gatherings and traditional aristocratic pastimes – polo, fox hunting and shooting.

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A vast gulf in living standards prevailed through and beyond the Victorian era. ‘There is ignorance, and coarse brutality, and sullen hopelessness, and haggard wretchedness, far beyond what there ought to be in the midst of such beauties and blessings’, declared Elizur Wright, an American businessman and social reformer. Visiting Britain on a fact-finding journey a decade after the Poor Law Amendment Act, Wright was unimpressed by the rich classes. Meeting the elderly and influential romantic poet, William Wordsworth, who had drifted from the radicalism of his younger days, Wright argued firmly against the poet’s belief that America, like Britain, should have ‘a class of gentlemen … born to such large property that they could devote themselves entirely to literary pursuits, and be above sordid interests’. ‘The longer I stay here’, declared Wright, ‘the more this class of independent hereditary gentlemen seems to me like a perpetual devouring curse of locusts.’1

While the data sources are imperfect, the evidence is that the UK income gap widened through the first six decades of the nineteenth century. Real wages rose slowly in the last decades of the Victorian era, while the income gap narrowed slightly.2 Industrial capitalism produced vast wealth, but only for the few, creating a wealth gap that was even greater than that for incomes. In 1859, the wealthiest sixty-seven estates accounted for 22 per cent of all property left in that year.3 On the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the top 1 per cent owned an estimated 70 per cent of all private property – land, property and financial assets – while the top tenth owned 93 per cent. The vast majority owned more or less nothing.

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The opening years of the new century brought growing unease about the social state of Britain. In 1903, the American writer Jack London – in The People of the Abyss – described the crushing poverty that he witnessed among the slum dwellers of Whitechapel as a ‘national sickness’.1 Raw capitalism and its innovative power may have helped make Britain, for a while, the world’s leading industrial nation. But – it was now increasingly asked – were business leaders and landlords demanding too high a price from workers and tenants? In 1903, the American political activist and game designer, Elizabeth Magie, invented a board game she called The Landlord’s Game. A forerunner of Monopoly, it was designed to show the consequences of the monopoly ownership of land and had two outcomes, one in which a single landlord secures all the land, and one in which it is equally shared.

Lowering poverty levels, reformers insisted, required the material gains from industrialisation to be shared more evenly through better wages and working conditions, an improved urban environment, an end to the inhumane Poor Law and more. Tackling poverty, wrote Seebohm Rowntree, involved ‘larger questions dealing with land tenure, with the relative duties and powers of the state and of the individual towards legislation affecting the aggregation and distribution of wealth’.2

Clement Attlee, who became prime minister in 1945, had witnessed the dehumanising power of everyday life working as a volunteer in the East End of London, and was another early convert to the anti-inequality cause.

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Despite a short-lived boom, the early post-war years brought economic turbulence and recession. There was not a single year from 1921 to 1938 when the dole queue fell below one million.1 With large numbers of ex-serviceman still unemployed eighteen months after the war and in an ‘ugly mood’, and establishment and middle class fears of the spread of Bolshevism, the cabinet was warned repeatedly of the risk of unrest.2

In January 1919, sixty thousand strikers in Glasgow, many wearing their war medals, clashed with police, with a panicked London cabinet sending in troops. Marches against unemployment were also broken up, often with violence, by foot and mounted police. A central issue in Glasgow was the length of the working week, with demobbed soldiers calling for shorter hours so that work could be shared. Strikers claimed that manufacturers wanted to maintain a local pool – ‘a reserve army’ – of obedient available labour. The strikers had some success, while one of the organisers – the seaman’s leader, Manny Shinwell, later a member of Clement Attlee’s 1945 cabinet – was jailed for five months for inciting riot. The ‘Red Clydesiders’, as the strikers became known, won ten out of fifteen Glasgow constituencies for the Independent Labour Party in the 1922 general election.

The War and its sacrifices raised expectations about the obligations of the state to wider society. While Lloyd George formed a coalition government in 1919, the new parliament was light on members committed to social reform, with an influx of ‘new money’ businessmen (they were all men) committed to the status quo.

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The war years were to have a profound effect on the destiny of the generation that lived through them. The lingering memories of the bruising years of the depression and the personal costs of war were critical factors in the political and social earthquake that was to come. Both put the public’s patience with their lot, the hierarchical structures that defined life chances and the sense of entitlement of the rich under severe strain.

The top social tier had a strong sense of what was to come. Despite its grandeur, Rosalind Cubitt’s party in the summer of 1939 was infused with foreboding. The occasion turned out to be the last of the full-blown debutant parties, a patrician last fling. Henry Channon called it ‘a sunset glow before the storm’.1

Traditional high society pastimes, from polo to fox hunting, petered out. Restrictions on foreign currency limited overseas excursions, if fuelling a lively and lucrative currency black market. With cooks, butlers, gardeners and maids called up or redeployed to vital civilian tasks, a major preoccupation of the wealthy classes was the loss of servants. Grandee houses still required a small army of servants and a sizeable fortune to run them. In 1939, at the grand Londonderry House at the south end of Park Lane, there was a staff of forty-four. The Duke of Bedford owned two fully staffed townhouses in London’s Belgrave Square and kept more than fifty servants at Woburn. ‘The whole social edifice came crashing down’, described two historians, ‘for the abrupt disappearance of servants made the old style of life no longer possible, regardless of the level of affluence.’

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On VE day, 8 May 1945, euphoria and relief mingled with apprehension. With 750,000 homes destroyed, many of the four million servicemen demobilised came back to bombed homes and the dole queue. The Conservative Party and their supporters thought the election – set for July 5 – was in the bag. In the event, the public demanded and then voted for change. The great hope was that 1945 would offer a clean start – Year Zero – with history reset.

When Labour won a landslide victory in the election of 1945, with a majority of 146, one not to be surpassed until 1997, no one was more surprised than the party’s leader Clement Attlee and his wife Vi. ‘Vi went round for months telling people the Attlees “expected Churchill to win.”’1

When the new prime minister went to the Palace, the self-effacing, pipe-smoking Attlee was driven by Vi – dressed in her Sunday best – in their modest family saloon, the same car used to cross the country during the election campaign. It was a striking symbol of the change about to sweep Britain. When he informed King George VI that Labour had won the election, the king is reported to have said, ‘I know. I heard it on the Six O’Clock News.’

The result was a jolt to the old elites. They expected Churchill to win, their fortunes to be restored and the old order to bounce back along with the servants, the lifestyles and the deference. On the day the results were announced, London’s most prestigious hotels had laid on special lunches for their clients.

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In October 1951, the Daily Herald carried the headline: ‘Poverty is Almost Down and Out.’ The Herald was reporting the results of the third survey of poverty by the now eighty-year-old Seebohm Rowntree. This was the first analysis of the anti-poverty effectiveness of the post-war reforms. The survey results, published just ten days before a general election, found that the proportion of York’s working-class households in poverty stood at 4.6 per cent in 1950, a dramatic fall compared with the 1936 survey.1 ‘To a great extent’, wrote Rowntree’s co-researcher George Russell Lavers, ‘poverty has been overcome by the welfare state’.2

Although the survey was less rigorous than Rowntree’s earlier work, the findings had an important influence on the politics of social policy. They showed ‘a remarkable improvement, no less than the virtual abolition of the sheerest want’, according to a leader in the Times.3 Labour had hung onto power in 1950 with a slender majority of five. They lost the 1951 election, despite trying to make capital out of Rowntree’s findings and enjoying 48.8 per cent of the vote to the Conservative’s 48 per cent. With a majority of seventeen, the seventy-seven-year old Winston Churchill, shaken by his 1945 defeat, returned to Number 10.

That poverty had finally been tamed was the central social story of the time. Apart from a few residual problems that could be solved by policy tweaks, Britain, it was widely believed, had turned its back on the squalor, deprivation and insecurity of the past.

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Part of the reason for these flaws was that although the much-heralded post-war consensus was real, it was also shallow. The official committee established by the wartime cabinet to examine the Beveridge report argued that the proposals would, by abandoning the principle of deterrence on which social relief had always been based, encourage fecklessness. The committee also expressed doubts about the need for family allowances and argued that, if needed, they should be paid in kind not cash.1 Similar issues have continued to dog the progress of social reform.

David Cannadine has described the 1945 election as ‘a contest between “the people” and the “old gang”’. This was especially stark among the armed forces. As the American critic Edmund Wilson noted when mingling among British troops in Greece, there was an almost ‘complete class line-up’ between troops and officers. He could find ‘no English soldier who had not voted for Labour and only one officer who had’.2

The old gang – the traditional upper classes, City grandees and the new industrial rich, along with some members of the professional classes – did not sign up to the new welfare priorities. While the post-war reforms enjoyed widespread public support, they were, added Cannadine, widely viewed by the wealthy classes as an attack on ‘aristocrats, the rich, bankers, doctors, newspaper owners and shareholders’.3 In her 1948 political satire Tory Heaven, Marghanita Laski portrayed a totalitarian Tory government enforcing the unwritten rules of the British class system, and its hierarchy of privileges, through a strict system of social classification – A, B, C, D and E.

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The question marks being raised about the persistence of poverty had, initially, little impact. But this was about to change. In 1957, Peter Townsend moved to the London School of Economics (LSE) in the department run by Richard Titmuss. At his modest three-bedroom house in Ealing, where he lived with his wife Kay and daughter Ann, frequent guests included an elderly Richard Tawney, colleagues like Townsend and Labour politicians such as Richard Crossman. Titmuss had an unparalleled influence over the course of British social policy. He is one of few social scientists to have an English Heritage blue plaque marking his former home. A few months before he died in April 1973 at the age of 65, he was still able to fill lecture halls to overflowing.1

Those working with Titmuss became part of a group of LSE academics known as the ‘Titmice’. Applied sociologists and close friends, their work soon began to get under the skin of politicians and administrators. At the LSE, Townsend started work on a novel approach to the measurement of poverty with another of the ‘Titmice’, Brian Abel-Smith. Reputedly twenty-seventh in line to the throne, Abel-Smith was an unlikely champion of the poor. While the studies by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree were based on their own local surveys, the Abel-Smith and Townsend study used the government’s Family Expenditure Survey, with its host of information about incomes and other aspects of household lifestyles. The Central Statistical Office had already used this source for some groundbreaking analysis of the distributional impact of public spending on household income.

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