The United Kingdom was the most proletarian country in the world. This was hardly the image it projected overseas, or within the empire, or to itself. Yet it had the largest and perhaps the most uniform urban working class –rivalled in size only by the German and the American. In no place other than the United Kingdom could it be said that up to 80 per cent of the people were known as the ‘working classes’. The British people were ‘manual workers’,they were ‘hands’, ‘housewives’. Most were ‘respectable’, ‘decent’ indeed. A minority were so far from being ‘gentle’ they were labelled ‘rough’. The people were not, as in most of the world, peasants, but proletarians living in a complex interconnected society. Their lives were recorded by the hand of a bureaucrat – a shipping clerk, a census enumerator, a War Office pen-pusher,an official in a labour exchange – not by their own hands.
Labour, work, toil were, aside from sleep, what most did with most of their time. Necessity’s sharp pinch was never far away. Most owned very little – three-quarters had less than £100 (a low annual wage) in wealth. They owned very little more than their clothes and furniture and kitchen utensils. They were branded on the tongue, speaking in local accents,different from those of the gentlefolk above them. They were marked by their clothing: they wore cloth caps if male, and if female might have, at the beginning of the century, covered their heads with a shawl. They paid rent to private landlords, and they worked for private employers. If employed, they were paid weekly, and from 1911 were subject to a specific working-class poll-tax, National Insurance. The great majority paid no income tax, and if they did they paid no National Insurance. They started work earlier in the morning than the middle class. There were special ‘workmen’s tickets’ on trains running before 8 a.m.; such fares accounted for some 5 per cent ormore of passenger revenue in the 1930s, and one-third of the ordinary number of tickets sold (excluding season tickets).
They had schools, and many other institutions, exclusively to themselves too. So-called ‘elementary’ schools run by local authorities from the 1902 Education Act onwards divided from the interwar years into infants (to seven), junior (to eleven) and senior elementary schools (to fourteen), with an increasing distinction between the first two (primary schools) and secondary schools –terminology which remained even as the system changed radically. Unlike middle-class schools they were mixed gender. The spectator sport of the working-class male was football – not rugby or cricket – a game successfully implanted by the British working class all over the world, with, oddly, the exception of the former British empire. In terms of intellectual life the stark truth was that the working class did not have very much it could call its own.
Yet this working class developed an unusually strong trade union movement, both for the skilled and the unskilled, especially for men. These trade unions created a political party itself steeped in the world of work which emerged as a national party in the interwar years. In the 1920s, and especially from 1945, it gave the House of Commons a significant number of working-class members and formed a majority government. In 1950 the United Kingdom still had one of the very largest working-class movements in the capitalist world, and certainly the most organized. By telling the story of the Labour Party as part of the story of labour, we can see that its power rested on a quite different basis from that of the other important parties. It was always subservient or in opposition to greater political powers. The Labour Party was in office from time to time; the industrial, military, financial and professional arms of the Liberal and Conservative parties were in power all of the time. Labour’s primary task was to get workers,specifically trade unionists, into local government, and into the House of Commons. It was not a party with a complete alternative set of policies and prescriptions, for example in foreign affairs and military strategy.