Thunder on the Right

This wonderful book, written by Marghanita Laski (1915-1988), was published by The Cresset Press in 1948. It is a perfect summary of Theresa May's vision of Britain almost 70 years before she came to power. If you are reading this before the June 2017 British General Election, get hold of a copy as soon as you can. If you are reading it afterwards, and if Ms. May has won the election, consider how little Tory politics have changed since 1948. 

The story line is simple. The five principal characters are James, Martin, Penelope, Ughtred and Janice. Remember the names: I have put them italic bold to make the rest of this easier to follow. 

At the fall of Singapore they escape together and spent some time on a remote Pacific island. They are rescued, and when they arrive in the UK they find that the British Labour government of 1945 had been quickly overthrown, to be replaced with a rigidly stratified (and highly privatized) version of English Conservatism. There are five social classes from A (aristocracy and landed gentry) to E (starving peasants). The protagonist is James (Leigh-Smith, a thoroughgoing A). A new friend of his, Rupert Crooke-Haughton, describes things to him on page 86:

"You remember how people used to point out that if you took Lord Rothschild's money and divided it among everyone, they'd only get about a farthing each? Well, we found that quite a different situation arose when we took the money from the workers and divided it among us. The state can easily afford to give us everything we want... Before the war, you see, unemployment was pushed down to the bottom of the social scale and the rest of the community was working to maintain the unemployed. Now, the community is still doing this, but the unemployment has been pushed up to the top".

Note for the young. A farthing is a quarter (a fourth, hence farthing) of a pre-decimal penny, of which there were 240 to the pound sterling, so a farthing is 1/960th of a pound, or a fraction over 0.1 p: a little over 0.001€ or slightly more still over $0.001. Count the decimal places...

It's a very funny book, but also very chilling. To quote Mr. Ferguson, an E, from pages 153-154, talking to James when the latter is out canvassing for a show election (with pre-1832 boundaries and electorate, no Labour Party, and no free press): "There's no unemployment now," he said, "and likewise there's no dole. The Tories never liked the dole, you remember. 'Paying the able-bodied man to be idle' you'll remember they called it.... And that's why the missus is out charring [working as a charwoman or cleaner] at the doctor's house up the hill and Ada [his daughter] started at the factory at eleven [years old] and that's why we haven't barely got a stick of furniture left." 

Or even more bitterly on page 161 from Janice, assigned on arrival in the UK as an E: "There's only one way a female E can live". By now she is living with Martin, a former university lecturer, who was also assigned as an E on arrival because he said he liked Picasso. He adds, "And she very kindly keeps me as well." On being told by James that it will be quite late before he will be able to return with Ughtred and Penelope because they dine late at Starveleigh Castle (home of Penelope, upon whom James has set his heart, and where James is staying poursuivant to pressing his suit), Martin adds, "That'll be all right. Janice doesn't knock off until pretty late either."

Before that we meet the grocer's wife who says (on page 132, after explaining that her husband is unlikely to be back before ten in the evening), "We were quite happy shutting at five-thirty p.m. with a half-day on Wednesdays and we made quite enough to live the way we wanted to live. .. . if the big store opposite stays open till all hours, what else can hubby do? Of course they've got plenty of assistants working shifts and hubby's on his own. But if he didn't stay open as late as they did -- why, all his customers would go elsewhere . . . Well, it's free enterprise, I'm told, and we mustn't grumble."

She later adds, explaining how she can afford a servant, even as a B, "...they reintroduced piece-work for Ds and then cut the rates. D's can't hardly make both ends meet nowadays, not without someone in the family goes out to service." So she has a D servant. 

Elsewhere there are side-swipes at the Church of England (famously "the Tory party at prayer"), the status of Jews in England (Ms. Laski was Jewish), and English food; all rather well done. True, the book begins slowly: you need  certain amount of intestinal fortitude to read the first 20 pages or more. Nor are the last five or ten pages (out of 172) entirely satisfactory. That still leaves a superb book. I first read it as a boy: certainly, long before I could vote. In 2017 I finally got around to ordering a copy for myself. It cost me £12.10 including postage: call it 13.50€ or $15. It was well worth it, even though an earlier bookseller had marked it at 20p. Read it now, before it is too late.

For another review, try the one from Reading 1900-1950 (Sheffield Hallam University).

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Review copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016