A Common Culture? Nation and Culture in the Interwar Years

A Common Culture?
Nation and Culture in the Interwar
• 1. Introductory thoughts
• 2. The countryside and a common culture
• 3. New media, a common culture, and a
culture for democracy
• To what extent did the period between the First
and Second World War see the emergence of a
common culture?
• What do we mean by a ‘common culture’?
• If there was a common culture, what were the
causes and factors lying behind this?
• What were the factors that cut across and
undermined a common culture?
• Why have historians been interested in the
existence of a common culture?
Why the Question? i) Paradox:
Inequality and Social Division
Stability and Conservatism
Why the Question: ii) Declinism
English Culture and the Decline of the
Industrial Spirit (Martin Weiner, 1981)
The Uses of Literacy (Richard
Hoggart, 1957)/Americanisation
Why the Question: iii) social change
The three Englands of J.B. Priestley
Old England
Industrial England
The new England: Americanisation
Wiener’s Decline of the Industrial
Spirit/Rural Nostalgia/Backwardness
Lines of argument
• Britain the first industrial
nation, but middle-class fail
to invest in industry
• Seductions of the values of
the landed, aristocratic elite
• Hostility to the two other
• Role of public schools and
national culture spread the
anti-industrial spirit
• Gentlemanly capitalism also
a story of landed classes
being seduced (and success)
• Embrace of the countryside
may in fact be a logical
outcome of being the first
industrial and urban society:
a sign of modernity not
• Other of eg Germany also
romantices countryside
The Comfort of the Countryside
• 80% of population
urban by 1900.
• Council for the
Preservation of Rural
England founded in
Political mobilisation
Stanley Baldwin, 1924
Iron and Steel family background
Interwar dominance of Conservative
Attractions of salve of country vision
of nation in times of strife? Hiding
from realities of social problems;
needs for rearmanent? Success of
interwar conservatism founded on
mobilisation of ideas of their
representation of a ‘public’ against
(class) sectionalism. Value of
countryside rhetoric in appealing
above class as the national party (era
of National Governments in wartime
and economic crises).
To me, England is the country, and
the country is England. And when I
ask myself what I mean by England
when I am abroad, England comes to
me through my various senses —
through the ear, through the eye and
through certain imperishable scents
... The sounds of England, the tinkle
of the hammer on the anvil in the
country smithy, the corncrake on a
dewy morning, the sound of the
scythe against the whetstone, and
the sight of a plough team coming
over the brow of a hill, the sight that
has been seen in England since
England was a land ... the one eternal
sight of England.
Modernity and the Embrace of the
Disenchantment (Weber):
Reenchantment via eg folk lore
movement/invention of tradition
British style of modernism
Historical critiques of Industrial Rev
Conservationism and roots of ecology
and environmentalism
Road to state management of
resources: national parks, green
belts, new towns, garden suburbs …
Embrace of countryside made
possible and democratised by
modern technology: bicycles, cars,
trains. Radical politics of land access.
Also new leisure time/wealth:
Blackpool …
Modernity and the Landscape
So …
• Series of reasons for importance of countryside
• Not just a symbol of backwardness
• Reasons could differ across class; meaning
• But also links across class; elements of a common
culture; factors of nationalisation of politics,
pressure groups, technology, increased leisure,
role of the state underlie this linkage across class
(perhaps also that countryside depoliticised)
Radio and the BBC
• 1939: 9m licences in
population of 48m
• Creation of a new nation
landscape, reaching into
living rooms
• Elevating ‘Reithian’ agenda
of a culture for democracy
(John Reith, first Director
General of BBC 1927-38)
• Persistence of Victorian
values at heart of common
culture? (Jonathan Rose,
The Intellectual Life of the
British Working Classes
The Press
• National popular press
(Adrian Bingham)
• Sport (divides but also
unites: peak of attendance
in aftermath of WWII)
• Human interest (aristocrat’s
son; women’s issues)
• Interchange of media forms
(also via eg BBC)
• A culture for democracy (in
terms of class but also
• The appeal of the ‘dream
palace’ (escapism)
• Attendance: 18-19m
attendances/year by
1930s; peak 30m in 1945
• National boundaries,
quotas, and
Americanisation (also
dance and music):
preference for democratic
style of American culture
Or a more class-defined and therefore
divided society?
• BBC an instrument of
paternalism and not
politically neutral
(General Strike): a
culture FOR democracy
– paternalism of Reith
Role of culture (and nationalisation of
media in the making & dividing of
Snobbery, elitism, and Intellectual
attacks on mass culture
• Modernism deliberately
distances itself from
mass culture, but also
criticises suburbia and
• Middle-class suspicion
of cinema and America
• Even on the left,
Priestley worried about
England ‘Blackpooling
So …
• Are the (powerful) forces behind the
nationalisation of culture between the wars
creating or exposing the division of a ‘common
• Looked at from the perspective of the 21st
century, is this period marked out by the degree
to which there was a powerful national culture,
and if so why?
• Is a common culture an important element in
explaining the balance of social division and
stability in the period?