Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Consensus or Coercion (2002)

Black et al, Consensus or Coercion (New Clarion Press, 2001)
Written By: David Renton
Date: April 2002
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 15: Summer 2002 

Lawrence Black, Michael Dawswell, Zoë Doye, Julia Drake, Andrew Homer, John Jenkins, Mark Minion, Glyn Powell and Louise Tracey, Consensus or Coercion: the State, the People and Social Cohesion in Post-war Britain (New Clarion Press, 2001)

There is an oft-spoken myth which states that British history is a continuous story of social cohesion. But even class peace can have many different faces - as Ross McKibbin points out in the preface to this book - it can be evidence of a society at ease with itself, or potentially a sign that the state has only succeeded in silencing dissent. This new book brings together a younger generation of researchers to consider the meaning of British social cohesion, using the 'peaceful' 1950s as a test-case.

Several chapters will be of interest to socialist historians. The introduction examines a number of past theories of the state, including several Marxist theories, in an attempt to show how consensus and coercion could be linked. Glynn Powell's chapter on the British Communist Party suggests that the party, whose members were seemingly the most extreme critics of the system, actually trained its cadres to adopt a strategy which left capitalism intact.

Lawrence Black's work on left-wing responses to private-sector television says much about the values dominant among Labour lefts. The majority regarded all forms of advertising as an assault on public-sector values. More than that, they criticised those workers who wanted commercial TV. Pleasure was a distraction from the struggle. Affluence was described almost as a form of proletarian moral sickness.

There is new research here on race, housing, local government and the new towns. The quality of these middle papers is uneven - some of them feel a bit much like standard surveys. But in the last chapter, the book returns to form. John Jenkins discusses the top-down authoritarian politics of George Haynes - then head of the National Council of Social Service. Haynes comes over as a vindictive autocrat. Jenkins strikes a blow against the naive claim that the voluntary sector always embodied a culture of service and co-operation, a 'third way', which somehow negated the influence of capitalism outside.

The book is made up of a set of essays, based on a conference which was held in 1999. Most such books fail to gel. But the tight overlap of theme and date means that the contents of this book are much more coherent than most such collections. The common idea which emerges is that consensus was much more complex and partial than previous writers have allowed. For historians of this period, it represents a valuable, new resource.

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