Margaret Perry (b. 1922): Politics, Protest & Class

British historian E.P. Thompson argued that the making of the working class was in fact of ‘political and cultural, as much as of economic, history’ (1). Margaret Perry, born 1922 in Nottingham, places emphasis upon politics in her untitled memoir. The discussion of politics in her text does not begin until Perry talks of her life during World War Two, aged 17-23. This is unsurprising, as with a War of any scale, the conflicting ideas about how to govern a society become all the more prevalent. As we know with various societal reforms after the Second World War, such as the creation of the NHS, this period was influential in politics for how we live even today.

World War Two.

The prominence of politics in the media is obvious in Perry’s memoir, ‘I didn’t read the newspapers in those days, had no idea what had been happening across the Channel during the last six years’ (pp. 27), along with her 17-year-old self’s lack of attention and seriousness to the situation of War, ‘Anyway those new black-out curtains were a good idea, kept the draught out. It was all rather exciting’ (pp. 27). Beaven argued that during a period of national crisis ‘notions of citizenship stress class harmony and a sense of common purpose’, as was the case during the “People’s War”. Day-to-day politics of the War also impacted Perry, ‘food rationing was difficult for everyone but more of a trial for the young was the rationing of clothes’ (pp. 28). The housing situation was clear too, ‘There was no hope of a home of any sort. No houses had been built for three years and many had been demolished by bombs’ (pp. 31). Bourke argued that ‘capitalists and male workers had an interest in uniting to exclude women from jobs'(2), however, if this was the case, the Second World War changed things, ‘I couldn’t take a job other than war work’ (pp. 32) and ‘my age group were pressed into joining one of the Services or as in my case sent to a factory which had been converted into wire insullation for the Admirality. I was to be a costing clerk and given an office among the noisy machinery’ (pp. 35).

Ration books from the 1940s

 

Politics: A Male Influence?

Within Perry’s memoir, it is clear that males influenced her politically. This reflects the somewhat gender-specific nature of politics at this time.  These males included Perry’s first husband-to-be, Roy, ‘An avid reader of politics, religion and philosophy. For this reason also, my Mother thought him too intellectual for me … he inspired me to begin to read for myself and I developed a taste for a good arguement’ (pp. 30), and a married peacetime Lawyer, Edward, ‘I learned that he was a red-hot Socialist’ (pp. 30). Edward continued to influence Perry during his postings in the War, ‘long intellectual lectures on the merits of socialism and the wickedness of Capitalism. I agreed with every word and absorbed it like the Gospels’ (pp. 32) and ‘Edward’s last letter … contained literature on Sir Richard Aclands’ new party, the Commonwealth Party. I was asked to study it and give my opinion … it was my age group they were aiming for’ (pp. 33), although Perry admits that this Party was ‘far too left for this country and faded out’ (pp. 34).

Sir Richard Acland, founder of the Commonwealth Party whom Perry described as, ‘A beautiful aristocratic creature with the loveliest soft voice and the poshest of all posh accents I’d ever heard. He could have just as easily … spouted Toryism at me and I still would have thought it pearls of wisdom’ (pp. 33)

 

Perry’s Political Beliefs

However, Perry was politically aware herself, ‘I’d read about Nationalisation, the Public ownership of all the necessary things in life. It sounded a jolly good idea to me’ (pp. 30) and ‘I was hooked on socialism before I met Edward. He just confirmed it for me’ (pp.33).  She also took an active role in politics, ‘I preached it all back to the family who couldn’t care less’ (pp. 32) and ‘I carried and yelled slogans at people all over the constituency’ (pp. 33). Perry acknowledges that this political activity made her think of herself as ‘a very enlightened girl’ (pp. 33), and as we know that Perry wanted to transcend her class, this shows that there was an intention for respectability and intellect in her politic involvement.  Her political idealism is also obvious in her memoir, ‘I listened silently to their discourses on Socialism versus Anarchism … governments would not be necessary because we would live in a utopian world, of no wars, no poverty, no evil’ (pp.37).

1940’s propaganda on food consumption

However, her husband Roy had different political ideas, ‘For every word of praise I had for socialism, he retaliated with a diatribe on the evils of communism’ (pp. 33), and she went on to marry ‘a man without a political idea in his head other than the general one of the overthrow of all communists, as he was Polish and the victim of this very ideology’ (pp. 38). Perry admits that she was also ‘indoctrinated’ to other ideas during the War, ‘Food reform and vegetarianism … again my family suffered my lectures on “whole unadulterated food” etc’ (pp. 33) and ‘the hey-day of Doctor Spoc was among us but these revolutionary ideas seemed risky’ (pp. 35).

Post-War Politics

The forefront of Post-War politics in the form of the Labour Party is also present in Perry’s memoir, ‘My very battered copy of the Labour Party Manifesto of 1950 makes very interesting reading’ (pp.34). Perry’s quoted copy reads:

‘In five years of Labour Government we have:

  1. Built 556,000 houses. A new house every 3minutes.
  2. Secured a prosperous and thriving peacetime agriculture.
  3. Our new National Health Service is the best in the world.
  4. Infant mortality the lowest on record.
  5. School meals and milk, family allowances.
  6. Full employment. Decent wages. Guaranteed prices.
  7. Democratic self-government in the Colonies.’ (pp. 34).

Perry also notes two amusing promises which make for ‘strange reading today’: ‘”A little more tobacco for the old people” and “Butter for all”. They hadn’t heard of cholesterol in 1950. Or lung cancer.’ (pp. 34).

Clement Attlee, Labour Party Leader in 1950

Political Solidarity?

It is intriguing that Perry sought an equal society through politics, yet fiercely tried to climb the social ladder from her working class position; she even acknowledged that she ‘looked down’ (pp. 26) on others. Even in her association with the two older males in her life, Roy and Edward, she was intentionally seeking to improve herself and to gain knowledge from them. However, with this idea of a ‘utopian world’ (pp. 37), it shows that Perry believed that there could be an equal class system, and that this was needed after the ‘People’s War’. Her memoir tells us that women during the 1940s could be actively involved in political activity and thinking, although she was initially introduced to politics through males. Despite being a young working class female, I am unsurprised that Perry includes politics in her memoir after the successes of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the emphasis upon how Britain would be governed after the Second World War.

Footnotes:

(1) Thompson, E.P, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1991)

(2) Bourke, J, Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicty (London: Routledge, 1994) pp.63

References:

Liddington, Jill and Norris, Jill, One Hand Tied Behind Us – The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (London: Rivers Oram Press, 2000)

Perry, Margaret, Untitled, TS, pp.38 (c.13,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (London: Allen Lane, 1982), pp.319-24 (2.606)

Perry, Margaret, Family Life in the Royal Air Force and Later (London: Serendipity Publishing, 2006)

Online Resources:

Explore the lives of the working class after World War Two: http://voicesofpostwarengland.wordpress.com/

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