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Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

Matthew Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xiii + 382 pp. ?17.99/$24.99 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-53853-X

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence Black, Department of History, University of Durham, UK.

Historians in Britain are currently entranced by consumption — not only due to the ?5 million AHRB/ESRC “Cultures of Consumption” program, but because it offers a bewildering array of topics and approaches to choose from (surveyed by Frank Trentmann, Journal of Contemporary History 39:3, 2004). It poses fundamental questions: do we work to earn, or earn to spend? Its appeal also lies in the shift from modernist producer to postmodern consumer identities. Simply, as Hilton (University of Birmingham, UK) contends “consumerism has been a mobilizing force at the heart of twentieth-century social and political history” (p. 3).

Consumerism assembles the politics of free trade, empire, citizenship, the state and environment (the latter absent from the Cambridge Economic History of Britain). But it has been disconcertingly marginal in accounts of twentieth-century Britain — whether due to producerist bias amongst historians, the pre-eminence of cultural studies in interpreting it or twentieth-century consumerism seeming more private and parochial or less radical or ideological than other social movements (peace, environmental) or than nineteenth-century consumerism (food rioters, moral reformers, the Co-op, free trade). The “search for a historical movement” is then both about plugging a historiographical gap by opening a consumer lens on modern Britain, but also about activists’ efforts to make a consumer movement. It reminds contemporary consumer campaigners of their antecedents — linking Mclibellers and BSE to Upton Sinclair or Which? magazine and the Co-op.

In discussions of free trade as a consumer-based political economy, the centrality of the politics of bread to working-class activity and how prices as much as wages were key to standard of living debates from the nineteenth century is outlined. World War One tied together diverse strands of consumer politics in criticisms of profiteering and the idea of state provision of necessities. Manifest in the Ministry of Food’s Consumer Council (1918-21), this had revolutionary implications (certainly compared to the meager Food Council that succeeded it), involving women, working-class consumers at the expense of the middle class and retailers.

Inter-war consumer politics reverted to a characteristic diversity — in so much as no agreed program emerged and it was powerless vis-?-vis producer ideologies, of labour or business. G.D.H Cole’s Guild Socialism and the ILP’s “Living Wage” platform had consumerist aspects (reminiscent of U.S. debates), yet could not command support within the British Labour movement. Contenders for a third way politics were the non-party experts of Political and Economic Planning (PEP), broadening consumer politics beyond necessity in the 1930s. Consumer politics disclosed much about inter-war British politics: the breakdown of free trade and rise of state intervention (also in forms like the Empire Marketing Board) and the entry of women into the public political arena.

If the “people’s war,” through state intervention and a recognition of popular desires, suggested a more consumerist prospect, it also reinforced some of the left’s traditional dichotomies. The Utility scheme, bringing key commodities within a state design and price regime and exempting them from purchase tax, differentiated utility and luxury goods both economically and morally. Extended post-war it seemed more paternalist than about “fair shares.” The Conservatives targeted women consumers by critiquing Attlee’s bureaucratic fondness for rationing. Initiatives like the Council of Industrial Design did more than gesture towards consumer rhetoric, but the opaque consumer Boards and Councils of the nationalized industries were less promising. As Hilton would have it, the idea of a state Consumer Advice Centre, which Young inserted into Labour’s 1950 manifesto, had the potential to bridge the politics of necessity and affluence and prefigured later developments. Certainly Harold Wilson’s investigations at the Board of Trade were more even-handed between producers and consumers than previously (or subsequently), but as had been (and would be) the case the idea fell foul of a small parliamentary majority, budgetary constraints and the left’s enduring prejudices. In short, it was judged a luxury. Were Conservatives more skilled in perceiving the consumer? Not innately, but it is suggested the left missed an opportunity to set an agenda of advice to match the Conservatives’ rhetoric of choice. Fatally, Hilton judges that by the later 1950s the Co-Op “lacked the imagination to step beyond an older politics of necessity” (p. 170).

It was thus business-influenced groups (and the press) that had started consumer advice and testing — Good Housekeeping Institute, the British Standards Institution in Shopper’s Guide — when affluence eroded the division between needs and wants in the 1950s. But their parochial, amateurishness, meant Which?, that the Consumers’ Association (CA) started up in 1957 soon dominated this market. The value-for-money information essential during austerity translated into a buyers guide when goods, advertising and brands proliferated under affluence. Professional technocrats almost to a man, the CA turned the comparative testing of goods and services from what one commentator styled “wittering drabness” into a hugely successful enterprise and the largest new voluntary association in post-war Britain. Started by ex-PEP and Labour figure Michael Young out of frustration with the left’s indifference to consumer matters, by the 1970s it was influential on (and indispensable to) official consumer policy.

CA was independent of business and often riled it, but this frankness endeared it to readers. Its economic impact on those at the receiving end like the British car industry is hard to gauge. CA was committed to realizing consumer sovereignty in the market by manufacturing rational consumers. It conceived the irrationalities of the market were produced by consumers’ lack of knowledge as well as the profit motive of business. CA was more than a product of the authority of the post-war expert — this was a grassroots social movement, connected to local campaigning groups by the 1960s. But for most of Which?‘s overwhelmingly middle class subscribers it was comparative test reports on washing machines and such like that were of use. This tension between everyday trade and broader agendas was reminiscent of the working-class Co-op. CA had a split personality, emblematic of consumerism, between a neo-liberal and social democratic ethos. Young urged consumerism should be more “than servants of the washing machine” and most ambitiously touted the idea of a consumers’ political party. Young himself emerges as epicentral to the thought and practice of modern consumerism.

The first peacetime state incursion into consumer matters as a whole (rather than specific commodity or industry) and new legislation might seem to signal the emergence of a consumer-citizenship, but in practice the Consumer Council (1963-70) marked a piecemeal change — dovetailing with rather than filling in for voluntarism. Its budget was small and it did not sit on government economic committees. The product of the business-minded Molony Committee, it was conciliatory towards manufacturers and retailers and treated consumers as shoppers. Its impact was felt through Teltag (rationalizing merchandise marks), education and a raft of legislation. The 1968 Trades Description Act attracted 40,000 cases in its first year and a half. The Office of Fair Trading, likewise pursued an individualist consumerism from 1973, clipped of broader concerns and by the 1980s chiefly administering competition policy.

The consumer movement’s proneness to drift from activism to materialism (or ‘self-interested complaining’, as Hilton saw one of CA’s TV rivals) impacted CA. Its million members by the late 1980s (it had been larger than the political parties since the late 1960s) were shoppers more than activists – the difficulty remained up-grading from a single issue to speaking for a collective. By isolating its leaders from members’ votes and hiving off other activities that were funded by everyday comparative testing, CA could circumvent consumer apathy. Its credit card issued in 1996 caused consternation amongst CA’s committed members (as in Labour ranks when the SDP allowed dues payment on credit cards). Equally, green and anti-globalization agendas renewed the CA’s social sensibilities.

By the 1970s Young (and others) recognized the state was needed to reach poorer consumers and even revived the mutual aid beliefs of the Co-Op. The National Consumer Council set up in 1975 and chaired by Young (who accepted with the proviso that he sat on the National Economic Development Council) was like the first Consumers’ Council a bolder entity and faced wage-price instability. It targeted disadvantaged consumers, encouraged credit unions, local advice centers (although these perished under 1980s local government cuts) and notions like consumer directors (paralleling workers on the Board). The NCC-CA Consumer Congress, an umbrella group for campaigners from Age Concern to the Protection of Rural England and Real Ale, that Young envisioned as a consumers’ TUC, proved too open-ended to have a cutting edge as a “third force.” Yet it also prefigured the extension of consumerist rhetoric in the 1990s in citizens charters and pervasive under New Labour — often more deliverer-driven than consumerists desired but not always as windy as skeptics surmised.

High profile anti-globalization protests against corporate hegemony, genetic modification, the WTO, or what Monbiot termed “affluenza,” do not unduly impress Hilton. While a by-product of the moderate style of the consumer movement Hilton has traced, they nonetheless charge material culture with political baggage and there is little novel in that. Adbusters or Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2000) tender characteristically hazy manifestoes. Except where openly anti-consumerist, Hilton can locate their more radical environmental and ethical tinges in the International Organisation of Consumer Unions (now Consumers’ International) that started in 1960. Funded by testing magazine subscribers, it has sustained a reforming agenda. In 1970 Young addressed the IOCU to the social costs of the “effluent society” and CI had a contingent at Seattle in 1999. Alongside headline-grabbers like Greenpeace, the IOCU forged networks with NGOs, the UN and developing nations for whose consumers necessity was more pressing than rational choice. In short, middle-aged housewives matter as much to consumerism as hooded protesters. Ethical Consumer‘s concern with workers’ (besides animal, environmental) rights had echoes in the U.S. consumer movement and for most consumers ethical purchasing — fairtrade coffee, Britain’s one million vegetarian — likewise assuages the luxury-need gap.

The book is divided — roughly around the Second World War — into sections on “necessity” and “affluence.” This usefully differentiates wants and choices from needs, but elsewhere Hilton is at pains to stress how a consumer politics might subvert such dichotomies. Equating affluence with material plenty, serves to downplay the manifold meanings affluence might bear in the context of a post-colonial, post-industrial and Cold War, besides post-war, Britain.

Hilton extols the virtues of the “consumer-citizen” (to borrow Cohen’s categories from A Consumer’s Republic) over the “consumer-customer.” The former has social and political characteristics, whereas the latter is reduced to economic transactions. A consumer politics might transcend the self-interested producer ideologies of business and workers in Labour and Conservative politics, plot a “third way” between the market and state control, enable a participatory civil society and act as a conduit for women into the public sphere. Hilton is persuaded of this potential radicalism, but much of the story is of constraints, shortcomings, waylaying tactics of incumbent powers and missed opportunities.

All too aware of “the difficulty of outlining a coherent politics of consumption” (p. 51), Hilton’s narrative at times sounds like a twentieth-century extension of E.P. Thompson’s “moral economy” making good market failures. But Hilton stresses the variety (except in World War One) of consumer consciousness, wary of making it a hostage to fortune as socialists did with class. A customer definition of consumerism, manageably confined to issues of choice and protection, could be as self-interestedly sectional as business or labour; a broader, more inclusive definition was prone to fragment. The Co-Op faced this dilemma and the CA, which occupies a heroic role in Hilton’s narrative, is admitted to have “not resolved this tension between consumerism and citizenship” (p. 341).

Especially under Young’s counsel, consumerism’s “attempt to create a new basis for social democracy” becomes “the dominant narrative within this history” (p. 337). In this respect, Hilton’s narrative can sound a little like Peter Gurney’s championing of the Co-op or Hutchinson and Birkitt’s of Social Credit in the 1920s, in its quest to locate alternatives to capitalism and its frustration at Labour’s marginalizing of the consumer. Hilton powerfully conveys a sense of consumerism as often invigorating the politics of the left, but also the trade union and Fabian reflexes that gave Labour its producerist outlook that saw consumerism (beyond necessity) as frivolous, unproductive or private luxury.

This social democratic subtext unduly shortchanges Conservative approaches to the consumer. Paternalist and libertarian strands of Conservatism might usefully have been explored through their consumer rhetoric. Baldwin’s party mastered the appeal to the housewife after 1918 more than opponents, couching it in terms of rising prices; Thatcher cultivated the aspirational property / shareowner consumer, warning of trade union wage demands. On the politics of inflation, Baldwin and Thatcher were at one on. Electoral politics are not always surely handled. The impression on voters of Labour’s proposed Consumer Advice Centre in 1950, Resale Price Maintenance (abolished by the Tories in 1964 despite business wishes) and the Office of Fair Trading are alleged. Debates over EEC entry — about prices and the fate of commonwealth trade — are thin. Hilton’s supposition that as it eclipses other identities “consumerism will eventually find political as well as cultural expression” (p. 11) verges on the determinist, not least since it is apparent political parties have co-opted besides sidelined consumer rhetoric.

Hilton resists the idea that the flourishing of consumerism — as a self-realizing act — in the 1950s and 1960s was a foretaste of 1980s’ free market individualism. The consumer movement shows that far from a nascent neo-liberal agenda, on offer was a negotiation with the market — recognizing both its dynamism and iniquities and crafting a rational, socially-conscious individual consumer. If anything it was a forerunner of Third Way politics of a 1990s Blair-Giddens variety: ideologically tentative, vaguely social democratic in ambition, disparate but inclusive.

Sourced from official committees, Consumer Councils, the Board of Trade and the Consumers’ Association archive, the focus is resolutely on the organized consumer movement and its institutional expressions. Since nowhere else is this surveyed in such detail, this is welcome and novel. It attends to a nation of shoppers, where historians have tended to focus on goods as evidence of “consumer society.” But this might disappoint readers seeking a more cultural history of consumerism. Hilton confesses “there is a book waiting to be written on the shaping of the consuming self” (p. 183), sourced from advertising, business and the “psy” industries. But this is not it, though Hilton is not unconcerned with identities vested in the world of goods. The “consuming self” features fleetingly, if often insightfully — such as in Hilton’s case for the more masculine qualities of the post-war consumer, as white-collar workers transposed productivist rationality into consumptive practices. Commodities themselves are scarce — this is an institutional account of material culture. This offers respite from the interpretive abandon of postmodernism and cultural studies and Hilton notes how Klein’s No Logo was premised upon a rejection of “self”-identity politics and takes to task the more “exaggerated interpretations” of department stores that have been offered.

An asset of Hilton’s remit is to focus on regular, everyday consumption — bread, domestic durables — rather than being dazzled by its more spectacular, conspicuous incidences. Nor does Hilton lack a rangy theoretical engagement — Bourdieu’s “habitus” trumps class in understanding precisely the disposition of CA activists and Castells’ informational “network society” draws out the potential for an international civil society of consumerism. But might the reader be entitled to some analysis of patterns, trends and forms of consumption: what and how much was consumed and by whom. Key dimensions of this story, as material as semiotic, are surely to be found in the role of (a selective list): TV (a media of advertising, taste, information), cars, washing machines, holidays, credit and debt, diet, marketing, supermarkets, Retail Price Index, fashion, the “black” market, fags and fuel (tax included), refrigeration and self-service shopping.

This is a hugely impressive study. It is hard to imagine how Hilton’s study will fail to establish consumerism squarely (and rightly) at the center of historical understanding of twentieth-century Britain or to become itself, for scholars and students alike, vital reading in the debate about interpreting this. As buys go, this is a must — not least it is even good value in paperback!

Lawrence Black is lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Durham. His latest book, edited with Hugh Pemberton, is An Affluent Society? Britain’s Postwar Golden Age Revisited (Ashgate, 2004). Current projects include studies of postwar British political culture and of playwright Arnold Wesker.