Nov 18 2011: Kodak Photograph of an Unknown Electrician (1963)
The reverse of this photograph is stamped Kodak 1963, so there’s nothing to suggest who the man it pictures might be or where it was taken. The interior looks like a factory, and the fact that the picture was inside one of the copies of Practical Wireless posted here on November 8 suggests the subject may have been the owner of those magazines at some point. This is why I’ve assumed he’s probably an electrician, as the combination of amateur electronics magazines and this image, where the man stands beside what looks like a locked electronics casing of some kind, makes that seem a reasonable assumption. The man himself, in his blue overalls, looks to be in his thirties or forties, which would mean he’d grown up during the 1920s or 30s, possibly fought during the Second World War, and quite likely voted for the establishment of the Welfare State in 1945, at a time when the economy had been subject to far greater difficulties than it is today. It’s notable that while George Osborne today uses the bankruptcy of the UK as a rhetorical tool to justify returning economic policy to the 1920s, in 1945 the nation was, quite literally, bankrupt: yet where Osborne cuts away at what remains of the 1945 settlement, Attlee, Beveridge and Bevan, in their different ways, managed to establish it in spectacularly difficult circumstances. Anyone who believes that success or failure in life are down to talent and hard work should ask two very simple questions of themselves: do you work harder, or earn less than your grandparents and great grandparents did? And: is your standard of living generally better than theirs was?
If the answers (as they are for most of the country) are ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively, then go on to consider at what point this rapid improvement in living and working standards began. Between 1945 and the year this picture was taken, 1963, life for the great majority of British people had been transformed for the better. Yet by then, the edifice was already being undermined: the terms set for the Beeching report on railways were rigged by Transport Minister Ernest Marples (owner of the Marples-Ridgeway roadbuilding company) to clear the way for the axeing of railway networks and the building of motorways. Even so, between 1945 and 1979, the lives of the majority had been improved to such a degree that a generation was inclined to believe it had all been down to their own hard work, and were persuaded that the 1945 settlement was holding them back. A little over 30 years later, even as income inequalities return to 1920s levels, and the global economy undergoes the kinds of convulsions last seen in 1929, things are moving backwards again in a context where most people’s lives remain better than those of the generation raised in the 1920s and 30s, which suggests the resilience of the 1945 settlement rather than any notable weakness in its founding principles. Where any particular individual might stand on that can be decided by asking those questions: do you work harder than your great-grandparents, and do you have a better standard of living than they did? Unless you’re happy to believe that your great-grandparents were simply less gifted than you and bone idle to boot, the answer will tell you all you need to know.