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Penguin Books and Political Change

Britain’s Meritocratic Moment, 1937-1988


Dean Blackburn


Manchester: University Press, 2020

Hardback, ix + 281 pp. ISBN 978-1526129284. £20


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



Penguin Books was founded in the mid-1930s by Allen Lane (1902-1970) as an imprint of The Bodley Head publishing house. Allen and his brothers Richard and John were disillusioned with many of the assumptions then governing the publishing and bookselling trades in the United Kingdom which privileged hardback books over paperback editions. The latter were considered appropriate only for light-weight titles, especially works of fiction, typically on sale at station bookstalls. By contrast, Allen Lane believed that there was a ‘a vast audience of readers who would be prepared to buy quality literature if it were made available to them at an affordable price’ [13]. He argued that the gradual expansion of formal education in Britain, together with a steady increase in leisure time, had created a new cohort of potential readers who were not satisfied by works of fiction and had a genuine appetite for serious, thought-provoking titles. His gamble paid off and high street stores, such as Woolworth, brought high-quality Penguin paperbacks to a mass market for as little as sixpence per book. Indeed, the purchase of 63,000 Penguin books by Woolworth confirmed the worth of the Penguin brand and enabled Allen Lane to establish his venture as a separate company in 1936. The Penguin enterprise, together with its related Pelican imprint, duly flourished and brought out an enormous range of serious works.

The company deposited its archive at the University of Bristol, where a team of researchers obtained funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2008 to enable the Penguin Archive Project to begin. Its triple aim involved producing an on-line catalogue of the entire Penguin collection, bringing aspects of Penguin publishing to the general public through exhibitions and events, and stimulating original research using material housed in the unique archive in Bristol. Penguin Books and Political Change is one outcome from the third objective, being a revised version of historian Dean Blackburn’s doctoral thesis, defended in Bristol in 2012. Rather than sampling from the entire range of non-fiction titles, it focuses on a distinct collection known as ‘Penguin Specials’ whose publication Allen Lane considered to be the most interesting thing his company did. These books were ‘important vehicles for political ideas. Some generated considerable debate among the intelligentsia and political elites’, while others ‘were produced in such quantities that they were able to frame the way in which ordinary readers understood important phenomena and events’ [2].

Allen Lane and his editorial colleagues were ‘committed to removing the material and social barriers that stood between the reader and good literature’ [13]. However, they ‘were not willing to sanction all forms of reading. Rather, they sought to encourage kinds of literature that were deemed to be conducive to cultural enlightenment’ [16]. Early Specials offered analyses of current affairs that provided an immediate response to Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club (founded in 1936), which delivered a book each month to its members. Penguin’s editorial team expressed no political preference but many of its authors were men and women on the left wing of the ideological spectrum. Allen Lane was instinctively egalitarian and ‘did not describe himself as a socialist’ but was rather ‘an old-fashioned liberal’ [22]. The company’s publishing philosophy was ‘rooted in a set of liberal concerns about the autonomy and potential of the individual’ [19]. Democratic values coloured the composition of its non-fiction list. Regular readers of Penguin non-fiction were more intellectually and socially active than non-Penguin readers, spending ‘a greater proportion of their free time reading and watching films’, belonging to cultural and intellectual organisations, and were ‘much more likely to vote Labour’ [21]. The company’s commercial policy in early decades was not especially preoccupied with profit.

Dean Blackburn argues that ‘Penguin Specials provide a particularly useful lens through which to view the history of British politics’ [3]. More specifically, they help to map the ideological terrain of the nation, to elucidate conditions from which political change emerged, and to assist in tracing ‘the relationship between Britain’s political elite and the wider social milieu in which they operated’ [3].  Attention is first directed to the response of Penguin’s editors and authors to the socio-economic and political crises affecting Europe in the late 1930s, notably the rise of fascism. The first Special to appear was Edgar Mower, Germany Puts the Clock Back (November 1937). This was followed immediately by G.D.H. Cole, Practical Economics, and J.B.S. Haldane, The Inequality of Man (both 1937). In the following year, Specials dealt with Socialism, Mussolini’s Roman Empire, Europe and the Czechs, Liberty and the Modern State, and the Press. Geneviève Tabouis’s anti-appeasement text, Blackmail or War? (1938) sold over 200,000 copies. In all, thirty-five Penguin Specials were published before the outbreak of World War II.

Following this event, Allen Lane commissioned such titles as Science in War, Hitler’s War, The Cost of War, and Christianity and Social Order. He also redefined the role of the Specials, since readers were ‘demanding books that were discussing the possibility of a new world order’ [27]. Hence, an array of titles was launched relating to questions of post-war reconstruction and opportunities for change offered thereby. This theme, of course, was also covered by the Left Book Club. Blackburn insists that, with the restoration of peace, Britain entered its

Meritocratic moment… Ability and expertise, not inherited social status or entrepreneurship, were the principal criteria employed to determine social status, and the notion that all individuals should have an equal opportunity to develop their abilities was accepted across the political spectrum [but] that is not to say that Britain became a meritocratic society or that meritocratic values dissolved older ideological conflicts [6].

Conservative political success in 1945 and the emergence of the Cold War appeared ‘to narrow the boundaries of political contestation’ for a while and sales of current affairs titles declined [27]. Richard Lane advised his brother to put coverage of such themes on hold. Penguin’s response was to reduce its engagement with political issues. The Specials series was suspended temporarily and the political titles that Penguin did publish at this time generated much less attention than their predecessors.

During the 1960s, Blackburn argues, ‘the legitimising ideology of Britain’s post-war settlement was renegotiated’ [28], but meritocratic ideas were not abandoned totally. ‘Rather than anticipating a future in which social harmony and economic efficiency would resolve political conflict, intellectuals and policy makers became increasingly preoccupied with exploring and identifying solutions to Britain’s apparent social and economic decline’ [133]. Penguin Books, which had been regarded as ‘a benign instrument of cultural democracy in the preceding two decades, became implicated within broader patterns of ideological conflict that were driven by the collapse of post-war consensus, and its books gave rise to ideas that were difficult to reconcile with the status quo’ [29]. The Specials list that had lain dormant for some time was revived and many new titles, including ‘Election Specials’ and volumes on deprivation and homelessness, generated ‘significant debate, such that the publisher once again became an important agent of political opinion’ [135]. Penguin Books contributed to the funds that established Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in 1964.

As Britain became affected by economic and social crises in the 1970s, many contemporary thinkers and politicians came to doubt the assumptions behind the logic of meritocracy. Indeed, Blackburn argues, the ‘meritocratic moment’ was eclipsed [207]. Penguin Books experienced falling sales and financial problems. Sir Allen Lane died on 7 July 1970 and six weeks later Penguin was acquired by Pearson PLC. (It is now an imprint of Penguin Random House formed by a merger with Random House, a subsidiary of the German Bertelsmann corporation). In the early 1970s, new managers arrived at ‘the conclusion that Penguin could only remain viable if it were able to acquire best-selling books and market them to a global audience of readers’ [210]. As a result, the firm abandoned ‘its commitment to progressive ideas that had informed Allen Lane’s approach to publishing’ [211]. New titles covered such themes as civil liberties, environmentalism, feminism, and industrial relations, but in 1988, Penguin terminated its Specials series. The precise reasoning that ‘informed the decision is not recorded by the Penguin archive’ [246], but it was clear that the increase in serious current affairs problems on television provided a new source of political information for many members of the general public. The final Special was Keith Thompson’s Under Siege : Racism and Violence in Britain Today (1988).

Now at the University of Nottingham, Dean Blackburn has provided a richly detailed analysis of the complex relationship between one strand of publishing output and Britain’s evolving socio-political milieu across half a century. Penguin Specials reflected changing conditions but also encouraged further debate and innovation. To quote Richard Hoggart: ‘The Penguin enterprise ranks as a remarkable expression of important aspects of our recent cultural history, and an important contributor to the process of social change’ [1]. As befits a ‘book of the thesis’, Penguin Books and Political Change draws on an extremely wide range of published sources (over 400 items are listed) as well as manuscript materials lodged in the Penguin Books Archive in Bristol and in repositories of five other universities. Rather surprisingly, only three interviews are acknowledged. Apart from reproductions of the front covers of four Penguin Specials – H.G. Wells, The Common Sense of War and Peace : World Revolution or War Unending (1940); Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1961); Michael Shanks, The Stagnant Society (1961), and Shirley Williams, Politics is for People (1980) – the volume is unadorned by visual illustration. A useful list of 150 Specials is provided by alphabetical order of author; a complementary list, arranged by date of publication, would have assisted appreciation of the evolution of themes through time. Penguin Books casts fresh light of the role of one crusading publishing house in informing popular opinion and shaping political debate. It will be welcomed by academics and students and by members of the general public with a serious interest in twentieth-century British history and politics. Manchester University Press is to be congratulated for making it available at a very reasonable price, a fact that would certainly have gained Allen Lane’s approval.         



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