TCBH Duncan Tanner Essay Prize Winner 2017: The ‘Progress of a Slogan’: Youth, Culture, and the Shaping of Everyday Political Languages in Late 1940s Britain

TCBH Duncan Tanner Essay Prize Winner 2017: The ‘Progress of a Slogan’: Youth, Culture, and... Abstract In 1948, worried that young people would take full employment and the welfare state for granted, the Labour Party trialled a new slogan: ‘Ask your Dad’. This slogan encouraged the young to learn about the hardships which their parents had experienced in the inter-war years, largely under Conservative governments. Using archived interviews and letters sent to the press, this article provides the first study of the popular reception of this slogan. Most people had not heard of this slogan, and most of those who had heard of the phrase showed no knowledge that it was associated with politics, turning instead to popular culture. Those who understood the slogan were not the passive conduits of their party’s message; often, they reworked political ideas to fit their own memories. Because repeating slogans was associated with a lack of political independence, not listening to party politics could conceal an intense interest in creating political change—an attitude which was, apparently, pronounced amongst the young. This article uses these responses to suggest how political language was as much produced by ordinary people’s memories and daily discussion, as it was something drawn from professional campaigners. Much of the ambitious legislative programme proposed in Labour’s election manifesto had been implemented by 1948. Having promised to ‘fight against the mean and shabby treatment which was the lot of millions while Conservative Governments were in power’, in the 3 years following its election the new government had instituted a comprehensive system of social insurance, mostly maintained full employment, and was on the verge of introducing the National Health Service.1 Yet with a general election looming within the next 2 years, and with its legislative momentum slowing down, the party’s leadership began to worry about how to sustain the triumphant narrative of social progress which had brought it to power in 1945. The party accordingly committed itself at the end of January 1948 to a ‘pre-election campaign’ offering a ‘widespread and uniform restatement of the achievements of the Labour Government’ as well as a positive vision of ‘the next period of Labour Government’.2 However, the Conservative response to Labour’s depiction of ‘“those terrible inter-war years under Tory rule” when “mass unemployment and starvation” stalked the land’ promised to complicate this campaign. ‘They were, in fact’, Winston Churchill retorted, ‘a period of progressive and substantial advance in the living-standards of the whole nation’.3 In continuing rationing and struggling to meet popular demand for housing, the Labour government’s policies compared unfavourably to many people’s memories of slum clearances and unrestricted consumption before the war, as Conservatives repeatedly reminded the public at by-elections, and as opinion polls indicated.4 In late 1947, one poll suggested that a majority of the country (62 per cent) would ‘choose’ their ‘situation just before the war, in 1939’, in favour of ‘the present’ (31 per cent), if they were able to.5 This Conservative counter-narrative contextualized Labour’s attempts to rework popular memories of the inter-war years. Counterfactual pamphlets like Michael Foot’s If the Tories Had Won (1947) warned that, with a Conservative victory in 1945 ‘Britain would have turned her back on the future … At this moment we would be stumbling back into the age of the ‘thirties, vainly seeking to patch up an old world which could never be remade’.6 Yet whilst this strategy promised to jolt the memories of people who had personally suffered from the policies of Conservative governments—those who ‘were made Socialists through the stomach’—it seemed less likely to succeed in attracting the votes of ‘those people who came of age since the depression of the 1930s’, as an article in Labour Organiser worried. After all, Labour’s policies meant that ‘there will never be again the threat to the people’s living standard which I have termed the stomach threat’. Yet ‘[a]part from history, which very few people ever bother to read, the new electorate will not know of the very real difference between life under Tory and Socialist rule. You know, you can’t talk to a man about hunger who has always had four meals a day’.7 The material effects of Labour’s policies threatened to bring to a halt the narrative of social progress which had made these policies possible. This worry informed a series of initiatives which intended to deliver ‘the elementary principles of democratic socialism’ to ‘young people’.8 One initiative was a new slogan, designed to incorporate Britain’s youth into Labour’s narrative of progress: ‘Ask your Dad’. This article provides the first study of this slogan’s popular reception. ‘Ask your Dad’ was slow to take off, surfacing in early May 1948 when Philip Noel-Baker told his constituents in Derby that ‘[i]f you don’t remember what happened between the wars, “ask your dad”’, arguing that this should be Labour’s slogan at the next general election.9 It took until October for the slogan to gain traction. Morgan Phillips, Labour’s general secretary, had been invited by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society to deliver a talk at its conference on 9 October about ‘Labour’s Economic Plan for Social Progress’.10 Reiterating a message which Labour had offered since 1945, after listing the failures of pre-war Conservative governments which Labour’s policies had resolved (‘They failed to provide jobs for all’, and were responsible for ‘savage cuts in unemployment benefits’), Phillips suggested that the Conservatives’ ‘new-found zeal for social advancement’ was a façade, intended to exploit popular support for Labour’s social policies. Phillips worried that ‘those younger members of this audience who do not remember what Toryism really means’ would wrongly assume that the Conservatives now supported a welfare state. He told them: ‘Ask your Dad. He can confirm the truth from his own experience’.11 Phillips’s speech was quickly picked up by the press, and the new slogan was soon spoken by activists in meetings across the country. One Conservative MP in Hertfordshire denied ‘that the past was perfect’ and merely ‘wanted to go forward to a Conservative future’.12 Most Conservatives took a different tack, evoking images of the golden years under Conservative governments. At a fête in Wincanton young Conservative supporters put on a ‘skit’ playing on Labour’s slogan: ‘Their grocer’s shop bearing a card Ask your Ma, showed the full counters of pre-war days and the empty shelves of the post-war era with control signs replacing stock’.13 Although Conservatives generally focussed on consumption and Labour supporters tended to stress ‘Dad’s’ world of work, members of both parties sometimes made less gendered claims. Some Conservatives appealed to ‘Dad’s’ memories of rising unemployment under pre-war Labour governments, whilst variants on Labour’s slogan subordinated gender to social class. Opening new flats in Southwark, the local Labour MP George Isaacs instructed their new residents: ‘Ask your dad what he thinks of them. Four walls, a roof and a floor used to be considered good enough for the working classes’.14 In Islington Liberals countered both parties’ messages, telling voters: ‘Ask yourself’.15 The contemporary publicity given to ‘Ask your Dad’ has brought this slogan to the attention of several historians, for whom ‘Ask your Dad’ has encapsulated the political culture of the late 1940s. Geoffrey Field notes how post-war political debates often invoked competing memories of Britain’s past: Labour’s slogans like ‘Just ask your Dad’ referenced the ‘dole queues and means test of the thirties’.16 Slogans like ‘Ask your Dad’, James Vernon argues, sought to ‘legitimate’ Labour’s nascent welfare state for conquering poverty.17 The gender politics of Labour’s slogan are also familiar. For Ina Zweiniger-Bargieolowska, ‘Ask your Mum’ represented a clever Conservative retort to Labour’s slogan which, amongst other savvy decisions, helped the party ‘become the focus of mainstream female discontent with postwar conditions’.18 ‘Ask your Dad’, in contrast, might be read as reflecting Labour’s association with ‘producers’, ‘collectivist’ policies, and male supporters.19 Lawrence Black suggests that it symbolized a paternalistic Labour politics which was disengaged from youth culture and unwilling to accommodate consumerism.20 Discussions of ‘Ask your Dad’ have therefore tended to reaffirm, rather than challenge, assumptions about post-war politics. The slogan exemplifies trends in political language which have already been identified. Labour and the Conservatives adapted the slogan to appeal to different constituencies, Labour seeking support from men and the younger members of the working class, whilst Conservatives rejected the slogan to shore up their support from women discontented with rationing. However, no study has considered this slogan’s reception: historians have concentrated on its uses in public discourse, thereby inferring its popularity and assuming that it successfully connected with the voters it targeted. Such an approach risks overstating the correspondence between the formulaic and repetitive uses of political language by politicians and the media, and the more implicit, often quite idiosyncratic, engagement with this language by voters in everyday speech. It has inadvertently suggested that political languages were shaped only by the politicians who invented them, rather than the voters whom politicians targeted. As the case of ‘Ask your Dad’ suggests, historians influenced by the ‘linguistic turn’ have predominantly studied ‘the construction of formal discourses’, despite many calls for more sophisticated analyses of their reception.21 These calls have received little response, except for the now-routine acknowledgement of the limitations of studying public discourse in isolation. Admittedly, at least before 1945, little evidence survives of how the public interpreted political language. Research initially concentrated on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period where the outcomes of elections, or the opinions of journalists, provide the main—admittedly unreliable—sources of reception.22 Historians of the early twentieth century have also acknowledged that the lack of systematic opinion polling before the Second World War makes it ‘difficult to establish a link between publicity and public opinion’.23 For the period after 1945, however, more reliable evidence of popular engagement with political language survives, including a study by the social research organization Mass-Observation (M-O) of the slogan ‘Ask your Dad’. Between November 1948 and January 1949, M-O interviewed 433 people in and near London (in Bethnal Green, Camden Town, Euston, Kensington, and Edmonton) about their awareness of this slogan. M-O’s archive preserves the records of these interviews, as well as additional research material. The difficulties in interpreting such sources are well known.24 Doubts hang over the reliability of M-O’s interviewing methods and whether its fieldworkers collected ‘verbatim’ material, as the organization claimed.25 Yet if, as seems likely, M-O’s study intended to woo the Labour Party into commissioning further research, its fieldworkers would have had a strong incentive to provide trustworthy material. Reading their notes alongside letters in newspapers which responded to the slogan suggests that M-O was successfully capturing public opinions whilst simultaneously providing an opportunity to explore the slogan’s reception outside London. By exploring the reception of ‘Ask your Dad’, this article suggests that in the late 1940s new models of selfhood, growing unease about sloganeering in the shadow of war, and a longer-standing popular distrust of politicians combined to complicate the popular reception of political languages. Political languages were not isolated from their broader cultural context. Politicians sought to exploit this, coining slogans which resembled popular sayings. But this created terminological confusions; voters were often unaware that ‘Ask your Dad’ was connected with politics, let alone concerned Labour’s narrative of social progress. Accordingly people accidentally interpreted ‘Ask your Dad’ in terms unlike its political usages by drawing on the phrase’s alternative meanings in popular culture. Other voters made more deliberate efforts to rethink the implications of the slogan, judging its validity against their memories. They critically engaged with the competing narratives of Britain’s history circulating in the media, forming their own interpretations of Labour’s achievements. As a result, many people came to feel that, since no slogan could adequately capture their feelings, they should make up their minds without thinking in terms of political language. Political language should therefore be understood as a product of voters, rather than something which emanated outwards from politicians. Whether inadvertently or deliberately, the ways in which voters interpreted instances of political language like ‘Ask your Dad’ ensured that their meanings were not determined by politicians themselves. This perspective suggests an alternative reading of popular engagement with politics in the early post-war years. By reconceiving the popular reception of political language as generative—rather than solely considering the diffusion of formal political languages into everyday speech—we can reconcile the evidence of substantial popular ignorance of policy proposals and slogans, as demonstrated in opinion polls, with the evidence of high voter turnout from the post-war years.26 M-O’s evidence of the popular awareness of ‘Ask your Dad’ indicates how few people, overall, had heard of the slogan: under one-third of M-O’s sample.27 A characteristic response from the remainder was ‘I don’t think so. I don’t remember ever hearing it’.28 Historians have interpreted evidence of low levels of popular understanding of political idioms in different ways. For some, it reveals popular ‘[d]isenchantment’ with politics.29 Other historians have claimed that people only engaged with political ideas when doing so served their immediate self-interest.30 However, conceiving of the influence of politics solely in terms of terminological knowledge ignores the instances where people indirectly engaged with politics whilst forgetting or misinterpreting political ideas. It also overlooks the capacity of the public to decide, themselves, about what counted as an acceptable level of political engagement. Indeed, a recent article has used M-O panel writing to highlight a popular sense of ‘duty’ towards voting amidst evidence of people ‘wanting to leave government to experts’ and independents. People could justify not taking an interest in partisan political ideas because these ideas obscured the social ‘consensus… about the common good’. The authors of this article suggest that this understanding was likely socially normative because of the ‘common culture’ which M-O’s predominantly middle-class writers shared with the rest of the population.31 But in focussing on a self-selecting sample, they ignore another important idea held by other members of the public. This idea suggested that popular political opinions should express ‘independence’, rising above reductive political discourse by reflecting personal experiences—ironically, in the case of ‘Ask your Dad’, since Labour’s slogan had valorised ‘experience’, too. Rather than registering apathy towards politics, or a preference for ‘experts’ to lead, distancing oneself from trivial slogans could conceal the intensity of political opinions, which were thought should be so individually specific that they could not be easily reduced to a three-word slogan. Whether voters projected diffidence towards political language to preserve their independence, misremembered the meanings of slogans, or selectively appropriated elements of several competing political narratives, they were not wholly disengaged from politics. Rather, they were producing political languages, just as much as political campaigners—and were therefore active participants in the shaping of the ‘people’s peace’, even if they were often unhappy with its results. Like Labour’s leaders, a number of ordinary people wondered whether social progress would come at the cost of diminished deference to the opinions of traditional sources of political authority, narrating the diminishing salience of political language in the post-war years. Defining ‘Ask Your Dad’ Politicians were not alone in employing phrases resembling ‘Ask your Dad’. The accreted, pre-existing meanings of such phrases in popular culture often conflicted in the public’s imagination with their newer, political uses. This meant that voters—not politicians—ultimately determined the popular meanings of political languages. As early as 1940, the phrase ‘Ask your Dad’ was used in a newspaper column for children.32 To the slogan’s audience in 1948, however, the phrase would have been most recognisable from the radio show It’s That Man Again (ITMA) in which, since 1944, the character Mark Time had used the catchphrase ‘I’ll have to ask me Dad’.33 Some 12 million people heard this programme each week.34 Its catchphrases quickly became vernacular touchstones; as Jack Train (who played Mark Time) recalled, ‘we started a sort of age of the catch phrase’.35 Catchphrases like ‘Ask your Dad’, it was reported in 1948, ‘have passed into the English language. They re-appear in advertisements, in pantomimes—always a sure sign of a successful saying—and even as captions for cartoons’.36 They also began to appear in everyday speech. Tommy Handley, the programme’s star, regularly fielded telephone calls from listeners: ‘If Tommy was unwise enough to ask “Who’s speaking?” the inevitable reply was “I’ll have to ask me Dad.”’37 The programme’s producer wrote that Mark Time’s catchphrase ‘caught on with the public’, even before Labour’s slogan, relating the story of how at the 1945 election, ‘Randolph Churchill, being heckled by his audience, was asked a question and, before he could reply, was greeted with loud yells of “He’ll have to ask his Dad!”’38 Labour’s slogan presumably intended to rework a phrase which was already a fairly common saying, used in the media and in casual conversation. But the party’s leaders could not have anticipated that, rather than translating their message about the iniquities of pre-war Conservative rule into a relatable saying, the similarities between the phrase as used by Labour activists and its pre-existing uses in public culture often entirely subverted Labour’s message. When M-O asked their interviewees, ‘What do you think it means?’, misinterpretations of ‘Ask your Dad’ were rife. Despite the extensive press coverage of the slogan, Labour had failed to steer the public towards associating it with the party’s message, or indeed with politics at all. The phrase was widely perceived as being ‘one of them sayings that’s got into people’s talk’, more commonly linked to the radio than to politics.39 It was ‘just a joke’ which music hall performers repeated.40 The pre-existing, non-political uses of ‘Ask your Dad’ tended to be more commonly mentioned than its newer political connotations. Most of M-O’s interviewees who reported having heard of ‘Ask your Dad’ cited no political associations of this phrase, suggesting that Labour’s slogan had struggled to gain a foothold in a cluttered linguistic field.41 In part, this was because the phrase had been used in the vernacular well before ITMA had coined its catchphrase, and consequently already held quite different associations for the public. A woman from Euston had heard it ‘[i]n conversation’ but not, like several others, for ‘ages & ages’, stating ‘[a]ctually [I] don’t think there’s any meaning in it—just slang’.42 As a result several people seemed unaware of ITMA’s usage of the slogan as well as Labour’s, reporting that the phrase was essentially a local maxim without any political connotations. A bricklayer from Bethnal Green believed that it was ‘a saying round here’ which he had heard ‘at the café’, whilst a housewife from Edmonton explained ‘I’ve been to Colchester they say it a lot there’. Neither relayed its political meaning. The bricklayer stated vaguely that it ‘could mean all sorts of things’, whilst the housewife believed it was a ‘recognised saying’ aimed at children.43 Hers was one of the commonest answers, cited by another Edmonton resident who only reported hearing it from children, ‘Donkey’s years ago’.44 Labour’s message (and the Conservative response) had largely failed to penetrate the public consciousness; ‘Ask your Dad’ was widely understood as something drawn, instead, from popular or vernacular culture. These accreted, vernacular, meanings of ‘Ask your Dad’ accordingly jostled for attention alongside the newer political uses of the phrase. But they were not equally influential. ‘Ask your Dad’s’ multivalent character worked to Labour’s detriment; the phrase’s older, pre-existing associations in vernacular culture distracted, inadvertently, from the phrase’s contemporary political variants. Considering the comments of people who had read the phrase deployed by a politician in the press (however vague their recollections were) shows how, depending upon their pre-existing political knowledge and the selectivity of their reading, the popular meanings of the phrase could diverge quite sharply from its political usages. On 3 November, the Daily Express reported a parliamentary exchange where the Conservative MP David Gammans ‘warned Mr. [Herbert] Morrison that his new “Ask Your Dad” campaign might recoil’.45 One M-O interviewee, when asked on 4 November where he had heard the phrase, stated that the ‘only time I’ve seen that is when I’ve read it in the Daily Express’. Pressed to reveal its meaning, however, he thought mothers said it ‘to a child—“Don’t ask me ask your dad”—matter of fact I’ve got a daughter of 18 & actually she wants to know one or two things & mother says “ask your dad—don’t ask me”’.46 Perhaps he had read the Express’s article, but not very carefully; the phrase’s newer meaning eluded him, and he deferred to the ‘common sense’ vernacular interpretation of the phrase relating to children. The other interviewee, consulted the following day, had also seen it ‘[i]n one of the papers. I think the Daily Express took it up’. Whilst his understanding of the phrase was more acute, believing it was ‘a Labour Party Slogan [sic] to try to discredit the Tories’, he incorrectly believed that Morrison ‘did say it about 6 weeks ago in answer to some remarks said from an opposition member’, when in fact the Express had first reported on it only 2 days previously, quoting a member of the opposition (and nor did this accurately describe the slogan’s genealogy).47 Both readers had a hazy recollection of how the press had covered ‘Ask your Dad’, and in turn had filtered its coverage by their preconceptions. To varying degrees of success, they had amalgamated different variants of the phrase when trying to fathom its meaning under the pressure of their interlocutor. The first interviewee, unable to fully remember the Daily Express’s reporting, had simply guessed, whilst the second interviewee seems to have drawn on several different press reports, albeit somewhat incorrectly. Neither completely deferred to the slogan’s coverage in the press. Because politicians were not alone in employing the phrase, the popular meanings of ‘Ask your Dad’ were not fixed at the moment of the slogan’s dissemination in the public discourse, but were re-made by ordinary voters. The resonance of political language was not dictated by politicians; rather, this was produced by the vernacular comments of electors, reflecting the dialogue in popular culture between the conflicting inflections of the phrases employed by politicians. Considering the impact of ITMA’s use of the phrase suggests that, as well as simply ignoring Labour’s usage of the slogan, the public sometimes accidentally subverted the slogan’s intended political connotations altogether by deferring, instead, to a contrary meaning of the phrase. In ITMA, ‘Ask your Dad’ displayed a laughable level of deference. During the show’s first episode after VE-Day, Handley’s character (now a town mayor) quizzed residents about their celebration plans, and Mark Time—as usual—blandly responded, ‘I’ll have to ask me Dad’. Handley then sharply replied ‘I’m getting sick of this. Is there anyone here with a mind of their own?’48 Mark Time, a contemporary biography of Handley summarized, ‘could never satisfy Tom about anything, for before committing himself he always warned: “I’ll have to ask me dad.”’49 The popularity of this programme meant that the public often understood ‘Ask your Dad’ in ITMA’s terms, which mocked Mark Time’s indecisiveness, rather than as Labour had intended: a phrase encouraging young voters to heed adult wisdom. One young woman from Kensington (a Labour voter) who had heard the phrase ‘[o]n the radio in Tommy Handley’s programme’ reported that the slogan implied an amusing lack of personal decisiveness: ‘I should think it means well if you want to know what it’s all about—ask someone who might know the answers—ask your Dad. It’s just a funny way of saying it’.50 Ironically, the similarity between the slogan and ITMA’s catchphrase could flatter older people, whose memories, the slogan suggested, were politically invaluable in moulding the country’s future. For example, a retired man who had ‘heard it many times’ on the radio felt that it meant ‘[a]sk someone in authority who is more likely to know—someone older who knows more than yourself’.51 This interpretation of the phrase might support Labour’s message, but Labour was sometimes less successful in convincing the younger voters whom the slogan targeted. A 22-year-old shop assistant who felt that the slogan was ‘always popping up at different times—mostly on the wireless’ said, perhaps begrudgingly, that it implied that one should ask dad ‘because he’s had more experience than younger people—folks like us—in the world’.52 Unable to fix the popular meanings of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’, and compounded by the choice of a slogan with uncanny cultural resemblances, politicians left their language open to vernacular misinterpretation. ‘Ask your Dad’ was a malleable phrase, with contradictory meanings. Sometimes its political and cultural uses overlapped, but more often they conflicted. The dialogue between ‘Ask your Dad’ in politics, in popular culture, and in the vernacular meant that its political meanings were produced by voters, not simply derived from the politicians they supported (or opposed). As the following section explores, this meant that party supporters were able to use the fluidity of slogans like ‘Ask your Dad’ to rethink their meanings, reinterpreting—or entirely rejecting—political languages when they conflicted with their memories. Memory and Party Press discussions of ‘Ask your Dad’ pitted Labour’s account of a ‘New Jerusalem’ triumphantly emerging from the horrors of depression and war against the Conservative narrative of inter-war prosperity followed by post-war austerity. Far from echoing these starkly drawn political positions, however, the voters who were aware of the political meaning of ‘Ask your Dad’ often acknowledged that neither narrative adequately represented their past. ‘Ask your Dad’ and ‘Ask your Mum’ both addressed a single individual, the listener’s parent, but each slogan expected an answer which reflected the country’s shared memories. Responding to a slogan which had articulated the importance of ‘experience’ in shaping political viewpoints, voters often felt that the ‘experiences’ of their family were too complex to fit into either competing narrative of Britain’s history. As a result, though few stopped supporting Labour or the Conservatives, the more self-reflexive voters consciously reinterpreted ‘Ask your Dad’, producing bespoke spins on its message which signalled the lack of correspondence between their memories and political discourse. To be sure, many supporters of Labour and the Conservatives felt that the slogan’s message (roughly) corresponded to their community’s memories—though whether this language shaped social memory, or merely reflected it, is difficult to tell. Labour supporters criticized the prevailing public political discourse: the 79 per cent of press references, by M-O’s estimate, which were critical of the slogan.53 Responding to a letter in a previous issue of the North-Western Evening Mail which had mimicked Conservative propaganda, ‘One of the Dads’ advised the newspaper’s readers: Look around to-day at the streets full of well-dressed shoppers (in spite of clothing rations) and the thriving pubs and cinemas, and ‘ask your dad’ to tell you of the days when you didn’t just buy things without asking the price, or walked a mile to get it a half-penny cheaper. Ask him to describe the atmosphere in towns like Jarrow and Cleator Moor, where only the shopkeepers and policemen had a job. Ask him to explain how it was that though the shops were so full of cheap good things, you had a slice of bread and ‘marg.’ for breakfast and often for dinner too, and rough home-made toys for Christmas.54 Like this author, who comfortably identified as ‘Dad’ yet associated himself with the world of consumption, most people treated ‘Dad’ as a metonym for the previous generation. It is striking how few women objected to the gendered slant of Labour’s slogan: one woman would ‘take it to mean that our fathers were the first to know the Labour Party policy, and this generation can learn their politics from them’.55 In the inter-war years, Labour bound together a coalition of working- and middle-class voters by promising to eradicate economic insecurity.56 ‘Ask your Dad’ channelled this in the late 1940s on a larger, though by no means universal, scale. The slogan appealed just as much to the sheet and metal worker who said it meant ‘[t]hat if you think the rank & file are going thro’ difficult & trying times now—ask your Dad—he’ll tell you things weren’t exactly rosy in the good old days when Labour [sic] was exploited & the working man fired on the spot if he as much as grumbled about conditions’—as it did to the civil engineer who felt it was ‘[a]n attempt to bring home to the people what things were like before this Govt took over’. Both were committed supporters of Labour.57 Their vernacular political languages suggest that Labour sometimes managed to speak simultaneously for ‘the rank & file’, ‘the people’, and ‘the working man’.58 In the vernacular, progress was sometimes imagined as a genuinely collective transition, shared amongst the population. It was as important for the residents of Jarrow in north-east England (the emblematic ‘distressed area’), as it was for these interviewees in London, and to ‘Dad’ writing from the north-west, near Cleator Moor in Cumberland. They suggested that only in the post-war years was ‘progress’ distributed fairly: between classes, regions, and genders. However, even strong supporters of Labour’s account acknowledged that their opinions were not shared by the rest of the population. Their negative memories of the inter-war years might just reflect their family’s situation. As another woman, who worked in a baker’s, explained: Well it means ‘ask your Dad[’]—he knows. He’s not forgotten what things were like in his days when he was a boy—& the awful time the working class went thro’ then. Things were much harder in those days than now, even if we have got to put up with queuing & rationing but we have got the money to buy essential foodstuffs. I come from South Wales—well my father was more out of work than in work—we had to practically live on the dole money—& there were eight of us—so that’ll give you an idea. I think the Labour Govts done a lot, no matter what others think.59 Memories of poverty and unemployment in South Wales did not have to be clarified by ‘asking dad’. The contrast between childhood memories of an area where as many as two-thirds of men were unemployed, and the present, when at least ‘we have got the money to buy essential foodstuffs’, was stark enough, and this was reinforced by national political culture.60 The Daily Herald regularly cited South Wales as emblematic of the country’s transformed fortunes.61 But as this interviewee hinted, her positive interpretation of the slogan coexisted alongside the assumptions of ‘others’ who held that Labour’s abolition of unemployment was no compensation for bureaucratic policies of ‘queuing and rationing’. Fissures in Labour’s idea of shared progress were already obvious in the late 1940s. One fissure reflected the gulf between Labour’s narrative of the replacement of the universal experience of economic insecurity and the fact that in the inter-war years high levels of poverty and unemployment had been concentrated in specific areas. To some Conservative supporters, Labour’s generalized claim of nation-wide progress in ‘Ask your Dad’ thereby seemed to exaggerate its achievements. A retired insurance agent in Bethnal Green, for instance, thought ‘its [sic] one of the worst slogans the Labour Party could have. In the old days the shops in Bethnal Green used to be full of meat, and that wasn’t just for the rich’. ‘Ask your Dad’, which he believed was Herbert Morrison’s slogan (as the Daily Express’s coverage had intimated), was intended ‘[t]o impress the rising generation that times were worse than now, but he was referring to the distressed areas’.62 Whilst voters elsewhere felt comfortable treating the transformed fortunes of ‘distressed areas’ like Jarrow and South Wales as signs of national progress, Bethnal Green’s distinctive self-identity and ‘fierce pride’, much-commented upon by social scientists, meant its residents could feel that Labour had elided the differences between zones of particularly high unemployment and their area.63 The clash between a national narrative and local memories of successfully struggling against poverty meant that collective progress felt, to some, only very partial. In some respects, such claims suggest that the Conservative narrative had succeeded in connecting with voters. One Conservative, who ‘first read about it in the Conservative press’, thought Labour’s slogan exaggerated: ‘I take it as trying to lull the people into believing that the Labour Govt. since they got into power have brought about tremendous improvements which the Conservatives couldn’t—which is a lot of nonsense. No thinking person believes that. Otherwise it’s a comic term’.64 The implications of Labour’s slogan seemed instinctively misleading to him given the Conservative support for a welfare state, and his reading of the ‘Conservative press’ served only to reinforce his feeling. However, other correspondences between the language employed by voters and Conservative politicians were not always so exact. One young Edmonton woman felt that the slogan was ‘a lot of rot. I think things were better then—so the Tories say. At least they didn’t have the shortages we have now. On Hubbard’s election paper he says there was always plenty whiskey in the shops so really it sort of cuts both ways’.65 In fact, the claim on Edwin Hubbard’s ‘election paper’ in the Edmonton by-election was slightly different. There, his wife cited the cheaper inter-war prices of ‘meat, bread, butter, cheese, milk and groceries’, but not whisky specifically; Hubbard’s other literature, and his internal election strategy documents, mentioned nothing stronger than beer.66 This woman’s language likely mediated political discourse: either she had misremembered Hubbard’s mentions of beer or had heard another person’s reinterpretation of Hubbard’s claims. Discussions of the rising cost of beer were, perhaps, reworked in the vernacular to encompass a slightly less ‘respectable’ claim about spirits. If a politician had become an authority on the past, shaping the popular memory of the inter-war years, his influence was nonetheless indirect. Voters were making political language meaningful to themselves; they were not simply co-opting the terms of politicians. Even those voters who essentially agreed with their party’s use of ‘Ask your Dad’, then, did not necessarily reproduce its language. They were, instead, producing their own readings of the slogan. These adaptive uses of political language were pronounced amongst the voters who questioned the capacity of a single narrative to represent their past. Such people critically engaged with political narratives by stitching together several competing stories. This might mean selectively drawing on elements of one party’s discourse to criticize it, borrowing Labour’s account of the past to critique its failure to live up to its policies. ‘Sick of it’, for example, implicitly responding to ‘One of the Dads’ in the North-Western Evening Mail, wrote that they were fed up with ‘this “Ask your dad,” “Ask your grandad,” “Ask your grandma” nonsense’. Unlike most critics of the slogan, they broadly accepted Labour’s account of the inter-war years, acknowledging that: Your dad can probably tell you of the day when journeymen craftsmen received 34s. for a longer working week than they enjoy now, when the crows nested in the Shipyard cranes and grass grew in the sidings. He can probably delight you with tales of hunger marches and baton charges. Grandad, if he is alive, can tell of rearing a big family on £1 a week, or perhaps a little more and walking four, five and six miles to be at work for 6 a.m. Whilst this letter echoed Labour’s narrative, the author argued that Labour’s argument ‘does not prove much, unless it is that wages always have and always will chase prices. I wonder if your “Ask your dad” tribe would prefer to revert to the so-called “good old days.”’67 Ultimately siding with the Conservative narrative, they had nonetheless appropriated Labour’s message for their own ends. Voters were exposed to a number of different, competing political narratives, and some used their memories to critically judge them rather than immediately deferring to the one propounded by the party they supported. However, others still, after evaluating the accounts of different politicians, felt that their experiences could not straightforwardly fit into either Conservative or Labour accounts, acknowledging that gains in some areas coincided with losses in others, and that their experiences could not be subsumed into a single narrative of social change. It fell to individuals to construct a more moderate appraisal of Labour’s achievements. As a welfare officer from Kensington (an affirmed ‘Socialist’) recognized, the slogan was ‘double-edged. You can take it either way you like. In some things we’re better off—& in others we’re worse. You can twist it either way, & for that reason as a party slogan it’s too risky’.68 Other Labour supporters adopted this measured approach, which was sceptical of Labour’s account of progress, despite remaining essentially faithful to the party. In the Daily Herald a letter-writer from Nottingham reported that his sons were ‘taking your advice to “Ask Your Dad,” and I’m certainly telling them of our hand-to-mouth existence under the Tories, of the unemployment and fear of the sack, of stores stacked with goods the workers couldn’t buy’. This valedictory account closely followed the Daily Herald’s claim that in areas like Jarrow, ‘people, on the fairness of controlled price rationing, are now getting the vital foodstuffs which they were once too poor to buy’.69 But it was inflected with an awareness of what Labour had yet to achieve. As he asked, ‘is the worker today so much better off?’ Whilst ‘[w]e have plenty of work, we have social security and holidays with pay… what municipal bus-driver, for instance, can afford to go for a holiday?’ Thus, ‘our economic situation is no better, if not worse. The workers are quite aware of Tory treachery, but Labour’s freezing of wages while prices rise is making us think’.70 Only elements of Labour’s account of progress were unconditionally endorsed, leading some people to question ‘Ask your Dad’s’ contrasting uses by Labour and the Conservatives. As a welfare worker interviewed in Camden Town argued, ‘Ask your Dad’ was ‘a very bad slogan—it could def[initely] be misused by either party’.71 Voters did not, therefore, passively reproduce their party’s analysis of Labour’s achievements. Slogans could sometimes order their experiences in meaningful, even inspiring, ways. But party political languages did not prove indispensable in arriving at an opinion. Indeed, some unusually self-confident voters were sceptical of the ability of politicians to understand their past, and reshaped political languages like ‘Ask your Dad’ to better fit their memories. As we will see in the next section, these attitudes extended beyond the self-reflexive minority who challenged the political meanings of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’. Many people distrusted political slogans in general for being too reductive and misleading, and felt forced into making up their own minds without deferring to political campaigning. No slogan could adequately capture the complexity of their feelings because all slogans amounted to someone else telling them how to feel. Ignorance of political language—whether accidental, conscious, or performed—could thereby conceal the depth of political opinions, rather than revealing someone’s political disengagement. Independence and Temporality Many of M-O’s interviewees felt that the repetition of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’ had made the electorate unthinking. The vernacular associations between ‘Ask your Dad’ and children were reflected in the description by several interviewees of slogans in general as ‘childish’ and ‘child’s phrase[s]’.72 If these references signalled the immaturity of those who unthinkingly delivered slogans, other interviewees simply felt that the ubiquity of slogans made them banal: they were ‘clichés’ or ‘hackneyed’ phrases.73 Distancing oneself from slogans demonstrated an individual’s discretion, distinguishing them from others who parroted ‘the accredited way of saying something that everyone knows’.74 Repeating slogans was associated with passivity and an inability to think originally, whereas spurning them preserved personal autonomy. A shop manager from Kensington, for instance, connected slogans with compulsion, suggesting that they were ‘nearly trying to make you do or buy something you don’t want to’.75 These attitudes concurred with the view, routinely expressed in wartime, that the media should accurately inform the public, but not compel them to believe something. As the BBC had reminded the nation, Hitler intended ‘to create a mass of uniform and unthinking opinion completely subservient to his dictatorship’, whereas the ‘British public do not want to be told what they ought to think or feel’.76 Three years after the end of war, these ideas still resonated: slogans resembled ‘a Fascist meeting’, explained a housewife from Bethnal Green.77 Political slogans, in this context, were thought to be overly reductive. ‘Slogans’, one man argued, ‘take such a simple view of things & people tend to repeat them so often that unless it makes itself absolutely clear—it tends to lose its original meaning after much repetition—people tend to take it for granted’.78 At best uninspiring phrases which only succeeded through repetition, situated in the context of 1948, slogans appeared potentially insidious. Depicting Britain as a dictatorship, contemporary dystopian writing fanned popular concerns about people who ‘believe all they see… all the lying propaganda, they take it all as gospel’, and ‘the swallowers of slogans’.79 Political opinions, the public suggested, should transcend the simplistic formulations preferred by politicians if an individual was to have any chance of preserving their independence of mind. By upholding political independence, rather than deferring to the banalities of pre-packaged, political rhetoric, voters felt able to translate their individual feelings into their own political views. Thus a 25-year-old postal worker knew that ‘Ask your Dad’ intended ‘[t]o influence voters’, but was, reportedly, unable to name another slogan, claiming slogans ‘don’t affect me at all’.80 People had various motivations for behaving this way, but they shared the desire to preserve individuality. Some interviewees repudiated slogans to stake out their class position—or their perceived lack of one. One self-consciously discerning interviewee stated that a slogan was ‘an expression used to convey an Americanism—of putting some [sic] across easily to the masses’, to whom, presumably, she felt she did not belong (she was married to an architect).81 For others, deciding their opinion on issues independently of slogans displayed intelligence as well as sophistication. An actor felt that slogans ‘strike you because of their extreme silliness, they take it for granted you havent [sic] any critical faculty’. An extreme case, his notion of independence meant spurning political parties, supporting ‘None whatsoever’.82 Being able to discriminate between truth and falsehood, and being true to one’s own feelings, meant knowing not to trust slogans unquestioningly. It is uncertain how performative these comments were, although Mass-Observation’s short, anonymous vox pop discussions offered interviewees less opportunity to impress their interviewer than a drawn-out domestic interview.83 Whether these claims to political independence were authentic expressions of feeling, or had been calculated to appear ‘thinking’ in front of an authority, it is clear that at some level a diffidence towards sloganeering was becoming linked to holding reasoned, rational political opinions. Reinforced by the context of the immediate post-war years, the origins of these attitudes nevertheless predated the war. Political ‘independence’, connoting rationality and masculinity, had demarcated the political citizenry from ‘the masses’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.84 In part, these attitudes were also a delayed response to the ‘glib oratory and hollow promises’ which had characterized pre-war elections.85 Memories of incidents which exposed politicians misleading voters, like the Post Office Savings scare in 1931, lent these positions additional credence. They also reflected the emergence of the discerning, purposive selfhood in the inter-war years.86 Critiques had mounted of advertising and posters, ‘As though anybody could be tempted by those!’, concerns which reached a mass audience after the war.87 By the 1940s, a sceptical attitude towards the claims of politicians, and the construction of a political identity on the basis of this scepticism, was not very new. Instead, M-O’s interviewees felt that, for the first time, these attitudes were concentrated amongst the youngest members of society. As the constituency addressed by ‘Ask your Dad’, they felt that the slogan was overly inattentive to their own desires and feelings. Perhaps the clearest exponent of this view was a 27-year-old woman in Edmonton, who said: ‘I don’t like that slogan. You should ask yourself & question your own experience’.88 Whilst intuitions and personal ‘experience’ guided her politics, which meant deciding independently of other people’s formulations, the older generation still invested authority in someone else’s ‘experience’: the wisdom of age. Yet they, too, were conscious that this opinion was becoming outdated. A 50-year-old street trader in Bethnal Green felt that it was ‘always a good bet to ask dad – he’s always had more experience in the world than the younger ones’. In contrast with herself, she felt that the slogan was likely to be unpopular with the coming generation: ‘the younger ones are very determined to do as they like they’re very self willed’.89 Several interviewees offered their own explanation of this generational difference. Although several older people held similar opinions, this perception nevertheless highlights the widespread feeling that deference towards the traditional sources of political authority was becoming unsettled by the welfare state. The dominant analysis suggested that Labour’s policies had rapidly bred a more demanding, self-assertive generation who expected more from politicians, and who were determined to make up their own mind on the basis of their ‘experience’ rather than trusting anyone else’s account. An elderly man from Edmonton linked this to improved educational standards: People don’t take no notice of slogans. Youth wouldn’t ask Dad—they want to go by their own experience. They don’t take no notice—they say it’s misleading … At the meeting sitting near me was a young fellow—He said to another young fellow—[‘]why should I ask my Dad.[’]—young people want to learn for themselves—we won’t be here for ever & the young people are left to carry on & what with the present standard of schooling, they’re educated sufficiently to understand without asking Dad & Mum.90 Personal ‘experience’ mattered more in shaping people’s political views than slogans or the older generation’s opinions. This was closely linked in other people’s accounts to the expansion of secondary education. But they also suggested that ‘Asking Dad’ was outdated by the speed of social change, which rendered discussions of the past, and deference towards the memories of older generations, meaningless, since now progress seemed assured. In Edmonton, a 50-year-old woman commented that ‘Ask your Dad’ intended: to make you think what your Dad had to put up with [when there] was no labour [sic] Govt—I know my Dad had about 35/- [shillings] to keep 13 of us. I know my children today have got more than we ever got. They wouldn’t be satisfied to ask their Dad. They’ve learned all that at school. They get a far better education than we had—& they’re too wise to ask their Dad. They think they know a lot more than their Dad—they do straight.91 Her family’s intergenerational progress vindicated Labour’s argument about the country’s escape from economic insecurity, but she suspected that her children would care less about the struggles of past generations (now confined to lessons in the classroom), and focus more on realizing their own ambitions in the future. Labour’s social policy, these interviewees suggested, was inadvertently inhibiting its campaigning, creating a younger generation less deferential to adult wisdom. Unwilling to ‘Ask Dad’, or to accept political estimations of past, present, and future, this generation (along with many others) felt that passively repeating someone’s else’s ideas inhibited them from expressing their own, individual, opinions. Ironically, Labour’s internal analysis, which had suggested that providing universal material security would make it harder for the party to convert young voters on the basis of the need for social progress, had found a worrying parallel in the vernacular. And whilst Labour worried that this trend would prove damaging to the socialist cause, ordinary voters seemed to suggest that its real significance was in undermining deference to the social hierarchies which, in the past, had meant voters were willing to trust other people’s claims about politics, whether they were members of their families or politicians from any party. Conclusion M-O interviewed people who seemed wholeheartedly apathetic about politics.92 But there were reasons to ignore slogans besides disenchantment with politics. In the late 1940s, people did not base their political consciousness solely on awareness of political language. Indeed, to some people, being politically aware meant being selective in engaging with the idioms offered by politicians. As James Hinton has argued, apathy could project feminine reticence, so that apparent ignorance ‘may signify, not an empty head but irony, evasion, the defence of an alternative discourse’.93 One significant ‘alternative discourse’, by no means only employed by women, was the assertion that people, on the basis that only they understood their experiences, ought to form their opinions without recourse to the terms employed by anyone else. An apparent disconnection from political discourse could therefore be selectively deployed to avoid suggesting that someone was unduly passive in merely repeating political slogans. Preserving personal political independence, in this way, it registered the intensity of political views, rather than their absence. This approach questions how extensive political apathy was in the early post-war years, but it also challenges how dominant were desires for ‘experts’ to govern: in fact, many people felt that external authorities, whoever they were, could not be trusted to implement their deeply felt, complex political desires. In this respect, the response to ‘Ask your Dad’, far from reflecting an aberrant misstep by Labour, seems to have been typical of political language generally. When M-O asked interviewees if they could recall any other political slogans, their answers clustered around wartime propaganda, rather than party politics; ‘Work or Want’ was the most common answer. Like ‘Ask your Dad’, recent political slogans had failed to capture the public’s imagination. Only two-fifths of people could remember another political slogan at all.94 Just four people cited Churchill’s ‘Set the people free’, whilst, M-O caustically noted, ‘one of the second most frequently remembered slogans is at least 30 years old’—‘Wait and See’.95 It is problematic to ascribe changing political identities in the post-war years solely to shifts in the public political discourse, without considering how voters, in practice, interpreted these languages. In most cases, the meaning of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’ was unstable from their point of entry into public discourse. As they progressed into the vernacular, their meanings became increasingly fragmented rather than solidifying, as voters misinterpreted or directly challenged them. M-O reported on the ‘Progress of a Slogan’ in February 1949, by which point, M-O reckoned, their findings would not help any political party.96 ‘Ask your Dad’ had fallen out of regular usage in the press.97 Although Labour’s opponents continued to mock the phrase until the 1950 election, the phrase had quickly receded from use within Labour in the late 1940s, well before Morgan Phillips formally disavowed the slogan (in 1960).98 As early as November 1948, Labour’s candidate for local elections in Roe Green, north-west London, ‘said he would contradict’ Phillips, preferring to advise voters: ‘Ask yourself what the Tories had ever done to deserve the confidence of the nation. Ask yourself these questions and Labour will romp home in 1950 as surely as it did three years ago’.99 At the same time, however, invigorated by its brief moment in the spotlight between late 1948 and early 1949, Labour’s slogan was re-entering popular culture: a children’s entertainer referred to the phrase as a recognizable ‘saying’ in December 1949;100 ‘Ask your Dad’ became the name of a television quiz in the 1950s.101 The phrase, sufficiently disseminated by politicians and the media in the late 1940s to remain an occasional cultural touchstone, by the following decade was largely divested of its original meaning. Ordinary people continued to selectively engage with political language. In Bethnal Green in the early 1950s, the sociologist Michael Young interrogated a boot press operator, William Harvey, about his political opinions. Harvey had initially followed his father into supporting Labour: ‘My father was labour and labour-minded [sic]. I suppose I got his attitude’. This, he suggested, made his experience symptomatic of national political trends: ‘[t]he last election the Tories had posters up saying Vote like Mum or Dad or don’t vote like Mum or Dad, I forget which’. But he had since changed his mind: ‘I used to belong to the Labour Party but I don’t any more since they made such a muddle with the housing’.102 Labour’s use of ‘Ask your Dad’ was now essentially forgotten. Yet the detritus of a long-forgotten political campaign, reassembled in an unpredictable way, let this voter conceive of an argument, different to Labour’s public campaigning. Formal political languages still influenced popular political consciousness, offering voters points of cultural reference, but politicians had little control over their message. It was obvious to Harvey, just as figures in Labour had worried in the late 1940s (and had been apparent to some voters then) that people were no longer willing to base their political opinions on what other people told them, least of all their parents or politicians. They changed their minds, as Harvey did, when they felt that their everyday experiences told them otherwise. This meant that political languages were as much shaped ‘from below’, by voters themselves, as they were something which politicians used to try to shape those voters. I would like to thank Lucy Delap, Jon Lawrence, Miriam Mahmoud, George Morris and Max Shock for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. Members of the Modern British History graduate workshop at the University of Cambridge in May 2017, and participants at the New York-Cambridge Training Collaboration in July 2017, especially Roslyn Dubler, also provided very helpful criticism. Archival material is reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, and Toby Young. This research was funded by a Vice-Chancellor’s and Wolfson College Scholarship, awarded by the Cambridge Trust. Footnotes 1 F. W. S. Craig, ed., British General Election Manifestos 1918-1966 (Chichester, 1970), 104. 2The Archives of the British Labour Party, Part 1: National Executive Committee Minutes of the Labour Representation Committee, 1900-06, and Labour Party since 1906, iii, ‘National Executive Committee Minutes 1940-1951’ (Sussex, 1975) [hereafter NEC minutes], N.A.D., ‘Party Propaganda’ (28 January 1948), 1. 3 Conservative Research Department, ‘The Inter-War Years’, Notes on Current Politics, 20 (10 November 1947), 1, 4. 4 Conservative Party Archive, Oxford [hereafter CPA], CRD/D/2/4: Henry Hopkinson. Secretariat and Office Correspondence October–December 1948, ‘The Inter-War Years’, Bye-Election Briefs, 12 (19 February 1948). 5 George H. Gallup, ed., The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls. Great Britain 1937-1975: Volume One 1937-1964 (New York, 1976), 165. 6 Michael Foot, If the Tories Had Won (London, 1947), 10–11. 7 John F. Hill, ‘Safeguarding the Future’, Labour Organiser, 27 (June 1948), 16. 8 NEC Minutes, Morgan Phillips, ‘League of Youth’ (24 June 1948), 2. 9Belfast News-Letter, 3 May 1948, 4. 10 People’s History Museum, Manchester, Labour Party Archives, General Secretary Papers, GS/CO-OP/182, letter from Edwin Furness to Morgan Phillips (30 August 1948). 11Daily Herald, 11 October 1948; South London Press, 12 October 1948, 1. 12Hertfordshire and Essex Observer, 5 November 1948. 13Western Gazette, 12 November 1948, 3. 14South London Press, 14 December 1948. 15East Anglia Daily Times, 30 November 1948. 16 Geoffrey Field, ‘Social Patriotism and the British Working Class: Appearance and Disappearance of a Tradition’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 42 (1992), 33. 17 James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History (London, 2007), 256, 259. 18 Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, ‘Rationing, Austerity and the Conservative Party Recovery after 1945’, The Historical Journal, 37 (1994), 182. 19 Stephen Brooke, ‘Labour and the “Nation” after 1945’, in Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor, eds, Party, State and Society. Electoral Behaviour in Britain since 1820 (Aldershot, 1997), 164–5. 20 Lawrence Black, The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain, 1951-65. Old Labour, New Britain? (Basingstoke, 2003), 70, 116–7. 21 Jon Lawrence, Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867-1914 (Cambridge, 1998), 67; Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘The Determinist Fix: Some Obstacles to the Further Development of the Linguistic Approach to History in the 1990s’, History Workshop Journal, 42 (1996), 29–30. 22 James Thompson, ‘“Pictorial Lies”?—Posters and Politics in Britain c. 1880-1914’, Past & Present, 197 (2007), 205. 23 Laura Beers, Your Britain. Media and the Making of the Labour Party (London, 2010), 186. 24 Mike Savage, ‘Using Archived Qualitative Data: Researching Socio-Cultural Change’ in Jennifer Mason and Angela Dale, eds, Understanding Social Research: Thinking Creatively about Method (London, 2011), 169–80. 25 Mass Observation, Puzzled People. A Study in Popular Attitudes to Religion, Ethics, Progress and Politics in a London Borough (London, 1947), 130. 26 James Hinton, ‘1945 and the Apathy School’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (1997), 266–73; Ross McKibbin, Parties and People: England 1914-1951 (Oxford, 2011), 130. 27 Mass-Observation Archive [hereafter MOA], Topic Collection 10: Labour Party ‘Ask your Dad’ 1948, File C [hereafter TC 10-C], M.Ly., ‘Ask your Dad’ (29 January 1949), 4. 28 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 257. 29 Lawrence Black, Redefining British Politics: Culture, Consumerism and Participation, 1954-70 (Basingstoke, 2010), 174–5. 30 Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, England Arise! The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain (Manchester, 1995). 31 Jonathan Moss, Nick Clarke, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker, ‘Golden Age, Apathy or Stealth? Democratic Engagement in Britain, 1945-1950’, Contemporary British History, 30 (2016), 442, 447, 453–4. 32Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3 May 1940, 5. 33 Ted Kavanagh, The ITMA Years (London, 1974), 87. 34 Francis Worsley, ‘Anatomy of Itma’, in Charles Madge, ed., Pilot Papers. Social Essays and Documents, New Series, 1 (January 1946), 42. 35 Jack Train, Up and Down the Line (London, 1956), 110. 36 Francis Worsley, ITMA (London, 1948), 76. 37 Ted Kavanagh, Tommy Handley (London, 1949), 244. 38 Worsley, ITMA, 47. 39 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 056. 40 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 375, also 334. 41 MOA, TC 10-C, M.Ly., ‘Ask your Dad’, 5. 42 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 199; TC 10-A, Interviews 291 and 376. 43 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 162; File A, Interview 020. 44 MOA, TC 10-B, Interview 030. 45Daily Express, 3 November 1948. 46 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 415. 47 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 240. 48 Kavanagh, The ITMA Years, 110. 49 Kavanagh, Tommy Handley, 191. 50 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 245. 51 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 284. 52 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 063. 53 M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’, Mass-Observation Bulletin, New Series no. 25 (February 1949). 54North-Western Evening Mail, 8 November 1948. 55 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 198. 56 Jon Lawrence, ‘Labour and the Politics of Class, 1900-1940’ in David Feldman and Jon Lawrence, eds, Structures and Transformations in Modern British History (Cambridge, 2011), 248–58. 57 MOA, TC 10-A, Interviews 047 and 048. 58 Lawrence, ‘Labour and the Politics of Class’, 252. 59 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 045. 60 Martin Pugh, ‘We Danced all Night’: A Social History of Britain between the Wars (London, 2008), 98. 61Daily Herald, 9 October 1947, 2; Daily Herald, 8 November 1948, 2. 62 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 179. 63 P. J. O. Self, ‘Voluntary Organizations in Bethnal Green’, in A. F. C. Bourdillon, ed., Voluntary Social Services (London, 1946), 236. Throughout the 1930s, Bethnal Green’s rate of unemployment was approximately 4–6 per cent lower than Great Britain’s: A Vision of Britain Through Time, <http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/12831444/rate/CLAIMANT_COUNT> accessed 8 October 2017. 64 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 006. 65 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B., ‘Edmonton Bye-Election 11 November 1948’, 10. 66 Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge [hereafter CAC], Austen Albu papers, Box 13: Misc., 1948 Bye-election, Edwin P. Hubbard, ‘Parliamentary Bye-Election’ (1948), 4; ‘The Charter. Bye-Election Special Edition’ (1948), 2, 4; CPA, CCO 1/7/370/2, Correspondence from Edmonton Bye-Election, ‘Meeting of the Shareholders’ (1948); CAC, Papers of Lord Hailsham, HLSM 2/42/5/6: Correspondence with Conservative Associations, ‘Edmonton Bye-Election: Back Ground Notes for Visiting Speakers’, 2. 67North-Western Evening Mail, 12 November 1948. 68 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 271. 69Daily Herald, 30 April 1947, 2. 70Daily Herald, 14 October 1948. 71 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 003. 72 MOA, TC 10-A, Interviews 289 and 430. 73 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 066; TC 10-A, Interviews 145, 215 and 240. 74 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 358. 75 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 385. 76BBC Handbook 1941 (London, 1941), 27–8, 32. 77 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 156. 78 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 280. 79 Noël Coward, ‘Peace in Our Time’ (1947) in Noël Coward, Collected Plays: Seven (London: Methuen, 1999), 220; George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bernard Crick, ed. (Oxford, 1984), 164. 80 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 011. 81 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 288. 82 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 127. 83 Jon Lawrence, ‘Social-Science Encounters and the Negotiation of Difference in Early 1960s England’, History Workshop Journal, 77 (2014), 215–39. 84 James Vernon, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c.1815-1867 (Cambridge, 1993), 105, 142, 172–77; Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester/New York, 2005). 85 Jon Lawrence, Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (Oxford, 2009), 137. 86 Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (London, 2016). 87 George Orwell, The Complete Works of George Orwell: Keep the Aspidistra Flying, vol. iv, Peter Davison, ed. (London, 1987), 13. 88 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B. ‘Edmonton Bye-Election’, 9. 89 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 413. 90 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B., ‘Edmonton Bye-Election’, 8. 91 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B., ‘Edmonton Bye-Election’, 10. 92 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 299. 93 Hinton, ‘1945 and the Apathy School’, 268. 94 M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’. 95 MOA, TC 10-C, M.Ly., ‘Ask Your Dad’, unpaginated scrap; M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’. 96 M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’. 97 MOA, TC 10-C, M.Ly., ‘Ask Your Dad’, 7. 98 H. G. Nicholas and D. E. Butler, The British General Election of 1950 (London, 1968), 108; Black, The Political Culture, 70, 117. 99Hendon and Finchley Times, 10 November 1948. 100The Manchester Guardian, 17 December 1949, 1. 101The Manchester Guardian, 28 May 1954, 7. 102 CAC, Michael Young papers, uncatalogued deposit no. 1577, Bethnal Green interview no. 26 (Harvey), 7. © The Author(s) [2018]. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Twentieth Century British History Oxford University Press

TCBH Duncan Tanner Essay Prize Winner 2017: The ‘Progress of a Slogan’: Youth, Culture, and the Shaping of Everyday Political Languages in Late 1940s Britain

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Abstract

Abstract In 1948, worried that young people would take full employment and the welfare state for granted, the Labour Party trialled a new slogan: ‘Ask your Dad’. This slogan encouraged the young to learn about the hardships which their parents had experienced in the inter-war years, largely under Conservative governments. Using archived interviews and letters sent to the press, this article provides the first study of the popular reception of this slogan. Most people had not heard of this slogan, and most of those who had heard of the phrase showed no knowledge that it was associated with politics, turning instead to popular culture. Those who understood the slogan were not the passive conduits of their party’s message; often, they reworked political ideas to fit their own memories. Because repeating slogans was associated with a lack of political independence, not listening to party politics could conceal an intense interest in creating political change—an attitude which was, apparently, pronounced amongst the young. This article uses these responses to suggest how political language was as much produced by ordinary people’s memories and daily discussion, as it was something drawn from professional campaigners. Much of the ambitious legislative programme proposed in Labour’s election manifesto had been implemented by 1948. Having promised to ‘fight against the mean and shabby treatment which was the lot of millions while Conservative Governments were in power’, in the 3 years following its election the new government had instituted a comprehensive system of social insurance, mostly maintained full employment, and was on the verge of introducing the National Health Service.1 Yet with a general election looming within the next 2 years, and with its legislative momentum slowing down, the party’s leadership began to worry about how to sustain the triumphant narrative of social progress which had brought it to power in 1945. The party accordingly committed itself at the end of January 1948 to a ‘pre-election campaign’ offering a ‘widespread and uniform restatement of the achievements of the Labour Government’ as well as a positive vision of ‘the next period of Labour Government’.2 However, the Conservative response to Labour’s depiction of ‘“those terrible inter-war years under Tory rule” when “mass unemployment and starvation” stalked the land’ promised to complicate this campaign. ‘They were, in fact’, Winston Churchill retorted, ‘a period of progressive and substantial advance in the living-standards of the whole nation’.3 In continuing rationing and struggling to meet popular demand for housing, the Labour government’s policies compared unfavourably to many people’s memories of slum clearances and unrestricted consumption before the war, as Conservatives repeatedly reminded the public at by-elections, and as opinion polls indicated.4 In late 1947, one poll suggested that a majority of the country (62 per cent) would ‘choose’ their ‘situation just before the war, in 1939’, in favour of ‘the present’ (31 per cent), if they were able to.5 This Conservative counter-narrative contextualized Labour’s attempts to rework popular memories of the inter-war years. Counterfactual pamphlets like Michael Foot’s If the Tories Had Won (1947) warned that, with a Conservative victory in 1945 ‘Britain would have turned her back on the future … At this moment we would be stumbling back into the age of the ‘thirties, vainly seeking to patch up an old world which could never be remade’.6 Yet whilst this strategy promised to jolt the memories of people who had personally suffered from the policies of Conservative governments—those who ‘were made Socialists through the stomach’—it seemed less likely to succeed in attracting the votes of ‘those people who came of age since the depression of the 1930s’, as an article in Labour Organiser worried. After all, Labour’s policies meant that ‘there will never be again the threat to the people’s living standard which I have termed the stomach threat’. Yet ‘[a]part from history, which very few people ever bother to read, the new electorate will not know of the very real difference between life under Tory and Socialist rule. You know, you can’t talk to a man about hunger who has always had four meals a day’.7 The material effects of Labour’s policies threatened to bring to a halt the narrative of social progress which had made these policies possible. This worry informed a series of initiatives which intended to deliver ‘the elementary principles of democratic socialism’ to ‘young people’.8 One initiative was a new slogan, designed to incorporate Britain’s youth into Labour’s narrative of progress: ‘Ask your Dad’. This article provides the first study of this slogan’s popular reception. ‘Ask your Dad’ was slow to take off, surfacing in early May 1948 when Philip Noel-Baker told his constituents in Derby that ‘[i]f you don’t remember what happened between the wars, “ask your dad”’, arguing that this should be Labour’s slogan at the next general election.9 It took until October for the slogan to gain traction. Morgan Phillips, Labour’s general secretary, had been invited by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society to deliver a talk at its conference on 9 October about ‘Labour’s Economic Plan for Social Progress’.10 Reiterating a message which Labour had offered since 1945, after listing the failures of pre-war Conservative governments which Labour’s policies had resolved (‘They failed to provide jobs for all’, and were responsible for ‘savage cuts in unemployment benefits’), Phillips suggested that the Conservatives’ ‘new-found zeal for social advancement’ was a façade, intended to exploit popular support for Labour’s social policies. Phillips worried that ‘those younger members of this audience who do not remember what Toryism really means’ would wrongly assume that the Conservatives now supported a welfare state. He told them: ‘Ask your Dad. He can confirm the truth from his own experience’.11 Phillips’s speech was quickly picked up by the press, and the new slogan was soon spoken by activists in meetings across the country. One Conservative MP in Hertfordshire denied ‘that the past was perfect’ and merely ‘wanted to go forward to a Conservative future’.12 Most Conservatives took a different tack, evoking images of the golden years under Conservative governments. At a fête in Wincanton young Conservative supporters put on a ‘skit’ playing on Labour’s slogan: ‘Their grocer’s shop bearing a card Ask your Ma, showed the full counters of pre-war days and the empty shelves of the post-war era with control signs replacing stock’.13 Although Conservatives generally focussed on consumption and Labour supporters tended to stress ‘Dad’s’ world of work, members of both parties sometimes made less gendered claims. Some Conservatives appealed to ‘Dad’s’ memories of rising unemployment under pre-war Labour governments, whilst variants on Labour’s slogan subordinated gender to social class. Opening new flats in Southwark, the local Labour MP George Isaacs instructed their new residents: ‘Ask your dad what he thinks of them. Four walls, a roof and a floor used to be considered good enough for the working classes’.14 In Islington Liberals countered both parties’ messages, telling voters: ‘Ask yourself’.15 The contemporary publicity given to ‘Ask your Dad’ has brought this slogan to the attention of several historians, for whom ‘Ask your Dad’ has encapsulated the political culture of the late 1940s. Geoffrey Field notes how post-war political debates often invoked competing memories of Britain’s past: Labour’s slogans like ‘Just ask your Dad’ referenced the ‘dole queues and means test of the thirties’.16 Slogans like ‘Ask your Dad’, James Vernon argues, sought to ‘legitimate’ Labour’s nascent welfare state for conquering poverty.17 The gender politics of Labour’s slogan are also familiar. For Ina Zweiniger-Bargieolowska, ‘Ask your Mum’ represented a clever Conservative retort to Labour’s slogan which, amongst other savvy decisions, helped the party ‘become the focus of mainstream female discontent with postwar conditions’.18 ‘Ask your Dad’, in contrast, might be read as reflecting Labour’s association with ‘producers’, ‘collectivist’ policies, and male supporters.19 Lawrence Black suggests that it symbolized a paternalistic Labour politics which was disengaged from youth culture and unwilling to accommodate consumerism.20 Discussions of ‘Ask your Dad’ have therefore tended to reaffirm, rather than challenge, assumptions about post-war politics. The slogan exemplifies trends in political language which have already been identified. Labour and the Conservatives adapted the slogan to appeal to different constituencies, Labour seeking support from men and the younger members of the working class, whilst Conservatives rejected the slogan to shore up their support from women discontented with rationing. However, no study has considered this slogan’s reception: historians have concentrated on its uses in public discourse, thereby inferring its popularity and assuming that it successfully connected with the voters it targeted. Such an approach risks overstating the correspondence between the formulaic and repetitive uses of political language by politicians and the media, and the more implicit, often quite idiosyncratic, engagement with this language by voters in everyday speech. It has inadvertently suggested that political languages were shaped only by the politicians who invented them, rather than the voters whom politicians targeted. As the case of ‘Ask your Dad’ suggests, historians influenced by the ‘linguistic turn’ have predominantly studied ‘the construction of formal discourses’, despite many calls for more sophisticated analyses of their reception.21 These calls have received little response, except for the now-routine acknowledgement of the limitations of studying public discourse in isolation. Admittedly, at least before 1945, little evidence survives of how the public interpreted political language. Research initially concentrated on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period where the outcomes of elections, or the opinions of journalists, provide the main—admittedly unreliable—sources of reception.22 Historians of the early twentieth century have also acknowledged that the lack of systematic opinion polling before the Second World War makes it ‘difficult to establish a link between publicity and public opinion’.23 For the period after 1945, however, more reliable evidence of popular engagement with political language survives, including a study by the social research organization Mass-Observation (M-O) of the slogan ‘Ask your Dad’. Between November 1948 and January 1949, M-O interviewed 433 people in and near London (in Bethnal Green, Camden Town, Euston, Kensington, and Edmonton) about their awareness of this slogan. M-O’s archive preserves the records of these interviews, as well as additional research material. The difficulties in interpreting such sources are well known.24 Doubts hang over the reliability of M-O’s interviewing methods and whether its fieldworkers collected ‘verbatim’ material, as the organization claimed.25 Yet if, as seems likely, M-O’s study intended to woo the Labour Party into commissioning further research, its fieldworkers would have had a strong incentive to provide trustworthy material. Reading their notes alongside letters in newspapers which responded to the slogan suggests that M-O was successfully capturing public opinions whilst simultaneously providing an opportunity to explore the slogan’s reception outside London. By exploring the reception of ‘Ask your Dad’, this article suggests that in the late 1940s new models of selfhood, growing unease about sloganeering in the shadow of war, and a longer-standing popular distrust of politicians combined to complicate the popular reception of political languages. Political languages were not isolated from their broader cultural context. Politicians sought to exploit this, coining slogans which resembled popular sayings. But this created terminological confusions; voters were often unaware that ‘Ask your Dad’ was connected with politics, let alone concerned Labour’s narrative of social progress. Accordingly people accidentally interpreted ‘Ask your Dad’ in terms unlike its political usages by drawing on the phrase’s alternative meanings in popular culture. Other voters made more deliberate efforts to rethink the implications of the slogan, judging its validity against their memories. They critically engaged with the competing narratives of Britain’s history circulating in the media, forming their own interpretations of Labour’s achievements. As a result, many people came to feel that, since no slogan could adequately capture their feelings, they should make up their minds without thinking in terms of political language. Political language should therefore be understood as a product of voters, rather than something which emanated outwards from politicians. Whether inadvertently or deliberately, the ways in which voters interpreted instances of political language like ‘Ask your Dad’ ensured that their meanings were not determined by politicians themselves. This perspective suggests an alternative reading of popular engagement with politics in the early post-war years. By reconceiving the popular reception of political language as generative—rather than solely considering the diffusion of formal political languages into everyday speech—we can reconcile the evidence of substantial popular ignorance of policy proposals and slogans, as demonstrated in opinion polls, with the evidence of high voter turnout from the post-war years.26 M-O’s evidence of the popular awareness of ‘Ask your Dad’ indicates how few people, overall, had heard of the slogan: under one-third of M-O’s sample.27 A characteristic response from the remainder was ‘I don’t think so. I don’t remember ever hearing it’.28 Historians have interpreted evidence of low levels of popular understanding of political idioms in different ways. For some, it reveals popular ‘[d]isenchantment’ with politics.29 Other historians have claimed that people only engaged with political ideas when doing so served their immediate self-interest.30 However, conceiving of the influence of politics solely in terms of terminological knowledge ignores the instances where people indirectly engaged with politics whilst forgetting or misinterpreting political ideas. It also overlooks the capacity of the public to decide, themselves, about what counted as an acceptable level of political engagement. Indeed, a recent article has used M-O panel writing to highlight a popular sense of ‘duty’ towards voting amidst evidence of people ‘wanting to leave government to experts’ and independents. People could justify not taking an interest in partisan political ideas because these ideas obscured the social ‘consensus… about the common good’. The authors of this article suggest that this understanding was likely socially normative because of the ‘common culture’ which M-O’s predominantly middle-class writers shared with the rest of the population.31 But in focussing on a self-selecting sample, they ignore another important idea held by other members of the public. This idea suggested that popular political opinions should express ‘independence’, rising above reductive political discourse by reflecting personal experiences—ironically, in the case of ‘Ask your Dad’, since Labour’s slogan had valorised ‘experience’, too. Rather than registering apathy towards politics, or a preference for ‘experts’ to lead, distancing oneself from trivial slogans could conceal the intensity of political opinions, which were thought should be so individually specific that they could not be easily reduced to a three-word slogan. Whether voters projected diffidence towards political language to preserve their independence, misremembered the meanings of slogans, or selectively appropriated elements of several competing political narratives, they were not wholly disengaged from politics. Rather, they were producing political languages, just as much as political campaigners—and were therefore active participants in the shaping of the ‘people’s peace’, even if they were often unhappy with its results. Like Labour’s leaders, a number of ordinary people wondered whether social progress would come at the cost of diminished deference to the opinions of traditional sources of political authority, narrating the diminishing salience of political language in the post-war years. Defining ‘Ask Your Dad’ Politicians were not alone in employing phrases resembling ‘Ask your Dad’. The accreted, pre-existing meanings of such phrases in popular culture often conflicted in the public’s imagination with their newer, political uses. This meant that voters—not politicians—ultimately determined the popular meanings of political languages. As early as 1940, the phrase ‘Ask your Dad’ was used in a newspaper column for children.32 To the slogan’s audience in 1948, however, the phrase would have been most recognisable from the radio show It’s That Man Again (ITMA) in which, since 1944, the character Mark Time had used the catchphrase ‘I’ll have to ask me Dad’.33 Some 12 million people heard this programme each week.34 Its catchphrases quickly became vernacular touchstones; as Jack Train (who played Mark Time) recalled, ‘we started a sort of age of the catch phrase’.35 Catchphrases like ‘Ask your Dad’, it was reported in 1948, ‘have passed into the English language. They re-appear in advertisements, in pantomimes—always a sure sign of a successful saying—and even as captions for cartoons’.36 They also began to appear in everyday speech. Tommy Handley, the programme’s star, regularly fielded telephone calls from listeners: ‘If Tommy was unwise enough to ask “Who’s speaking?” the inevitable reply was “I’ll have to ask me Dad.”’37 The programme’s producer wrote that Mark Time’s catchphrase ‘caught on with the public’, even before Labour’s slogan, relating the story of how at the 1945 election, ‘Randolph Churchill, being heckled by his audience, was asked a question and, before he could reply, was greeted with loud yells of “He’ll have to ask his Dad!”’38 Labour’s slogan presumably intended to rework a phrase which was already a fairly common saying, used in the media and in casual conversation. But the party’s leaders could not have anticipated that, rather than translating their message about the iniquities of pre-war Conservative rule into a relatable saying, the similarities between the phrase as used by Labour activists and its pre-existing uses in public culture often entirely subverted Labour’s message. When M-O asked their interviewees, ‘What do you think it means?’, misinterpretations of ‘Ask your Dad’ were rife. Despite the extensive press coverage of the slogan, Labour had failed to steer the public towards associating it with the party’s message, or indeed with politics at all. The phrase was widely perceived as being ‘one of them sayings that’s got into people’s talk’, more commonly linked to the radio than to politics.39 It was ‘just a joke’ which music hall performers repeated.40 The pre-existing, non-political uses of ‘Ask your Dad’ tended to be more commonly mentioned than its newer political connotations. Most of M-O’s interviewees who reported having heard of ‘Ask your Dad’ cited no political associations of this phrase, suggesting that Labour’s slogan had struggled to gain a foothold in a cluttered linguistic field.41 In part, this was because the phrase had been used in the vernacular well before ITMA had coined its catchphrase, and consequently already held quite different associations for the public. A woman from Euston had heard it ‘[i]n conversation’ but not, like several others, for ‘ages & ages’, stating ‘[a]ctually [I] don’t think there’s any meaning in it—just slang’.42 As a result several people seemed unaware of ITMA’s usage of the slogan as well as Labour’s, reporting that the phrase was essentially a local maxim without any political connotations. A bricklayer from Bethnal Green believed that it was ‘a saying round here’ which he had heard ‘at the café’, whilst a housewife from Edmonton explained ‘I’ve been to Colchester they say it a lot there’. Neither relayed its political meaning. The bricklayer stated vaguely that it ‘could mean all sorts of things’, whilst the housewife believed it was a ‘recognised saying’ aimed at children.43 Hers was one of the commonest answers, cited by another Edmonton resident who only reported hearing it from children, ‘Donkey’s years ago’.44 Labour’s message (and the Conservative response) had largely failed to penetrate the public consciousness; ‘Ask your Dad’ was widely understood as something drawn, instead, from popular or vernacular culture. These accreted, vernacular, meanings of ‘Ask your Dad’ accordingly jostled for attention alongside the newer political uses of the phrase. But they were not equally influential. ‘Ask your Dad’s’ multivalent character worked to Labour’s detriment; the phrase’s older, pre-existing associations in vernacular culture distracted, inadvertently, from the phrase’s contemporary political variants. Considering the comments of people who had read the phrase deployed by a politician in the press (however vague their recollections were) shows how, depending upon their pre-existing political knowledge and the selectivity of their reading, the popular meanings of the phrase could diverge quite sharply from its political usages. On 3 November, the Daily Express reported a parliamentary exchange where the Conservative MP David Gammans ‘warned Mr. [Herbert] Morrison that his new “Ask Your Dad” campaign might recoil’.45 One M-O interviewee, when asked on 4 November where he had heard the phrase, stated that the ‘only time I’ve seen that is when I’ve read it in the Daily Express’. Pressed to reveal its meaning, however, he thought mothers said it ‘to a child—“Don’t ask me ask your dad”—matter of fact I’ve got a daughter of 18 & actually she wants to know one or two things & mother says “ask your dad—don’t ask me”’.46 Perhaps he had read the Express’s article, but not very carefully; the phrase’s newer meaning eluded him, and he deferred to the ‘common sense’ vernacular interpretation of the phrase relating to children. The other interviewee, consulted the following day, had also seen it ‘[i]n one of the papers. I think the Daily Express took it up’. Whilst his understanding of the phrase was more acute, believing it was ‘a Labour Party Slogan [sic] to try to discredit the Tories’, he incorrectly believed that Morrison ‘did say it about 6 weeks ago in answer to some remarks said from an opposition member’, when in fact the Express had first reported on it only 2 days previously, quoting a member of the opposition (and nor did this accurately describe the slogan’s genealogy).47 Both readers had a hazy recollection of how the press had covered ‘Ask your Dad’, and in turn had filtered its coverage by their preconceptions. To varying degrees of success, they had amalgamated different variants of the phrase when trying to fathom its meaning under the pressure of their interlocutor. The first interviewee, unable to fully remember the Daily Express’s reporting, had simply guessed, whilst the second interviewee seems to have drawn on several different press reports, albeit somewhat incorrectly. Neither completely deferred to the slogan’s coverage in the press. Because politicians were not alone in employing the phrase, the popular meanings of ‘Ask your Dad’ were not fixed at the moment of the slogan’s dissemination in the public discourse, but were re-made by ordinary voters. The resonance of political language was not dictated by politicians; rather, this was produced by the vernacular comments of electors, reflecting the dialogue in popular culture between the conflicting inflections of the phrases employed by politicians. Considering the impact of ITMA’s use of the phrase suggests that, as well as simply ignoring Labour’s usage of the slogan, the public sometimes accidentally subverted the slogan’s intended political connotations altogether by deferring, instead, to a contrary meaning of the phrase. In ITMA, ‘Ask your Dad’ displayed a laughable level of deference. During the show’s first episode after VE-Day, Handley’s character (now a town mayor) quizzed residents about their celebration plans, and Mark Time—as usual—blandly responded, ‘I’ll have to ask me Dad’. Handley then sharply replied ‘I’m getting sick of this. Is there anyone here with a mind of their own?’48 Mark Time, a contemporary biography of Handley summarized, ‘could never satisfy Tom about anything, for before committing himself he always warned: “I’ll have to ask me dad.”’49 The popularity of this programme meant that the public often understood ‘Ask your Dad’ in ITMA’s terms, which mocked Mark Time’s indecisiveness, rather than as Labour had intended: a phrase encouraging young voters to heed adult wisdom. One young woman from Kensington (a Labour voter) who had heard the phrase ‘[o]n the radio in Tommy Handley’s programme’ reported that the slogan implied an amusing lack of personal decisiveness: ‘I should think it means well if you want to know what it’s all about—ask someone who might know the answers—ask your Dad. It’s just a funny way of saying it’.50 Ironically, the similarity between the slogan and ITMA’s catchphrase could flatter older people, whose memories, the slogan suggested, were politically invaluable in moulding the country’s future. For example, a retired man who had ‘heard it many times’ on the radio felt that it meant ‘[a]sk someone in authority who is more likely to know—someone older who knows more than yourself’.51 This interpretation of the phrase might support Labour’s message, but Labour was sometimes less successful in convincing the younger voters whom the slogan targeted. A 22-year-old shop assistant who felt that the slogan was ‘always popping up at different times—mostly on the wireless’ said, perhaps begrudgingly, that it implied that one should ask dad ‘because he’s had more experience than younger people—folks like us—in the world’.52 Unable to fix the popular meanings of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’, and compounded by the choice of a slogan with uncanny cultural resemblances, politicians left their language open to vernacular misinterpretation. ‘Ask your Dad’ was a malleable phrase, with contradictory meanings. Sometimes its political and cultural uses overlapped, but more often they conflicted. The dialogue between ‘Ask your Dad’ in politics, in popular culture, and in the vernacular meant that its political meanings were produced by voters, not simply derived from the politicians they supported (or opposed). As the following section explores, this meant that party supporters were able to use the fluidity of slogans like ‘Ask your Dad’ to rethink their meanings, reinterpreting—or entirely rejecting—political languages when they conflicted with their memories. Memory and Party Press discussions of ‘Ask your Dad’ pitted Labour’s account of a ‘New Jerusalem’ triumphantly emerging from the horrors of depression and war against the Conservative narrative of inter-war prosperity followed by post-war austerity. Far from echoing these starkly drawn political positions, however, the voters who were aware of the political meaning of ‘Ask your Dad’ often acknowledged that neither narrative adequately represented their past. ‘Ask your Dad’ and ‘Ask your Mum’ both addressed a single individual, the listener’s parent, but each slogan expected an answer which reflected the country’s shared memories. Responding to a slogan which had articulated the importance of ‘experience’ in shaping political viewpoints, voters often felt that the ‘experiences’ of their family were too complex to fit into either competing narrative of Britain’s history. As a result, though few stopped supporting Labour or the Conservatives, the more self-reflexive voters consciously reinterpreted ‘Ask your Dad’, producing bespoke spins on its message which signalled the lack of correspondence between their memories and political discourse. To be sure, many supporters of Labour and the Conservatives felt that the slogan’s message (roughly) corresponded to their community’s memories—though whether this language shaped social memory, or merely reflected it, is difficult to tell. Labour supporters criticized the prevailing public political discourse: the 79 per cent of press references, by M-O’s estimate, which were critical of the slogan.53 Responding to a letter in a previous issue of the North-Western Evening Mail which had mimicked Conservative propaganda, ‘One of the Dads’ advised the newspaper’s readers: Look around to-day at the streets full of well-dressed shoppers (in spite of clothing rations) and the thriving pubs and cinemas, and ‘ask your dad’ to tell you of the days when you didn’t just buy things without asking the price, or walked a mile to get it a half-penny cheaper. Ask him to describe the atmosphere in towns like Jarrow and Cleator Moor, where only the shopkeepers and policemen had a job. Ask him to explain how it was that though the shops were so full of cheap good things, you had a slice of bread and ‘marg.’ for breakfast and often for dinner too, and rough home-made toys for Christmas.54 Like this author, who comfortably identified as ‘Dad’ yet associated himself with the world of consumption, most people treated ‘Dad’ as a metonym for the previous generation. It is striking how few women objected to the gendered slant of Labour’s slogan: one woman would ‘take it to mean that our fathers were the first to know the Labour Party policy, and this generation can learn their politics from them’.55 In the inter-war years, Labour bound together a coalition of working- and middle-class voters by promising to eradicate economic insecurity.56 ‘Ask your Dad’ channelled this in the late 1940s on a larger, though by no means universal, scale. The slogan appealed just as much to the sheet and metal worker who said it meant ‘[t]hat if you think the rank & file are going thro’ difficult & trying times now—ask your Dad—he’ll tell you things weren’t exactly rosy in the good old days when Labour [sic] was exploited & the working man fired on the spot if he as much as grumbled about conditions’—as it did to the civil engineer who felt it was ‘[a]n attempt to bring home to the people what things were like before this Govt took over’. Both were committed supporters of Labour.57 Their vernacular political languages suggest that Labour sometimes managed to speak simultaneously for ‘the rank & file’, ‘the people’, and ‘the working man’.58 In the vernacular, progress was sometimes imagined as a genuinely collective transition, shared amongst the population. It was as important for the residents of Jarrow in north-east England (the emblematic ‘distressed area’), as it was for these interviewees in London, and to ‘Dad’ writing from the north-west, near Cleator Moor in Cumberland. They suggested that only in the post-war years was ‘progress’ distributed fairly: between classes, regions, and genders. However, even strong supporters of Labour’s account acknowledged that their opinions were not shared by the rest of the population. Their negative memories of the inter-war years might just reflect their family’s situation. As another woman, who worked in a baker’s, explained: Well it means ‘ask your Dad[’]—he knows. He’s not forgotten what things were like in his days when he was a boy—& the awful time the working class went thro’ then. Things were much harder in those days than now, even if we have got to put up with queuing & rationing but we have got the money to buy essential foodstuffs. I come from South Wales—well my father was more out of work than in work—we had to practically live on the dole money—& there were eight of us—so that’ll give you an idea. I think the Labour Govts done a lot, no matter what others think.59 Memories of poverty and unemployment in South Wales did not have to be clarified by ‘asking dad’. The contrast between childhood memories of an area where as many as two-thirds of men were unemployed, and the present, when at least ‘we have got the money to buy essential foodstuffs’, was stark enough, and this was reinforced by national political culture.60 The Daily Herald regularly cited South Wales as emblematic of the country’s transformed fortunes.61 But as this interviewee hinted, her positive interpretation of the slogan coexisted alongside the assumptions of ‘others’ who held that Labour’s abolition of unemployment was no compensation for bureaucratic policies of ‘queuing and rationing’. Fissures in Labour’s idea of shared progress were already obvious in the late 1940s. One fissure reflected the gulf between Labour’s narrative of the replacement of the universal experience of economic insecurity and the fact that in the inter-war years high levels of poverty and unemployment had been concentrated in specific areas. To some Conservative supporters, Labour’s generalized claim of nation-wide progress in ‘Ask your Dad’ thereby seemed to exaggerate its achievements. A retired insurance agent in Bethnal Green, for instance, thought ‘its [sic] one of the worst slogans the Labour Party could have. In the old days the shops in Bethnal Green used to be full of meat, and that wasn’t just for the rich’. ‘Ask your Dad’, which he believed was Herbert Morrison’s slogan (as the Daily Express’s coverage had intimated), was intended ‘[t]o impress the rising generation that times were worse than now, but he was referring to the distressed areas’.62 Whilst voters elsewhere felt comfortable treating the transformed fortunes of ‘distressed areas’ like Jarrow and South Wales as signs of national progress, Bethnal Green’s distinctive self-identity and ‘fierce pride’, much-commented upon by social scientists, meant its residents could feel that Labour had elided the differences between zones of particularly high unemployment and their area.63 The clash between a national narrative and local memories of successfully struggling against poverty meant that collective progress felt, to some, only very partial. In some respects, such claims suggest that the Conservative narrative had succeeded in connecting with voters. One Conservative, who ‘first read about it in the Conservative press’, thought Labour’s slogan exaggerated: ‘I take it as trying to lull the people into believing that the Labour Govt. since they got into power have brought about tremendous improvements which the Conservatives couldn’t—which is a lot of nonsense. No thinking person believes that. Otherwise it’s a comic term’.64 The implications of Labour’s slogan seemed instinctively misleading to him given the Conservative support for a welfare state, and his reading of the ‘Conservative press’ served only to reinforce his feeling. However, other correspondences between the language employed by voters and Conservative politicians were not always so exact. One young Edmonton woman felt that the slogan was ‘a lot of rot. I think things were better then—so the Tories say. At least they didn’t have the shortages we have now. On Hubbard’s election paper he says there was always plenty whiskey in the shops so really it sort of cuts both ways’.65 In fact, the claim on Edwin Hubbard’s ‘election paper’ in the Edmonton by-election was slightly different. There, his wife cited the cheaper inter-war prices of ‘meat, bread, butter, cheese, milk and groceries’, but not whisky specifically; Hubbard’s other literature, and his internal election strategy documents, mentioned nothing stronger than beer.66 This woman’s language likely mediated political discourse: either she had misremembered Hubbard’s mentions of beer or had heard another person’s reinterpretation of Hubbard’s claims. Discussions of the rising cost of beer were, perhaps, reworked in the vernacular to encompass a slightly less ‘respectable’ claim about spirits. If a politician had become an authority on the past, shaping the popular memory of the inter-war years, his influence was nonetheless indirect. Voters were making political language meaningful to themselves; they were not simply co-opting the terms of politicians. Even those voters who essentially agreed with their party’s use of ‘Ask your Dad’, then, did not necessarily reproduce its language. They were, instead, producing their own readings of the slogan. These adaptive uses of political language were pronounced amongst the voters who questioned the capacity of a single narrative to represent their past. Such people critically engaged with political narratives by stitching together several competing stories. This might mean selectively drawing on elements of one party’s discourse to criticize it, borrowing Labour’s account of the past to critique its failure to live up to its policies. ‘Sick of it’, for example, implicitly responding to ‘One of the Dads’ in the North-Western Evening Mail, wrote that they were fed up with ‘this “Ask your dad,” “Ask your grandad,” “Ask your grandma” nonsense’. Unlike most critics of the slogan, they broadly accepted Labour’s account of the inter-war years, acknowledging that: Your dad can probably tell you of the day when journeymen craftsmen received 34s. for a longer working week than they enjoy now, when the crows nested in the Shipyard cranes and grass grew in the sidings. He can probably delight you with tales of hunger marches and baton charges. Grandad, if he is alive, can tell of rearing a big family on £1 a week, or perhaps a little more and walking four, five and six miles to be at work for 6 a.m. Whilst this letter echoed Labour’s narrative, the author argued that Labour’s argument ‘does not prove much, unless it is that wages always have and always will chase prices. I wonder if your “Ask your dad” tribe would prefer to revert to the so-called “good old days.”’67 Ultimately siding with the Conservative narrative, they had nonetheless appropriated Labour’s message for their own ends. Voters were exposed to a number of different, competing political narratives, and some used their memories to critically judge them rather than immediately deferring to the one propounded by the party they supported. However, others still, after evaluating the accounts of different politicians, felt that their experiences could not straightforwardly fit into either Conservative or Labour accounts, acknowledging that gains in some areas coincided with losses in others, and that their experiences could not be subsumed into a single narrative of social change. It fell to individuals to construct a more moderate appraisal of Labour’s achievements. As a welfare officer from Kensington (an affirmed ‘Socialist’) recognized, the slogan was ‘double-edged. You can take it either way you like. In some things we’re better off—& in others we’re worse. You can twist it either way, & for that reason as a party slogan it’s too risky’.68 Other Labour supporters adopted this measured approach, which was sceptical of Labour’s account of progress, despite remaining essentially faithful to the party. In the Daily Herald a letter-writer from Nottingham reported that his sons were ‘taking your advice to “Ask Your Dad,” and I’m certainly telling them of our hand-to-mouth existence under the Tories, of the unemployment and fear of the sack, of stores stacked with goods the workers couldn’t buy’. This valedictory account closely followed the Daily Herald’s claim that in areas like Jarrow, ‘people, on the fairness of controlled price rationing, are now getting the vital foodstuffs which they were once too poor to buy’.69 But it was inflected with an awareness of what Labour had yet to achieve. As he asked, ‘is the worker today so much better off?’ Whilst ‘[w]e have plenty of work, we have social security and holidays with pay… what municipal bus-driver, for instance, can afford to go for a holiday?’ Thus, ‘our economic situation is no better, if not worse. The workers are quite aware of Tory treachery, but Labour’s freezing of wages while prices rise is making us think’.70 Only elements of Labour’s account of progress were unconditionally endorsed, leading some people to question ‘Ask your Dad’s’ contrasting uses by Labour and the Conservatives. As a welfare worker interviewed in Camden Town argued, ‘Ask your Dad’ was ‘a very bad slogan—it could def[initely] be misused by either party’.71 Voters did not, therefore, passively reproduce their party’s analysis of Labour’s achievements. Slogans could sometimes order their experiences in meaningful, even inspiring, ways. But party political languages did not prove indispensable in arriving at an opinion. Indeed, some unusually self-confident voters were sceptical of the ability of politicians to understand their past, and reshaped political languages like ‘Ask your Dad’ to better fit their memories. As we will see in the next section, these attitudes extended beyond the self-reflexive minority who challenged the political meanings of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’. Many people distrusted political slogans in general for being too reductive and misleading, and felt forced into making up their own minds without deferring to political campaigning. No slogan could adequately capture the complexity of their feelings because all slogans amounted to someone else telling them how to feel. Ignorance of political language—whether accidental, conscious, or performed—could thereby conceal the depth of political opinions, rather than revealing someone’s political disengagement. Independence and Temporality Many of M-O’s interviewees felt that the repetition of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’ had made the electorate unthinking. The vernacular associations between ‘Ask your Dad’ and children were reflected in the description by several interviewees of slogans in general as ‘childish’ and ‘child’s phrase[s]’.72 If these references signalled the immaturity of those who unthinkingly delivered slogans, other interviewees simply felt that the ubiquity of slogans made them banal: they were ‘clichés’ or ‘hackneyed’ phrases.73 Distancing oneself from slogans demonstrated an individual’s discretion, distinguishing them from others who parroted ‘the accredited way of saying something that everyone knows’.74 Repeating slogans was associated with passivity and an inability to think originally, whereas spurning them preserved personal autonomy. A shop manager from Kensington, for instance, connected slogans with compulsion, suggesting that they were ‘nearly trying to make you do or buy something you don’t want to’.75 These attitudes concurred with the view, routinely expressed in wartime, that the media should accurately inform the public, but not compel them to believe something. As the BBC had reminded the nation, Hitler intended ‘to create a mass of uniform and unthinking opinion completely subservient to his dictatorship’, whereas the ‘British public do not want to be told what they ought to think or feel’.76 Three years after the end of war, these ideas still resonated: slogans resembled ‘a Fascist meeting’, explained a housewife from Bethnal Green.77 Political slogans, in this context, were thought to be overly reductive. ‘Slogans’, one man argued, ‘take such a simple view of things & people tend to repeat them so often that unless it makes itself absolutely clear—it tends to lose its original meaning after much repetition—people tend to take it for granted’.78 At best uninspiring phrases which only succeeded through repetition, situated in the context of 1948, slogans appeared potentially insidious. Depicting Britain as a dictatorship, contemporary dystopian writing fanned popular concerns about people who ‘believe all they see… all the lying propaganda, they take it all as gospel’, and ‘the swallowers of slogans’.79 Political opinions, the public suggested, should transcend the simplistic formulations preferred by politicians if an individual was to have any chance of preserving their independence of mind. By upholding political independence, rather than deferring to the banalities of pre-packaged, political rhetoric, voters felt able to translate their individual feelings into their own political views. Thus a 25-year-old postal worker knew that ‘Ask your Dad’ intended ‘[t]o influence voters’, but was, reportedly, unable to name another slogan, claiming slogans ‘don’t affect me at all’.80 People had various motivations for behaving this way, but they shared the desire to preserve individuality. Some interviewees repudiated slogans to stake out their class position—or their perceived lack of one. One self-consciously discerning interviewee stated that a slogan was ‘an expression used to convey an Americanism—of putting some [sic] across easily to the masses’, to whom, presumably, she felt she did not belong (she was married to an architect).81 For others, deciding their opinion on issues independently of slogans displayed intelligence as well as sophistication. An actor felt that slogans ‘strike you because of their extreme silliness, they take it for granted you havent [sic] any critical faculty’. An extreme case, his notion of independence meant spurning political parties, supporting ‘None whatsoever’.82 Being able to discriminate between truth and falsehood, and being true to one’s own feelings, meant knowing not to trust slogans unquestioningly. It is uncertain how performative these comments were, although Mass-Observation’s short, anonymous vox pop discussions offered interviewees less opportunity to impress their interviewer than a drawn-out domestic interview.83 Whether these claims to political independence were authentic expressions of feeling, or had been calculated to appear ‘thinking’ in front of an authority, it is clear that at some level a diffidence towards sloganeering was becoming linked to holding reasoned, rational political opinions. Reinforced by the context of the immediate post-war years, the origins of these attitudes nevertheless predated the war. Political ‘independence’, connoting rationality and masculinity, had demarcated the political citizenry from ‘the masses’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.84 In part, these attitudes were also a delayed response to the ‘glib oratory and hollow promises’ which had characterized pre-war elections.85 Memories of incidents which exposed politicians misleading voters, like the Post Office Savings scare in 1931, lent these positions additional credence. They also reflected the emergence of the discerning, purposive selfhood in the inter-war years.86 Critiques had mounted of advertising and posters, ‘As though anybody could be tempted by those!’, concerns which reached a mass audience after the war.87 By the 1940s, a sceptical attitude towards the claims of politicians, and the construction of a political identity on the basis of this scepticism, was not very new. Instead, M-O’s interviewees felt that, for the first time, these attitudes were concentrated amongst the youngest members of society. As the constituency addressed by ‘Ask your Dad’, they felt that the slogan was overly inattentive to their own desires and feelings. Perhaps the clearest exponent of this view was a 27-year-old woman in Edmonton, who said: ‘I don’t like that slogan. You should ask yourself & question your own experience’.88 Whilst intuitions and personal ‘experience’ guided her politics, which meant deciding independently of other people’s formulations, the older generation still invested authority in someone else’s ‘experience’: the wisdom of age. Yet they, too, were conscious that this opinion was becoming outdated. A 50-year-old street trader in Bethnal Green felt that it was ‘always a good bet to ask dad – he’s always had more experience in the world than the younger ones’. In contrast with herself, she felt that the slogan was likely to be unpopular with the coming generation: ‘the younger ones are very determined to do as they like they’re very self willed’.89 Several interviewees offered their own explanation of this generational difference. Although several older people held similar opinions, this perception nevertheless highlights the widespread feeling that deference towards the traditional sources of political authority was becoming unsettled by the welfare state. The dominant analysis suggested that Labour’s policies had rapidly bred a more demanding, self-assertive generation who expected more from politicians, and who were determined to make up their own mind on the basis of their ‘experience’ rather than trusting anyone else’s account. An elderly man from Edmonton linked this to improved educational standards: People don’t take no notice of slogans. Youth wouldn’t ask Dad—they want to go by their own experience. They don’t take no notice—they say it’s misleading … At the meeting sitting near me was a young fellow—He said to another young fellow—[‘]why should I ask my Dad.[’]—young people want to learn for themselves—we won’t be here for ever & the young people are left to carry on & what with the present standard of schooling, they’re educated sufficiently to understand without asking Dad & Mum.90 Personal ‘experience’ mattered more in shaping people’s political views than slogans or the older generation’s opinions. This was closely linked in other people’s accounts to the expansion of secondary education. But they also suggested that ‘Asking Dad’ was outdated by the speed of social change, which rendered discussions of the past, and deference towards the memories of older generations, meaningless, since now progress seemed assured. In Edmonton, a 50-year-old woman commented that ‘Ask your Dad’ intended: to make you think what your Dad had to put up with [when there] was no labour [sic] Govt—I know my Dad had about 35/- [shillings] to keep 13 of us. I know my children today have got more than we ever got. They wouldn’t be satisfied to ask their Dad. They’ve learned all that at school. They get a far better education than we had—& they’re too wise to ask their Dad. They think they know a lot more than their Dad—they do straight.91 Her family’s intergenerational progress vindicated Labour’s argument about the country’s escape from economic insecurity, but she suspected that her children would care less about the struggles of past generations (now confined to lessons in the classroom), and focus more on realizing their own ambitions in the future. Labour’s social policy, these interviewees suggested, was inadvertently inhibiting its campaigning, creating a younger generation less deferential to adult wisdom. Unwilling to ‘Ask Dad’, or to accept political estimations of past, present, and future, this generation (along with many others) felt that passively repeating someone’s else’s ideas inhibited them from expressing their own, individual, opinions. Ironically, Labour’s internal analysis, which had suggested that providing universal material security would make it harder for the party to convert young voters on the basis of the need for social progress, had found a worrying parallel in the vernacular. And whilst Labour worried that this trend would prove damaging to the socialist cause, ordinary voters seemed to suggest that its real significance was in undermining deference to the social hierarchies which, in the past, had meant voters were willing to trust other people’s claims about politics, whether they were members of their families or politicians from any party. Conclusion M-O interviewed people who seemed wholeheartedly apathetic about politics.92 But there were reasons to ignore slogans besides disenchantment with politics. In the late 1940s, people did not base their political consciousness solely on awareness of political language. Indeed, to some people, being politically aware meant being selective in engaging with the idioms offered by politicians. As James Hinton has argued, apathy could project feminine reticence, so that apparent ignorance ‘may signify, not an empty head but irony, evasion, the defence of an alternative discourse’.93 One significant ‘alternative discourse’, by no means only employed by women, was the assertion that people, on the basis that only they understood their experiences, ought to form their opinions without recourse to the terms employed by anyone else. An apparent disconnection from political discourse could therefore be selectively deployed to avoid suggesting that someone was unduly passive in merely repeating political slogans. Preserving personal political independence, in this way, it registered the intensity of political views, rather than their absence. This approach questions how extensive political apathy was in the early post-war years, but it also challenges how dominant were desires for ‘experts’ to govern: in fact, many people felt that external authorities, whoever they were, could not be trusted to implement their deeply felt, complex political desires. In this respect, the response to ‘Ask your Dad’, far from reflecting an aberrant misstep by Labour, seems to have been typical of political language generally. When M-O asked interviewees if they could recall any other political slogans, their answers clustered around wartime propaganda, rather than party politics; ‘Work or Want’ was the most common answer. Like ‘Ask your Dad’, recent political slogans had failed to capture the public’s imagination. Only two-fifths of people could remember another political slogan at all.94 Just four people cited Churchill’s ‘Set the people free’, whilst, M-O caustically noted, ‘one of the second most frequently remembered slogans is at least 30 years old’—‘Wait and See’.95 It is problematic to ascribe changing political identities in the post-war years solely to shifts in the public political discourse, without considering how voters, in practice, interpreted these languages. In most cases, the meaning of phrases like ‘Ask your Dad’ was unstable from their point of entry into public discourse. As they progressed into the vernacular, their meanings became increasingly fragmented rather than solidifying, as voters misinterpreted or directly challenged them. M-O reported on the ‘Progress of a Slogan’ in February 1949, by which point, M-O reckoned, their findings would not help any political party.96 ‘Ask your Dad’ had fallen out of regular usage in the press.97 Although Labour’s opponents continued to mock the phrase until the 1950 election, the phrase had quickly receded from use within Labour in the late 1940s, well before Morgan Phillips formally disavowed the slogan (in 1960).98 As early as November 1948, Labour’s candidate for local elections in Roe Green, north-west London, ‘said he would contradict’ Phillips, preferring to advise voters: ‘Ask yourself what the Tories had ever done to deserve the confidence of the nation. Ask yourself these questions and Labour will romp home in 1950 as surely as it did three years ago’.99 At the same time, however, invigorated by its brief moment in the spotlight between late 1948 and early 1949, Labour’s slogan was re-entering popular culture: a children’s entertainer referred to the phrase as a recognizable ‘saying’ in December 1949;100 ‘Ask your Dad’ became the name of a television quiz in the 1950s.101 The phrase, sufficiently disseminated by politicians and the media in the late 1940s to remain an occasional cultural touchstone, by the following decade was largely divested of its original meaning. Ordinary people continued to selectively engage with political language. In Bethnal Green in the early 1950s, the sociologist Michael Young interrogated a boot press operator, William Harvey, about his political opinions. Harvey had initially followed his father into supporting Labour: ‘My father was labour and labour-minded [sic]. I suppose I got his attitude’. This, he suggested, made his experience symptomatic of national political trends: ‘[t]he last election the Tories had posters up saying Vote like Mum or Dad or don’t vote like Mum or Dad, I forget which’. But he had since changed his mind: ‘I used to belong to the Labour Party but I don’t any more since they made such a muddle with the housing’.102 Labour’s use of ‘Ask your Dad’ was now essentially forgotten. Yet the detritus of a long-forgotten political campaign, reassembled in an unpredictable way, let this voter conceive of an argument, different to Labour’s public campaigning. Formal political languages still influenced popular political consciousness, offering voters points of cultural reference, but politicians had little control over their message. It was obvious to Harvey, just as figures in Labour had worried in the late 1940s (and had been apparent to some voters then) that people were no longer willing to base their political opinions on what other people told them, least of all their parents or politicians. They changed their minds, as Harvey did, when they felt that their everyday experiences told them otherwise. This meant that political languages were as much shaped ‘from below’, by voters themselves, as they were something which politicians used to try to shape those voters. I would like to thank Lucy Delap, Jon Lawrence, Miriam Mahmoud, George Morris and Max Shock for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. Members of the Modern British History graduate workshop at the University of Cambridge in May 2017, and participants at the New York-Cambridge Training Collaboration in July 2017, especially Roslyn Dubler, also provided very helpful criticism. Archival material is reproduced with kind permission of the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, and Toby Young. This research was funded by a Vice-Chancellor’s and Wolfson College Scholarship, awarded by the Cambridge Trust. Footnotes 1 F. W. S. Craig, ed., British General Election Manifestos 1918-1966 (Chichester, 1970), 104. 2The Archives of the British Labour Party, Part 1: National Executive Committee Minutes of the Labour Representation Committee, 1900-06, and Labour Party since 1906, iii, ‘National Executive Committee Minutes 1940-1951’ (Sussex, 1975) [hereafter NEC minutes], N.A.D., ‘Party Propaganda’ (28 January 1948), 1. 3 Conservative Research Department, ‘The Inter-War Years’, Notes on Current Politics, 20 (10 November 1947), 1, 4. 4 Conservative Party Archive, Oxford [hereafter CPA], CRD/D/2/4: Henry Hopkinson. Secretariat and Office Correspondence October–December 1948, ‘The Inter-War Years’, Bye-Election Briefs, 12 (19 February 1948). 5 George H. Gallup, ed., The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls. Great Britain 1937-1975: Volume One 1937-1964 (New York, 1976), 165. 6 Michael Foot, If the Tories Had Won (London, 1947), 10–11. 7 John F. Hill, ‘Safeguarding the Future’, Labour Organiser, 27 (June 1948), 16. 8 NEC Minutes, Morgan Phillips, ‘League of Youth’ (24 June 1948), 2. 9Belfast News-Letter, 3 May 1948, 4. 10 People’s History Museum, Manchester, Labour Party Archives, General Secretary Papers, GS/CO-OP/182, letter from Edwin Furness to Morgan Phillips (30 August 1948). 11Daily Herald, 11 October 1948; South London Press, 12 October 1948, 1. 12Hertfordshire and Essex Observer, 5 November 1948. 13Western Gazette, 12 November 1948, 3. 14South London Press, 14 December 1948. 15East Anglia Daily Times, 30 November 1948. 16 Geoffrey Field, ‘Social Patriotism and the British Working Class: Appearance and Disappearance of a Tradition’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 42 (1992), 33. 17 James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History (London, 2007), 256, 259. 18 Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, ‘Rationing, Austerity and the Conservative Party Recovery after 1945’, The Historical Journal, 37 (1994), 182. 19 Stephen Brooke, ‘Labour and the “Nation” after 1945’, in Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor, eds, Party, State and Society. Electoral Behaviour in Britain since 1820 (Aldershot, 1997), 164–5. 20 Lawrence Black, The Political Culture of the Left in Affluent Britain, 1951-65. Old Labour, New Britain? (Basingstoke, 2003), 70, 116–7. 21 Jon Lawrence, Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867-1914 (Cambridge, 1998), 67; Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘The Determinist Fix: Some Obstacles to the Further Development of the Linguistic Approach to History in the 1990s’, History Workshop Journal, 42 (1996), 29–30. 22 James Thompson, ‘“Pictorial Lies”?—Posters and Politics in Britain c. 1880-1914’, Past & Present, 197 (2007), 205. 23 Laura Beers, Your Britain. Media and the Making of the Labour Party (London, 2010), 186. 24 Mike Savage, ‘Using Archived Qualitative Data: Researching Socio-Cultural Change’ in Jennifer Mason and Angela Dale, eds, Understanding Social Research: Thinking Creatively about Method (London, 2011), 169–80. 25 Mass Observation, Puzzled People. A Study in Popular Attitudes to Religion, Ethics, Progress and Politics in a London Borough (London, 1947), 130. 26 James Hinton, ‘1945 and the Apathy School’, History Workshop Journal, 43 (1997), 266–73; Ross McKibbin, Parties and People: England 1914-1951 (Oxford, 2011), 130. 27 Mass-Observation Archive [hereafter MOA], Topic Collection 10: Labour Party ‘Ask your Dad’ 1948, File C [hereafter TC 10-C], M.Ly., ‘Ask your Dad’ (29 January 1949), 4. 28 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 257. 29 Lawrence Black, Redefining British Politics: Culture, Consumerism and Participation, 1954-70 (Basingstoke, 2010), 174–5. 30 Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, England Arise! The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain (Manchester, 1995). 31 Jonathan Moss, Nick Clarke, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker, ‘Golden Age, Apathy or Stealth? Democratic Engagement in Britain, 1945-1950’, Contemporary British History, 30 (2016), 442, 447, 453–4. 32Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 3 May 1940, 5. 33 Ted Kavanagh, The ITMA Years (London, 1974), 87. 34 Francis Worsley, ‘Anatomy of Itma’, in Charles Madge, ed., Pilot Papers. Social Essays and Documents, New Series, 1 (January 1946), 42. 35 Jack Train, Up and Down the Line (London, 1956), 110. 36 Francis Worsley, ITMA (London, 1948), 76. 37 Ted Kavanagh, Tommy Handley (London, 1949), 244. 38 Worsley, ITMA, 47. 39 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 056. 40 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 375, also 334. 41 MOA, TC 10-C, M.Ly., ‘Ask your Dad’, 5. 42 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 199; TC 10-A, Interviews 291 and 376. 43 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 162; File A, Interview 020. 44 MOA, TC 10-B, Interview 030. 45Daily Express, 3 November 1948. 46 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 415. 47 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 240. 48 Kavanagh, The ITMA Years, 110. 49 Kavanagh, Tommy Handley, 191. 50 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 245. 51 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 284. 52 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 063. 53 M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’, Mass-Observation Bulletin, New Series no. 25 (February 1949). 54North-Western Evening Mail, 8 November 1948. 55 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 198. 56 Jon Lawrence, ‘Labour and the Politics of Class, 1900-1940’ in David Feldman and Jon Lawrence, eds, Structures and Transformations in Modern British History (Cambridge, 2011), 248–58. 57 MOA, TC 10-A, Interviews 047 and 048. 58 Lawrence, ‘Labour and the Politics of Class’, 252. 59 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 045. 60 Martin Pugh, ‘We Danced all Night’: A Social History of Britain between the Wars (London, 2008), 98. 61Daily Herald, 9 October 1947, 2; Daily Herald, 8 November 1948, 2. 62 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 179. 63 P. J. O. Self, ‘Voluntary Organizations in Bethnal Green’, in A. F. C. Bourdillon, ed., Voluntary Social Services (London, 1946), 236. Throughout the 1930s, Bethnal Green’s rate of unemployment was approximately 4–6 per cent lower than Great Britain’s: A Vision of Britain Through Time, <http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/12831444/rate/CLAIMANT_COUNT> accessed 8 October 2017. 64 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 006. 65 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B., ‘Edmonton Bye-Election 11 November 1948’, 10. 66 Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge [hereafter CAC], Austen Albu papers, Box 13: Misc., 1948 Bye-election, Edwin P. Hubbard, ‘Parliamentary Bye-Election’ (1948), 4; ‘The Charter. Bye-Election Special Edition’ (1948), 2, 4; CPA, CCO 1/7/370/2, Correspondence from Edmonton Bye-Election, ‘Meeting of the Shareholders’ (1948); CAC, Papers of Lord Hailsham, HLSM 2/42/5/6: Correspondence with Conservative Associations, ‘Edmonton Bye-Election: Back Ground Notes for Visiting Speakers’, 2. 67North-Western Evening Mail, 12 November 1948. 68 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 271. 69Daily Herald, 30 April 1947, 2. 70Daily Herald, 14 October 1948. 71 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 003. 72 MOA, TC 10-A, Interviews 289 and 430. 73 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 066; TC 10-A, Interviews 145, 215 and 240. 74 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 358. 75 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 385. 76BBC Handbook 1941 (London, 1941), 27–8, 32. 77 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 156. 78 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 280. 79 Noël Coward, ‘Peace in Our Time’ (1947) in Noël Coward, Collected Plays: Seven (London: Methuen, 1999), 220; George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bernard Crick, ed. (Oxford, 1984), 164. 80 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 011. 81 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 288. 82 MOA, TC 10-C, Interview 127. 83 Jon Lawrence, ‘Social-Science Encounters and the Negotiation of Difference in Early 1960s England’, History Workshop Journal, 77 (2014), 215–39. 84 James Vernon, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c.1815-1867 (Cambridge, 1993), 105, 142, 172–77; Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester/New York, 2005). 85 Jon Lawrence, Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (Oxford, 2009), 137. 86 Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (London, 2016). 87 George Orwell, The Complete Works of George Orwell: Keep the Aspidistra Flying, vol. iv, Peter Davison, ed. (London, 1987), 13. 88 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B. ‘Edmonton Bye-Election’, 9. 89 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 413. 90 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B., ‘Edmonton Bye-Election’, 8. 91 MOA, TC 10-B, L.B., ‘Edmonton Bye-Election’, 10. 92 MOA, TC 10-A, Interview 299. 93 Hinton, ‘1945 and the Apathy School’, 268. 94 M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’. 95 MOA, TC 10-C, M.Ly., ‘Ask Your Dad’, unpaginated scrap; M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’. 96 M-O, ‘Progress of a Slogan’. 97 MOA, TC 10-C, M.Ly., ‘Ask Your Dad’, 7. 98 H. G. Nicholas and D. E. Butler, The British General Election of 1950 (London, 1968), 108; Black, The Political Culture, 70, 117. 99Hendon and Finchley Times, 10 November 1948. 100The Manchester Guardian, 17 December 1949, 1. 101The Manchester Guardian, 28 May 1954, 7. 102 CAC, Michael Young papers, uncatalogued deposit no. 1577, Bethnal Green interview no. 26 (Harvey), 7. © The Author(s) [2018]. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Twentieth Century British HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Sep 1, 2018

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