58. A New and Vital Democracy: J.B. Priestley’s Out of the People

In Out of the People (Collins, 1941), J.B. Priestley set out his views on British society and post-war reconstruction.   It is one of his most eloquent and powerful books.

Front of Out of the People by J.B. Priestley (Collins, 1941)

Priestley called for a “new and vital democracy”, an end to the waste and unfairness of social inequalities, which he had pointed out in English Journey.  He argued that society was already changing for the better: the upheaval of war was shattering old systems and bringing people together to work for a common goal.  The war offered an opportunity to build on these changes rather than going back to old, failed systems as had happened after the First World War.

Priestley had already spoken about these issues in his Postscript broadcasts, but Out of the People gave him the opportunity to explain his ideas, unconstrained by time or the restrictions of wartime broadcasting.

Out of the People was intended to be the first in a series, Vigilant Books, in which eminent writers would explore the issues of post-war reconstruction.  However, paper shortages meant the series was not continued.  Copies of the book offer a physical sense of the privations and atmosphere of the period: the classic 1940s style of the dustjacket and the thin wartime paper with its characteristic grainy quality and poor take-up of ink.

The book also illustrates how Priestley was becoming active in political groups.  Early in 1941 he became chairman of the 1941 Committee, a group of writers who called for a declaration of national objectives after the war.   The Committee suggested the Vigilant Books series to Collins, who keenly took up the idea and commissioned Priestley to write the first.

J.B. Priestley reading, circa 1941, photographer unknown (archive ref PRI 21/8/2)

J.B. Priestley reading, circa 1941, photographer unknown (archive ref PRI 21/8/2)

Later the Committee merged with Forward March, led by Richard Acland, to form Common Wealth.  Common Wealth stood for “common ownership, vital democracy, equal opportunity, colonial freedom and world unity” and was willing to field candidates in by-elections, breaking the Labour-Conservative wartime truce: three were eventually elected.  Priestley briefly chaired Common Wealth, but withdrew because of political disagreements with Acland.

Common Wealth performed poorly in the 1945 election: most members defected to Labour although the group remained active until 1993.  Priestley himself stood in that momentous election, as an Independent candidate in Cambridge, where he came third to a Conservative candidate.

While Priestley’s political activities with Common Wealth and as a parliamentary candidate were unsuccessful, Out of the People and his other writings and broadcasts helped create an atmosphere favourable to the 1945 Labour victory and the creation of the welfare state (although this was much more state-led and top-down than Priestley’s vision).

P.S. Common Wealth’s Archive is held by University of Sussex Special Collections.  I am indebted to their site and to Vincent Brome’s biography of Priestley for much of the above.

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