Penguin Books and political change

Britain's meritocratic moment, 1937-1988

By Dean Blackburn

Penguin Books and political change


  • eBook

Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-2928-4
  • Pages: 296
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £20.00
  • Published Date: November 2020
  • BIC Category: Humanities / British & Irish history, Humanities / 20th century history: c 1900 to c 2000, British Politics, History & Archaeology, LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Publishing, POLITICAL SCIENCE / General, HISTORY / Europe / Great Britain, Society & social sciences / Politics & government


Founded in 1935 by a young publisher disillusioned with the class prejudices of the interwar publishing trade, Penguin Books set out to make good books available to all. The 'Penguin Specials', a series of current affairs books authored by leading intellectuals and politicians, embodied its democratising mission. Published over fifty years and often selling in vast quantities, these inexpensive paperbacks helped to shape popular ideas about subjects as varied as the welfare state, homelessness, social class and environmental decay.

Using the 'Specials' as a lens through which to view Britain's changing political landscape, Dean Blackburn tells a story about the ideas that shaped post-war Britain. Between the late-1930s and the mid-1980s, Blackburn argues, Britain witnessed the emergence and eclipse of a 'meritocratic moment', at the core of which was the belief that a strong relationship between merit and reward would bring about social stability and economic efficiency. Equal opportunity and professional expertise, values embodied by the egalitarian aspirations of Penguin's publishing ethos, would be the drivers of social and economic progress. But as the social and economic crises of the 1970s took root, many contemporary thinkers and politicians cast doubt on the assumptions that informed meritocratic logic. Britain's meritocratic moment had passed.


'Not just a fascinating study of that great institution, the Penguin Special, but the equally absorbing story of ideology and politics in modern Britain. Seeing the Penguin as a canary in a coal mine, Blackburn's account challenges many glib assumptions about when the country began to change and change again, in its transition from cultural democracy to enterprise culture.'
Alwyn W. Turner, author of Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s and Rejoice! Rejoice!: Britain in the 1980s

'Through wars hot and cold, through social and political upheavals from Austerity to Thatcherism, Penguin's Specials offered incisive, considered analysis to tens of thousands of readers. The distinctive orange, black and white volumes democratised access to knowledge and were central to the post-war meritocratic project to make Britain a more equal and socially cohesive society. This deeply researched and vital contribution to book and political history shows how Penguin's pocket-sized, cheap paperbacks narrated some of the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. Blackburn's thoughtful questions on how ideas, particularly progressive ones, are transmitted through a society in crisis are particularly relevant in today's uncertain times.'
Sarah Lonsdale, author of Rebel women between the wars

Dean Blackburn has provided a richly detailed analysis of the complex relationship between one strand of publishing output and Britain's evolving socio-political milieu across half a century. Penguin Specials reflected changing conditions but also encouraged further debate and innovation. [..] Penguin Books casts fresh light of the role of one crusading publishing house in informing popular opinion and shaping political debate. It will be welcomed by academics and students and by members of the general public with a serious interest in twentieth-century British history and politics. Manchester University Press is to be congratulated for making it available at a very reasonable price, a fact that would certainly have gained Allen Lane's approval.'
Hugh Clout, Cercles

'[An] ambitious enterprise, redefining Britain's postwar political history in relation to ideas of meritocracy.'
Jonathan Harris, Journal of British Studies


1 Why war?
2 Where do we go from here?
3 The rise of the meritocracy
4 The stagnant society
5 Matters of principle
6 Free to choose


Dean Blackburn is a Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Nottingham

Newsletter Sign Up

Manchester University Press

Your cart is empty.

Select your shipping destination to estimate postage costs

(Based on standard shipping costs)

Final cost calculated on checkout
Promotional codes can be added on Checkout