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.
Blackburn, D. (2020). Penguin Books and Political Change: Britain's Meritocratic Moment, 1937-1988. Manchester University Press