Britain is a better place todayby Simon Jenkins / May 25, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1945 the future Queen served as a mechanic and driver. Since her accession to the throne in 1952, Britain’s GDP has increased fourfold
My memory of the Queen’s coronation in June 1953 is still vivid. In February the previous year we had been summoned to school assembly to be told of the death of George VI, greeted with what we assumed were “compulsory” tears. Elizabeth, then 25, acceded to the throne immediately, the event commemorated by this year’s jubilee. I watched the later coronation on a neighbour’s new television. It seemed a distant tribal ritual in which overdressed priests fussed round the sacrifice of a 27-year-old maiden in a strange hat.
My overwhelming recollection of the 1950s is of continuity and security. On the classroom wall was a map liberally painted red. Great Britain was a world power that had just triumphed— “alone” so it was implied—in an epic war against evil Germans. Movies and magazines depicted nothing else. Churchill’s Tories were back in power. All was in its rightful place. On the morning of the coronation it was announced, as if inevitable, that a British expedition had conquered Mount Everest.
To look back on those days from the standpoint of gloomy 2012 is not easy. The difficulties of the present can make any past seem a golden age. Besides, 60 years is an arbitrary chunk of history from which to draw conclusions. Yet some things about this epoch are irrefutable. Britain’s GDP today (adjusted for inflation) is roughly four times what it was in 1952. Its welfare state, though straining at the edges, is incomparably more extensive. Its health and education are better. Britain is not just more prosperous for virtually all its citizens, it is more tolerant, generous, caring, creative and outward-looking. It is almost certainly more fun.
Britain in the 1950s was deeply conservative. The expansion of secondary education after 1944 was making little impact on the class system. The idea of new grammar schools as a social conduit for working-class children was, except for a tiny number, a myth. Post-school education was available to barely five per cent of young people. Slums existed everywhere, in town and in country. Abortion was illegal and divorce difficult. Most people believed in capital and corporal punishment and in the criminality of homosexuals. As Jonathan Miller was later to remark, “England was stuck in the thirties until the sixties.”