Sixty years of progress?

Prospect Magazine

Sixty years of progress?


Britain is a better place today

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.”

The war against Hitler infected everyone and everything. The nation was left impoverished and cities derelict. Streets were gap-toothed with bomb sites, buildings everywhere blackened. Though fewer lives were lost than in the first world war, millions had been disrupted and families dislocated. The novels of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, like the plays of Terence Rattigan, reflected a society bruised and confused. Homes were broken in every sense. The immediate post-war divorce rate was ten times the pre-war level and remained high.

For all that, the war’s impact on Britain was not as shattering as it might have been. For continental Europe it had been socially and economically catastrophic. The allies inflicted on Germany a humiliating partition and reconstruction that was to prove much to its benefit. Mass migration of labour shattered not just communities but traditional patterns of work. Politicians were of necessity open to change. Governments slashed defence spending and rebuilt industry and agriculture behind a wall of cartels and protectionism.

In Britain, however, the fact of victory validated old certainties. A torrent of war movies paraded the virtues of patriotism and class. If war had revealed faults in the political economy, triumph suggested they could be overcome by planning and “cradle-to-grave” welfare. The hardships of the 1940s—shortages, rationing, national service—were accepted with deference. High taxation was “the price of victory.” Meanwhile, as David Edgerton has pointed out, Britons continued to spend more on defence in the 1950s than they had throughout the interwar period. Through into the 1980s, Britain was still a “warfare state” more than a welfare one.

Progress appeared as a mild utopianism, typified by the picturesque twee-ness of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The “new Britain” meant new towns and new houses. Socialist planning was widely accepted as the basis of economic recovery from war. But there was little call for a dismantling of classes and institutions, little pressure for changes in industry, finance, public administration or the professions. Labour’s demand for “the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” meant little more than the wartime command economy harnessed to the cause of reconstruction. State regulators bought out shareholders of mines, docks, railways and factories, often leaving the old directors in place. Private corporations simply became public ones. The condition of Britain, warts and all, was governed by a remarkable political consensus.

Social statistics cannot reflect the gulf between the 1950s and now. Survey definitions cannot account for yesterday’s lower expectations and higher tolerance of cruelty and unfairness. Figures showing a rise in crime since the 1950s are baseless, since laws were relatively minimal and antisocial behaviour, petty thieving, casual violence and the abuse of women and children were accepted to a degree inconceivable today. Many children in slums still did not wear shoes. I remember government dentists coming to my school and using pliers to extract decayed teeth on the spot. The template by which we judge the past is changing all the time.

The population has risen from 50m in 1952 to 62m in 2012, boosted by the post-war baby boom and rescued from drastic ageing by inward migration. Infant mortality plummeted and male life expectancy rose from 65 in 1952 to almost 80 today. In schools teacher-pupil ratios have improved by a quarter. The proportion of young people in education post-16 has soared to 45 per cent. Almost all the so-called slums were cleared by the 1970s. Public housing was built on an industrial scale, such that Britons were probably better sheltered than any comparable nation in Europe. In 1952 barely a third of Britons owned their homes. By 2009 tax incentives and more lenient suburban planning had driven this to a peak of 70 per cent. These were advances on a par with the age of Gladstonian liberalism, a century earlier.

History tends to present a nation’s progress as a series of lurches and retrenchments, whereas the truth is usually more gradual. But Britain’s progress over the past 60 years does have distinct phases. In the 1950s, complacency was soon to collide with post-war reality. This came first in foreign affairs with the Suez crisis of 1956, when America refused to stem a run on the pound, putting a humiliating end to Britain’s imperial reach over the Arab world.

Reality dawned more insidiously as the reinvigorated economies of Europe began to compete with Britain’s traditional industries of coal, steel, cars and shipbuilding. Although world trade continued to favour Britain, the state of the economy moved to the centre of the political stage. Macmillan could win the 1959 general election on the plausible basis that most Britons felt they “had never had it so good,” and dismiss a concern for growth as a passing fad, “like the twist.” But from the early 1960s political debate moved away from the assumptions of men and women of the pre-war era.

The most visible sign of change emerged in a renaissance in London’s cultural life. Anti-establishment sentiment stirred in the theatre and literature and spread to fashion, music and the BBC. Miniskirts paraded in Carnaby Street and the King’s Road. The first “mini” car was produced by British Leyland in 1959. The Beatles and Rolling Stones swept the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Writing was by “angry young men” (not yet women) such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Kingsley Amis and John Wain.

The magazine Private Eye first appeared in 1961. The BBC’s late-night show, That Was The Week That Was, broadcast satire that was savage even by today’s standards. In 1966 Time magazine hailed the maturity of “Swinging London.” A self-satisfied metropolis responded by permitting ugly concrete hotels and “point blocks” to rise above its once restrained skyline, as at Centre Point, the Euston tower, Stag Place, Victoria, and around Hyde Park. The rot started when Macmillan overruled local planners to allow a Hilton hotel in Park Lane.

Yet conservatism was deep enough to survive the miniskirt and the Beatles. A devaluing currency could stave off commercial decline for a while, but in the early 1970s Britain saw its first actual recession since the 1940s. It was derided by the American statesman, Dean Acheson, as “having lost an empire and not yet found a role,” and the economy was rocked by the “British disease,” a combination of industrial strife, government inertia and trading failure. It sank fast down the European ratings in GDP to below France and Italy.

While recent historians have restored some dignity to the 1970s—it was not exceptionally strike prone nor did recession last more than two years—the period of the “three-day week” and the “winter of discontent” spawned an overwhelming defeatism. Two elections in 1974 were conducted on the slogan of “Who governs Britain?” Inflation the next year hit 25 per cent. Britain was the sick man of Europe, crawling into the new Common Market on the pleadings of its leaders rather than the conviction of its people. The foreign secretary, James Callaghan, reportedly remarked, “When I am shaving in the morning I say to myself, if I were a young man I would emigrate.”

The means by which the country hauled itself back to recovery in the 1980s have been controversial ever since. The Thatcher years (1979-90) were dramatic and divisive. They began with an engineered recession, with mass bankruptcies and inflation driven down to five per cent by 1983. But the defeat of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands the previous year and the crushing of left-wing militancy in the unions and local government brought a new direction and purpose to government. Thatcherism and privatisation supplanted welfarism as the dominant ethos of the day.

By 1995 virtually the entire utilities and trading sector nationalised in the 1940s had returned to private hands. It is hard to imagine a Britain in which the state supplied not just gas, electricity and water but railways, airlines, ports, coal mines, steelworks, telephones, shipbuilding, car-making, oil-drilling and even computing. The structure of the private sector changed radically. Extractive and manufacturing industry went into rapid decline, with services rising from 30 per cent of output at the start of the Queen’s reign to 70 per cent at the dawn of the 21st century. Britain’s balance of traded goods, in surplus throughout recent history, lurched into the red from 1983 and never recovered, the gap being covered largely by financial services.

Margaret Thatcher remains an enigmatic figure. She never enjoyed strong popular support, and trailed behind most prime ministers in opinion poll approval. But she reflected a steeliness that had long been absent from British politics, built, so she claimed, on the growing aspirations of a neglected “lower middle class.” The face and fortune of Britain undeniably changed in the period. Apart from a blip in 1991, the British economy grew continuously each year from 1982 to 2008. Thatcher paraded on the world stage, often with her friend, Ronald Reagan, as the “iron lady.” She was the most celebrated British leader since Churchill. By 1993, Douglas Hurd, then foreign secretary, could boast that the nation was “punching above its weight.”

Thatcher’s “supply side” reforms—weakening the power of labour and bringing competition to bear on public and private sectors alike—were not reversed by her successors, John Major and Tony Blair. Labour under Blair went even further after coming to power in 1997. He left in place Thatcher’s union reforms and curbs on local councils, and turned the majority of public investment over to private finance, much to the gain of the newly deregulated City of London.

Some aspects of government did not change. Thatcher had been fearful of reforming the public sector, backing away from privatising railways or the health service because of the unpopularity it might incur. She let social and housing benefit rise unconstrained, and services such as health, welfare and education continued to grow steeply. Blair, for all his professed radicalism, fared no better in this respect. The government share of the nation’s output hovered around 40 per cent throughout the 1990s and soared under Labour, achieving a peacetime high of 48 per cent in 2009.

This spending came to rely heavily on government debt. In the private sector a political obsession with private housing sucked savings from productive industry and left home-owners over-borrowed. The predictable result was a similar crisis in 2008 to that which had afflicted Britain 30 years before, albeit one that was now replicated across Europe and America. Britain celebrates the royal jubilee with its economy where its politicians promised it would never again be: in recession.

The turn of the 21st century had seemed to offer the same gilded horizon as had spread before the nation in 1952. The advent of the internet in the 1990s and the computerisation of swathes of the economy liberated millions from the drudgery of the factory and the typing pool. Most Britons, even those in receipt of welfare payments, now had access to a television, a car and a regular holiday. For all its suddenness, the second recessionary dip in 2012 saw the nation’s prosperity regress only as far as 2005. But the good times had lasted so long that bad times proved hard to stomach.

Delving into the national psyche over time depends in part on generations. To older people, the most remarkable shift in outlook over 60 years has been a declining obsession with class, however much Britons may still differ in accent and style. Thatcher infuriated the old left by declaring that she never met a member of the working class who did not want to escape it. As Lawrence James points out in The Middle Class: a History, by the turn of the 21st century, a posh accent had lost its cachet and indeed was often a liability. Social surveys showed two thirds of Britons considering themselves “middle class,” with the result that “a version of classlessness has been achieved simply through more and more people becoming middle class.” Even the Queen had flattened her vowels: “May hesband and I” became “my husband and I. “

Nor is there any longer a class tinge to what passes for public morality. Swearing on stage, the cult of football, and attitudes to sexual behaviour and the importance of marriage all transcend class boundaries. Marriage and the family continue to decline. Divorces have risen four-fold since 1950, while five times as many people live alone. The proportion of babies born out of wedlock has risen from 3.5 per cent to 40 per cent. Two notable changes that took place in the 80s and 90s—perhaps ironically years of Conservative dominance—were the general acceptance of Britain as a multiracial community and homosexuality as a normal aspect of private and public life.

That said, much about Britain has remained the same. Britain has still not abandoned the “Suez” approach to foreign affairs. Intervening in foreign states came as naturally to a British cabinet in the 21st century as it did to Palmerston or Churchill. While Germans, Italians or Swedes might see no reason to fight and die in Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan, Britons do it as if of historic right. Cabinets still regard themselves as duty bound to “impose freedom” on dictatorship. The Queen came to power fighting in Korea, aided by British bases in the Mediterranean, the Gulf and the Far East. Sixty years on she is fighting in Afghanistan and spending large sums on nuclear missiles and aircraft carriers.

Unlike most countries of Europe, Britain has continued the steady centralisation of state power begun in the two world wars of the 20th century. Local participation in politics has declined and local democracy withered to an extent that baffles Germans or Americans. While the aggrandisement of the state is opposed by politicians out of power, it continues unchecked when they assume it. This is reflected in incessant measures to reorganise the NHS, criminal justice, local government, defence and education, each one increasing the size and cost of government.

The one significant reaction against centralism has come from the erosion of the United Kingdom itself. Most of Ireland went between the wars, and Northern Ireland was to remain only at a horrific price. But in 2000 Scotland and Wales won a measure of autonomy which, in Scotland’s case, may yet progress to substantive independence. The Queen could yet oversee the dissolution not just of the greater British empire but of the lesser one as well.

Other continuities survive, many of them benign. Britain remains a world leader in medicine, the law, higher education, science and the arts. London can claim to be on a par with New York in drama and literature, music and art. While smaller countries can boast a more efficient welfare state, Britain remains a mostly civilised and caring place offering hospitality, however grudgingly, to the world’s distressed. It is a liberal and open society, its political life less tortured by xenophobia and self-interest than that of most of America and Europe. The nation may be passing through a periodic spasm of political cynicism, but it is taking the medicine with fewer illusions and pretensions than it did 60 years ago. Only a pessimist would deny modern Britain the benefit of the doubt.

  1. June 1, 2012


    She scrubs down good.

  2. June 3, 2012


    An excellent, insightful article. All the odder, therefore, that you succumb to the old chestnut that “The allies inflicted on Germany a . . . reconstruction that was to prove much to its benefit.” Fifty years ago this idea was expressed as the Germans profiting from new machinery as a result of the war damage as opposed to us having to make do with old stuff. Then as now, Germany profited from excellent managers. Luckily, British managers are now far better than in the 1950s.

  3. June 4, 2012

    Francine Last

    Thank you Simon Jenkins. I’ve been feeling very gloomy about England over the last few years (mostly because of it’s wish to emulate America so much), but this article has cheered me up enormously. A truth about the English that I have always enjoyed, is that they have the ability to look back critically at their history. English history books do not necessarily whitewash or gloss over barbarism, greed, royal blunders and defeats, but mix them up with all the proud moments too. In America, past presidents all are saints, their faults completely obscured by the rewriting of history. This article has reminded me of that. When we move into a bad patch, the tendency is to become nostalgic for the past, but it is important to remind ourselves not to look back with rose-tinted glasses and see the present as progress from the past.

  4. June 5, 2012

    Gabriel Bonnar

    The tabloid newspapers have dumbed down dumber and dumber, bringing a gullible populace with them. The so-called posh Sundays have dumbed down too, their Sunday ‘magazines’ being excuses for glossy advertising revenue. It is time for British journalism to dumb up. It is also time for British journalists and periodicals to stop fighting World War II all over again. And please abandon the popular myth that Britain ‘stood alone’ against the might of Hitler’s Germany. The Soviet red armed forces fought the grimmest battles against Germany, and the Russians lost the greatest numbers of people during the war.

  5. June 5, 2012

    terence patrick hewett

    There were less slums during the 1950,s than there are today: overwhelmingly less violence: 30% of the people of this country are now functionally illiterate; the literacy rate in the 1950′s was over 95%. There was no graffitti and little litter. There was no abortion so the country was full of young people. People were better mannered, more tolerant, happier and at ease with themselves. Some things have not changed: shop produced bread is still as vile as it always was.

  6. June 12, 2012


    I commend Simon Jenkins’ thoughtful report. However, in response to a comment by Gabriel Bonner (above), I must point out that history indicates Nazi forces could not make war in Europe until the Soviet Union became an ally. It was only after the Nazis later attacked their Soviet collaborators that the “Great Patriotic War” commenced. Also, although much needed by British forces, huge supplies of war materials, with instructors and technicians, were promptly sent from Britain to help the Soviet defence.

  7. July 22, 2012


    The first mini was made by BMC (Austin, Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley), not British Leyland. British Leyland did not come into being until ten years later.

  8. October 3, 2013

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