The Latter Day Elizabethan Britons, 1952-2002: Introduction and Chapter One, Part One.   Leave a comment

Introduction: A New Elizabethan Age?

The closer the social historian gets to his own times, the harder it is for him to be sure he has hold of what is essential about his period: the more difficult it is to separate the rich tapestry of social life which appears on the surface of the woven fabric from its underlying patterns. This is the problem of perspective which the historian has to try to overcome in his craft.The period from 1952 to 1977 was one of rapid social change, and one in which the pace and direction of social change itself became a matter of concern in social discourse. The discussion was about whether the surface evidence of change really added up to a social revolution for ordinary people. That argument is still unresolved: more than sixty years later we are still living out its contradictory legacy. Many witnesses to the period are still alive, and each with their own differing memories, impressions and interpretations of the period.

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One of the most striking features of the period is the growth and importance of the mass media of communication. Television on a mass scale decisively intervened in English Social life, supplementing and then overtaking the already complex networks of communication – radio, newspapers, mass publishing – which are part and parcel of the advanced industrial civilization. These new media also serve to document the social life of the period for the historian. Commentaries, personal testimonies and documentary material which for perviously the historian would have to call from printed sources, dusty archives or directly from eye-witnesses, are now to be found, more comprehensively, in primary form, in radio and television archives, many of which are now available online via the internet, together with more accessible written sources. In the oral and film sources are preserved the living voices and speech patterns of ordinary people, talking about their experiences of, and responses to, the conditions of their lives. They also give us a sense of how the new means of communication fundamentally reshaped our sense of what our collective social experience is like. However, extracts from archive material are not always more useful as printed sources, nor are they more reliable. They tend to be briefer, as well as having been edited for specific purposes. They have been inserted into a programme format, dictated by the special interest of a producer. The witnesses do not have the opportunity to think their way around a topic in the way in which the diarist or letter-writer of a previous period did. There is also an over-abundance of material related to official public events. Yet it is in these voices that we can best grasp the impact of historical forces on the lives of ordinary men and women.

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The Windsor Family Tree following the death of George V

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People began to speak of a new Elizabethan age following the death of George VI and the accession of his daughter in 1952, leading to the great national event of the coronation in the summer of 1953. Many bought their first television sets in order to watch the event live, while the Establishment took up their usual positions at Westminster Abbey. Sir Henry Chips Channon occupied almost the same seat as the one he had at the previous Coronation. He wrote the following account in his diary:

…Finally came the magic of the Queen’s arrival: she was calm and confident and even charming, and looked touching and quite perfect, while Prince Philip was like a medieval knight – the Service, Anointing, Crowning, Communion were endless, yet the scene was so splendid, so breath-taking in the solemn splendour that it passed in a flash. The homage was impressive… The Great Officers of State swished their robes with dignity… Privy Councillors in their uniforms, men in levee dress, the little Queen at one moment simply dressed in a sort of shift, and then later resplendent: the pretty pages; the supreme movements… the nodding, chatting, gossiping Duchesses; the swan-like movements when they simultaneously placed their coronets on their heads… it was all finer, and better organised than the last time, although the Archbishop’s voice was not as sonorous as that of the wicked old Lang.. What a day for England, and the traditional forces of the world. Shall we ever see the like again? I have been present at two Coronations and now shall never see another. Will my Paul be an old man at that of King Charles III?

 

Two other events caught the popular imagination of Britain in 1953/54. They were both firsts for the British Empire. The news of the first successful Ascent of Everest by the New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, came through on the day of the Coronation. The following spring, the country was thrilled again by Roger Bannister’s stunning running of the first four-minute mile at the Iffley Road Athletics Stadium in Oxford, on 6 May 1954. Dr. Bannister’s own account of the race, written two years later, reads as follows:

There was complete silence on the ground… a false start… The gun fired a second time… Brasher went into the lead and I slipped in effortlessly behind him, feeling tremendously full of running. My legs seemed to meet no resistance at all, as if propelled by some unknown force. We seemed to be going slowly! Impatiently, I shouted ’Faster!’ But Brasher kept his head and did not change the pace. I went on worrying until I heard the first lap time, 57.5 secs …he had made success possible… I barely noticed the half-mile, passed in 1 min. 58 secs, nor when, round the next bend, Chataway went into the lead. At three-quarters of a mile the effort was still barely perceptible; the time was 3 min. 0.7 sec., and by now the crowd were roaring. Somehow I had to run that last lap in 59 seconds. Chataway led round the next bend and then I pounced past him at the beginning of the back straight, three hundred yards from the finish. I had a moment of mixed joy and anguish, when my mind took over. It… drew my body compellingly forward. I felt that the moment of a lifetime had come. There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim… The only reality was the next two hundred yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality – extinction perhaps.

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I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride… The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. Their hope and encouragement gave me greater strength. I had now turned the last bend and there was only fifty yards more… The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me if only I reached the tape without slackening my speed… I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him. My effort was over and I collapsed almost unconscious, with an arm on either side of me. It was only then that the pain overtook me… I was too close to have failed… The stopwatches held the answer. The announcement came – ’result of one mile… 3 minutes…’ the rest lost in the roar of excitement…

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The stop-watches were stopped at 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. As Bannister, Brasher, and Chataway took their lap of honour, they knew that they would share a permanent place in sporting history. They were the first athletes to record a mile in under four minutes. Since then the record has been broken several times, but under much better conditions underfoot and in the air. In those conditions, Bannister could not have achieved the time without his fellow-athletes. There was no huge stadium clock to glance up at, only the lap times shouted by the officials from the trackside. It was therefore crucial to get the pace-setting exactly right. In any event, no matter how many seconds are shaved off the four minutes by men, and perhaps women, in the future, Bannister’s run will always remain, as his the title of his 1955 memoir states, The First Four Minutes. And, of course, the cameras were present to record the event on film.

 

Chapter One: Never had it so Good?

Following their victory over Labour in the 1951 General Election, it took the Conservatives longer to remove rationing than they had hoped. The new Tory government continued the consensus policies of the Labour governments and built on their achievements. There was continuing substantial economic growth, with industrial production rising by a third in the decade after 1951. By sacrificing a certain degree of quality, the government was able to build three hundred thousand new houses a year. They also had new towns built, though market forces were allowed to override the regional policy of the previous government, with its emphasis on special development areas. Most of the country’s electrical power was produced by coal-fired stations, but the atomic bomb had been successfully tested in 1952, leading to the setting up of a reactor at Windscale (later renamed Sellafield) to produce the necessary plutonium. Despite a major fire there in 1957, producing widespread contamination, a series of Magnox power stations was built throughout the country. A lonely stretch of coast near Leiston in Suffolk became the site of Britain’s second nuclear power station, built in the early 1960s. In 1966 power began surging out from the grey, cuboid plant into the national grid. By the mid-seventies Sizewell’s five hundred and eighty thousand kilowatts were going a long way towards meeting the electricity needs of eastern England.

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Sizewell Nuclear Power Station (2014)

The period from 1952 to 1977 bridges the two worlds of wartime Britain and Britain in Europe, Britain under inflation. The mid to late fifties was the period of affluence. Slowly at first, and then with gathering speed, Britain entered a period of rapid change and growing prosperity, when a great deal of money flowed into the purchase of the newly available consumer goods. Prosperity is underpinned by the continuing revolution in Welfare and by full employment. The rebuilding and reconstruction of the urban and suburban environment, made necessary by the large-scale bombing and the massive social neglect of the interwar period, was in full sway. New kinds of industry, based largely on the revolution in electronic, came into being alongside the old, without displacing them. There was a shift in the patterns of skills, and of work, and in the composition of the labour force, with more workers involved in clerical, highly skilled or service occupations. At the same time, more workers were pushed down into the unskilled ranks of mass production. They became more mobile again, pulled to where the jobs were. The pattern of regional decline in the older industrial areas and of rapid, unorganised growth in the new areas began to re-emerge. In some areas and industries, the long-term pattern of continuity from one generation to the next persisted, while in other, newer areas, this continuity was broken. New housing schemes, including estates and high-rise blocks of flats, plus the new town experiments, undermined the traditional urban working-class environments, robbing them of their intrinsic collective identities. The extended kinship network of the traditional prewar working-class neighbourhoods and communities was replaced by the nuclear family life on the new estates. Rehousing, property speculation, the rise of the consumer society, market forces, urban planning and legislation, all play their role in a further regeneration of working-class culture. In 1972, Phil Cohen, a University of Birmingham sociologist, described these processes in a Working Paper:

The first effect of the high density, high-rise schemes was to destroy the function of the street, the local pub, the corner shop… Instead there was only the privatised space of the family unit, stacked one on top of another, in total isolation, juxtaposed with the totally public space which surrounded it, and which lacked any of the informal social controls generated by the neighbourhood. The streets which serviced the new estates became thoroughfares, their users ’pedestrians’, and by analogy so many bits of human traffic… The people who had to live in them weren’t fooled. As one put it – they might have hot running water and central heating, but to him they were still prisons in the sky… The isolated family unit could no longer call on the resources of wider kinship networks, or the neighbourhood, and the family itself became the sole focus of solidarity… The working class family was… not only isolated from the outside but undermined from within. There is no better example of what we are talking about than the so-called ’household mother’. The street or turning was no longer available as a safe play space, under neighbourly supervision. Mum, or Auntie, was no longer just round the corner to look after the kids for the odd morning. Instead, the task of keeping an eye on the kids fell exclusively to the young wife, and the only safe play space was the ’safety of the home’.

 

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However, away from the high-rise blocks, the stubborn continuities of working-class life and culture survived. Nevertheless, the theme of community became a matter of widespread and fundamental concern in the period. The question emerged as to whether, as the conditions and patterns of social life for working people changed, and as what surplus money there was about began to pour into the new consumer goods on offer, people might not only be uprooted from a life they knew, and had made themselves, to another made partly for them by others. This might also involve a shift from the working-class values of solidarity, neighbourliness and collectivism, to those of individualism, competition and privatisation. The BBC archive material from the period record how television played a role in this transition to more middle class attitudes:

Nowadays, there’s a tremendous change, an amazing change, in fact, in just a few years. People have got television. They stay at home to watch it – husbands and wives. If they do come in at the weekend they’re playing bingo. They’ve now got a big queue for the one-armed bandit as well. They do have a lot more money, but what they’re losing is togetherness.

 

The real spread of television happened only in the early years of the fifties. Commercial TV opened in 1955. By monopolising the channels of public discussion, television also centralised the power to make its images of social life stick. It communicated, at rapid speed, highly selective, if not distorted, images of one community or section of society to another. It also helped to form an overall image of where the whole of society was headed. It gave an almost tangible visibility to the quite limited rise in consumption and in spending money, signifying the world in terms of the goodies produced in the new consumer industries and seeking markets among the working class. It created the spectacular world of commodities. It is difficult to assess how far this advertising imagery of consumption entered the lives of ordinary men and women. It seems, in retrospect, to have been wildly exaggerated. The telly in the corner made a difference – but it did not suddenly dismantle the culture of working people. Alan Sillitoe, in his The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), gave this assessment of its impact:

Night after night we sat in front of the telly with a ham sandwich in one hand, and a bar of chocolate in the other, and a bottle of lemonade between our boots., while mam was with some fancy-man upstairs on the new bed she’d ordered… To begin with, the adverts on the telly had shown us how much more there was in the world to buy than we’d ever dreamed of when we’d looked into the shop windows but hadn’t seen all there was to see because we didn’t have the money to buy it with anyway. And the telly made all these things twenty times better than we’d ever thought they were. Even adverts at the cinema were cool and tame, because now we were seeing them in private at home. We used to cock our noses up at things in the shop that didn’t move, but suddenly we saw their real value because they jumped and glittered around the screen and had some pasty-faced tart going head over heels to get her nail-polished grabbers on them or her lipstick lips over them, not like the crumbly adverts you saw on posters or in newspapers as dead as doornails; these were flickering around loose, half-opened packets and tins, making you think that all you had to do was finish opening them before they were yours, like seeing an unlocked safe through a shop window with the man gone away for a cup of tea without thinking to guard his lolly… mam used to call us the Telly boys…

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If the British working class was entering a sort of affluence, it was also, at the same time, trying to comprehend what affluence was about. It was easy and tempting to mistake the highly visible indices of change for the real movement below the surface. It was a temptation that many at the time fell into, and one that many historians have done since. The myths of affluence became inextricably interwoven with the contradictory experience of affluence. No wonder that one commentator, writing about Britain in the late fifties, called it Britain – Unknown Country. In one section of the population, change did register in a peculiarly strong and visible way: among the young. The 1950s saw the rise to prominence, for the first time, of a distinct and identifiable culture of the young – something different from the culture of the private public schools that George Orwell had known, or the high spirits of Oxbridge students. For ordinary young people, the war – which they had experienced as young children, really did divide history into before and after; and they belonged to after.

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This break in the heroic narrative of Britain gave a strong generational marking to the relationships between adults and youth. If incomes had gone up a little for many working people, they had improved at a faster rate for young adults; and since their families had a little more economic security than between the wars, a higher proportion of what they earned was left over for spending on themselves and their own recreations and pursuits. Affluent Britain was not a society which allowed spare cash to accumulate in anyone’s pockets for long. The surplus in the pockets of young working-class boys and girls was quickly funneled into the new industries servicing working-class leisure, and out of this emerged distinctive youth styles which so marked the fifties that youth itself became the metaphor for social change. Violence also began to increase in British society, not only in terms of crime, but also in riots by teenage Teddy Boys in the late 1950s. Bringing together youth, new dance music, extravagant dress and a reputation for insolence and violence that shocked a nation still largely wedded to prewar and wartime vales, they were the first modern youth culture. A teenager interviewed by the BBC described their dress in great detail:

Short jackets, two little vents at the back, three buttons, single-breasted, maybe blazer stripes, wearing blazer, Italian rounded collar shirts, usually navy blue, white or red, trousers with no turn ups, usually 16 inch, 17 inch bottoms, pointed toe shoes, you know. That’s about all. Oh, and they wear big overcoats, with pointed collars or macs, white macs, you know. It’s all derived from the French and Italians.

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T.R. Fyvel, in The Insecure Offenders (1961), wrote that there was a sexual twist in the make-up of Teddy Boys which could be ascribed to their excessive interest in their own and each other’s clothes and hair-styles, such as the habit of the early Teddy boys having their hair permanently waved. The stock answer of Teddy boy dandies to inquiring journalists about this was: If the girls do it and make themselves look nice, why shouldn’t we? An Irish informant was sure that this revealed a basic effeminacy and nothing else. He felt that the main motive for their dress was jealousy of the girls for being the centre of attention. Listening to these Teds as they stood around talking to each other in the dance-halls, all he could hear about was clothes and style:

They could talk literally for hours about styles and cut and prices, the way you usually only hear women talk. But even if they weren’t all effeminate,… the main thing with these Teds was that they had to outshine the way the girls dressed… The Teddy boy was always the person who had to stand out.

Two processes were at work here. The new youth styles, expressing themselves in terms of consumption patterns, also indicated subtle shifts in attitude and outlook: but no-one changed their life-situation, life chances or social position by becoming a Teddy Boy or a Mod. The other process, the route out of the working class into the professional ranks through education – the Eleven Plus, the Grammar School, the University – may have offered a more permanent route of social mobility, but far fewer could ever take it; and the social and personal costs for first generation Scholarship Boys and Girls were punishing – the loss of roots, of a sense of connection to their own communities, even to their own families. In Michael Young and Peter Wimott’s famous 1957 report on Family and Kinship in East London, one of the informants was the first girl at an East End elementary school to pass the scholarship examination for grammar school. Coming home on the day the results came out, she tried to tell her mother as casually as she could that she had passed, but soon broke down. Soon afterwards a messenger arrived from the headmistress to summon her mother to the school to receive her congratulations and those of her staff. Her school was given a half-day holiday in celebration. However, the rejoicing of the teachers was not generally shared within her working-class community. It was a breach of custom for little women to go to secondary schools to prepare for paper work in offices, and, if they did, they were made to feel their peculiarity. They lost their classmates as friends and they were isolated in their street; there was probably no-one else going to the grammar school. They became sort of reserved and regarded as someone apart. The uniform, supposed to be a mark of superior status, became the target of inverted snobbery. The gym tunic, panama hat, gloves and long black woollen stockings which had to be worn all year round until they reached the upper form, made the scholarship girls figures of ridicule among their peers who all attended an ordinary school. She commented:

I was more or less ostracised by the other girls in the street… They would shout out something about being stuck up or a ’swank-pot’. It was not just that they made fun of us, we just didn’t have much in common. They had different ideas…

 

Their non-conformity was very apparent when they reached fourteen, the minimum leaving age. All the other girls in the street left elementary school and went to work at a proper manual job. She remembered passing two girls who had just started work on the way to the bus stop. They wouldn’t speak to her any more and she felt they were probably thinking, the lazy little so and so. Adults were no more sympathetic, though less vocal, than their children: This was a working-class community, and those who tried to become something else were not behaving as they should.

Out of this first generation of working-class boys to complete their education, the late 1950s also saw the Angry Young Man syndrome emerge. The literary and dramatic prototype for this was Jimmy Porter, in John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger (1956). In the play, Jimmy had observed:

It’s pretty dreary living in the American Age – unless you are an American, of course. Perhaps all our children will be Americans… I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and forties, when we were still kids. There aren’t any good, brave causes left. If the big bang comes, and we all get killed off, it won’t be in aid of the old-fashioned grand design. It’ll just be for the Brave-New-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus.

While many insisted that the new permissive society was essentially civilised and liberating, prophets of doom believed that Britain had progressed from austerity to affluence and, finally, to decadence. Complaints were made about materialistic values, striptease clubs, drink, gambling and the alarming increase in juvenile delinquency, prostitution and illegitimacy. The Profumo and Vassall affairs, although talking place in echelons of society which were high above the man in the street, and a generation removed from the Scholarship Boys, were nevertheless held up as examples of a decline in sexual morality. The Profumo episode, erupting into the House of Commons in March 1963, was a fitting post-script to the era of affluence. It was, as Wayland Young wrote at the time, scandal and crisis together. It exercised some of the purgative and disruptive functions of a revolution. Certainly, concern was also registered about the waning influence of established religion, or even nonconformist religion.

Typical of the critical comments on youth culture were those of BBC Radio’s Any Questions team, when asked to comment on the events surrounding Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock. Mary Stocks remarked that young people were merely exhibiting a sort of unexpended animal spirits, while Lord Boothby expressed the view that he’d rather they went off to Cairo and started Teddy-boying around there. Jeremy Thorpe said that Jazz to me comes from the jungle and this is jungle music taken to its logical conclusion… musical Mau-Mau. But was the Britain of this period a decadent society in any meaningful sense? Young people were certainly more sceptical about traditional values, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they cared about cultural values. After all, there was also a more serious side to the cultural revolution of the late fifties and early sixties. Nevertheless, the angry young men and women who found a cause in joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) also came under verbal attack. When the 1958 Aldermaston march began, and the first ragged ranks swung into view on the first day, one observer commented:

This must be a bunch of bloody psychotics, trying to extrovert their own psychic difficulties, you know, to neither end nor purpose. It’s like a bunch of tiny dogs yapping at the back door to the big house – it will accomplish sweet nothing.

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They did find some support from among the prewar generation, especially from those who remembered being young when the Peace Pledge Union was formed with high, if somewhat impracticable ideals, in the mid-thirties. Radio commentator and writer René Cutforth lent his cryptic support to the new generation of peace campaigners by suggesting that they might just be the only people left alive. Certainly, the shadow of what Jimmy Porter called the big bang lengthened across the whole face of affluent Britain throughout the whole decade, and into the sixties, when the anti-Vietnam war movement developed alongside CND. However, CND received a set-back when the next Labour leader, Harold Wilson, originally a Bevanite advocate of unilateral disarmament, made a pragmatic switch to a determined opponent of it. Regardless of the eventual outcomes of these movements, the extra-parliamentary politics which they introduced changed the nature of post-war politics over the next decade, crystallising the popular mood of protest and dissent against the enforced calm of prosperous Britain. 

 Below: Aneurin Bevan, Labour’s Health and Local Government Minister011021

Above: Winston Churchill won the 1951 General Election was returned to office as PM of a Conservative peace-time government for the first time

In the view of many hindsighted historians, the period of Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964 was of one of illusion, of an Indian summer, an Edwardian era which preceding a period of crisis and conflict. The Conservatives had come to power in the 1951 General Election largely because the electorate had become disillusioned with Labour. Prolonged Austerity was remembered more clearly than the benefits of the Welfare State. Churchill had been returned to power promising a bonfire of controls. The removal of the symbols of austerity, especially rationing, the housing programme masterminded by Harold Macmillan and the boom of the early fifties all presaged well for the Conservatives. They were aided in this by the internecine struggles within the Labour Party between Gaitskill and Bevan over the succession to Attlee, beginning Thirteen Wasted Years for it. When Gaitskill became leader, he made it clear that he was opposed to further nationalisation, putting a hold on any return to the socialist idealism of 1945-8.

Austerity with its characteristic lack of consumer products was replaced by affluence with the plethora of those same products which came to characterise the country as a consumer society. But Conservative policy also led to inflation based on the continuous demand that this generated, and government failed to intervene to deal adequately with the growing problems in the economy. In 1955, when, as a result of a Government-assisted boom in industrial development, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became overstrained, R. A. Butler deliberately pushed up the cost of living by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. The policy eventually succeeded in slowing down the pace of wage increases, which was one of the factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took nearly three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete industrial standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes.

One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the Government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector, an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy. One economist, writing in 1961, commented that it was too early to assess the long-term damage to the British economy from this period of enforced standstill, but that it certainly left us with a lot of leeway to catch up. He also pointed out that it was not until the recession of 1958 that this policy was reversed by the Treasury. Some historians have argued that the consensus politics of the post-war era, followed by both major political parties, meant that new perspectives for examining old economic problems could not be forthcoming. The illusion of continued affluence, as well as the idea of maintaining a world role, were the results of this. But others have argued that while politics may have remained the same, society did not. New beliefs, values, and attitudes began to show themselves. In this way the idea of consensus eventually came into question and the illusion of affluence was also made transparent. However, for the time being, these social changes continued to work in favour of the Tory ascendancy, as people believed that, under their rule, every day, in every way, things were getting better and better. In a speech made in Bedford on 20 July 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan caught, encapsulated and articulated this optimistic mood:

Indeed, let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial areas, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed ever in the history of this country.

When he went to that country in 1959, it was behind the slogan You’ve had it good. Have it better. Vote Conservative! When the Economist took stock of the situation for the Tories in May of that year, what it glimpsed, much to its pleasure, was The Unproletarian Society:

The old-fashioned Conservative is one who looks out at the comforts made achievable by rising incomes and the hire-purchase revolution and who feels vaguely that the workers are unfairly luckier than he was as a boy – that they are getting above their station. The modern Conservative should be one who looks up at the television aerials sprouting above the working-class homes of England, who looks down at the housewives tight slacks on the back of the motor-cycle and family side-car on the summer road to Brighton, and who sees a great poetry in them. For this is what the de-proletarianisation of British Society means; and the changes in social and industrial attitudes of mind it could bring with it are immense.

It was not only Conservatives who took this view. In 1956 Anthony Crosland, in his influential book, The Future of Socialism, recognised much the same trend towards the threshold of the new era of abundance:

 

…even these poorer workers are themselves peering over the threshold; they have accepted the new standards as the social norm, and are already thinking of the day when they too will acquire these goods. All this must have a profound effect on the psychology of the working class.

When the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, faced the 1959 Conference at Blackpool after the third successive defeat of the traditional party of the working class at the polls, the second under his leadership, he certainly believed that these psychological changes were indeed part of a deep and permanent secular trend:

In short, the changing character of labour, full employment, new housing, the new way of life based on the telly, the fridge, the car and the glossy magazines – all have had their effect on our political strength.

 

Perhaps Gaitskill really did believe that the strong cultural under-currents in British society were pulling the Labour boat out to sea, and that there was little he could do about it, or perhaps he was just a captain looking for the first available port amid a storm of criticism from a potentially mutinous crew. In retrospect, given the deliberate slowing down of the boom of the mid-fifties, the general economic condition of Britain the following year and the forecasts being made for its development, it is difficult to understand how Macmillan could have justified his talk of affluence had Gaitskill sought to expose the illusion. Yet, it seemed, consensus politics even extended to the pretence that the affluent boom could not have been higher. However, the bubble burst soon after the election. When the myths of deproletarianisation and the new era of abundance were exploded with it, the reality was that it was still, fundamentally, the same Britain which had existed a decade before when Orwell was still writing. All that had happened was an era of Newspeak. The proles and the poor were not only still within British society, but the latter were increasing in numbers again: poverty was out there, simply waiting to be rediscovered, as soon became apparent once again. The economic miracle turned out to be no more than a conjuring trick that had everybody fooled for most of the time. The Tories had not only failed to solve the problem of production, but they had also managed to side step what was supposed to be an era of redistribution of wealth.

By the end of the fifties, the American dawn of the Macmillenium had failed to break over Britain. Affluent Britain, successor to Austerity Britain, had proved to be no more than a mood change, not a sea change, as politicians had pretended. The country had risen to a sharp curve of feeling, only to stutter to a halt. There had been signs enough to read. They were, by now, many young, secular new nonconformists who were challenging Macmillan’s establishment mantra, repeated in his January 1961 interview with the Daily Mail, that… We’ve got it good. Let’s keep it good. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that. But had there ever been any substance to Macmillan’s claim, even in places like Bedford? To examine whether there is any local, social and micro-economic evidence for it, I will take up his suggestion by first heading up-country to the industrial areas of the Midlands, before turning east to visit the farms of Suffolk.

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Certainly, by 1950 Coventry had made so rapid recovery from wartime damage and so smooth a transition to peacetime production of motor cars, that in that year The Financial Times reported that at least half a dozen government ministries were now trying to limit such expansion. The city’s economy was poised for yet another expansionary spurt, which manifested itself in rapid population growth, continuing to add an average of three and a half thousand every year. As in the period of mass immigration from 1926-41, this was essentially a young population, many of whom had come from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the North of England (now including the North-East), to join relatives and friends already settled in Coventry. The predominant group among the newer migrants were prime aged males in 1951, so that by 1961 there were 21,600 males aged twenty-five to thirty-four in Coventry, representing an increase of fifty per cent, compared with the average figure for England and Wales of only three per cent. However, even this increase was not enough to satisfy the thirst for labour and this in itself helps to explain much of the increase in the occupied population of Coventry between 1951 and 1971.

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During the early 1950s most British quality cars bore the Coventry seal of Armstrong Siddeley, Alvis, Daimler, Jaguar and Rootes (the latter through its control of Humber). Their combined output was comparatively small, totalling no more than twenty-five thousand vehicles a year, no more than a quarter of the city’s total output. Of this share, Rootes produced over half. By 1960 Armstrong-Siddeley had left the market and Daimler was taken over by Jaguar, which was itself taken over by BMC in 1966. Jaguar’s production tripled over the 1950s and through the purchase of Daimler the company not only gained additional car-producing capacity, but was also enabled to diversify into the profitable bus division. Among the mass-producers, Rootes and Standard remained relatively small compared with Ford and Austin Morris, suffering because of their inability to make the economies of scale which were necessary to compete effectively in this market. Again, in 1959, the Times predicted that such small firms and plant would be unable were bound to suffer more in the event of a serious recession in the motor industry. Both Rootes and Standard were well aware of this problem, spending much of the fifties negotiating with each other, as well as with other firms, for mergers or takeovers. Having itself taken over Singer in 1956, Rootes was then gradually taken over itself by Chrysler in the next decade, while Standard merged with Leyland.

Until the mid-fifties, Coventry’s industrial over-specialisation went relatively unnoticed, except by a few economists writing in The Times and The Financial Times. The motor industry continued to expand and the city continued to act as a magnet to labour from other parts of the UK. In search of secure work and high wages in the city’s burgeoning industries. It was only when the aircraft industry began to contract that a growing awareness began to develop of the narrowness of the industrial base with its increasing over-reliance on the fortunes of the motor industry. This in turn was compounded by the fact that within the British motor industry as a whole Coventry was steadily becoming of less importance as a source of output and coupled with relatively low profits and investment levels, the economy’s stock was slowly ossifying and becoming increasingly inflexible. In the late fifties, the economy still appeared, on the surface, to be as prosperous as Macmillan’s remark suggested. It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to regard it as complacent. The incentives to embark on a vast restructuring of industry, whether national or local, were simply not there, especially since the policy of successive governments was to divert industry away from the new industry areas of the interwar period in favour of Britain’s depressed areas, or development areas, as they had been redesignated in the immediate postwar period.

Yet other car towns, notably Birmingham, Cowley, Dagenham and Luton were subjected to similar pressures but retained the bulk of their manufacturing capacity by the end of the seventies. The problem peculiar to Coventry was not only that the local economy became overdependent on the motor industry but that virtually all the automotive firms were, by the 1960s, ill-suited because of their size to survive the increasing competitiveness of the international market. It is no accident that most of what remained of the British motor industry was centred in towns which were dominated by one single large manufacturing plant. A major reason for Coventry’s long boom was the multiplicity of firms in the motor industry, but in the seventies this became the major cause of its decline. The only viable motor car establishment to survive this deep recession was Jaguar.

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From the industrial Midlands, I next pay a visit to old Macmillan’s farms, or rather to one of the more agricultural areas of England. By the mid-fifties, the people of East Anglia were not yet having it as good as many parts of the Home Counties that Macmillan probably had in mind when he made his famous remark. Then, from the opening of the first stretches of motorway in the winter of 1958/9, including the M1, there was a major improvement in the road network. By 1967 motorways totalled 525 miles in length, at a cost of considerable damage to the environment. Bridges were built over the Forth and Severn between 1964 and 1966. The development of new industries and the growth of the east coast ports necessitated a considerable programme of trunk road improvement. This continued into the mid-seventies at a time when economic stringency was forcing the curtailment of other road building schemes. East Anglia’s new roads were being given priority treatment for the first time. Most of the A12, the London-Ipswich road, was made into dual carriageway. The A45, the artery linking Ipswich and Felixstowe with the Midlands and the major motorways, had been considerably improved. Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket had been bypassed. By the end of the decade, the A11/M11 London-Norwich road was completed, bringing to an end the isolation of northern and central Suffolk.

The railways were also made more efficient with the closure of almost six thousand miles of track and two thousand stations after the Beeching report of 1963. Thereafter, they concentrated on fast intercity services and bulk-freight transportation. The docks also began to be modernised, with ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe hastening the decline of London, which could not handle containerised freight. In 1955 the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company had had on its hands a dilapidated dock that needed dredging, and warehouses, quays and sea walls all showing signs of storm damage. The total labour force was nine men. By the mid-seventies the dock area covered hundreds of acres, many reclaimed, made up of spacious wharves, warehouses and storage areas equipped with the latest cargo handling machinery. The transformation began in 1956 as the direct result of foresight and careful planning. The Company launched a three million pound project to create a new deep water berth geared to the latest bulk transportation technique – containerisation. It calculated that changing trading patterns and Felixstowe’s proximity to Rotterdam and Antwerp provided exciting prospects for an efficient, well-equipped port. Having accomplished that, it set aside another eight million for an oil jetty and bulk liquid storage facilities. In addition, a passenger terminal was opened in 1975. The dock soon acquired a reputation for fast, efficient handling of all types of cargo, and consignments could easily reach the major industrial centres by faster road and rail networks.

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There were many reasons for this unprecedented growth. which brought Suffolk a prosperity unknown since the expansion of the cloth trade from the mid-fourteenth century. As back then, Suffolk’s depression gave a boost to new development. Most of the county was within eighty miles of London and served by improving road and rail connections. Ports like Felixstowe were no further from the capital than those of Kent and they were a great deal closer to the industrial Midlands and the North. Some of Suffolk’s most beautiful countryside was no further from the metropolis than the stockbroker belt of the Home Counties, and yet land and property prices in Suffolk were less than half of what they were there. People were becoming more mobile and light industries were less tied to traditional centres. Companies escaping from high overheads found that they could find both the facilities and labour they needed in Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury and Haverhill. Executives also discovered that they could live in areas of great natural beauty and yet be within commuting distance of their City desks. Moreover, the shift in international trade focused attention once more on the east coast ports. As the Empire was being disbanded and Britain was drawn increasingly towards trade with the European Common Market, producers were looking for the shortest routes to the continent. More and more lorries took to the roads through Suffolk.

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