The recent background to our consumer society
The Britons that dusted themselves down and emerged on the winning side in 1945 were delirious with joy and relief that it was all over. There was a terrible human price to pay, of course. And if the Britain of those days seems a little drab to more modern eyes, it’s not just because most of the movies were in monochrome; times were really tough. There wasn’t a lot of cash, the country had virtually bankrupted itself fighting the war, cities needed rebuilding, homelessness was an acute problem and there was still rationing – which continued until 1954.
The story of Britain since 1945 is one of profound change and often painful adjustment. Our very recent ancestors would probably gaze in wonder at the place they have helped to create. It isn’t all their work, of course; external influences and technical advances have played their part too. However, whatever its detractors may say, Britain is more democratic now than it has ever been and class distinctions are more blurred. It is a cleaner, materially wealthier, nation. Its people live longer, are generally better fed (if not necessarily healthier), better clothed (possibly), better educated (allegedly), and with new ambitions – some even aspire to appearing on reality TV shows. It’s a more crowded place now. From 1951 to 2011, the population of the United Kingdom grew from around 50 million to about 63 million, mostly through immigration. Immigration, particularly from the old colonies (largely a consequence of the British Nationality Act of 1948), has transformed society, eating habits and religion. In 1945, you might have tucked into pork faggots with mashed potato, or a nice liver casserole; these days, you are more likely to eat a stir-fry or chicken tikka masala. In 1945, most people were, at least nominally, Christian in their beliefs; in 2011, 59% of England and Wales admitted to being Christian, 25% confessed to having no religious beliefs whatsoever and the next biggest group, at 5%, claimed to be Muslim. Even language has changed; regional differences are definitely still there, but (sadly in my view), they’re less distinct. Overseas influences have crept into everyday speech, from the United States, Australia and the West Indies. Moral codes have changed – it was unusual, and frowned upon, for unmarried couples to ‘live in sin’ in 1945, there was more censorship and homosexuality and abortion were both illegal. There’s a greater emphasis on youth in modern Britain (“Quick, hire someone under thirty while they still know everything.”). Industry, the power house of empire – mining, textiles, engineering, shipbuilding, manufacturing – has declined such that the old industrial areas of South Wales, lowland Scotland, the north and midlands of England, with their big sooty towns and buildings, would be virtually unrecognisable to their mid-20th century citizens. Some places have been reincarnated as something else, others appear to be deceased; some are museums. Most people work in the service sector now.
Traditional seaside towns are a shadow of their former selves, often a little tacky and frayed round the edges, but exude a kind of proud nostalgic charm. The motorway network grew from the 1960s, car ownership has rocketed, the railway network is much smaller – but it’s a more mobile lifestyle. Travelling more than ten miles to work doesn’t raise an eyebrow in the 21st century and children are less likely to stay in the same town as their parents. Britain, so long isolating itself from Europe, eventually joined the European Community – and then narrowly voted to leave it. We even have decimal coinage these days – though you still buy beer in pints, thank God. Wind farms have appeared on horizons, on land and shoreline. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each has a form of devolved government. Sooner or later, England will probably need a similar arrangement. The pace of change since the 1980s has been particularly astonishing – largely driven by the micro-chip, of course, without which you wouldn’t be looking at this, dear reader.
It could be argued that progress, youth and consumerism are the new religions. In 1945, people were certainly looking forward, not backwards. Many felt they had to have been fighting for something rather more than to survive and to beat the bad guys. Churchill had succeeded majestically in leading Britain to victory, but failed to sell a vision for the future; under his brand of Conservatism, life would just be more of the same. However, the Labour party promised a New Jerusalem – and won the 1945 general election by a landslide, with 393 MPs. Few expected Churchill to lose; it was shattering for the Great Old Man, and a political earthquake. Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s government shaped Britain more than any other until Margaret Thatcher’s 35 years later. Based on the far-reaching proposals of the liberal Beveridge Report of 1942, Labour committed itself to a cradle to grave welfare state, funded by taxation, created the National Health Service and nationalised basic industries. But, simultaneously, the new government had to cope with empty coffers, an ailing Empire and a whole new international situation. Modern critics of austerity economics should look into history to see how the state tried to deliver utopian socialism in the straitened circumstances of the late 1940s and 1950s. The lack of cash was helped by a loan from the USA – Britain was already massively in debt to the USA for materials provided during the war – followed by huge assistance under the so-called Marshall Plan to help regenerate Europe as a whole. The loan was finally repaid in 2006.
Recovery, and Labour’s radical programme, was almost scuppered by the weather. The winter of 1947, one of the worst on record, took Britain to the brink of starvation as coal shortages ground transport and production to a halt.
There was an inability – or reluctance – to comprehend and accept Britain’s new place in the world. In 1945, Britain still controlled about a quarter of the world’s population. It could no longer afford to be the power it had been, though an enormous amount has been spent trying to be. It is understandable, even if it makes no sense in hindsight. Some argue that high levels of defence spending, perhaps encouraged by its alleged ‘special relationship’ with the USA, has helped deliver less economic prosperity for Britain than might otherwise have been the case. Arguably, money could have been better spent – for example possibly by investing more in education and in Britain’s already ailing industries. By and large, successive governments – Conservative and Labour – carried on the basic principles set by Atlee’s 1945 government until, by the 1970s, it had became clear to most people that something had gone badly wrong. The story of Britain since 1945 is also partly one of successive governments’ ability to balance, not always successfully, limited resources.
The Empire has gone now – it could not survive in a new post-war order, particularly after its subject peoples had seen that the old European imperial powers could be beaten by an Asiatic one, the Japanese. India, ‘the Jewel in the Crown’, was the first to go, in 1947. It was not a happy transfer of power; the partition into Muslim Pakistan and everyone else in India witnessed hideous and tragic loss of life. One by one, through the 1950s right up to the 1980s, colonies gained independence. It was often a painful, violent, process; and occasionally embarrassing. The last colony? – probably Hong Kong, which was handed back to China in 1997. If Britain needed a reminder of its changed circumstances, it came as early as 1956 when, in ill-conceived collusion with Israel and France, British and French troops invaded Egypt as a reaction to Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Following the angry threat of economic sanctions from its close ally, the United States, Britain was forced into a humiliating withdrawal and the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, resigned. Washington, not London, called the shots. Yet Britain still somehow manages to be a global player – kind of. The Royal Navy no longer rules the waves, but British forces have been deployed somewhere almost every day since 1945 and, according to the Royal British Legion, 12,000 servicemen and women have died or have been seriously injured on active service – checkout Britain’s small wars.
So we need to briefly mention the Cold War, because this informed so much of today’s Britain. The victorious allies in the Second World War had one common aim – the defeat of Hitler’s Germany: but beyond that, each had a different vision of the future based on their respective histories and diametrically opposed ideologies. Everyone wanted security – no one more so than the Soviet Union’s odious dictator, Stalin, who was understandably anxious to protect his country from further invasion. Stalin harboured a deep mistrust of the west. Both the Soviet Union and the United States mistrusted Britain, because of its imperial position, but Britain lacked the muscle of its two allies. So there they all were, with huge armies in Europe – and the US with the atom bomb. Somehow, everyone agreed in the creation of the United Nations – an effort to do rather better than its predecessor, the League of Nations. But in 1946, that old statesman Churchill summed up what many in the west already thought, in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, when he said,
“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
It was recognition of the seemingly insurmountable differences between totalitarian communism and western capitalist democracy. In 1947, President Truman announced the ‘Truman Doctrine’, which essentially pledged US support for “free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures” – and the fight against communism drove much American foreign policy until the Reagan era. By 1949 NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation had been formed – principally as a defensive alliance against aggression by the Soviet Union, and in reaction to the perceived threat. The United Kingdom was a founder member of both the UN and NATO. Essentially, the Cold War escalated in wars fought directly or indirectly by the US and her allies against Soviet-backed forces in other countries – especially ex-colonial territories such as Korea and Vietnam. By the early ‘50s, the Soviet Union had a viable atomic bomb and in 1955 it founded the Warsaw Pact, as a counter-organisation to NATO. Britain, having helped the US develop the bomb in the first place, got its own in 1952. And so it went on. Those who grew up in Britain in the 1950s-80s half expected a nuclear war at any time. Eventually, both sides arrived at the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD (yes, really), which essentially says that because each side has the capacity to wipe each other out, no one will make the first strike. So that’s alright then.
Now, as many writers have pointed out, like it or not, we are all children of Margaret Thatcher. Anyway, somehow, Britain has morphed from whatever it used to be to whatever you think it is now. Like anywhere else, it’s not perfect and it is, of course, a product of its past. But it has retained enough of its past to make it unique, and somewhat special. For all its faults, I’m rather fond of the place. I wonder what will happen next?