The long and broad view of the British Economy:
The economic historian, P. Calvocoressi, writing in 1978, provided a long view of the British economy from 1945 to 1975. He saw the failure of successive governments to manage it successfully as the result of their unwillingness to dismantle the ‘mixed’ economy model of private and public sectors. The role of government in the direction and management of the economy had become paramount by the 1950s, even though many Conservatives deplored or sought to evade this development. He pointed out that every government acted within the established system. None tried radically to change it. All governments accepted an obligation to contribute positively to the prosperity of both sectors. Both parties, Calvocoressi concluded, failed to restore the British economy by expanding industry and exports. As a result, the long-term economic decline of Britain they inherited accelerated. Whatever their causes, failures led to political divisions and criticism not only of the policies of the governments but also of the role of government in the mixed economy. He concluded:
Still less had they questioned the existence of the mixed economy. But the failures of this economy … led to questions about the viability of such an economy.P. Calvocoressi (1978), The British Experience, 1945-1975. Penguin, pp. 105-12.
Because Calvocoressi takes a longer perspective of Britain than other economists and economic historians, his view may not be as valuable in examining the thirteen years of Conservative rule. In particular, he seems to imply that it was not the Conservative governments, nor even the role of government that failed the economy, but capitalism itself. His critique of western social-democratic capitalism seems rather dated, even for the late 1970s. However, his criticism of the failure of successive governments to challenge orthodox economic views certainly accords with the position adopted by Vernon Bognador and Robert Skidelsky, who saw ‘consensus’ as the basis of government policy between 1951 and 1964. The uncritical acceptance by both major political parties of this concept meant that new perspectives for examining old problems could not be forthcoming. The result of this was the creation of an illusion of continuing affluence, as Bogdanor and Skidelsky wrote in 1970:
Ten years ago it was possible, and indeed usual, to look back to the 1950s as an age of prosperity and achievement. This was certainly the the verdict of the electorate which in 1959 returned a Conservative government to power with a handsome majority, for the third time running.Today we are more likely to remember the whole period as an age of illusion, of missed opportunities, with Macmillan as the magician whose wonderful act kept us too long distracted from reality. … what has altered the verdict on the 1950s has been the experience of the troubles of the 1960s, which stem at least in part from the neglect of the earlier decade.
Already by 1964, the appeal of the slogan ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’ was strong enough to give Labour a tiny majority; in the years following it has been confirmed almost as the conventional wisdom. … Perhaps the period of Conservative rule will be looked upon as the last period of quiet before the storm, rather like the Edwardian age which in many respects it resembles. In that case its tranquility will come to be valued more highly than its omissions.V. Bogdanor and R. Skidelsky, The Age of Affluence, 1951-64. pp 7-11.
But, in reality, from 1955, the British economy was entangled in a series of sterling crises which gradually forced the Conservative Government to pay attention to problems it wished to avoid. Both the Eden and Macmillan governments were distracted by a second illusion, that of their party’s obsession with Britain’s abiding role in the world. In 1962, Dean Acheson, the US Secretary of State made his famous statement Britain has lost an empire; she has not yet found a role. Bogdanor and Skidelsky pointed out that the failure to rethink Britain’s world role was as evident in its economic policies as in its diplomacy. Macmillan foresaw and expedited the final liquidation of the Empire, but he had few ideas about what to put in its place.
Finally, A. Sked and C. Cook looked at the question from a broader viewpoint. Politics may have remained the same but, they argued, society did not. New values, new beliefs and new attitudes began to show themselves in this period. In this way, the idea of consensus came into question, and the illusion of affluence was made apparent. As far as the fiscal and economic policies were concerned, they argued:
… the Tories did very little in their years in power. Cushioned by the turn in the terms of trade they abolished rationing, reduced taxes and manipulated budgets but they gave little impression of knowing how the economy really worked. Little attention was paid to Britain’s sluggish economic growth or the long-term challenge posed by Germany and Japan.
Industrial relations were treated with a ‘we/they’ attitude and no thought was given, until late in the day, to the problems created by Britain’s prosperity. Instead, the Government sat back and did nothing in their belief that there was nothing to do, and for most of the time their energy was devoted to maintaining Britain as a world power whatever the cost to the economy. …
Moreover, Tory economic complacency ensured that the necessary economic growth would never be generated. Not enough money was channelled into key industries; stop-go policies undermined the confidence of industry to invest in the long term; too much money was spent on defence. …
With the economic crises of the early 1960s … it began to be apparent that Tory affluence would soon come to an end. The scandals of the Macmillan era merely served to reinforce the impression that a watershed had been reached in the country’s history, and foreign affairs seemed to teach a similar lesson. …
After 1963-64 then, things were never the same again. But in another sense they were never really different.A. Sked & C. Cook (1979), Post-War Britain – a Political History. Penguin, pp. 221-5.
Macmillan the Magician to the Rescue of the Empire:
According to the Earl of Kilmuir, in his 1964 Memoirs, Eden’s successor as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, led his country and his party out of the bitter-black aftermath of Suez. In particular, he began the scramble to dismantle what was left of the post-imperial presence as Britain came to terms with its loss of status, assets and, in an intangible way, national swagger. The country became ever more dependent on the United States not just financially but also for its defence and security. After the Korean War, the US Air Force was allowed eight airfields in Britain. In 1957, after the Suez fiasco, there were sixty US Thor missiles in East Anglia. Indeed, in 1960 the US was allowed to build a Polaris nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch in Scotland.
Cyprus fell soon after Suez. It had been intended as an important base from which Britain could guard the Canal. But during the Suez war itself, it had proved less than useful, because it had no deep-water harbour; after Suez, there was little left in that part of the Mediterranean for it to guard anyway. In 1957 the British government started negotiating with the Cypriot nationalists, and the search continued for other handholds. Kilmuir wrote of the case of Cyprus as a case in point of Macmillan’s command of the House of Commons:
Cyprus was a classic example of this tactical genius. The final settlement of this tactical genius. The final settlement of this distressing episode early in 1959 was a diplomatic triumph for Macmillan, but it must be admitted that it followed the broad lines which had been urged on the Government by Gaitskell and Bevan for a long time. Nevertheless, after both (Macmillan and Gaitskell) had snapped at each other across the Dispatch Box in a crammed House of Commons, it was Gaitskell who gave the appearance of little-mindedness…The Earl of Kilmuir, Memoirs (1964) pp. 290-91.
In respect of other territories and colonies, they planned the same kind of progress, but in a slow and ‘orderly’ manner. Where their residual imperialism showed through, the evidence that their change of heart was less than complete, was in their continued belief that Britain still had a world role to maintain, and the right to keep hold of certain foreign territories in order to retain it; and in their conception of self-government, which frequently fell short of those of the nationalists. In East and Central Africa, for instance, it stopped far short of majority rule while there were still settlers there, and elsewhere where it stopped short of economic self-government while there were still British firms and shares to safeguard. From the wreck of the old empire, they tried to salvage what was essential: a role in the world, their new white dominions in central Africa and their means to continue exploiting countries they no longer ruled.
Imperialist ambitions for east-central Africa remained lively right through the 1950s, and long after Suez had undermined them elsewhere. When Cyprus began to crumble the first place they thought of replacing it with as their main military base for the Middle East was Kenya. In east-central Africa their allies, the nucleus around which they intended to consolidate their hold, and maintain a British presence in the continent, where the settlers, a small minority everywhere, but one in which many of the colonies already had taken many of the functions and responsibilities of government. None of the colonies except Southern Rhodesia had enough of them to make a transfer of power to them possible, and in Britain as well as elsewhere in Africa liberal opinion made this option impolitic anyway. On the other hand, there was widespread concern in Britain, which the government shared and could work on, that established settler interests should not be entirely abandoned to unpractised African politicians without safeguards.
The British government’s support for the settler cause in Kenya had to contend with what turned out to be the most ferocious of all the nationalist movements that confronted her in Africa, mainly amongst dispossessed and desperate Kikuyu, whose violent methods, involving atrocities and pagan rituals, were used to justify repressive counter-measures. During the ‘Mau Mau’ crisis, ten thousand were killed altogether: 9,600 Africans (mostly by other Africans) and seventy Europeans. In the Kenyan context, ‘multi-racialism’ meant communal elections against a background of very restricted African political activity, and a constitution carefully designed to ensure ‘parity,’ by permitting fifty thousand Europeans the same number of elected representatives as five million Africans.
Empire into New Commonwealth:
The Conservative imperialists’ inability to take in the full extent of their loss was reflected in the conception they had of the new ‘multi-racial’ Commonwealth just beginning to form from the pieces of the old empire. Some of them, like Leo Amery, saw it as a way of preserving Britain’s interests in her former colonies, and her status in the new world of the Cold War. In a way what they hankered after was the older, more ‘informal’ imperialism of the mid-nineteenth century, with all of the rights and none of the responsibilities. But a return to that form of purely economic imperialism was impossible because it required an even stronger base of power in global relations, one that now only the USA possessed. But the effort was made, nonetheless. In the 1950s, on the fronts it had decided to fight on, the Conservative government fought hard to keep some colonies and to give others to ‘the right people,’ most notably in Malaya and British Guiana.
In the late 1950s, despite all the reverses, there was still a sizeable empire left for Britain to save, if it wanted to. As well as a great slice of Africa, there was a score of smaller colonies all over the world which it was thought could never be viable on their own, and therefore would always be content to let Britain rule them, rather than have Russia or China grab them, as was the most likely outcome for a small, isolated state. There were also larger colonies, especially in west Africa, Malaya and the West Indies, whose progress towards independence could not be prevented now, but which might be ‘guided’ towards continuing membership of the Commonwealth and the strength that might still be drawn from imperial preferences and defence co-operation. And, even after Cyprus, there were still strategic British colonies in the world – Malta, Aden, Singapore – to keep a secure framework for British world influence to be maintained, especially with the nuclear deterrent to back it up.
Nevertheless, it was in this global context, that the second phase of Britain’s withdrawal from its empire took place across Africa in the late 1950s and early ’60s, under the direction of the Conservative governments. On the other side of the imperial account, there were ever-increasing costs to meet, not just in money, but in lives too, as well as in moral credit. The current did seem to be running against Britain in all these regards. In east-central Africa, the effort to hang on had recently resulted in a series of overtly oppressive measures, and several atrocities (or incidents which could be presented as such) that were widely felt to have been uncharacteristic and shaming: the Hola camp incident in Kenya in 1959, in which eleven Mau Mau detainees were beaten to death by camp guards; a state of emergency throughout the Central African Federation that was likened to a ‘police state’ and fifty African rioters shot in Nyasaland. Of the ‘collaboration’ which had helped sustain British colonial rule in the past, there was very little now left in Africa: Britain was having to impose its will by an open display of force, which by this time it was not able to do as easily as in the past.
Realists as well as radicals were now turning away from the empire. The men of industry and finance, who by necessity were the hardest realists of all, had for some time been aware of the trend and had begun to make their own arrangements with the trendsetters, the empire’s successor states, to protect and further their interests in the best ways they could. They might have regretted the loss of their imperial padding but they came to terms with it. They made treaties with whoever was in command: in South Africa, while they still had control it was the white supremacists, but in tropical Africa, it was the new black nationalists.
Britain’s trading position as a whole was altering, backing away from the empire and ex-empire, and towards Europe. For more and more people in Britain, their real economic destiny now appeared to lie in closer association with the European continent, which was already organising itself into a great ‘Common Market,’ which could make its own terms with the politically independent ‘third world’ outside. The empire, which meant the old type of colonial control over satellite economies, was not necessary anymore, or worth fighting for.
What was left when those with an ‘interest’ began leaving the sinking ship was a residue of mainly emotional commitments to the glory of the empire, which were just not strong enough to persuade a realistic government, which was what Harold Macmillan’s was, to resist all the material pressures pushing the other way. Iain Macleod, who became Colonial Secretary in October 1959, always excused his surrender to colonial nationalism by pleading necessity, though he probably also had a genuinely liberal commitment to independence, as the following quote demonstrates:
‘We could not possibly have held by force to our territories in Africa. We could not, with an enormous force engaged, even continue to hold the small island of Cyprus. General de Gaulle could not contain Algeria. The march of men towards their freedom can be guided, but not halted. Of course there were risks in moving quickly. But the risks in moving slowly were far greater.’Quoted in David Goldsworthy (1971), Colonial Issues in British Politics, 1945-1961. p. 363.
The Wind of Change:
Macmillan was of the same mind. In his famous speech in Cape Town in February 1960 he told of the ‘shrinking impression’ a tour of tropical Africa had given him of the strength of this national consciousness. It was against this background that Macmillan made his historic comments:
“The wind of change is blowing through this continent and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”Harold Macmillan’s speech in Cape Town, South Africa, 1960.
A decade after the decolonisation process was initiated in Asia, the wind of change began to sweep through Africa, hastened by the Suez Crisis. The Gold Coast was the first African colony to gain independence, under the new name, Ghana. This set in motion British disengagement from other colonies in West Africa. In contrast to the rich and relatively well-developed colonies in the west, the transfer of power in the eastern and central African colonies was complicated by the competing claims of impoverished black populations and privileged, entrenched European minority settler communities. Yet, despite these difficulties, a combination of African nationalism and the British desire to relinquish costly imperial commitments in the region resulted in independence and black majority rule in most African colonies, with the notable exception of Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe).
Britain in the early 1960s was hustled and harried out of most of her old colonies, and without too much bloodshed. The roll call was an impressive one. In the 1950s the Sudan, the Gold Coast (Ghana) and Malaya had been the only ones to ‘escape.’ In the 1960s, it quite suddenly became a stampede, as the following list shows:
None of the shadows cast by the legacy of the empire was long enough to substitute fully for what had been lost. At first, it was thought that the Commonwealth might. In the 1950s the fact that so many ex-colonies had elected to stay within the Commonwealth led some imperialists to assume a substantive continuity between it and the old empire. The ‘black’ and ‘brown’ nations joined Australia, New Zealand and Canada in an extended family cemented by common bonds of tradition, friendship and mutual interest. Leopold Amery in 1953 speculated that:
‘… other nations now outside it may well decide to join it in course of time. … Who knows but that it may yet become the nucleus round which in the near future a future world order will crystalize?’Leopold Amery, My Political Life, i, 16.
This vision compensated a little for the loss of empire, and while it seemed to do this, old imperialists retained their affection for it and sought (as in the past) to cement its parts more tightly together; for example by trade preferences for Commonwealth countries, and by preserving a definition of ‘British nationality’ (laid down in 1948) which allowed all Commonwealth citizens the right to enter Britain freely, without restriction. But by the sixties, it was becoming clear that the Commonwealth was turning out to be something less than had been hoped. Its members did not have common interests, not even among the ‘white’ dominions, which were too far apart both geographically and in respective perspectives. For the black and brown nations, membership was not an expression of filial gratitude and loyalty. Rather it provided merely a convenient platform on the world stage, from which they could air their grievances and entitlement to a share of what British aid there was going.
There were some ideological differences between the two main political parties on colonial policy, but both Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson entered number ten determined to retain Britain’s remaining imperial and military possessions. However, both leaders succumbed to economic, political and international pressures, resulting first in Macmillan’s retreat from Africa and then in Wilson’s withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’. The spread, speed and character of decolonisation were not determined by them, but by a mixture of international cold war politics, British imperial interests and local nationalist movements, which varied from region to region. In Egypt, Kenya and Malaya, for example, nationalism took on radical, populist and violent forms, culminating in state-of-emergency declarations by the British governments. Withdrawals were also impaired by communal and ethnic tensions. In contrast, the power transfer was comparatively peaceful in the Gold Coast and the Caribbean.
In fact, the Commonwealth was never united at all. Its new members fought each other, and broke off diplomatic relations with each other and with the ‘mother country.’ In 1961, they banished South Africa, one of its oldest members, from the family, causing considerable indignation among the ‘white’ dominions. As a substitute for the empire, it was a disappointment; the emperor’s new clothes were a sham. But there were some in British public life who continued to value the new Commonwealth but as something rather different from the old empire. It was a means of scaling the barriers of racism and chauvinism going up all over the world, a corrective to the contemporary consolidation of the world into continental blocs and perhaps a kind of moral pressure group within world affairs and a debating society for widely divergent cultures.
The Sad End of Empire:
There were some Britons, from idealistic old liberal imperialists to Fabian anti-imperialists who were generally interested in questions of international cooperation and overseas aid. But the political leaders from both main parliamentary parties soon lost interest in imperial free trade, always a euphemism for imperial protectionism. Instead, they turned to European free trade from 1962 when the first serious overtures to the EEC were made. In the same year, the UK parliament abandoned its noble commitment to ‘common citizenship’ by restricting coloured immigration from the Commonwealth. These two moves revealed a sudden loss of interest in the Commonwealth the minute it ceased to be useful to Britain. For idealistic imperialists, this was a sad end for the empire.
Despite the speed with which the British Empire was brought to an end in the period 1945-65, Britain had no intention of severing all links with its former colonies. On the contrary, the ‘Commonwealth’ was seen as a natural successor to the Empire. Despite the hopes of some Conservatives to the contrary, the formation of the enlarged Commonwealth never allowed Britain to retain any real influence. Although some politicians trumpeted the ideal of a closer association of states as a means of reasserting British spheres of influence in Asia and Africa, Britain’s political leaders soon discovered they were unable to exercise the level of economic and political control that they had hoped to retain.
The Return of British Cultural Self-Confidence & Political Satire:
Britain was a country open to foreign influences, but they were as strong from Italy or Scandinavia as from America – coffee bars, Danish design, scooters and something promoted as ‘Italian Welsh rarebit’ (later known as pizza) were all in evidence. The awesome power of American culture was growing all the time over the horizon. But for a few years, at least, the idea of a powerful, self-confident Britain independent of American culture seemed not only possible but likely. Per capita, after all, Britain was still the second-richest country in the world.
Political satire, which had been exuberantly popular in Georgian times, now returned in full force, from savage cartoons in the newspapers, staged lampoons and the fortnightly mockery of the magazine Private Eye. Among the two million listeners to The Goon Show in the mid-fifties were key members of the next generation of comics, who would sting more, men such as Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The latter is considered Spike Milligan’s only rival as the outstanding comic genius of the age. As a schoolboy at Radley in Oxfordshire, he sent a script to the BBC good enough for Milligan to invite him to London for lunch. The bullying that Cook endured at his private ‘public’ school led him to develop mimicry and mockery to deflect bullies. Cook would make them laugh in order that they would not hit him. He was not politically radical, being from a privileged élite in which his father had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria and Gibraltar. From Radley, he went on to Cambridge, from where there was a direct line from student reviews to the West End. Peter Cook’s generation at Cambridge in 1957 included a number of future cabinet ministers, as well as numerous actors. He once said:
‘One reason that Oxbridge has traditionally produced so many political satirists is that its undergraduates come face to face with their future political leaders at an early age, and realise then quite how many of them are social retards who join debating societies in order to find friends.’
Cook found his voice as a schoolboy and essentially never lost it; the same deadpan philosophical drone spread to Edinburgh’s Beyond the Fringe review, to London and New York. The day when the traditional establishment had to acknowledge the comedy establishment was 28th February 1962, when the Queen visited Beyond the Fringe in London’s Fortune Theatre to see the vicious caricature of her prime minister by Peter Cook. Cook had done his Macmillan at Cambridge and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe already. In London, he had been playing to packed houses since the previous May. There had been protests and walkouts by people outraged at seeing the Queen’s first minister lampooned in public, but the Queen herself roared with laughter. After this, Macmillan was determined to show what a good sport he was, and that he could take a joke, so he decided to go along too. But when the prime minister arrived, Cook spotted him in the audience and deviated from his script. In an Edwardian drawl, he imitated Macmillan:
“When I’ve a spare evening, there’s nothing I like better than to wander over to a theatre and sit there listening to a group of sappy, urgent, vibrant young satirists, with a stupid great grin all over my silly old face.”
The New Commonwealth & Immigration to Britain:
In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birthrates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage the migration of Commonwealth workers, particularly from the West Indies, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for textile factories and steel foundries in Britain.
Just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent began to escalate in the 1960s. The Census of 1951 recorded seventy-four thousand New Commonwealth immigrants; a decade later the figure had increased to 336,000. This immigration was driven by a combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Partition of the Indian subcontinent and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan continued to displace large numbers of people, many of whom had close links with Britain through colonial connections and later through familial ones.
The 1948 Nationality Act reaffirmed the right of British nationality and free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth subjects of the Crown, without restrictions. About 125,000 people from the Caribbean came to live in Britain between 1948 and 1958. They were looking to escape the poverty of their own countries. Immigrants also came from other parts of the Commonwealth, including India, Pakistan and East Africa, some arriving as refugees fleeing wars and discrimination. But as growing numbers of Caribbeans and South Asians took up this right of abode, the British authorities became increasingly alarmed.
As more Caribbeans and South Asians settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed in which pioneer migrants, usually single men, aided family and friends to settle. The picture below shows female family members and young boys arriving to join their menfolk. Despite the influx of workers from Ireland and the Commonwealth, emigration continued to outstrip immigration.
Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s, followed by South Asians from Gujurat and the Punjab in India, as well as from both West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) from the 1960s. Hostility to Commonwealth immigrants was pronounced in some sections of the local white population. One manifestation of this was the establishment of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, founded in the early 1960s by a group of Tory MPs.
Many West Indian immigrants encountered considerable obstacles, including racial prejudice when seeking accommodation, as the photo from 1958 below shows.
The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the fifties prevented the imposition of the tighter immigration controls that many began to call for. However, by the sixties, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of pursuing links with Europe and events such as the Notting Hill race riots of 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away the right of New Commonwealth citizens to automatic British citizenship. Although the Immigration Act of 1962 that followed was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect at first: fearful of losing the right to free entry, immigrants came to Britain in larger numbers.
In the eighteen months of 1961-62 before the restrictions were introduced, the volume of newcomers equalled the total for the previous five years, peaking at almost 120,000 in 1962. They remained comparatively high in 1963-64, declining only slowly thereafter.
South Asian immigrants first settled in Bradford in the 1950s and ’60s, taking up employment in the textile factories. It was often unskilled work and poorly paid.
Working-class Britain – A North-South Divide?
Working-class Britain may have been getting wealthier but it was still housed in dreadful old homes, excluded from the expansion of higher education and deprived of jobs except for manual, monotonous ones. On 15 August 1962, the Guardian published a long article on its leader page by the chief education officer for Leeds, George Taylor. It was called ‘The Gulf Between North and South,’ the first ‘ranging shot in an engagement that still continues,’ according to Geoffrey Moorhouse in his 1964 book, Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Moorhouse pointed out that in the two years that had passed since the article was published, many others followed it, both in the Guardian and in other national newspapers, that many hours had been spent on it by television and radio, and that many speeches had been made on it by politicians. Moorhouse remarked:
The idea that over the past few years two Englands have taken shape, one in the North and the other in the South, unequal socially and economically, has become our major domestic preoccupation. … The consciousness of a socio-geographic division in this country is, of course, by no means a new thing. … At least one side of the present debate, the problem of the population drift to the South-east, was foreseen in 1937 in the Barlow Report. But it is doubtful whether there has ever before been such a national fixation with the supposed division of England into North and South on almost every count.Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964), Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. p. 13.
The basic argument of Moorhouse’s book was that such demarcation in the sixties was ‘vague and misleading,’ and that while two Englands did undoubtedly exist in 1964, they could be more precisely defined. George Taylor’s argument started from the observed facts that the nine county boroughs with the highest mortality rates in England were in the industrial North and the ten county boroughs with the lowest mortality rates were South of a line drawn from the Severn to the Thames. As a chief education officer, he suggested that frequent absences from school and lack of vitality in the classroom were caused by overcrowding, poor living conditions and a polluted atmosphere. In addition, the high death rate itself left a number a number of families with only one parent, a well-known reason for children finishing their education as soon as it was legally possible to do so. He went on:
… it is fairly safe to assert that the Northern child will receive his education in and old, insanitary building planned on lines wholly inappropriate for contemporary teaching. His teachers will be too few in number, probably inexperienced, possibly unqualified and, and constantly changing. His modern school will not develop courses to attract him to remain at school until sixteen… because it cannot be sure of of teachers to staff them and lacks amenities to attract them. If he attends a grammar school, its children will be, like him, drawn entirely from the local working-class community… which sees little point in encouraging its children to remain at school until the age of eighteen.George Taylor, The Guardian, 15 August 1962, quoted by Moorhouse, p.13
Taylor briefly indicated the wider problems of the industrial North, pointing out that one of its more intractable difficulties was a lack of money at reasonable rates of interest, and concluded that without such financial aid, ‘it will not take a generation to complete the establishment of two nations or, in contemporary language, two cultures, divided by a line from the Humber to the Wirral.’ Moorhouse agreed that no one who lived in the North-east, Yorkshire or Lancashire during the late fifties and early sixties could fail to be aware of how much their locations were falling behind the national averages in tolerable housing conditions, mortality, investment and employment. But in the late summer of 1962, there was little sign that the whole country recognised this situation. As far as the Government was concerned it seemed that it was being allowed to drift along on the assumption that something would turn up. The debate stimulated by Taylor’s Guardian article represented a significant turning point. It was followed up by other newspapers, television and radio, and it was not long after all this sudden publicity that the Government took action. Moorhouse thought that Taylor’s comments on the educational frustrations of the Northern child were invaluable, but at the same time, they contained two stereotypes of the North.
Firstly, there was the implication that those attending grammar schools were invariably located in mining areas. Anyone looking at a map of the North of England, wrote Moorhouse, would see that there were a lot of coalfields in the North, but that they were dispersed and certainly not found in areas with the densest population, like Leeds. Secondly, the map reader would have difficulty in deciding where to draw the line between ‘North’ and ‘South’. Was it a line from the Severn to the Thames, or from the Wirral to the Humber? Or sometimes, it would be defined as the seventh-century boundary between the Severn and the Wash. But because commentators, and the nation as a whole, have got into the habit of thinking of a generally poor North and a generally rich South, based on inadequate geographical definitions, two damaging stereotypes followed, painting the North blacker than it was and the South whiter. Scarcely less unfortunate in its side effects was the assumption that all was well in the latter, a land flowing with milk and honey from end to end. This image would not be recognisable, Moorhouse suggested, by the 5,640 homeless people in the care of London County Council in May 1964. He concluded:
Clearly the North-South division depends upon such enormous generalisations shot through with so many qualifications that it is thoroughly unrealistic to use it as a basis for national thinking. … I would suggest that one of our Englands today is a circle whose perimeter is approximately one hour’s travel by fast peak-hour travel the main London termini; the other is the whole of the country outside that circle.Moorhouse, pp. 18-19.
Popular Culture – Angry Young Men, Sex & Rock ‘n’ Roll:
English society, both Northern and Southern, was beginning to become more violent with an increase in violent crime and riots by ‘Teddy Boys’ in the mid-1950s, so-called because of their return to Edwardian styles of dress, especially long jackets. They also wore tight trousers and pointed shoes. They brought together rock ‘n’ roll dance music, and a reputation for extravagance, insolence and violence that shocked a nation still wedded to prewar values. They were the first representatives of modern youth culture and were followed by the ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’ in the early 1960s, their alienation perhaps being fuelled by a new vogue for high-rise blocks of flats. The 1950s also saw the Angry Young Men (and, of course, young women) associated, together with an older generation of pacifists and dissenters, with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the beginning of protests against the Vietnam War in Britain, as in the USA and elsewhere in Europe.
Meanwhile, the poet Philip Larkin and other writers were more interested in sex. He wrote that ‘Sexual intercourse began in 1963.’ In the 1950s, teenage girls were not supposed to know what it was. While they were supposed to be watching ‘telly’ with their brothers, their ‘mam’ was, according to Alan Sillitoe, in his 1959 autobiographical novel, The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner, having a good time ‘with some fancy-man upstairs on the new bed she’d ordered.’ Like Moorhouse, Sillitoe was from Nottingham. His book won the coveted Hawthornden Prize for the best work of imagination in prose of 1960.
The 1960s were dramatic years in Britain: demographic trends, especially the increase in the proportion of teenagers in the population, coincided with economic affluence and ideological experimentation to reconfigure social mores to a revolutionary extent. Anti-establishment values spread much wider than the student population. The cultural revolution had a profound effect on sexual behaviour in general, and on women in particular. Sex before marriage became slightly less taboo, and there was a general feeling of ‘sexual freedom’ in some circles. An unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D H Lawrence, banned as pornography since it was first published in the 1920s, was not released in the United Kingdom until 1960 when it was the subject of a watershed obscenity trial against the publisher, Penguin Books. Penguin won the controversial case and the book quickly sold three million copies.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Chatterley
The family also underwent important changes. From the 1950s, the household had begun to be transformed, affected by smaller family sizes, helped by the wider availability of abortion and effective contraception, and increased domestic technology. In 1956, only seven per cent of households had refrigerators and sixty-four per cent of households also possessed a washing machine. In addition, the real earnings of young manual workers had grown rapidly, creating a generation that had money to spend on leisure and luxury. By 1960, the average British teenager was spending eight pounds a week on clothes, cosmetics, records and cigarettes. In London, King’s Road, and then Carnaby Street, became the haunt of this generation. Their attitude is summed up by the designer Mary Quant, whose shop, Bazaar, on the King’s Road, provided clothes that allowed people to run, jump, and leap, to retain their precious freedom. Clothes became the symbol of the ‘Chelsea set.’
Stephen Ward (left) was the man at the centre of the greatest scandal of the early sixties, together with Christine Keeler (to his left).
As the sixties progressed, prophets of doom believed that Britain had passed from austerity to affluence and straight on to decadence. The ‘Profumo affair’ was, perhaps, a fitting epitaph to the ‘back-end’ of the affluent era. It was, as Wayland Young remarked, ‘scandal and crisis together.’ It ‘exercised some of the purgative and disruptive functions of a revolution.’ (Wayland Young (1963), The Profumo Affair). The opening sentence of an article about the Profumo affair contained an anecdote that Geoffrey Moorhouse didn’t doubt was being repeated up and down the country, ‘rather more concisely’:
‘ Just upstream from the terrace of the House of Commons is the outlet of a main sewer, and at certain hours of the day, Members leaning on the balustrade can find amusement and occupation in counting the contraceptives floating down to the sea. …’Geoffrey Moorhouse, op.cit., p. 23.
Moorhouse commented that this had…
… the genuine metropolitan brand of faintly bored, very knowing authorship by one who has spent some time pondering the sewer and its effluent and is something of an expert on Parliamentary topography.Ibid.
He suggested that this may have been the effect of metropolitan assumptions and attitudes on those with commercial and political power in the capital. As The Times suggested in a leading article in February 1964, …
…The World of Westminster, Whitehall, the West End clubs and even Fleet Street seems curiously remote from what goes on in the rest of the country.Quoted in Moorhouse, op. cit, p. 26.
Another symbol of the society of the sixties was music. Nowhere was further away from the world of Westminster, Whitehall and the West End clubs than Liverpool and its Cavern Club from where the ‘Merseybeat’ emerged. In 1964, Geoffrey Moorhouse wrote:
… there have been few social phenomena more intriguing or more extensively plotted than the development of pop-music groups in Liverpool in the last couple of years.Moorhouse, p. 137.
No band was more important in this development than The Beatles. They expressed both youth deviance and commercialism and provided British teenagers with an identity that cut across the barriers of class, accent and region. The Beatles (or the Quarrymen as they were first known) were formed in July 1957 and in October 1962 Love Me Do only got to number seventeen in the charts, but in April 1963 From Me to You became their first number-one hit single. By 1964, they had become so established that the music critic of The Times devoted a whole column to analysing their work. He was much taken with its chains of pandiatonic clusters and its submediant switches from C major into A flat major. He even detected in it an affinity with Mahler. Not that this comparison immediately came to Moorhouse’s mind as he penetrated the Cavern Club, the origin of all this euphony. It was a converted subterranean warehouse on Matthew Street, a couple of blocks from Lime Street:
Every night it is open you pick up its spoor by following the line of lounging adolescents in the alleyways around. They are the ones who can’t get in. The bouncer on the door disapproves of unexpected visitors. “This place,” he observes, is becoming a bloody shrine.” And so it is. There are CND symbols and other daubs of paint crudely applied around the entrance. Half-way down the steep wooden staircase you find yourself stumbling into an atmosphere which is thick, sweet, almost tasty.
In the Cavern something like a couple of hundred youngsters are compressed together under three barrel-vaulted ceilings separated by stubby, arched walls. The light is dim and orange except at the far end where three lads are thumping out a number and a girl is singing rustily under glaring arc lamps. The walls are running with condensation. No one seems to notice the extreme discomfort of being there. A handful are drinking Cokes and Pepsis at an improvised bar.
But most of the people in the cellar are just moving spasmodically to the beat of the music, either in couples or individually. Only one couple were snogging quietly in a dimmer corner than the rest. At the end of the number there is a great amount of cheering and clapping but nothing that you’d call hysteria. After a couple of these the visitor, if he is wise, makes for the stairway again because it requires a special Merseyside constitution to withstand more than a short spell in that foetid ill-ventilated hole without passing out.Moorhouse, op. cit., pp 137-138.
Why, then, did Liverpool become the original centre of popular music in Britain, not Birmingham or Bristol or Cardiff or even London? Most of the groups that first established themselves in Liverpool had some connexion with the seamen on the New York and Hamburg runs. If a member of a group had not himself been to sea, a brother or mate would have been and they would have brought back records from these places, which were both in the front of the jazz evolution.
In the late fifties, following the rock ‘n’ roll craze that started in Britain with the 1957 tour of Bill Haley and his Comets, all over England, the guitar became the instrument of pop music. In Liverpool, musicians were stimulated by this inflow of recorded material, experimenting with their variations on it, and superimposing their own distinctive styles and sounds on it. Many of them, The Beatles included, went to Hamburg to play there, where there was a market for young musicians who could knock up a good rock tune; the trip to Germany was little more than a pierhead jump for any young Scouse with a few pounds in his pocket. By the time the Beatles came back, their German records had found their way onto English turntables. And, after that, they never looked back.
All this had deep social implications on Merseyside which were first documented by a Liverpool undergraduate, Colin Fletcher, in New Society (20 February 1964). According to Fletcher, the pop groups sprang from and gradually took over the function of the street gangs:
The gang, between the period 1954 and 1958, was not only a microcosm of society; it was relatively speaking, the only society the adolescent knew and felt sure of. This was the situation when rock and roll arrived on Merseyside.Quoted in Moorhouse, op.cit., p. 139.
There were riots in the cinema showing the Haley film, Rock Around the Clock. Soon, boys who had bought guitars began to try the music for themselves. As they were invariably members of groups their music became the main means of gang expression. As such, it usurped the roles of older habits, such as gang violence, though there was no apparent decrease in levels of violence overall. An additional attraction, especially as they got older, was the effect of their music on girls. They seemed to be “solid gone”… not only over the sound but also those who made it. The pattern of leisure for these adolescents changed from one of group warfare and outbursts of vandalism or worse to one in which the gangs spent most of their time acting as helpmates (‘groupies’) and cheerers-on of those members who could make music. The toughest of them who had always been disposed to crime more than the rest tended also to be the ones with the least taste or aptitude for music.
Beatlemania & the BBC:
But Moorhouse claimed that the Mersey Sound had certainly tapped the belligerent instincts of many adolescents. From 1960 to 1964, more than three hundred beat groups had been formed in Liverpool. In 1963, although the overall crime figures rose by nearly ten per cent, juvenile crime was down by two per cent. Moorhouse made an interesting final comment on the futures of the Mersey Beat boys:
The remarkable thing about the young men who have made so much from the Mersey Sound – The Beatles and a dozen other combinations – is that although by now they can probably afford to choose pretty well where they want to spend the rest of their days, none of them, it is said by those close to them, has much desire to leave Liverpool for good.Moorhouse, op.cit., p.140
But many people in the recording and broadcasting establishment regarded popular music with disdain. The BBC held a monopoly over the radio waves, and, in a deal with the Musicians’ Union and record manufacturers, ensured that popular music was not given airtime. Anyone wanting to listen to popular musicians had to tune into Radio Luxembourg, from which reception was often very poor. At Easter 1964, however, the first illegal ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from a ship just off the Sussex coast. Within months, millions of young people were listening to the station. Radio London and other pirate stations sprang up. Not only did they broadcast popular music, but they also reminded their listeners that any attempt to silence them would constitute a direct attack on youth.
However, the BBC was not wholly negative in its response to ‘pop’ music, or at least the Mersey Beat. Between March 1962 and June 1965, no fewer than 275 unique musical performances by The Beatles were broadcast by the BBC in the UK. The group played eighty-eight songs on national radio. Some were recorded many times; others were played just once. Many of them were covers of early rock ‘n’ roll classics by Chuck Berry and others. In his introduction to the 2013 release of these, On Air-Live at the BBC, Paul McCartney wrote:
‘Raised on the BBC radio programmes, one of the big things in our week was ‘Saturday Club.’ We would wake up to this great show playing the kind of music we loved. That was something we really aspired to. Eventually we got to go to that show and be a part of it… out of came ‘Pop go the Beatles.’ We knew we would have to compromise to som extent, but when it came to playing the numbers, we could do them the way we wanted. Then there would be the talk with the rather plummy BBC announcer, who was not from our world at all. We couldn’t imagine what world he was from. …
‘With our manager Brian Epstein having a record shop – NEMS – we did have the opportunity to look around a bit more than the casual buyer. … We discovered ‘Twist and Shout’ by the Isley Brothers, which was a little bit hip to know about. I remember coming down to London and somebody saying, “Wow, you’ve heard of the Isleys!” It gave us this little edge over other bands, who perhaps weren’t scouring the racks quite as avidly as we were.
‘Ringo would get stuff from sailors. … he happened to have a few mates who’d been abroad to New Orleans or New York and had picked up some nice blues or country and western. … We made it our full-time job to research all these things; to go for the road less travelled. …’Paul McCartney (2013), Introduction to ‘On Air – Live at the BBC’, Vol. 2. Apple/ BBC.
A Social Revolution?
The mid-1950s to the mid-1960s was a period of rapid social change in Britain. It was also a period in which the pace and direction of social change itself became a topic of concern and public debate. The argument then was about whether the many indications of change really added up to a social revolution for ordinary Britons. Its conclusions still remain provisional, and tentative, sixty years later. In that period almost everything changed, at least a little. No segment of society, no corner of the nation, no aspect of life remained untouched. One part of the story is the story of change, emergent patterns, new relationships and conditions for ordinary men and women, and a sense of discontinuity with the past.
In the ‘society of affluence,’ which threw up such paradoxical symbols, it was easy to project the problems that life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies. This was an economic change, certainly, but was it a social revolution? We need another term for a period of massive social upheaval which, nevertheless, left so much exactly where it was; it was a revolution which preserved its fundamental elements even as it seemed to transform them. Ordinary men and women in the fifties and early sixties were caught somewhere inside that double process, trying to make sense of it. They were in a revolving wheel which kept coming full circle.
The Mini & the Great Car Economy:
Perhaps the best symbol of this paradoxical period of the late fifties and early sixties was the Mini. Ten years or so after designing the Morris Minor, in the year of Macmillan’s election success, 1959, Alec Issigonis produced his sketched design, pictured below, for an even more radical car for the developing motoring market. It fitted well with the chic Macmillan era, though the aristocratic prime minister himself would never have bought anything so small and vulgar. Issigonis himself can lay claim to being one of the more influential figures in the history of the car in Britain as well as being about the only industrial designer most people have heard of. The son of a Greek engineer living in Turkey who had taken British citizenship, and a German brewer’s daughter, he had lived his early years on the site of his father’s marine engineering business, watching him transform his drawings into engines.
Issigonis is as good an early example as any of the benefits that immigration brought to Britain. He was a wartime refugee from Smyrna, the port area which had been taken back by Turkey from Greece after the First World War. Issigonis’s father died on the road to exile, but he arrived with his mother in Britain in 1922, virtually penniless. He studied engineering and technical drawing in London before getting work, first for Humber and then for Morris Motors. His Mini-Minor was commissioned in the immediate aftermath of the Suez Crisis when petrol shortages had focussed attention on the case for cheap, economical cars. The country was already latching onto the bubble cars being imported from the continent and soon being made at a factory in Brighton. Issigonis’s brief was to produce something for the British Motor Corporation that could compete with these products, but that was also a proper car, not a motorbike sidecar with its own motor. He not only made it look good, but by turning round the engine and placing it over the wheels, he found a way of making more space for passengers than in any other small car. Issigonis’s design was so radical it needed a complete set of new machine tools to produce; he designed them, too.
The Mini would become an icon of British ‘cool,’ a chirpy, cheeky little car that represented the national character at its classless best. But some of the earliest minis were shoddily built, with a series of mechanical problems and poor trim; more importantly they leaked so badly that people joked that every car should be sold with a free pair of Wellington boots. In fact, for a while, the car looked as if it would be a disaster for Issigonis and BMC. The costings behind it were also questionable. The basic model sold at Ł350, much cheaper than rival British-made small cars like the Triumph Herald (Ł495), the Ford Anglia (Ł380) and even the Morris Minor (Ł416). But the average retail price of the car was Ł500, which probably better reflected the production costs of the Austin and Morris factories that manufactured it en masse.
Yet the Mini had been very expensive to develop and make. Ford, one of its main competitors, tore one apart and concluded that it would cost them more to build than BMC was selling it for. It seems unlikely that to begin with at least, they made any profit, but they eventually sold more than five million. But its success and longevity only really came about due to celebrity endorsement, and even ‘spin.’ Issigonis gave one to Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden as a wedding present, so that they could be photographed whizzing around London in it. The Queen tried one out, and soon Steve McQueen, Twiggy, The Beatles, Marianne Faithfull, and Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, were seen in them too. In this way, became and remained a fashion icon, taking part with the Spice Girls in the opening ceremony of the Olympics in 2012.
This was completely the opposite image of the original BMC idea of a cheap, no-frills car for the working-classes. The mechanical problems, lack of good teamwork and risky pricing strategy show that there was a shaky side to the Mini story from the start. Issigonis’s biographer concluded that ‘far from being a business triumph for the shaky British Motor Corporation, the Mini was the first nail in their coffin.’ Still, as yet, with fast economic growth and an insatiable appetite for affordable cars, the domestic industry continued to do well. Despite competition from continental and American companies, other British producers were marketing long-lived and successful models, from sleek Jaguars to solid and stately Rover Eights and Fifties. Industrial action was growing, and there was a particularly bad strike at BMC in 1958. Ministers, still largely drawn from public school and aristocratic backgrounds rather than manufacturing or business ones were trying to bring employment to run-down parts of Scotland and the North of England. They were finally responding to the concerns about the growing North-South divide. They persuaded BMC to create a cumbersome and expensive empire of new factories which it did not have the experience to manage properly.
The white heat of the technological revolution.
Little of this was obvious to the ordinary observer back then, in the early stages of popular motoring mania. It was hardly surprising that few bright British engineering students went to work in the British motor industry compared with the best of the Germans and Americans going into their equivalents. Instead, there was ominous talk of the ‘stagnant society.’ But in October 1963, Harold Wilson, then leader of the Labour Opposition and Prime Minister from 1964 and throughout the remainder of the sixties, predicted that Britain would be re-forged in the white heat of the technological revolution.
Successive Conservative governments had failed to understand the structural changes that had occurred in both domestic and international economies. They adopted a policy of complacency. Affluence and consensus were key concepts of the fifties and sixties, but both were based on illusion. In 1964 the Labour Party, under Harold Wilson, came into power, promising economic and social modernisation. In an attempt to tackle the problem of poverty, public expenditure on social services was expanded considerably, resulting in a small degree of redistribution of income. Living standards continued to rise and consumer goods became more available to all.
In the late 1950s new kinds of computers were built, using small transistors instead of electric valves. These still took up huge amounts of space, used up a lot of electricity and often became overheated, causing them to break down. It wasn’t until the 1960s that computers became cheaper and faster. The silicon chip was invented so that computers used less electricity and were able to hold thousands of transistors in a small space. This enabled the development of the micro-computer, changing almost every aspect of British life since.
As the 1960s progressed, alternative sources of energy were discovered, including large reserves of oil and gas. North Sea natural gas and oil came to the aid of the British economy. The EEC did not, however, not until the early 1970s.
Many ‘foreigners’ in politics and business began increasingly to talk of the ‘British disease’, economic stagnation. So, too, did the British themselves, seeing joining the ‘Common Market’ as a means to boost British exports following the loss of empire.
Sources for the Epilogue:
Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964), Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson Educational.
Theo Baker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books (in association with André Deutsch & the BBC).
Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.
Simon Hall & John Haywood (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.
Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.
Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: HarperCollins.