Is Britain really a worse society?

Sad 1950s were hardly a golden age

To most people who had the misfortune to grow up during the Fifties, the idea that the moral way ahead for Britain today consists of fighting our way back to that decade must fill them with gloom and foreboding.

In the Fifties, according to this simple-minded litany, families stayed together and prayed together, eating their corned beef off the very best Bakelite; young men put Brylcreem on their hair and went out to work, and the nation had yet to lose its innocence. Society was orderly and long-suffering, watching as its weekly bacon ration climbed from one ounce to five in 1950, then back down again to three. Decorum, self-control and respect for one's elders and betters reigned supreme. For our middle- aged rulers, and pre-eminently for John Major, Fifties-man incarnate, this was the golden age.

They are right in pointing out the distinctiveness of the decade. The war had been over for years, but it threw a long shadow. A generation who would have been approaching their prime had been lost, and National Service, rationing, and a legacy of strict social control ensured that the survivors were not allowed to forget.

Ordinary people's expectations were kept tightly in check, and the wild exuberance of America in the heyday of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley seemed to come from another planet.

It was the loneliest 10 years that Britain has lived through this century; relative to our allies, especially America, it was also a time of poverty. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan may, in 1957, have declared "You've never had it so good," but he was talking to a population that had put up with clothing rationing until 1949, food rationing until 1954, and was not able to buy imported clothes again until 1958.

"Set the people free" had been the Tories' slogan during their successful election campaign of 1951, but the chains of austerity clanked around the ankles of working people until well into the Sixties.

It was Britain's loneliest decade because the truth was sinking in, through the war in Malaya and the debacle overSuez, that our days as a great power were over.

Churchill, Eden and Macmillan continued to act on the world stage, but in 1957 the EEC was set up without us. America remained our ally, but the economic and cultural disparity between the two countries was by now embarrassingly large: while the US roared ahead, at a peak of brashness, self-confidence and charisma, the UK limped behind - a pale imitation. It took Carnaby Street, the Mini-Minor and the Beatles, years later, to restore a little pride.

Perhaps it is precisely the true littleness of England in the Fifties that gives it such a nostalgic charge for people alarmed about the way we are going today. It was in the Fifties that words like "teenager" and "delinquent" became common currency - but these were imports from mad, bad America.

Look into this distant mirror: in a still from BBC Television's 6.05 Special, Lonnie Donegan, top artiste of skiffle, England's derivative answer to rock 'n' roll, grins his way through a number, while his audience, wearing long, flared skirts and poplin blouses and blazers, hands clasped, faces blank or slightly pensive, gaze at him as if he were giving them a lecture on personal hygiene.

This was a society which, thanks largely to the exhaustion of war, was thoroughly stuck: and it is that stuckness that may now seem enviable. At the time, however, for thinking people, it was well nigh unendurable. The characteristic English voices of the Fifties are those of John Osborne, Kingsley Amis and the "Movement" poets such as Philip Larkin: railing with bitter scorn at England's class system, its imperial pretensions, cultural mediocrity, etc, etc, yet closed, in a way that was true neither of earlier or of later decades, to influence from outside.

For all the formidable problems our society faces today, we can be thankful that such poisonous insularity is behind us. For now.

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