Joan Bakewell: Macmillan could afford to be optimistic in his day

Harold Macmillan is with us again, stalking the stage of the National Theatre in the totally convincing person of Jeremy Irons... the same long, lean gait, the bristling moustache, the body language displaying breeding and charm.

But this is a play by Howard Brenton, a playwright of the left whom I recall back in the heady days of '68 exhorting a crowded room of would-be rebels (courtesy of the Edinburgh Fringe) to defy established institutions and controlling academe. Yet here he presents us with a benign portrait of the man who for six years as prime minister inspired the scorn and derision of the new satirists and political activists. What has changed?

We are older, for a start. Last year I was invited by the BBC's Daily Politics programme to profile whoever I thought had been the best post-war prime minister. I plumped for Macmillan whom I too had once mocked. I, too, had come to realise how canny and conciliatory he was, how his experience of the trenches and the depression of the 1930s had instilled in him a genuine compassion and concern for the poor and unemployed. But what the play captures and the era of the Sixties exemplifies is the growing optimism of those times.

On stage, this is brilliantly caught in the shifting dance styles, moving from hierarchical ballroom dancing to the infectious freedom of the swinging Sixties. In reality, we lived in a time of rising expectations, when those expectations could be fulfilled. The branding and marketing of consumer goods was just getting going. The skills of advertising jingles and commercials were first being exploited on a wide and creative scale.

The coming of new shops – stylish boutiques with affordable clothes – was something exciting in our lives. Not surprisingly, we enjoyed the novelty without any sense of having a right to such things, or any sense of grievance that we didn't have more. There was an innocent delight in innovation and pleasure that replaced the glum acceptance that had prevailed throughout the Fifties. Bridget Riley once called the Sixties the party at the end of the war. Things could only get better, and they did and Macmillan got the credit.

But there was at that time no cure for cancer, polio left children crippled, rheumatism gnarled the fingers of ageing workers, former miners still died from pneumoconiosis. Life expectancy was shorter, a visit to the dentist painful and childbirth for many still a private procedure between a mother and her midwife. No-one today would settle for the life we had then, yet we look back on it as a time of relative happiness.

And what of today? Predictions tell us we will have to moderate our expectations. The rising curve of prosperity and consumer indulgence is coming to an end. Folly at the banks and the scarcity of the planet's resources are combining to offer the reverse of the rising expectations that fuelled the Sixties euphoria.

The rush to own a second home will be curbed, the year-round holiday breaks will have to go, the buy-and-throw-away wardrobe will sober up, the joys of eating out at posh restaurants will be foregone. Expectations all round will face disappointment. Unhappiness looms. Yet all those things – the second home, cheap flights, easy clothes, fancy food – didn't exist at all back in the Sixties and we managed to have a pretty good time without them. You simply don't miss what you don't know.

Macmillan was lucky to be prime minister at such a time, and acknowledged as much. "Events, dear boy, events," he famously declared when asked what had shaped his career. Gordon Brown is having tougher luck and it remains to be seen whether the public mood adjusts accordingly. The hedonistic recklessness that has characterised our times will need to change. We need more thoughtful, more measured ways of deciding just what it is we want from life and from our politics. We are behaving like the baby that has thrown all its gaudy toys from the pram and expects someone to simply put them back where they were. Instead, it might be wiser to settle for a good suck of our thumb.

These low expectations refer primarily to externals – the economy, the availability of goods, of mortgages, of opportunities to get rich. But there are still plenty of things of which we can expect much: the developments in technology that deluge us with more and more gadgetry at falling prices, the availability of music whenever and however we wish it, the developments in medicine that promise treatments for the ailments that still dog our old age – Alzheimer's, Parkinsons.

For more personal satisfactions we'll need to be imaginative. For a start, how about enjoying the springtime!