The Last War and After

The Last War and After

It is often denied that any practical lessons are to be learnt from history: Philip Guedalla, for example, wrote that ‘history repeats itself with differences and it is the differences that make all the difference’. But at least so far as social and economic affairs were concerned the Conservative Government of 1939 based most of its plans on experiences acquired during the war of 1914-18. Two Emergency Powers Acts were passed in 1939 and 1940 giving the Government almost unlimited authority. Ministries of Home Security, National Service, Economic Warfare, Food, Shipping and Information were all set up at once. Petrol rationing was introduced. Local agricultural committees were appointed. Conscription was imposed up to the age of forty-one and lists of persons who could be employed in the vast amount of additional administrative and intelligence duties required in war time had been drawn up. The Government was fully aware that once again the island, in which over forty-six million people now dwelt, needed to be safeguarded against starvation. Among other things it was hoped that the invention of Asdic, an apparatus for detecting the position of submarines under water, would enable merchant shipping to be adequately protected by destroyers. Escorts for convoys were instituted from the outset.

But of course the differences since 1918 were marked. It was generally believed that once war was declared London and other cities would immediately be attacked by German bomber aircraft. The bombers, it was thought, could not be stopped from reaching their targets, even though radar could give sufficient warning to fighter command and the troops manning the aircraft batteries. As one walked along Whitehall in September 1939, one asked oneself how many buildings, from the Admiralty to the Treasury, would be left standing in a few weeks’ time. Beds were prepared in hospitals to receive huge numbers of casualties. Arrangements had been made for the evacuation from towns believed to be in most danger of four million schoolchildren with their teachers and children under five with their mothers, though in fact only a million and a half went, which helped the operation to be completed smoothly. Air raid shelters and gas masks were made available. Wealthy parents packed their children off to friends or relatives in the United States and Canada. A previous decision to evacuate whole Ministries from London was countermanded.’ Deep shelters were ready to provide protection for meetings of Cabinet Ministers.

The second main difference from what happened at the beginning of the previous world war was that for the first ten months nothing happened at all. There were no air raids on England and no fighting on the western front. A number of merchant ships were sunk by U-boats, as well as a battleship thought to be safely anchored at Scapa Flow in Scotland. The period of phoney war, as it came to be called, had some curious consequences. Because of the continuing fear of air raids a ‘blackout’ was imposed at night, which brought increased deaths and injuries on the roads. It also resulted in high-minded citizens badgering such of their neighbours as allowed shafts of electric light to penetrate their windows. A million of the women and children evacuated from the towns returned home after taking a dislike to the country, while their hosts and hostesses often failed to welcome children from the slums, who were sometimes dirty and misbehaved. One or two theatres, which were shut at the start of the war, bravely reopened. The army rejected volunteers on the grounds that the regiments were at full strength and, as in 1914, rifles and ammunition were scarce.2 A few men who wanted to get away from their wives or were unemployed enlisted. During 1939-40 unemployment remained at a figure of around a million.

The Government, which had at first made itself unpopular by appeasing the German dictator, Hitler, and then turned round and pledged itself to lend all support in its power to protect the independence of Poland, Romania and Greece (which in fact it had no means of doing), became understandably even more unpopular. Thus it was not until 10 May 1940, when the German army, after violating the neutrality of Holland and Belgium, invaded France and cut off the British army stationed to the left of the French line, that the patriotic spirit engendered at the outset of the previous war was aroused and the English people braced themselves for sacrifices.

The Government did its utmost to keep down the cost of living. Immediately after the outbreak of war it extended rent control to about 90 per cent of unfurnished houses. Food subsidies were introduced in December 1939. ‘Utility clothing’ became available at modest prices from the spring of 1942. ‘Points rationing’, which gave consumers a choice of how to use their rations, was applied to clothing and certain foods. That these measures succeeded in their aim was shown by the fact that whereas between the beginning of the war and December 1945 wages increased in value by over 5o per cent, the cost of living during the same period rose by only just over 30 per cent.

Churchill as Prime Minister from May 1940 made a brilliant choice when he persuaded Ernest Bevin, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, to accept the post of Minister of Labour and National Service. Already a list of ‘reserved occupations’ had been issued to preclude skilled workmen essential to the production of munitions from being called up by the armed services. In spite of the large number of men who were enlisted, by the middle of 1940 the number employed in industry had fallen by only half a million. This was partly because the population was still growing, partly because more women and youngsters took jobs, and partly because immigrants were still arriving to offer their help in the war effort. After 1941 the age at which men could be conscripted for military service was raised from forty-one to fifty, and the Minister of Labour and National Service was empowered to call up women between the ages of twenty and thirty to do war work. The War Cabinet had been reluctant to agree to the conscription of women because it feared that servicemen might resent such treatment of their wives: in fact this power was cautiously exercised and caused little umbrage.

The problem of finding the resources with which to wage the war after the fall of France was met in various ways. Domestic consumption was reduced by rationing, by imposing income tax at io shillings in the pound, by the imposition of Pay As You Earn (PAYE), which deducted tax immediately from salaries and wages, and by the device of levying further deductions through a scheme of post-war credits invented by J.M. Keynes. The consequence was that some 55 per cent of the cost of the war was met out of taxation and personal expenditure on consumer goods fell from £4,309,000,000 in 1939 to £3,706,000,000 in 1944.

Such savings in public expenditure only assisted the purchase of food and raw materials from countries belonging to the ‘sterling area’. Imports from the United States, Canada and other countries outside the sterling area had to be paid for in gold or dollars. At the outset of the war Treasury regulations required that all holdings of foreign currencies and gold had to be offered for sale to the Government. Though foreign investments amounted to some 3,000,000,000, only about £700,000,000 was actually available for spending abroad. Out of US $335,000,000 the Government paid in cash for all imports bought up to November 1940. By the following year it was expected that dollar credits would be exhausted. However, in March 1941 the United States Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which empowered the American President to supply arms to other countries on any terms. So far as Great Britain was concerned, no provision was made for repayment and ‘no formal account kept in dollars or sterling’.3 Lend-Lease ended on 2 September 1945 on the rapid conclusion of the war against Japan. By the final settlement with the United States the Government had to repay only $650,000,000.

Unquestionably the war created a spirit of comradeship and altruism. No doubt a black market came into being and instances of profiteering, especially among farmers, were to be found. But the presence of Ernest Bevin and other Labour representatives in the National Government ensured that little scope for inequalities was allowed. Excess profits were taxed; rationing was strict; in the army promotion from the ranks was commonplace. Any skilful man could be trained as an officer. In the London underground stations, where families without shelters slept during the German bombing of the capital, in the fire stations, largely manned by elderly auxiliaries, among the air raid wardens and Home Guards a camaraderie inconceivable in peace time developed rapidly. The American soldiers and airmen who flooded the country between 1942 and 1944 introduced the ‘Jack is as good as his master’ attitude characteristic of the United States. The contrast with the class society that prevailed in pre-war England was obvious. Men and women grew to understand how the ‘other half’ lived. A story told of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister is symptomatic. Driving through London one day he stopped his car to find out why a long queue of men and women was assembled outside a shop: he learned they were queuing for bird seed.

Many were convinced that ‘war socialism’, that is to say, the taking over of industries such as coalmining by the State, worked satisfactorily. Moreover, most of the fighting men doubted whether a Conservative Government, which had been in office for fifteen years between the two wars, was likely to establish full employment and a Welfare State. When a general election was held in July 1945 their wives told canvassers that they could not say how they would vote until they heard from their husbands. Because of these reactions the Labour Party, founded in 1900, for the first time won a victory that gave it complete power.

The five years after the war were a period of difficulty mingled with hope. While fewer than half the men perished in the fighting than did in the 1914-18 war, over 60,000 civilians had been killed in air attacks and 240,000 injured. Factories and houses had been destroyed or damaged and needed to be rebuilt. Foreign investments worth £1,118,000,000 had been sold and the value of exports had fallen from a quarterly average of £3,117,000,000 in 1939 to £821,000,000 in 1944. Shipping needed replacing, railway equipment required renewing, huge debts had to be repaid and military commitments, particularly in the occupation of Germany, were costly. One bright spot was that farming had been so intensively mechanized during the war that British agriculture became the most efficient in Europe.

The financial situation was remedied partly by borrowing £1,100,000,000 (3.75 billion dollars) from the United States Government free of interest for six years and then at the low rate of 2 per cent, partly by joining the International Monetary Fund, which undertook to lend to member countries in difficulties, and partly by the institution of an ‘export drive’ aimed at increasing the total value of sales abroad by 175 per cent. Exchange controls were retained; so was rationing. Indeed, bread was also rationed for the first time in July 1946. Restaurants, which had previously substituted bread for potatoes, now substituted potatoes for bread. But no one was allowed to spend more than 5 shillings (25p) on a meal out. The Chancellor of the Exchequer appointed in 1947, Sir Stafford Cripps, was an austere figure himself and preached the virtues of austerity with puritanical fervour. From the beginning of 1948 he enjoyed fresh financial assistance from the United States: the American Secretary of State, General George Marshall, was afraid of Russian intentions towards Europe after the Soviet Union had become supreme behind the Iron Curtain, and he was able to persuade Congress to vote money to aid recovery in western Europe. The British share came to £700,000,000, without any obligation to repay.

In spite of all this help – and the target of a 175 per cent rise in the value of exports was exceeded by 1950 – the balance of payments remained adverse, with the consequence that in 1949 the pound had to be devalued from $4.05 to $2.80. One reason for the devaluation was the higher cost of imports owing to the natural growth in demand for materials essential to post-war reconstruction. The transcendence of the almighty dollar had to be recognized: the idea of maintaining anything like the pre-war value of sterling in terms of the dollar was abandoned. For the time being devaluation stimulated exports and thus enabled the price of imports to be paid more easily.

As in 1918, during the years immediately after the war ended young men and women trusted that they had fought for a better world, not merely ‘homes for heroes to live in’ – though these were badly needed – but relief from the unemployment that had pulverized the country until 1940, and escape from poverty, the kind of poverty below a minimum subsistence level that philanthropists and social reformers had unveiled in English towns in the nineteen-twenties and thirties.

In planning for reconstruction Sir William Beveridge, an able and experienced administrator who had been concerned with social welfare thirty years earlier, had been invited to draw up an insurance scheme which, as he expressed it, would ensure freedom from want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. What he advocated in his report, published in 1942, was an all-embracing scheme of national insurance, covering not only unemployment, but illness, destitution and the needs of old age. Everyone, including the self-employed, was to be required to buy weekly insurance stamps. Out of the proceeds the unemployed were to receive benefits and, if needed, supplementary assistance, the retired were to obtain higher pensions, and large families were to be helped with money grants. The Government also decided to establish a free State medical service open to all and paid for by taxation. The means test, the workhouse and, in theory at least, the stigma attached to seeking public assistance were all to be abolished. Instead of the dismal workhouses of pre-war England local authorities were empowered to find decent residential accommodation where the old, the sick and the infirm could live in some degree of comfort. The Poor Law was to be killed stone-dead.

All the political parties accepted the Beveridge plan. In June 1945 family allowances were introduced and school meals were provided for nothing. The National Insurance Bill was passed in August. After complicated arguments with the doctors a State medical service, which included consultants, physicians and surgeons, was established in November 1946. Private hospitals were taken over by local authorities or run as charities. Pills and medicines sold in chemists’ shops on prescription were paid for by the Ministry of Health. The sick (and the hypochondriacs) could confidently go to a surgery and obtain prescriptions.

So the Welfare State came into being. But two serious difficulties arose, unexpected by idealists. The first was that the health scheme proved enormously expensive. In the years to come governments both of the right and left were obliged to introduce charges for dentistry, spectacles and prescriptions. Secondly, the original intention had been to set up clinics where some measure of specialization could be arranged among doctors. Few such clinics came into existence. Doctors in cities were often overloaded with work, though country physicians were not. Gradually group practices were increased to the mutual benefit of doctors and patients.

With the return of large-scale unemployment in the late nineteen-sixties the cost of the health service rose substantially. The discovery of new and costly medicines and two devaluations of the pound, which raised the price of imported drugs, magnified the total bill. Another major difficulty in the evolution of the Welfare State was that the assumption made in a White Paper published by the Churchill Government and adopted in Beveridge’s book, Full Employment in a Free Society, that unemployment could be conquered, was not realized. After the war informed people besides Beveridge believed that an unemployment rate of 8 to 1o per cent could be tolerated because it simply meant that workmen were changing jobs, that for family reasons a number of men and women were temporarily out of work, and that school leavers (the leaving age was raised to fifteen in 1947 and sixteen in 1972) were not yet absorbed. During the period of reconstruction and for some years afterwards full employment was attained; but by 1981 it was higher than during the depression of the thirties.

Besides inaugurating the Welfare State, the second (and on the whole less successful) achievement of the Labour Government was the nationalization of much of the country’s industry and finance, long regarded by convinced socialists as a cure-all for the ills of capitalism. The first industry to be nationalized in 1946 was coal. Except for the owners, who were generously compensated, few doubted the wisdom of this step. Indeed, it had been recommended by Lord Sankey twenty-six years earlier. In the same year an act nationalizing the Bank of England and the Cable and Wireless Acts were passed. A Civil Aviation Act, also passed in the same year, gave a monopoly to British European Airways and British Overseas Airways, covering the rest of the world; this was operative from 1949. The two lines, though heavily subsidized by the government, were never a financial success, for they had to meet competition from the airlines of other countries; and in 1960 their monopoly was broken. By 1981 they had been amalgamated, but their condition was parlous. In 1947 a Transport Act not only nationalized the railways but also road haulage and the canals. Later long-distance haulage was returned to private enterprise. In the same year the Electricity Act and in the following year a Gas Act were passed. Iron and steel nationalization did not become effective until October 1950.

The organization of these industries varied somewhat, but a considerable degree of uniformity was to be found in the nationalization of coal, transport, electricity, gas, and iron and steel. Other monopolies, some of which – broadcasting, for example – were established before the war, were corporations. The power of Ministers, who had to answer for them in the House of Commons, consisted chiefly in making appointments, usually of chairmen and boards of governors or directors. In theory it was not a ministerial duty to answer detailed questions about the working of the nationalized industries in Parliament, but in practice Ministers often had to do so.

The case for nationalization sprang partly from the conviction that public ownership, which eliminated wasteful competition, was to the interest of the whole community, and partly from the belief that effective economic planning was impossible without control over the basic industries of the country. Nationalization was thought of by its prophets as a means to full employment, high productivity and social justice. Few of the nationalized industries succeeded in doing all this, or did so only by taking advantage of their monopoly positions to put up prices. Ten years after their inception the National Coal Board’s deficit was £32.6 millions, the British Transport Commission’s was £90.2 millions and that of the two Airway Boards was £28 millions.

It has been cynically argued that it would have been wiser for the Government to take over industries already making a profit, such as life insurance or chemicals, instead of staple industries that had been struggling to survive for years. Apart from this the case against nationalization could be put together from a number of generalized criticisms. First, it has been considered a misfortune that industries should be made the plaything of political parties. Iron and steel, for example, was first nationalized, then denationalized and after that largely renationalized again. Road haulage was denationalized so as to challenge the railways in their freight business. British Airways gradually lost their monopolies, as did the BBC. On the other hand, all parties accepted the nationalization of coal and the railways, gas and electricity, and in 1954 a Conservative Government established an Atomic Energy Authority.

Another criticism was that big industries were insufficiently decentralized. It was also argued that despite the existence of various tribunals and advisory bodies the interests of consumers were not adequately catered for: these monopolies, it was asserted, were run for the benefit of the work force rather than the community at large. A contradictory argument was that all these organizations were undemocratic because representatives of the workers took no direct part in their management. The ideals of what was called in the twenties ‘guild socialism’ were ignored. In fact it is broadly true that the trade unions did not want to participate in the running of large industries, for they regarded it as their primary duty to secure good wages and conditions for their members by fighting the management, not by co-operating with it. They were able to do this more easily because they now had to deal with one centralized body of management, which, if it was compelled to grant concessions it could not really afford, was able in the last resort to appeal to the government for financial aid.

Although in due course many railway lines and stations were closed, unprofitable coal mines were shut down and air routes were abandoned to private enterprise, it could be contended that had these concerns not been publicly owned, the existence of the profit motive might have forced them to cut their coat according to their cloth more drastically and rapidly. Even the Labour Party, which was responsible for the nationalization of industries, was split asunder in the nineteen-fifties when its leader, Hugh Gaitskell, expressed his belief that the moral and economic case for nationalization had ceased to be acceptable and advocated its excision from the Party’s programme.

In 1951 the Labour Government that had presided over the inception of the Welfare State and the revolutionary spread of nationalization had come to an end, and a Festival of Britain, held on the south bank of the river Thames in London, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, was hopefully regarded as pointing the way to another era of progress nurtured by private enterprise. Marshall Aid was suspended at the beginning of the year, a deficit in the balance of payments persisted and the loss of gold and dollars was described as the worst on record. To cope with the situation income tax was increased by 6d to 9s 6d in the pound, the amount allowed for foreign travel was reduced to a ludicrous £25, a charge for medical prescriptions was imposed for the first time and food subsidies were reduced from £410,000,000 to £250,000,000.

In 1952, however, the outlook brightened. At last the restrictions introduced during the war were lifted. Most food was derationed and in 1954 the Ministry of Food was itself abolished. Industrial production rose, the terms of trade improved, exchange controls were relaxed and the Bank rate was lowered first to 3.5 per cent and then to 3 per cent. Wage rates, notably those of coal miners and engineers, were raised and the Government celebrated by increasing the salaries of Members of Parliament from £1,000 to £1,500 a year. By the summer of 1955 unemployment had fallen to less than 1 per cent of the insured population. Two years later the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was able to proclaim that the British people ‘had never had it so good’.

After a mild recession in 1957-8, which necessitated a credit squeeze, recovery fully set in at the end of the nineteen-fifties: wage rates were higher, exports rose, unemployment fell and even the cotton industry, which was being reorganized with government help, claimed to be ‘in better shape and heart than for years’.4 The rate of industrial growth, though less dramatic than in other industrial countries, ‘was faster than in any previous period of equal length in British history’ in the twenty-five years from 1948 onwards.5 The community benefited from the expansion in world economic activity and a policy of cheap money was conducive to capital investment.

During this happy era of full employment and economic growth the British Empire was gradually disappearing. Although Winston Churchill, who had declared during the war that it was not his intention to preside over the dissolution of the Empire, was again Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955, he had already acquiesced in the independence of India, which after an initial blood-bath was divided into the Dominions of India and Pakistan. Years before Lord Curzon had prophesied that so long as the British ruled India they would remain a great power, but that once it was lost it would be a third-rate power; while Gandhi in 1942 had assured President Franklin Roosevelt, who disliked ‘British imperialism’, that as soon as India was free, the rest of the Empire would be dismantled.6 So it proved. After Anthony Eden, who replaced Churchill as Prime Minister, had vainly waved the imperial flag by fighting the Egyptians when they nationalized the Suez Canal, his successor, Macmillan, recognized ‘the winds of change’ in Africa. In 1957 the Gold Coast led the way by becoming the independent republic of Ghana. In quick succession Nigeria, Tanganyika, Uganda and Kenya followed, and in 1965 the white rulers of Southern Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of independence. The expense involved in liquidating the Empire, sustaining the ‘sterling area’, which for a time replaced it, and jeopardizing markets has not yet been analysed, but it was certainly burdensome. In 1966 the Colonial Office was abolished. As to the Empire, after it had first been rechristened the British Commonwealth and then the Commonwealth of Nations, it dissolved into an amicable periodic meeting of English-speaking heads of state, as at Melbourne in 1981.

The transformation of the British Empire into the Commonwealth in the course of a generation had an immense effect on the social and economic life of England, for it helped to change it into a multiracial society. To start with, it was the law of the land that anyone with a British passport might settle in England. Poverty in the erstwhile imperial components of the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Malta and Cyprus drove many to emigrate to a country enjoying prosperity and a generous standard of social welfare. By 1962 it was realized that what had become a flood of immigrants had to be checked and a Commonwealth Immigration Act was passed which came into force on 1 July: this made provision for the control of immigration and for the deportation of criminals. A scheme was introduced dividing immigrants into three categories, those with definite offers of employment, those with special skills such as doctors, dentists, nurses and teachers, and lastly those looking for work. The third category was abolished in 1965, when a limit of 8,000 was imposed.

By 1968 long waiting lists existed. Every immigrant who settled was allowed to bring over his family or ‘dependants’, who were on average 2.7 persons. The dependants had to obtain certificates from British consuls in the countries from which they came. About half the immigrants who had offers of employment came from the West Indies and Malta and a quarter from India and Pakistan. Half of the total number of immigrants found work in manufacturing industries, chiefly in the Midlands, about a quarter secured work in catering as waiters and waitresses or on kitchen staffs, mainly in London and south-east England, and 12 per cent were employed in transport.7 The question has often been asked whether the London transport system could function without them. The Indians and Pakistanis proved themselves first-class workers, willing to accept longer hours than Englishmen.

Although immigrants were protected by a Race Relations Act in 1968 employers tended to prefer white people for the better-paid jobs, and the same pattern emerged as could be seen in the United States, with coloured people doing most of the dirty work. An independent inquiry conducted by Lord Scarman in 1981 suggested that they should be given wider opportunities of employment. However, no deliberate segregation in schools and in clubs took place. Such segregation as existed was voluntary, because the coloured people tended to congregate in specific areas such as Notting Hill in London and Nottingham in the Midlands. At times riots were sparked off; at times coloured communities have been antagonized by the actions of the police; and in the nineteen-seventies rising unemployment created animosity among immigrants willing to work, even though another Act passed in December 1971 further restricted immigration by requiring would-be settlers to show that one of their parents or grandparents had been born in the United Kingdom or that they themselves had been settled there for five years. By 1981 the number of such immigrants was estimated to be about 2,500,000. On the whole, multiracialism has been accepted as a new and tolerable fact of life. Many Englishmen cannot fail to admire the contribution made by immigrant settlers, whether railwaymen or bus conductors, doctors or nurses, professional cricketers or footballers, to the fabric of society.

A factor which influenced the break-up of the Commonwealth was the decision taken by a Conservative Government in 1961 to apply for membership of the European Economic Community. This Community had been formed in 1958 after the signature in the previous year of the Treaty of Rome by Italy, France, West Germany, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, the aim being to stimulate international trade by the creation of a duty-free Common Market. In 1959 the British Government had retorted by organizing and joining a European Free Trade Association, a Customs union consisting of seven other countries, most of them more modest than those in ‘the inner circle’.

In spite of the establishment of EFTA and the existence of imperial preferences, which survived from the Ottawa conference of 1932, and in spite of the opposition of the Labour Party, the decision was taken three years later to apply for admission to the Common Market. Surprisingly, the application was rejected, but as exports remained steady and unemployment was negligible the snub was not at first considered significant. When in 1964 a Labour Government came to power and set up a Ministry of Economic Affairs, dedicated to planning an export drive to put right the balance of payments (in deficit by £356,000,000), for a short time exports to the sterling area or Commonwealth countries increased.

But then the position began to deteriorate. By 1967 the deficit increased to £5oo,000,000 and the pound had to be devalued. Five years later a floating exchange rate was introduced, which meant that the pound sterling was allowed to find its own level, protected merely by high interest rates and the ability to draw on the International Bank. Thus the sterling area in effect came to an end. In June 1972 the unemployment total reached a million for the first time since before the Second World War. A Conservative Government, which had been elected in June 1970, faced with unemployment, inflation and numerous strikes, resolved to make a fresh application for membership of the Common Market (a decimal coinage had been established on 15 February 1971, abolishing the old half-crowns, shillings, pennies and farthings). This time the application was accepted by the Six and on 1 January 1973 Great Britain became a member of the European Economic Community. A Labour Government elected in March 1974, after renegotiating the terms of membership, held a referendum asking the electorate whether it approved of joining the EEC; a majority of two to one said ‘yes’. But it proved to be no magical panacea.

In the very year that Great Britain joined the EEC there was a staggering increase in world commodity prices, and the price of petrol, vital to the whole economic and social life of the community, multiplied fivefold. The deficit on the balance of payments was over £900,000,000. Inflation set in. Workmen were laid off by private industry. State-run industries had to thin down with redundancies and the level of unemployment was higher than in the depression of the early nineteen-thirties. But one difference between the situation in the seventies and that in the thirties was that unemployment was now accompanied by rising prices. Consequently, despite the high level of unemployment many strikes shattered the public. During the seventies even nurses, ambulance men, hospital workers, firemen and Civil Servants went on strike, always for more pay to offset higher prices.

By 1975 the value of money to the consumer was not much more than one-fifth of what it had been thirty years earlier. Ministers and Members of Parliament, who voted themselves bigger salaries (£13,150 a year in the Commons and an allowance of £36 a day in the Lords), and chairmen of nationalized industries with salaries soaring towards £100,000 a year found an understandable difficulty in preaching wage restraint. Each month the rate of inflation rose and the Government congratulated itself if it was less than 10 per cent. The prices of coal, gas, electricity, postage, telephones and petrol went up; and it was small consolation to drivers to be told that owing to the discovery of oil in the North Sea Great Britain was in the process of becoming self-sufficient, for the price was not reduced, though after a panic in the nineteen-fifties, owing to restrictions by the Arab countries, a glut had prevailed.

During the nineteen-seventies prices rose steadily throughout the world. The government in England, whatever its political complexion, tended to argue that this was owing to excessive demand, so that wage freezes, credit squeezes, prices and incomes boards monitoring changes and desperate attempts to cut State expenditure were all tried in an effort to keep inflation under control. But because England is dependent on buying half its food and much of its raw materials abroad, the increase in import prices was a dominant factor; and rises in prices in turn stimulated demands for higher wages, which in general were met in spite of the huge pool of unemployed (amounting to over three million at the outset of 1982).

Thus the economic history of England over the last thirty-five years can be summarized as consisting of gradual recovery from the war at first, then a period of affluence and full employment lasting for more than fifteen years, and finally in the seventies a catastrophic phase of inflation and rising unemployment.

An outstanding social change in post-war England was in the attitude to sex. An act was passed allowing homosexual activity between consenting males who had reached the age of twenty-one. The law concerning prostitution was altered. As medical discoveries had made the two principal venereal diseases, syphilis and gonorrhea, easily curable, irregular intercourse became safer, although professional prostitutes (who were well organized) complained that there were too many amateurs about. A movement was started to legalize brothels. In 1960 a test case in the courts won the right to print Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in the twenties, as a paperback. Nude bathing was allowed at a marina in Brighton. Three national newspapers with large circulations, the Sun, the Daily Mirror and the News of the World, all relied on sex stories and illustrations to titillate their readers; but this was hardly new, only a little more blatant.

Nevertheless many people thought that the permissive society that was emerging had gone too far. The West End of London was now filled with blue cinemas and pornographic bookshops; and in any case commercial films such as Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, which were frank enough, could be shown in ordinary cinemas so long as they carried an X certificate banning the attendance of children. The exploitation of children for pornographic purposes was actually prohibited by a Protection of Children Act passed in 1978.

Another great social change was the progress of sexual equality. Women, who had played a full part in two world wars and had after a long struggle at last achieved political equality, were no longer treated as the weaker sex entitled to courtesies from, but not equal opportunities with, men. In 1967 abortion was legalized; in 1971 a Divorce Reform Act permitted a divorce to be obtained after three years’ wait if a marriage had irretrievably broken down; a pill invented as a contraceptive could be obtained on the National Health to allow family planning.

What was more important to women even than the right they acquired to determine whether they wanted children or not was the recognition that they were accorded as the equals of men in work and pay. The Equal Opportunities Act of 1975 required that with certain exceptions vacant posts must be thrown open to either sex. Avoiding any specification of their marital status, women could call themselves ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. The election in 1979 of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister was a unique triumph for her sex, though women had been Ministers of State before the last war. The Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 had enabled women to become judges or enter such professions as accountancy and banking. Policewomen had become a familiar sight, and by the 196os the working wife was quite usual, not only because she was able to increase the family income but because she valued her independence.

One way in which the egalitarian movement was most clearly demonstrated was in hairstyles and clothing. Previously the wearing of trousers had been a symbol of masculine superiority. By the sixties women were wearing trousers, and blouses were rechristened as shirts. Young men then began to wear their hair long and in the seventies the growing of beards became popular. The new fashions, though they might be characteristic of sexual equality, also had the advantage of being cheap. Trousers made of denim or ‘jeans’ were inexpensive; hair worn long needed only an occasional visit to a professional hairdresser, especially as ‘perms’ went out of fashion with the young. On the whole, in the ‘permissive society’ it was fashionable to be dowdy.

Another great equalizer was television. The British Broadcasting Corporation began putting out regular programmes in November 1936, but the service was suspended during the war. It was resumed soon afterwards and by 1951 commanded a million viewers. In 1954 the BBC’S monopoly was broken and a rival organization, the Independent Television Authority, was set up to issue franchises to selected commercial companies, which paid for their programmes out of advertising; their licences proved so profitable that they were called licences to print money. By the sixties television programmes could be received everywhere. As the price of sets fell and sets could be hired by the payment of monthly fees, millions of people watched the rival offerings. At one stage the BBC programmes were generally regarded as being for ‘them’ while the commercial programmes were for ‘us’ and won larger audiences. However, when the BBC was allowed to start a second programme in 1964 a very direct competition developed between the independent companies and BBC I: at times 60 per cent of the viewers favoured independent television; sometimes it was 5o per cent, and for a period in the late seventies the BBC went ahead. Since television was fabulously expensive to run the cost of television licences required by owners of sets, which had originally been £3 after the war, rose to £46 in 1981. The BBC felt it must prove its popularity so as to justify its claim to be given more licence money, naturally put forward during an era of galloping inflation

The programmes put out on three different channels became the subject of conversation almost as much as the weather. They made all men equal, just as Sir Robert Walpole is supposed to have justified his telling dirty stories because then anyone could join in the conversation. Did you see this or that was the question asked in clubs, shops and public houses. Thus television was an egalitarian and democratic institution. It was also educative. An ‘Open University’ was established which anyone could join and through which they could learn a variety of subjects from lectures and demonstrations given on BBC 2. But young people regarded television as a tyranny, because they found – since few families had more than one set – that it tied them too closely to the home circle. To get away from the old folks at home they preferred to go to the cinema or the public house. The film producers of the television age soon realized that the bulk of their audiences consisted of people between the ages of adolescence and marriage. Very few films induced the middle-aged to desert their television sets for an evening out. So the whole film industry, if not engaged in making films for television, had to adapt itself to a new and diminishing audience. ‘Super cinemas’, which had mushroomed during the inter-war period, disappeared and were replaced by small intimate theatres which gave their patrons only one film for their money.

The all-pervasiveness of television also transformed the Press. News was no longer of prime importance: no newspaper proprietor would have dreamt of bringing out a special edition on a Sunday to describe an air accident, as happened in the past, for television or radio could broadcast the story of any event of public interest hours before it could be recorded in print and distributed. So newspapers began to be filled with background stories, the lucubrations of columnists, interviews with public figures (often television stars), or investigations ‘in depth’. This broadening of newspapers hit general magazines of the kind relished by middle-class Victorians, which, unless they were heavily subsidized, disappeared. Few newspapers made much of a profit. If they failed to appear because of strikes by their employees, they were barely missed. (When it was suggested to Winston Churchill in the spring of 1955 that he should postpone the announcement of his resignation as Prime Minister because a newspaper strike was in progress, he rejected the idea out of hand. Everyone learned about it from broadcasts.) Even investigations in depth could be found in television documentaries.

Gambling was one of the substitutes for cinema-going from which newspapers obtained a little help. Many local cinemas were converted into bingo halls and in 1981 popular newspapers ran bingo competitions to sustain their circulation. Football pools, which sometimes produced huge prizes, as well as betting on horse and greyhound races, offered opportunities for newspapers to publish statistics for the guidance of their readers or to print the opinions of tipsters. A Betting and Gaming Act, passed in 1960, the principal aim of which was said to be to ‘enable innocent housewives to play whist for sixpence with their friends and no less innocent vicars to hold raffles and devote the proceeds to the restoration of their churches’,8 permitted the opening of betting shops all over the country, as well as casinos for the fleecing of the foolish rich. It was estimated that the turnover in betting and gambling of all sorts was about £300,000,000 a year. Although gambling had been popular enough before this, never did so many legal establishments exist to promote it. Even the government got into the act when in 1956 it started issuing premium bonds, which carried no interest but gave their holders the hope that they might win substantial prizes in monthly draws. If they bought enough of them they were more or less assured of some sort of prize one sunny day.

In the seventies many people thought – admittedly they thought this in every generation – that the quality of social life was deteriorating. Attacks on elderly men and women or ‘muggings’, frequent enough in New York or Washington, spread to London. Vandalism was increasingly commonplace. Burglaries were so usual, not only when high unemployment prevailed but also during the affluent fifties and sixties, that the police admitted that they could do little to prevent them or discover their perpetrators: this was equally true of vandalism. Yet among the young were many idealists. Voluntary service in developing countries was often undertaken by young married couples. Organizations like Oxfam and the Save the Children Fund had no difficulty in finding young helpers. Blood sports and nuclear warfare establishments were targets for many demonstrators.

Above all, unemployment was the real curse of society during the seventies, as it had been in the thirties, though it was tempered now by a more generous system of social security. Here, however, was a paradox. While in some areas, like Wales or north-east England, unemployment affected most trades, in London and the south-east it was selective. There plumbers, electricians, gardeners and other skilled workers were in short supply. A large number of commercial agencies sprang up to profit from the scarcity of nurses, secretaries, typists and clerks. Even relatively attractive work, such as that offered by the BBC, was frequently done by secretaries hired through agencies.

In holiday times London Transport would announce that trains and buses had to be cancelled because of ‘staff shortages’. If the question was asked why this was so, with hundreds of thousands unemployed, the answer was given that no one wanted to work ‘unsocial hours’, though many did. Also in London a vast amount of ‘moonlighting’ took place, that is to say, work done by men who had regular employment with relatively short hours and were anxious to add to their earnings by doing jobs in their spare time, both on weekdays and at week-ends. For such work they would normally be paid in cash and thus evaded taxes. The shorter hours worked, as compared with earlier times, also resulted in a lot of overtime being undertaken, not merely in an emergency but as a regular practice. According to the Ministry of Employment, the amount of overtime worked in Great Britain in the autumn of 1981 was equivalent to 88o,000 full-time jobs.9 In the capital middle-class people could earn bonuses or receive special London rates.

But it has to be recognized that bigger salaries and wages and the proceeds of higher taxes had been wisely invested, for example, in providing higher education at all levels: twenty-one new universities were founded in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and over half a million students now received full-time education at schools and technical colleges. Furthermore the leisure created by shorter working hours has resulted in much part-time education, particularly that provided by the Open University and by books made available through public libraries. Whether we have aimed at too high a standard of life, which we cannot really afford, is a difficult question to answer. But if it is a fault, it can be argued it is a fault on the right side.

Whereas historians writing about a past they have never known can reach judicious conclusions that can, they believe, be fully substantiated by statistical evidence – though, since history is not an exact science, they do not always agree with one another – in contemplating what has happened during one’s own brief time on earth, it is easy to be sunk in gloom and express moral disapprobation about the changes that are taking place. One can ask such questions as whether the institution of marriage is in peril, since one-third of present-day marriages end in divorce and one child in eight lives in a one-parent home. Will churches, lecture halls, theatres and cinemas become even emptier as more information is on tap from television and more entertainment from cassettes? Is there no solution to unemployment as microcomputers take over more and more of the work of calculation and mechanical processes, or can men and women derive benefits from the advance of technology so as to enjoy even greater leisure to pursue creative activities? In every age mankind looks back to a golden past; few trust in a golden future.

Looking back on the twentieth century and comparing it with the 2,500 years of our known history, one is wiser to count one’s blessings and in analysing the social and economic life of our times reflect that what has changed has generally been for the better. Different people will select different events that have transformed modern society. Some may think that air travel has been the most revolutionary event. It is now easy to cross the world quickly and visit one’s friends and relations wherever they may be or do first-hand business. This can or should kill narrow-mindedness. Others may plump for the cheap motor car, which has also broadened society, bringing town and country closer together. Then there is always television, the unforgettable discovery of the mid twentieth century, although no one agrees about the depth of its influence. Has it indeed stimulated violence and crime? Or has it enlivened people’s minds by bringing into their homes a fuller realization of the problems of society, as well as of the triumphs of literature and art? The ever increasing number of new book titles published every year suggests that television has not killed reading.

To one historian it seems that the outstanding social fact of his lifetime is the advance in medicine. One can of course be cynical about this. Is society burdened with too many geriatrics who would not exist had it not been for medical discoveries? Today about one-eighth of the population is over the age of sixty-five. Pneumonia, once the old man’s friend, can now generally be overcome with antibiotics. Tuberculosis, which was still regarded as a nearly fatal disease in the nineteen-thirties, can be dealt with so efficiently that the hospitals exclusively devoted to its treatment have been closed down. Deaths from typhoid and diphtheria have fallen enormously because of immunization, vaccination, better sanitation and new drugs. Diseases as varied as pernicious anaemia and malaria can be effectively treated. Certain kinds of cancer and deafness are now curable. One is as likely to be killed in a motor accident as to die of a specific illness. Moreover, less alcohol is consumed than in the prosperous days of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII.10 Campaigns against cigarette smoking have made their impact. ‘The advances of medicine’, says a distinguished authority, ‘have affected general practice more than hospital practice’,11 so that a visit to a doctor’s surgery is often the pathway to a happier life. Only mental diseases appear to have increased in modern times. No one can gauge how successful psychiatry has become or whether enough mental hospitals exist. Otherwise medicine has helped to transform English society out of all recognition as compared with the position, say a mere 250 years ago, when ‘hacking coughs, violent fevers, bloody remedies and desperate deaths’ afflicted all mankind and made life not a measured course but a terrible gamble.


  1. In 1936 a plan had been prepared to evacuate half the population of London if war came. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, IV (1976), p. 777
  2. The author went to a recruiting office near the War Office early in May 1940 and was told there were no vacancies in the army except for clerks. When later he enlisted in the Grenadier Guards, in which vacancies had occurred in France, he found that the rest of the squad had joined because they were out of work. When Anthony Eden, Secretary of State for War, made a patriotic appeal on the radio, they could not be bothered to listen
  3. Winston Churchill, World War II 0949), p. 503
  4. This was stated by the Chairman of the Cotton Board set up under the Cotton Industry Act of 1959. Annual Register (1960), p. 521
  5. Sir Alec Cairncross, ‘The post-war years 1945-1977’, in The Economic History of Britain since 1700,II, R.C. Floud and D.N. McCloskey (eds) (1981), p. 376
  6. James Morris, Farewell the Trumpets (1978), P. 405
  7. A. Bottomley and Sir George Sinclair, Control of Commonwealth Immigration (1970)
  8. Bernard Levin, The Pendulum Years (1970), p. 13
  9. The Observer, 8 November 1981
  10. Many fewer on-licences are taken out and fewer convictions for drunkenness per head of population are recorded than during those reigns
  11. Sir George Godber, Medical Care: the Changing Needs and Pattern (1970)