Who now remembers the 1950s? I do. I grew up then, from 9 to 19 years. To later generations the fifties have been presented as rather boring and repressive, especially when looked back on through the glass of the ‘swinging sixties’, when everything supposedly sprang into life again.
At the time, however, the era didn’t appear like that to me. This was partly because I didn’t yet have the advantage of that golden next decade to view it through; and partly because – as I wrote in a review article about the fifties I published a few years ago (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/swinging-fifties/), unless you were a woman, a homosexual or a criminal awaiting execution, the 1950s weren’t all that bad. That’s why I still harbour a degree of nostalgia for them. (And it’s not just because it was then that the adolescent me discovered ‘girls’. I was hardly allowed near them in any case: single-sex school, strict ‘moral’ upbringing, ignorance, and the like.)
I can acknowledge, and indeed recognise, the downsides of that era, even for a middle-class, male, heterosexual and law-abiding boy like me. I was fortunate in all those regards. But even for us relatively privileged people the food was still atrocious; TV black-and-white and blurry; people’s dress similarly monochrome; our rulers and radio presenters toffee-nosed (and nearly all male); our Empire collapsing; the popular music infantile (quite literally: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=safoNysTrbE); you couldn’t shop on Sundays; women were excluded from the best jobs; unmarried mothers were shamed and persecuted; and we boys could get caned for minor breaches of school rules. In addition, we all lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. Soviet spies were everywhere – especially in my old university, and (allegedly) at No. 10. Materially and socially, there can be little doubt that most things were a whole lot worse in the fifties than they are now. And yet…
The fifties did have some admirable aspects, even by today’s materialistic standards. We were still recovering from the economic effects of the recent war, which had explained most of our earlier privations; and pretty well in the main. We could all – we males – get jobs, and one man’s salary could support a whole family. We had thriving industries again, especially making cars, ships and world-beating aircraft – i.e. big stuff; but now supplemented by a welfare state that protected what could be seen as the era’s victims, including a well-functioning National Health Service – our country’s pride and joy. Even the Conservatives accepted that. University education was free, with even our living subsidised. Foreign delights were beginning to assail us: cheap trips abroad, exotic dishes from the Empire, American music (jazz) and movies. All these were gradually adding lustre to our lives.
To compensate for the downsides of our national existence there were also burgeoning protest movements: against imperialism, South African apartheid, and – most prominently – ‘the Bomb’. On another level, we had Private Eye and the Goons to chip away at our betters’ toffee-nosed pretensions. Even imperial decline could be regarded positively, especially in the guise in which it was popularly presented: as less of a decline than a metamorphosis, from an ‘empire’ imposed from above to a free, equal, multiracial and self-governing ‘Commonwealth’. (What socialist could object to that term?) All these seemed – except to the most blimpish of Tories – to be signs of progress; and of an enduring progress: which is what gave the progressive people of that time – including me – a reason for hope. That was the conclusion of my TLS article, and is the main reason for my present 1950s nostalgia. Then was a time of hope. For most of us, today emphatically isn’t.
So, how did we get from there to here? The great turn took place, I think, in the later 1970s. It was then that we got Thatcher, Murdoch, foolish and short-sighted (or, if you like, over-powerful) trade unions, and – underlying everything – the inexorable progress and expansion into almost every corner of our lives of late-stage capitalism.
But that’s probably too simple. I may elaborate on it in a new edition of my old (and rather underrated, I think) Britannia’s Burden. The Political Evolution of Modern Britain, which stopped in 1990. That is, if I can sustain my enthusiasm and restore my fast-fading energy for the task; and then find a publisher to take it on. (No luck yet with that.)
I’d be interested to know what you make of the “National Conservatism” movement. They seem to want to put the defence of a very particular version of British history at the heart of their project.
Don’t they realise the echo of ‘National Socialism’? I may come back to this.
I don’t remember the 1950s but I think to my grandparents they meant stability, secure jobs and a decent life after living through two world wars, and to my parents the opportunity to go to university and widened horizons. We tend to judge the 50s badly for being less socially liberal than we are now, but we have paid an economic price in more precarious career prospects.
The expansion of university places has highlighted the discrepant treatment of those who get good exam results and those who don’t. I do think there is something in the idea that university education has become a new sort of class divide, without wishing to endorse Matthew Goodwin’s politics. Meanwhile graduates don’t seem much happier for the opportunity due to the funding model.
I am struck by the difference in mood between now and the 90s when you published “Britannia’s Burden”. Somehow, despite the pain of the 80s if felt as though we knew the story: Butskellite thesis, Thatcherite antithesis, waiting for the Blairite synthesis to come along. Now, it seems we don’t know the script any more. My sense is that there is a fear abroad, a bit Spenglerian (though I am no expert on Spengler and Weimar Germany). I gather he was afraid both of the decline of the West and of the impact of new technology. With predictions of an AI apocalypse, tensions with China and Russia, and the consequences of global warming it would be easy to tap into the politics of fear.
I sense a whiff of this in the launch of National Conservatism. The underlying assumption seems to be that the UK can preserve its exceptionalism by pulling up the drawbridge and cracking down on the enemy within. It’s politics for ostriches.
I don’t know what happened to your post on science fiction but if don’t already know, you may be interested that Duncan Bell looks at relations between late C19 science fiction and dreams of a future utopia led by Anglo-American global cooperation in his “Dreamworlds of Race”.