Outbreak of Pleasure

Angus Calder

  • Now the war is over: A Social History of Britain 1945-51 by Paul Addison
    BBC/Cape, 223 pp, £10.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 563 20407 9
  • England First and Last by Anthony Bailey
    Faber, 212 pp, £12.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13587 0
  • A World Still to Win: The Reconstruction of the Post-War Working Class by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook
    Faber, 189 pp, £4.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 571 13701 6
  • The Issue of War: States, Societies and the Far Eastern Conflict of 1941-1945 by Christopher Thorne
    Hamish Hamilton, 364 pp, £15.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 241 10239 1
  • The Hiroshima Maidens by Rodney Barker
    Viking, 240 pp, £9.95, July 1985, ISBN 0 670 80609 9
  • Faces of Hiroshima: A Report by Anne Chisholm
    Cape, 182 pp, £9.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 224 02831 6
  • End of Empire by Brain Lapping
    Granada, 560 pp, £14.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 246 11969 1
  • Outposts by Simon Winchester
    Hodder, 317 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 340 33772 9

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Common Wealth Party produced a striking leaflet – ‘Again?’ – to play on the widespread fear among British voters that victory over Nazism was merely the prelude to a return to mass unemployment at home and continued international insecurity. The ‘old order’ had failed. A ‘new society’ was necessary. ‘The 60,000,000 colonial peoples, fighting against exploitation’, were ‘our allies in the struggle for a new society’ and must be given self-government at the earliest opportunity. Meanwhile, the war itself was ‘part of a world revolution of the common man, aimed at a new world of plenty and security’.

Paul Addison, in Now the war is over, an excellent book derived from a good TV series, sees Common Wealth as representing a ‘strand of socialist utopianism, to be found mainly among the professional middle classes, that ran through the Forties’. Yet Richard Acland, figurehead of the Party, had been a Liberal MP before the war, and Common Wealth might be placed on the far left wing of that broad informal alliance of reformers which produced what Addison calls ‘Forties collectivism: the belief in the capacity of the State to reduce social injustice, expand the economy and create a fuller and more spacious life for all’. Labour’s victory in 1945 brought opportunity to high-minded persons from more than one political tradition. Boyd Orr the medical reformer and Julian Huxley the socially-conscious scientist helped to set up Unesco. William Beveridge, a Liberal, saw his Welfare State largely enacted; Creech Jones, chairman of the Fabian Colonial Bureau which had been founded in 1940, became the minister responsible for the colonies; and the ‘garden city ideal’ of the Town and Country Planning Association shaped the ‘architecturally modest and socially humane’ redevelopment schemes of the late Forties.

The tone was suburban and even traditional. Bevan’s ideal council house, of which hundreds of thousands were built, had a bourgeois look. Coventry Cathedral and the Royal Festival Hall were modern architecture on a human scale. Though a high proportion of Londoners were being rehoused in flats, the LCC forbade the construction of blocks more than six storeys high.

So there wasn’t a visible ‘social revolution’, or an invisible one. Ellen Wilkinson, the former ‘scholarship girl’ who became the Attlee Government’s first Minister of Education, presided over the temporary triumph of the ‘Tripartite’ system which ensured that, under the 1944 ‘Butler Act’ dispensation of secondary education for all, the majority of schoolchildren were divided into quasi-‘scholarship’ grammar-school sheep and rejected ‘sec. mod.’ goats – comprehensive education in most places came many years later. The opening of the National Health Service in July 1948 was marked by the symptoms of a ‘great emancipation’ as people who for years had needed new spectacles, trusses and dentures rushed to supply themselves. Addison quotes a District Nurse who rejoiced that at last she could dress patients properly: ‘It didn’t only uplift us, it was the patients as well, it was just fantastic ... Suddenly you’d got it all, this gorgeous soft cotton wool, beautiful clean bandages.’ But the NHS treated the results of social inequality, not its causes. By the mid-Seventies the gap between upper and lower in terms of ‘mortality experience’ would be two or three times wider than before the war.

In 1945 a long tradition of liberal social reform converged with what was left, after the war effort, of the energy of politicised trade-unionism, in an atmosphere of socialist expectancy. In Addison’s view, ‘an era of structural change’ ended in 1951. The victorious Conservatives had no intention of overturning the reorganisation achieved (or consolidated) by Labour’s high-mindedness. They would, however, benefit from a new cycle of social change associated with ‘consumerism’ and ‘affluence’. These had began to make their mark in the more prosperous – mostly southern – parts of Britain during the Thirties. But visions of a car outside every home, a fridge in every kitchen and a chicken in every fridge had remained remote. As the vision began to seem tangible in the Fifties, idealism would lose ground. In 1951, the Labour Party was rewarded for its honest efforts with the largest vote given to any single party in British electoral history, but still lost – and it had begun to lose the elections of the Fifties in the Forties. As Addison puts it,

Labour politicians had been inclined to interpret the 1945 Election results as a mandate for public goods and services. Whether as dogmatists bent on socialism, or high-minded improvers of the masses, they were slow to recognise that voters hankered after the New Look or ‘pleasure motoring’ ... Attlee still held to the old public school ideal, common among families with a hereditary commitment to the Empire or the Army, of a society dedicated to service rather than competition for wealth. History was not on his side. Cultural change was rapidly undermining the high rationalist humanism of Late Victorian social reform.

At this stage, one of Toryism’s least secret weapons was the Young Conservative organisation. Anthony Bailey, then a schoolboy in Hampshire, recalls: ‘I did a number of things purely because they provided a way of meeting girls. I joined the local branch of the Young Conservatives for that purpose. Labour continued to govern the nation, but I was less interested in promoting the downfall of Mr Attlee than in attending events organised by the young Tories for the entertainment of Portchester youth.’ At Young Tory Saturday-night socials in this and many other places, it was still the era of foxtrot, rumba and Veleta, but at least they provided a chance of ‘holding onto someone else’. Bailey’s England, First and Last is a book for future social historians as well as nostalgic reading for his contemporaries. Nine years younger, I grew up in what used to be Surrey, and Bailey’s evocation of the minutiae of post-war life in the Home Counties gives me a not wholly pleasant feeling of being sucked back into my own childhood. Windfall apples from the garden were carefully stored. You put Tate and Lyle syrup on your porridge. ‘Scrambled eggs’ were made out of yellow powder and water. At school, the smell of the Government’s free milk competed with the reek of disinfectant and urine from ‘the bogs’.

Perhaps Bailey’s exceptional power of recall has to do with the contrast which even then he could draw with a very different way of life. In September 1940, at the age of seven, he had been evacuated to the USA and had spent four years with a prosperous family in Dayton, Ohio. When he got back to his parents’ modest middle-class home, ‘everything was smaller. It wasn’t the suddenly reduced “standard of living” so much as it was that everything was closer, denser, more tangible. Like Gulliver in Lilliput, I found it hard not to bump into things.’ Yet he was glad to be home. His father, a bank employee, quite soon returned too, from an unheroic commission in the Pioneer Corps:

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