The Doctrine of Unripe Time

Ferdinand Mount

  • Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy
    Allen Lane, 740 pp, £30.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9571 8

When did decaditis first strike? When did people begin to think that slicing the past up into periods of ten years was a useful thing to do? Historians used to deal in reigns and centuries, and it had long been agreed that these might have their own distinctive flavour, including the one that you happened to be living in – Tennyson in 1846 referred, ironically, to ‘a noble 19th-centuryism’. But, as far as I can see, the 1890s was the first tenner to be identified, and quite quickly identified, as having its own inimitable aroma. Eddie Marsh, writing of Rupert Brooke in 1918, says ‘he entertained a culte for the literature that is now called “ninetyish” – Pater, Wilde and Dowson.’

Almost as soon as a decade became a label, there were people who did not wish to have it stuck to them – Arthur Machen, the magus of the fantastic, although a paid-up member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, insisted to the end of his days that he was ‘no part of the 90s’. Others welcomed the affiliation. The 1930s poets owed their instant celebrity to their speaking to and for their ‘low dishonest decade’. Julian Maclaren-Ross was happy to call his recollections Memoirs of the Forties, a decade of which he was so emblematic. But these were artistic and literary lumpings-together, handy tags for something which might in fact have spread over a much longer period (Pater’s most celebrated work was composed in the 1870s and 1980s).

Writing a political or cultural history of a decade is a much more recent endeavour, and a much odder one. There is the obvious objection that significant trends are unlikely to fit neatly within such compartments, the longer durée spilling over at both ends. The itch to dig up single spadefuls of the recent past seems somehow fidgety. Choosing to cover such short stretches at a time naturally leads you to insist on how distinct your chosen decade is from the one before and the one after – or else why write about it in isolation? And behind this there presumably lurks the desire to puff up the times we have lived through, to present them as a uniquely thrilling rollercoaster, in which the ups and downs, the changes of pace and direction, make our own lives more amazing than those of previous generations. There is in decaditis a hint of nervous insecurity.

The decade in question is likely to be one which many readers have directly experienced, or whose afterglow they can remember. For us, the scene is déjà vécu, or to put it more bluntly, stale buns. For the historian of the 1950s this problem is a good deal tougher, because if the 1950s are famous for anything, it is for being dull. Not as dull in Britain as in Eisenhower’s America, but dull nonetheless, not to mention smug. It is not surprising that Peter Hennessy should call his monumental history Having It So Good, nor that Dominic Sandbrook should call his equally monumental recent history of the late 1950s and early 1960s Never Had It So Good. This neatly illustrates the drawback of decaditis: Macmillan’s speech at Bedford football ground on 20 July 1957 points forward as well as back.

Having It So Good is the second volume in a history of postwar Britain: the first volume, Never Again, a history of 1945-51 or the ‘short postwar’, was published in 1992. Hennessy starts off writing what is essentially a social history of these years but then, a quarter of the way through, swerves off to produce something more unusual, a history of high politics under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan that would satisfy even Maurice Cowling’s sense of the level at which politics really does operate and at which political history ought to operate. Almost anyone can piece together a plausible scrapbook of an age, but to make a coherent picture out of what was going on behind the scenes is a more demanding task.

So in the first hundred-odd pages, we hear in Hennessy the hiss of Achille Gaggia’s wonderful coffee machine; we sniff the first whiffs of garlic and olive oil from Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food; we hear the first chords of Bill Haley and the Comets. We find, too, the trenchant comments of Richard Hoggart, A.H. Halsey, Anthony Sampson and Michael Young – the Four Evangelists of the 1950s to whom Hennessy dedicates his book. Their increasingly grumpy pronouncements on the ‘shiny barbarism of the new affluence’ pepper the pages of Having It So Good. Of the new milk bars, for example, Hoggart says, ‘Compared even with the pub around the corner, this is all a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk.’

Hennessy puts all this together with grace and charm. He recalls the terrible false dawn when sweets came off the ration and then had to go back on again, the number of clothing coupons you needed to buy a blouse, the arrival of the Chinese and Indian and Turkish restaurants – ‘an impact on the British palate … not experienced since the medieval world discovered the spice routes’. And he intersperses his own memories: of his youngest sister buying her first pair of two-toned high-heeled shoes, of Eamonn Andrews reading the football results on the radio, of the trolley buses creeping silently through the last pea-soupers before the Clean Air Act of 1956. Occasionally, these personal recollections verge on the winsome: for example, when Hennessy recalls that the sight of a steam express crossing the Forth Bridge on the opening credits of Six-Five Special had particular resonance for ‘little old trainspotting me’. But he relives very well the innocence and modesty of those years, of which the hard-nosed Sir Kenneth Berrill, later head of Margaret Thatcher’s Central Policy Review Staff, remarked: ‘We had won the war and we voted ourselves a nice peace.’

As Hennessy himself says, ‘the Britain of the early 1950s, for all the shortages and everyday rubbing points, did have a collective sense of deliverance.’ He points acutely to movements that did not happen – for equality between the sexes or to save the environment; no anti-nuclear movement until the end of the decade – and these non-happenings can be put down to that sense of gratitude, the almost physical enjoyment of the tranquillity after the terrible bombardments. Churchill himself took ‘easement’ at home and abroad as the prime goal of his postwar ministry. He wanted to ‘give the working man what he had never had – leisure. A four-day week and then three days’ fun.’ And the Attlee Welfare State was part of the deal. The old man proclaimed that ‘we do not seek to pull down improvidently the structures of society but to erect balustrades on the stairway of life, which will prevent helpless and foolish people from falling into the abyss.’ Easement and balustrades sound nicer than the bare safety net, but they also sound more expensive.

Never again would so many millions of lives be ruined by unemployment or unbearable poverty. For much of southern England and the Midlands, the 1930s had in fact been a prosperous decade, of rising employment and new industries – automobiles, plastics and radio – and new homes springing up along the bypasses, but that is not how those years were remembered. As Alan Milward put it – and this is Hennessy’s underlying theme throughout – ‘the 1930s were now seen as wasted years. To ensure that there should be no further wasted years had become a historical imperative brooking no question, a first, necessary, inflexible priority of all economic policy.’

What Hennessy tells better than anyone else has is how that inflexible priority froze successive Tory governments into a state of total immobility. Nothing can disguise the fact that the three prime ministers of the period – Churchill, Eden, Macmillan – were all desperately tired men, old or sick or both, and past their best by the time they reached Downing Street. For most of the period they were surrounded by colleagues who, like them, had fought with great courage in the First War but had little stomach for confronting the challenges, or even accepting the reality, of Britain’s diminished position after the Second. Macmillan was in intermittent pain from the shrapnel the Germans had left in his thigh forty years earlier; Harry Crookshank, Churchill’s first minister of health, had had his balls shot off on the Western Front.

No man alive has lunched more politicians and permanent secretaries or scoured more Cabinet minutes and ministerial diaries than Peter Hennessy. He combines scholarly precision and journalistic inquisitiveness. He also has a kindly nature, which he does not trouble to conceal: ‘I am one of those who has some sympathy with the political and Whitehall generation in place between 1945 and 1955. Only so much adjustment of personal mental maps, as well as the wider geography of Britain’s power, can be expected even from those whose minds tend towards the tougher end of the spectrum of synapses.’ He ends the book by saying that ‘the country should have felt a greater sense of urgency about its relative economic performance, its place in Europe and the wider world. But comfortable societies can be very difficult to invigorate.’ Perhaps, he concludes, the British people ‘could do no other’.

This is a charitable verdict; it makes one feel bad to carp. But can the blame be so easily shuffled from the political elite to the people? Hennessy’s intense examination of policymaking at the top over the preceding 500 pages adds up to an indictment of the politicians which is all the more damning because he presents it so courteously. Even within the political constraints they could surely have done something to brace us for the new age.

At the outset we are told that ‘evident throughout is the attempt by every set of Cabinet ministers and their advisers to maintain a British influence in world affairs beyond a level which the country’s population, economic performance and military capabilities could, at face value, be expected to sustain.’ Yes, but it is worse than that. They all knew what they ought to do. They kept on spelling it out, in every White Paper and Cabinet minute. But they could never face doing it.

In 1951, 20 per cent of all public expenditure and nearly 8 per cent of GDP went on defence. The incoming Tory foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, back in his old post, told the Cabinet in June 1952 that HMG’s present commitments were ‘placing a burden on the country’s economy which is beyond the resources of the country to meet’. Yet at the same time he strongly resisted any attempt to reduce a single one of those commitments, up to and including that to the Falkland Islands, because ‘once the prestige of a country has started to slide there is no knowing where it will stop.’ Despite a stream of policy reviews and White Papers, our commitments and our expenditure on them remained intact. By the end of the decade, without the excuse of rearmament for the Korean war, Macmillan’s future policy study, masterminded by Otto Clarke (Charles Clarke’s father), envisaged that 8½ per cent of GNP should continue to be spent on defence and other overseas activities. All that had actually happened in the interim is that room had had to be made in the defence budget for the atom bomb and then the H-bomb, because ministers were easily persuaded by the atomic scientist William Penney that ‘the discriminative test for a first-class power is whether it has made an atomic bomb.’

In his afterthoughts on the Suez fiasco, Eden concluded ruefully that ‘we need a smaller force that is more mobile and more modern in its equipment. This probably means that we have in proportion to our total army too much armour and too much infantry and too small a paratroop force.’ General Sir Charles Keightley, commander-in-chief of the Suez operation, conducted his own inquest. With a proper balance of forces and a proper political approach, Keightley thought, ‘the whole of these operations could have been successfully completed in 12 days at a maximum.’ For future reference, the one overriding lesson was that squaring ‘world opinion is now an absolute principle of war’ – oh, and we needed a lot more helicopters (first used on the battlefield by British forces at Suez). Exactly half a century later, our armed forces still seem to be overstretched and under-equipped – and short of helicopters. As for world opinion … but it is kinder to pass on.

Again and again, ministers and mandarins competed to make one anothers’ flesh creep by warning that, for example, unless Britain took a stand against Nasser its position in the world would be reduced to that of the Netherlands (Macmillan, July 1956) or our standard of living to that of the Yugoslavs or Egyptians (Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, September 1956). If we gave up the Bomb and withdrew from our overseas commitments, our standing would fall to that of the Netherlands or Sweden (Sir Norman Brook et al, early 1958). Unless Britain took speedy action to improve technological education, Lord Cherwell warned, ‘she seems doomed to sink in wealth and influence to the level of Portugal within a generation’ (January 1956). Next stop Andorra, or San Marino.

Yet nothing happened, or virtually nothing. We continued long after Suez to plant our flags a long way east of that dismal thoroughfare. And as for education, Eden did start up the colleges of advanced technology, but the technical secondary schools and county colleges, which were to be the crucial third leg of the 1944 Act, never materialised, and although Hennessy speaks warmly of the Act as ‘a great machine for cognitive and cultural improvement’, he fairly admits that the relative position of working-class children deteriorated after the war, as far as access to grammar schools went. Moreover, the new Conservative government did not seem to attach much importance to building new schools: any available cash went on building council houses to meet Macmillan’s glamorous target of 300,000 new homes a year. The luckless Florence Horsbrugh had to spend her time at the Ministry of Education fighting off Treasury proposals to raise the school starting age to six and drop the leaving age back to 14.

Nor were other social challenges addressed with much more energy. Every prime minister from Attlee to Macmillan set up a working party to examine the possibilities of controlling immigration, but nothing was done – at a time when net immigration had only just begun and a modest set of controls might have taken the heat out of the situation. Shortly after leaving Number Ten, Churchill told Ian Gilmour that immigration from the West Indies was ‘the most important subject facing this country but I cannot get any of my ministers to take any notice’ – although quite a few were no keener on Britain becoming ‘a magpie nation’ than Churchill himself was.

All sorts of other daring proposals surfaced briefly: Eden even set up a ministerial committee to examine the possibility of curbing ‘wildcat strikes’. But this never got anywhere, largely due to the characteristic view of Walter Monckton, the minister of labour, that enforcing pre-strike ballots would not be helpful to industrial relations. Churchill had put Monckton, known as ‘The Oilcan’, in that post with the explicit objective of buying industrial peace at any price, just as he had preferred the emollient Rab Butler to the more abrasive Oliver Lyttelton for the Treasury.

Butler was in fact attracted by the most daring of all breakout policies, the most tantalising of all the might-have-beens: the plan to let the pound float and so avoid all the sterling crises that bedevilled British governments through the 1960s and far beyond – and which, most conspicuously and humiliatingly, unhorsed the Suez operation. Operation Robot, as the plan was known, attracted plenty of influential supporters, but it was scuppered by Eden, who threatened to resign if Robot went ahead. Looking back in old age, Butler regarded the decision not to free the pound as ‘a fundamental mistake’, although, characteristically, he had wobbled to and fro on the subject in the intervening years. Macmillan’s feeling at the time was that ‘in essence, the plan may be right but it cannot be rushed.’ This sentiment might stand as the epitome of the feelings of most ministers on most subjects throughout the decade. If they subscribed to any one doctrine, it was not Butskellism or even conservatism, it was the Doctrine of Unripe Time.

In this they had one unfailing ally: the tomblike secrecy in which government was then conducted. The American sociologist Edward Shils pointed out that ‘the British ruling class is unequalled in secretiveness and taciturnity … No ruling class discloses as little of its confidential proceedings as does the British.’ Nothing leaked: not the lies the government told about how much it was spending on nuclear weapons, not the reports on nuclear tests, not the details of the Robot plan or even its very existence, not the existence of the Chuter Ede committee on immigration, not the news of Churchill’s stroke just after the coronation. When the government tore itself apart after Churchill had decided, entirely off his own bat, both to go to Moscow and to go ahead with the Bomb without consulting the Cabinet, not a word got out. ‘A very strange week,’ Macmillan noted with some understatement. ‘It would be stranger still if the public knew what was going on.’ British government was carried on inside a secure bubble that was a deceiving comfort. The absence of outside pressure meant that government could duck and dither and retreat without fear of criticism or derision. Postponement of the difficult and disagreeable was always a cost-free option.

This age of postponement found its fullest flowering in Britain’s relations with Europe. How blithe they all purported to be in their contempt for the whole project. Here we have Macmillan telling Nora Beloff of the Observer in 1950 not to take the Schuman Plan too seriously and in 1955 prophesying that ‘the French will never go into the “common market”.’ Rab later remembered that, when the Dutch foreign minister came over to try to persuade Britain to join, ‘I got very bored with him and so did everyone else.’ Who were the Dutch to presume to tell the British what to do? Sir Leslie Rowan of the Treasury prophesied cheerfully that the Messina Six would fall apart, which is what virtually the entire Whitehall machine prayed for. In vain did Russell Bretherton from the Board of Trade, our sole representative at Messina, desperately cable home that ‘we have, in fact, the power to guide the conclusions of this conference in almost any direction we like; but beyond a certain point, we cannot exercise that power without ourselves becoming, in some measure, responsible for the results.’ Which was just what everyone from Eden downwards couldn’t bear to contemplate. Poor Mr Bretherton was ordered home. The president of the Board of Trade, Peter Thorneycroft, said long afterwards, wistfully: ‘I wish I had gone.’

One prophecy that almost everyone did get right was that Eden would be a rotten prime minister – the worst since Lord North, Lord Swinton forecast to Churchill, who himself thought much the same. Vain, prickly and paranoid during his long wait for the job, Eden was no better when he got it. The Suez adventure, ‘conceived in deceit and arrested in pusillanimity’, as Admiral ‘Lofty’ Power, who was on the operation, nicely put it, was all Eden’s own work. The doubters in his Cabinet were neither sharp enough nor brave enough to get together to stop him. No one could have made his hostility plainer in advance than Eisenhower, not to mention the plain view of almost all the government’s legal advisers (including Reginald Manningham-Buller, not normally thought of as a liberal softie) that the operation would be illegal and immoral, as well as foolish. It is ironic that the Suez operation should be the single smack of firm government heard throughout the 1950s. The verdict that still stings the most was Churchill’s: ‘I would never have done it without squaring the Americans and once I’d started I would never have dared stop.’

But then, luckily, our happiness does not always depend on the wisdom and foresight of our governments. The one principle, if you can call it a principle, that the Conservatives did stick to during the 1950s was not to disturb the consensus surrounding the Attlee settlement, and as demand purred on merrily to take up the slack left by the devastation of the war, even if Britain was beginning to fall behind her Continental neighbours, our rate of progress seemed delightful by comparison with our recollections of the 1930s. So perhaps it did not require quite so much political genius for Macmillan to carry on as if nothing had happened after Suez and then to survive the loss of his entire Treasury team without faltering. Only dried-up academics and spoilsports had begun to worry about inflation. ‘What’s wrong with inflation, Derry?’ Macmillan asked his new chancellor Derick Heathcoat Amory. To support his view, the prime minister had the great Keynesian economist Roy Harrod writing to him by almost every post urging him to reflate faster. Much of the summer holidays of 1958 and 1959 I spent in Norfolk with my schoolfriend Henry Harrod, and we would cycle to the postbox through the cornfields, proudly carrying his father’s letters to Number Ten, adding fuel to the flames.

Like Hennessy, my prevailing memory is of those years as tranquil and contented. The harm that our politicians might be doing to us seemed to be some way off in a future that we couldn’t yet see much cause to fear. The very secrecy in which the Bomb was developed helped to delay the falling of its shadow. The collapse of manufacturing industry in the face of stiffer competition was still only a theoretical possibility. The wind of change got up towards the end of the decade, but it hit Africa a long time before we could feel it down our own necks. The politicians were mostly lucky, and so, all in all, were we. But I don’t think that what is left of their reputations will recover so easily from this masterly extended viva.

For most of the decade, the only Tory politician who could be said to have had any lasting impact on the future was Selwyn Lloyd, not for his conniving at the Suez deception as foreign secretary but for the minority report he wrote as a member of the Beveridge committee on broadcasting, recommending that the BBC’s monopoly be broken. His arguments formed the basis for commercial television. Eden hated the thought; Churchill declared himself ‘no enthusiast for the television age, in which I fear mass thought and actions will be taken charge of by machinery, both destructive and distracting,’ furthering ‘this age of clatter and buss, of gape and gloat’ – but he hated the BBC even more. In vain did Lord Reith pass on to his later successor, William Haley, the mission ‘to seek to use broadcasting to raise taste and not to lower it’. Lord Clark of Civilisation, as the first chairman of the Independent Television Authority, unashamedly set it as his mission to make ITV more like the Daily Mirror than the Times. In this Top of the Pops, Bill Haley was always going to come out ahead of Sir William.

It is only at the end of the decade that the dam begins to burst. In 1948, Sir Philip Mitchell, the governor of Kenya, had remarked that the notion of his colony becoming an independent state was about as likely as the installation of a Red Indian republic in the US. By 1960, Iain Macleod was moving at full speed on his ‘everything-must-go policy’, and Kenya was only one of half-a-dozen African states waiting for the Duke of Kent to fly out and haul down the flag.

At home Butler was sliding past a bemused Macmillan a whole sheaf of relaxing social reforms. In future, you would be able to drink outside the old hours, place a bet on the horses, publish an obscene book and even try to kill yourself without being persecuted by the authorities. Rab has indeed as good a claim as Roy Jenkins to be the father of the permissive society; he was just a little more reticent about it. In retrospect, the dawning consensus on social relaxation seems more striking than the supposed Butskellite consensus on economic policy of the 1950s. Unforeseen but unstoppable, what might be called the Jentler Society was on its way.