Britain in 1951 was a country still moulded by the Second World War. There were widespread visible signs of war damage. Wartime rationing was only just coming to an end. Young men had to spent two years on National Service. Much of British social life looked to the past. Regional and class loyalties were strong; it was usually easy to recognise people’s origins and social background from their dress or accent. These class attitudes were reinforced by the familiar stereotypes that featured in films and on the radio.
Yet many of the people who attended the Festival of Britain in 1951 felt that they were on the edge of a new modern world, a world of technology and social progress. Children born in the ‘baby boom’ after the war would grow up in a very different society than that of their parents’ generation. In the years to 1964, there were to be significant shifts in population, growing social tensions including immigration and violence, and changes in attitude to class.
Three key factors created demographic change in Britain after 1951:
-Health and life expectancy: Birth rates ran consistently ahead of death rates throughout the post-war era. Medical treatment improved under the welfare state; standards of nutrition and hygiene also improved steadily. - Inward migration. There was a continuing flow of arrivals from the Irish Republic. Starting in 1948, about 250,000 immigrants arrived in Britain from the West Indies and other parts of the New Commonwealth. - There was also considerable outward migration from Britain. In the 1950s, Australia was particularly keen to attract new citizens, offering assisted passages and help with jibs and housing. There was also a steady flow of British emigrants to North America. In the 1950s, Britain received a total of 676,000 immigrants seeking permanent residence, while 1.32 million Britons emigrated. In the 1960s, the total inward migration was 1.25 million and outward migration was 1.92 million.
The countryside was still dominated by agriculture (which had been boosted by government subsidies) and rural areas were not yet faced by the creeping urbanisation that was to threaten village life later on. Most people lived in communities with a strong sense of local identity, close to their extended families. This situation was about to change, as various forms of social mobility, above all the impact of mass car ownership, started to drain the population away from town centres.
Britain’s infrastructure was run-down and badly needed modernising. Another important factor was housing. There was a desperate need for housing development to replace war damage and to deal with the decay of the housing stock that had been neglected for the previous decade. From 1951, the Conservative government set the ambitious target of building 300,000 new homes every year. Local government spent millions on clearing pre-war slums and building new towns on green field sites - such as Harlow in Essex and Kirkby on Merseyside.
The impact of the private car ownership included a great demand for new roads to be built, including the novelty of motorways, already well established in countries like Germany and Italy but unknown in Britain. Car travel changed ideas of holidays and leisure. Commuting by car began to push housing developments further outside towns and cities.
Between 1957 and 1963, 1,200 miles of new or upgraded main roads were completed. British Railways, nationalised in 1948, struggled vainly to modernise the rail system. The Beeching Report of 1963 recommended the closure of more than 30 per cent of the rail network because roads offered a cheaper and more flexible alternative. Hundreds of branch lines and thousands of stations were axed.
Social tensions, 1951-64
Britain’s imperial history had linked the nation closely to the multiracial peoples of the Commonwealth. These ties had been strengthened by the war. At Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, there was evident enthusiasm for the Commonwealth ideal. Such ideas had to be balanced, however, against fears of Britain having to absorb too many new citizens at once. The New Commonwealth (i.e. ‘coloured’) immigrants who followed in the wake of West Indian migrants who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948, were both a cause of social change and a cause of social tensions.
By 1958, about 210,000 Commonwealth immigrants had settled in Britain. 75 per cent of them were male, working to support families back home. The largest number came from the West Indies, 132,000, although the numbers coming from India and Pakistan were beginning to rise. In the urban areas where the new arrivals were concentrated, there were instances of friction and resentment against immigrants. The discredited leader of British fascism, Oswald Mosley, tried to exploit the issue by printing thousands of racist leaflets of behalf of his so-called Union Movement.
The authorities regarded immigration as economically desirable (immigrants filled many important low-wage jobs) and hoped that the social tensions would ease gradually over time. In 1958, serious race riots, especially in Notting Hill, in west London in August, altered perceptions. The rate of New Commonwealth immigration speeded up. Government policy changed. The result was the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, limiting immigration through a system of work permits.
Public attitudes to immigration were mixed. Immigrants were all too aware of the prejudices and discrimination against them; but they kept coming. There was reluctance to use legislation to control immigration from countries with close historic links to Britain and the Labour Party strongly opposed the 1962 Act, but Labour did not repeal it after the 1964 election.
Violence, criminality and hooliganism
By the mid-1950s, ‘Teddy boys’ had become part of the social fabric, and previous norms of law-abiding behaviour were breaking down.
From 1951 to 1955, criminal behaviour dipped down again. From the mid-1950s, however, there was a crime wave; the number of criminal offences more than doubled between 1955 and 1965. Two prominent examples of the rise in crime and disorder were the Kray Twins and the clashes between ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’, such as the large-scale organised rioting in south coast holiday resorts, Clacton, Margate and Brighton, in May 1964. The Kray Twins became outwardly respectable, associating with celebrities like the film stars Diana Dors and Barbara Windsor. Their rise reflected the changing attitudes to crime among some sections of society. The Mods and Rockers were not organised criminals. The disorder they caused was that of a new, aggressive youth culture, disrespectful of authority and spoiling for a fight. Young men fighting in the streets was hardly new; brawls outside pubs were already a familiar part of the scene. By the early 1960s, people were getting used to the new phenomenon of football hooligans, causing disturbances outside football grounds and vandalising trains.
One of the reasons it was difficult for people to understand the rise in crime and disorder was that it was taking place at a time of affluence and personal prosperity. Another puzzle was that it occurred against the background of National Service, which had been set up in 1947 in the hope of installing discipline into Britain’s young men.
The debate over secondary education
The ‘Eleven Plus’ examination decided whether a child’s future would be in a grammar school (about 30 % of pupils) or in a secondary modern school (more than 60 %). The 1944 Education Act had aimed to produce a ‘tripartite system’ giving equal status to grammar schools, technical schools and the secondary moderns, but this never materialised in practice. Only a handful of technical schools were established and secondary modern schools quickly came to be regarded as receptacles for children who failed the Eleven Plus.
Many saw the Eleven Plus as essentially unfair and also inefficient. Many saw it as a waste of talent and human potential. The psychological strain placed on children by parents could be awful. In the early 1960s, many people saw comprehensive education as modern and progressive, likely to bring better economic performance as well as more equality.
The government commissioned the Robbins Report of 1962, which led to a massive expansion of higher education. Existing universities took in greater numbers. New universities sprang up in Lancaster, Warwick, York and elsewhere.
Changing attitudes to class
Britain in 1951 was a deferential and conformist society, with an ingrained respect for authority. Class loyalties were very strong within the political parties. By the late 1950s, there were signs of a shift in attitudes, hinting at the gradual breakdown of old social restrictions and a loss of deference. The Suez crisis of 1956 exposed blatant lying and manipulation by the government. The rise of CND from 1958 encouraged the tendency to challenge authority.
The left-wingers in the Labour movement had long battled against the class system. They had wanted the Attlee government to abolish private schools, along with the House of Lords.
There was also a drive to break down censorship and social taboos. Several plays and films pushed out the boundaries in portraying sex on screen or dealing more openly with issues homosexuality or back-street abortions. In 1962, Penguin Books caused a storm by publishing a paperback edition of D.H. Lawrence’s sexually explicit novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.