Sunday 22 November 2009

The Past is a Foreign Country

Let me take you on a tour of Britain, the Britain of sixty years ago, austerity Britain. The first thing you will notice is that is that the physical fabric of the country has barely recovered from the war. All of the larger cities, London especially, were still showing serious signs of damage, with bomb sites and many damaged houses. Investment in new housing was still quite low, with the result that there was a lot of homelessness, addressed, in part, by the erection of squat, pre-fabricated accommodation, using the same kind of materials and techniques of the war-time assembly line. It is no accident that the leading British novel of the day, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a drab and decayed urban environment. This was not an imaginary future: it was a very real present!

Defence was still a major preoccupation, with as much as 6.6 per cent of GDP being spent in this area, more than any other major country, with the exception of the Soviet Union. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were still among the world's strongest and, in 1952, Britain became the world's third nuclear power. There were four times as many service people in the early 1950s as there are today, and all young men were obliged to perform two years of compulsory National Service.

The war, and its financial legacy, had had a profound effect on the economy. Some foodstuffs, like butter, meat and tea and coal, yes, coal, were still rationed. Confectionary had come off ration in 1949, but distribution had to be brought back under state control because demand was simply too great. Shortages meant that people took to producing their own food in back gardens and allotments. Income tax was at an extraordinarily high level, more than twice what it is today. Bureaucratic red tape was a major feature of everyday life, also brilliantly reflected in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the 'social comedies' being produced by Ealing Studios, movies like Whisky Galore and Passport to Pimlico.

The reliance of coal as a source of fuel, and the high degree of urbanisation, meant that pollution was a major problem. In 1952 one particularly severe bout of smog in London lasted for five days, killing more than 4,000 people from heart and lung diseases. Industrial pollution had an effect not just on the air that people breathed, but contaminated their local waterways. The urban environment of the day is well illustrated in L. S. Lowry's paintings of his native Lancashire. Most people lived and worked in the towns and cities, though farming was still an important sector of the economy. Agricultural practices, though, were still closer to those of the nineteenth century, with little of the industrial farming we have today. The population, about 50 million by the year 1950, was overwhelmingly indigenous. The 1951 census showed that only 3% of people had been born overseas, and immigrants were, for the most part, white and European. The first post-war black immigrants arrived in 1948 on the Empire Windrush, but they were still a tiny minority of the total population.

Class-divisions would have been much more obvious than now, reflected even in forms of dress. Working-class men still wore the trade mark cloth cap and women the head scarf. Middle-class males were distinguished by white collars, suits and hats. These divisions were reflected in, and reinforced by, the educational system. The Education Act of 1944 had introduced a 'two-tier' system of schooling. Children were filtered by means of an Eleven Plus examination, which sent the majority to secondary modern schools, where they remained until the age of fifteen, leaving with few, if any, qualifications. A privileged minority went to grammar schools, although even fewer went on to university education, which still, by and large, was the preserve of a tiny upper-class elite.

Also in 1950, despite the huge contribution they made to the war-time economy, women were expected to remain in the home after marriage, rather than seek long-term careers. Domestic work was far more intensive, with few of the labour-saving devices present today. Shopping patterns were also quite different, with none of the 'all in one', self-service superstores. The introduction of the National Health Service in 1946, guaranteeing access to medical care, free at the point of delivery, was a great improvement over pre-war provision, especially for the poor and the elderly. Nevertheless, polio was still a serious problem, and remained so until an effective vaccine was introduced in 1951.

Attitudes towards sex and public morality in general were still fairly stringent. Homosexuality was illegal, as was abortion. Back street abortionists flourished in all of the larger towns and cities. Illegitimacy rates were low because of the stigma attached to unmarried mothers. Unwanted babies were mostly given up for adoption, or sent to institutions at home or in the Empire. Divorce was slightly more acceptable than it had been, but far less easy to obtain than it is now. Church attendance was far higher. Sources of entertainment for young adults were fairly restricted, largely confined to the cinema or the local dance hall. American performers and music, though not yet dominant, were becoming ever more influential, though fashion trends, like those of the Teddy Boys, were still uniquely British. For women the New Look was a welcome change from wartime austerity.


  1. There were actually three kinds of school. Grammar Schools for academic kids, Technical Schools for bright kids of a more practical rather than cerebral bent and finally Secondary Moderns to ensure that everyone left education numerate, literate and with all the basic skills they would need in life.

    Although it was a Comprehensive when I attended it, my old school was originally a Technical School.

    The biggest problem was the failure by post-war governments to build enough Technical Schools and instead taking the cheap option of just filling up the Secondary Moderns.

    In other words, the failure of the Grammar School System was actually the failure to properly implement the system.

    There are some Secondary Moderns still surviving. Interestingly, they get better exam results than "Comprehensive" schools.

    However rather than looking to improve a working system, Labour (and the Tories) instead implemented a "Year Zero" approach of just tearing everything up and starting again. I remember reading that the Grammar School system meant that we had the highest social mobility for bright kids from poor backgrounds in the whole of Europe - by far. (It was something like 3 times the next best in Europe).

    Now we have a "Comprehensive" system that selects not on the ability of the child but rather on the ability of the parents to afford the houses in the catchment areas of the best schools.

    Social mobility has largely collapsed, and for that we can blame Labour and especially Tony Crosland MP who pretty much succeeded in his aim of "closing down every fucking grammar school in the country".

    Contribution by Wildgoose

  2. Wildgoose, I'm so, so sorry; I removed your contribution by accident when I intended to remove mine because of a spelling error. Luckily I was able to retreive it from my inbox, thought it now looks as if I wrote it!

    Anyway, it's a first class contribution, some things I was not aware of about the post-war education system.

  3. A very good analysis, I just hope you don't disparage the Butler Tripartite System. It was the best form of state education seen anywhere in the world. Grammar schools should be supported and increased. Intellect is paradoxically a rather autocratic, or even tyrannical phenomenon, and thus nurturing it democratically is rather misplaced. Perhaps this is why, at one point in their lives, most clever people flirt with some form of tyrannical exaltation, though most soon move on...some...not all. In education there can be no equality without the prerequisite of diversity in educational styles to fit the a priori aptitudes of various individuals. The Butler Act recognised this, and didn't try to run from reality as the horrid Wilson had.

  4. Thanks, Adam. To be honest I've never given the Butler system that much thought. I certainly approve of streaming, and nurturing the brightest and the best, though the grammar school for me is a rather abstract ideal, something I can approve of in principle without necessarily understanding the full implications. My experience, as you know, was quite different.

  5. Ana,
    It's something you ought to look into. Grammar schools were/are the state equivalent of public schools. I've written much about this--let me try and find you the link.
    See what you think of that. Between Grammar schools and public schools, no deserving clever boy or girl was bereft of a proper education. Today only public schools remain--till they're forcibly abolished by some post-Marxist ideologue waiting in the wings, that is.

  6. Thanks, I'll have a look. Not now -It's too late and I'm tired!

  7. Jolly good--there's another too you may enjoy, a reponse to an older one of yours.

  8. Gosh, Adam, it's taking an age to catch up.

  9. Not to worry at all, Ana. It's not as though you have 24 hours to save the NHS or anything :-) There is after all always time for education, education, education--a promise he cared about so much he broke it thrice.