Book Review from the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Modernity Britain, 1957–62', by David Kynaston. (Bloomsbury £14.99)
This is the latest in Kynaston’s massive history of Britain from 1945 to 1979. It is a detailed combination of political, social, cultural and economic history, with a lot of reference to and quotations from autobiographies and contemporary diaries.
1957 saw Harold Macmillan becoming Prime Minister; John Lennon met Paul McCartney for the first time; the causal link between smoking and cancer was confirmed; ball-by-ball radio commentaries on cricket Tests began; and there was a national bus strike. As the years passed, Blue Peter, Coronation Street and Z Cars started on TV, supermarkets became much more numerous, betting shops and commercial bingo halls opened, and many pubs and cinemas closed. In 1962 the Crazy Gang had their last performance, Accrington Stanley were wound up, the Beatles got a contract with EMI, and the centenary of ‘The Blaydon Races’ was celebrated.
Two well-known political quotations bookended the period. In July 1957 Macmillan announced that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’, and in June 1962 Harold Wilson stated that ‘the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing’. It is hard to imagine claims along these lines being made today.
Living standards improved for most people. Between 1951 and 1958 the average earnings for industrial workers had grown by over 20 percent in real terms. In the second half of 1957, 56 percent of adults owned a TV set and 12 percent a fridge, and by 1960 82 percent of homes had a TV and 21 percent a fridge. Yet plenty of people still lived in poverty, below National Assistance levels. There were massive programmes of slum clearance and the building of flats (such as Park Hill in Sheffield and the high-rise blocks in Glasgow), but in 1960 there were still 850,000 homes categorised as unfit and slum clearance rates were running decades behind the plans. This was part of more general moves towards town planning, the restructuring of town and city centres and the building of big road schemes, such as Birmingham’s Inner Ring Road.
A few women were becoming prominent, for instance as journalists or newsreaders. But it was generally assumed that most married women would stay at home rather than work, and women on the whole earned far less than men and were more likely to be doing unskilled jobs. Marriage was the norm, and less than three percent of households were lone parents with dependent children. While many men expected their wives to just cook and clean, ‘the sociological evidence was mounting that marriages as a whole were becoming more companionate.’ The oral contraceptive pill could be prescribed from the end of 1961, but only to married women.
Immigration was a live issue, though in 1958 there were just 165,000 non-white immigrants in Britain. The Notting Hill riots that summer were ‘the most serious civil unrest of the decade’, as mobs of white youths rampaged through the streets. Many ads for rented flats stated ‘No coloured people’, and there was discrimination in employment as well. By 1961 it was being claimed that prejudice against West Indians in Birmingham was leading to ‘neighbourhood segregation’; there were no more than 35,000 West Indians in the city.
The Conservative election victory in October 1959 was their third in a row, and led to many arguments within the Labour Party. It was claimed that nationalisation had been the most damaging issue, and Hugh Gaitskell reiterated that it was not intended to take every private firm or small shop into state ownership. In 1957 a motion on unilateral nuclear disarmament had been defeated at a Labour conference; Kynaston says that this was the moment when Labour and ‘radical’ ideas began to become detached from each other, but it needs to be asked how radical Labour had ever been. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was set up in early 1958, and the Committee of 100 in 1960.
This is a very wide-ranging history of the period, but it has little to say about inequality and the lives of the richest people in Britain.