Winds of Change: Post-War Britain 1945 - 1965

The twenty-years between 1945 and 1965 witnessed unprecedented change across the British Isles. There was a dramatic rise in prosperity and living standards, as well as radical initiatives in health and welfare provision and in education. In a changing world, Britain also faced the manifold dilemmas occasioned by the 'end of Empire' and struggled to redefine a new place for itself on an international scene dominated by the superpowers and the Cold War.

To begin with, we will assess the state of Britain in 1945 both at home and abroad as it faced the challenges of post-war reconstruction. Already, during the war, important innovations, such as the Beveridge Report of 1942 and the Education Act of 1944, signalled the desire for reform and change across many sections of the British public. This resulted in the landslide Labour victory of July 1945. Labour then instituted a radical programme of nationalisation in transport and heavy industry as well as the establishment of a free National Health Service. Britain's desperate economic situation, however, forced the government to continue with rationing and controls throughout the late-1940s. This in turn provoked increasing opposition in the country as people chaffed under the restrictions and shortages. In the general election of 1950, the Labour government's majority was cut to 5 in the House of Commons and the following year Winston Churchill returned to No. 10 to head a Conservative government.

The 1950s would be dominated, politically, by the Conservative Party, with Churchill giving way to Anthony Eden in 1955, who was himself succeeded by Harold Macmillan in 1957. Macmillan coined two phrases during his premiership which encapsulate this period. On the home front, he told the British people that they had 'never had it so good!' This was, for many, a true statement. The 1950s was a time of full employment, more people than ever bought their own home and ran a car. Rationing was phased out by 1954 and the end of the decade saw the development of the 'package holiday' which allowed many people to travel abroad for the first time. In the home, labour-saving devices from electric irons to washing machines transformed lives.

On the international front, Macmillan stated in 1960 that the 'wind of change' was blowing through Africa, signalling the end of colonial rule by European powers and the move towards independence. An important aspect of this course will be to examine Britain's changing role in the world, both in terms of 'end of Empire' and Britain's relationship with the USA as the Cold War developed. Between 1947 and 1965 Britain divested herself of her Empire, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, and the period witnessed prolonged debates about the future of Britain's role in the world, a debate exacerbated by the Suez Crisis of 1956 - 7. The period was also dominated by the Cold War and, again, Britain sought to maintain its position, alongside the United States, as a major nuclear power, exploding its first atomic bomb in 1952. However, Cold War realities demonstrated Britain's relative decline as an independent world power.

Whilst there might be continuing anxieties about nuclear power and the decline of British power, in other respects the British changed in more subtle ways during this period. The 1950s witnessed the rise of the 'teenager', a process encouraged by the fashion and popular music industries. Young people had more freedom and more money to spend than ever before and the ten-years between 1955 and 1965 witnessed the development of a distinct youth culture, from Teddy Boys to Mods and Rockers, which demonstrated that the generation which came of age in the early 1960s often wanted a very different society from that of their parents.

Our course ends in 1965, the year of Winston Churchill's death, his passing seems to symbolize the passing of an old order. The previous year Harold Wilson and the Labour Party had won the general election, after thirteen years of Conservative rule. Wilson's government was progressive and reforming, abolishing the death penalty, decriminalising homosexuality and, apparently, welcoming the 'permissive society.' The extent to which the 'swinging sixties' fundamentally changed British society is a debatable point, what is beyond doubt is that during these twenty years, 'the times, they are a-changin!'

Dr Andrew Lacey
January 2016

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