How did the Second World War affect British society in the 50's and 60's?
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CHARLES UNIVERSITY, PRAGUE
FACULTY OF ARTS
HOW DID THE SECOND WORLD WAR AFFECT BRITISH SOCIETY?
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Every event has its consequences and nothing happens accidentally- there is no doubt about it. It does not matter if the event touches just one personal life or the whole world. We talk about important but also about insignificant events. Some consequences appear immediately but people can meet some of them many years later. Especially the huge event such as the Second World War has affected the personal, social and political life of millions of people on our planet. It is paradoxical that some of those people whose life was wholly changed by the war had no idea who Adolph Hitler had been or where the Great Britain was situated.
The Affluent Society
Immediately after the end of World War II, Britain underwent enormous social change. The country was bankrupted after the war. The new Labour government provided the reformation of the main institutions such as mining, railways, road traffic, air traffic, petrol, electricity and even the Bank of England. From 1957 to 1963 it was Harold Macmillan who ruled the country. This era is also called the time of "The Affluent Society" - this term was introduced by the American economist, J. K. Galbraith in his book of 1958 1. "What happened during the fifties, though it may not be what Macmillan or his colleagues or, indeed, anyone else expressly intended, was the arrival of the British version of 'the affluent society'.2 On one hand, there was an economic growth because markets were slowly recovering from the war crisis and there was still a supply of raw materials from former colonies. And on the other hand the statisticians found out that "the employment of women and 'moonlighting' of many people led to improving of living standard"3. Now the life seemed easier to the Brits. The falling birth rate signified smaller and richer households. They were better equipped and more and more families owned cars, they could buy new mortgage houses and spent holidays abroad, e.g. in Spain, France or Italy. Even workers could afford holidays at Mediterranean Sea. Whereas before the war the car was the matter of richer people, after 1945 the number of car owners has increased. Television sets had been a rarity in the early 1950's; but "by 1961 75 per cent of families had one." 4 The increase of TV is caused also by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. on 2nd June 1953. It was an important event and many people wanted to watch this celebration on their own TVs. "While prices of food and other necessities were steadily rising, the prices of small cars, in relation to earning power, were falling, and many products of new technology, such as television sets and washing machines, were, despite inflation, actually costing less." 5
The people in Britain represented self-sufficient and quite isolated society. The general model was based on affluence set by customers. On the other hand, economists, new prophets of the epoch, found out that the productivity had been falling. Sociologists revealed deep inequalities and class differences which stopped the modernization of the 'stagnating society'.
Situation of Servants and Aristocracy after the War
Before the war it was quite common among the people who belonged to the upper class that they had butlers and maids who are known from novels by P.G.Wodehouse or W.S.Maugham. But after 1945, women from the middle class were taking care of their households by themselves and there was a lack of maids because the servants can hardly find a job. Some of them fought in the war and sometimes there had no place to came back. During the war, some houses became temporary hospital for injured people and there were no jobs for servants. After the war, old families had not enough money to keep their mansions and that's why they rented or sold them to museums, galleries or to people who became rich after the war. "Old aristocracy cannot take care of their old castles and parks anymore and that's why many of them became the property of the National Trust." 6
Of course, the upper class still keep the tradition but the big number of servants was not common anymore.
Under the press of the labour movements, the Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan (1945-51) took measures to improve the social insurance and established the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948. The NHS is generally regarded as the jewel in the crown of the welfare state. "If the fifties were disappointing, the sixties gave prospect of greater advance in spending money to equip the Welfare State". 7 Social care was actually financed by the state.
The Britain after WWII was destroyed a lot. This was a great challenge for architects. It is understandable that primary task was to build houses for living and schools. Charles Jencks called it "the English version of socialist realism". Post-war housing policies offered homes in new housing estates often many miles from the old communities in which grandparents and other relatives lived. So this led to an "estrangement" in families which were more unite before the war and it was common that grandparents lived near their children.
Before the war it was usual that all the family had a dinner together. But the post-war trend was that people became more separate from one another. This led to the fact that family members were getting more isolated and the old strong family structures became less tied. The consequence of this situation was that children's freedom was more tolerated and accepted by their parents.
Many schools built after the war, for instance the Henry Hartland Grammar School at Worksop 8, were well-designed inside but not very impressive from outside. People also expected the architectural solving of the bombed-out South Bank site. The most impressive buildings were the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery which undoubtedly signified coming of a new age.
People had to equip their homes somehow. The war taught them using "utility" furniture. People wanted to live in modern and nice-equipped homes again and 1,5 million of them visited the Design Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum called "Britain Can Make It". But only a few products were available for general sale, so the exhibition was quickly nicknamed "Britain Can't Have It." 9 But even without an exhibition people equipped their houses creatively and comfortably.
The Reflection of Time in Arts
But the arts did not die during the war. The people were hidden in air-raids shelters and this involved long hours of waiting. It was better than thinking of what was happening outside. This "encouraged the reading of novels" 10 People could read novels at any time and any place but the situation was different with drama which could be played only in theatres. Some theatres were playing during the war to encourage people and to bring them new hope. Especially Lawrence Olivier became very popular at these times. The opera and ballet companies lost its public during the war and they were referred to different kind of people who did not understand the music very much. "At the end of the war the Sadler's Wells Ballet was transferred to the Royal opera House, Covent Garden." 11, which is known till nowadays.
"Never is there an era in which no writers or artists are expressing criticism of the society in which they live." 12 In every epoch there are so called "rebels" who try to fight against the society. We can find them any time in any culture. For instance Romain Rolland became famous with his anti-war novel Peter and Lucy. The USA had its "lost generation" in twenties with well-known intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein. After the WW II, Jack Kerouac and his friends known as the "beat generation" started to write their great novels such as "On the Road". There is surely an analogy with the "angry young men" movement in England. All rebels have many things in common: they fight against the society, against prejudices, conventions and war. Every movement has its roots in the political and social background and these worlds are closely connected with one another. Culture usually reflects this background very sensitively and sometimes it is also connected with politics. There are 3 key literary works which have influenced thinking in Great Britain: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (released in 1954), Look Back in Anger by John Osborne and Room at the Top by John Braine. The character of the last book shows the eagerness and rapacity of working-class people who feel enough self-confident to become an equal member of traditional high society which was unthinkable before.
Apart from the books there was a great phenomena after the war: a cinema. People wanted to forget the hard years of war horrors and to think of things which differed from the recent reality. A cinema was an entertainment for a large spectrum of people because the tickets were cheap. The cinema attendances reached its peak in 1946 - 1/3 of the population were going once a week and 13% twice a week. 13 Going to the cinema was common Saturday night entertainment. People also went to watch football frequently. They could get more relaxed because they shouted a lot and this helped them to express their hidden emotions.
The post-war generations are always very different from the pre-war ones. They seem to be happier, more easy-going and full of new energy because the war remains only in their parents' memories. Marwick means that "the war had given children certain freedoms" 14. Economic situation after the war helped to develop the children's independence. The forties had their "spiv" and with the early fifties came "the first nationally recognized figure [...]: the Teddy boy." 15 It represented the attitude of young people towards the rest of society and the fact that for the first time working-class youth could take the initiative. Obelkevich adds that this money spending and buying clothes, records, audio equipment "would have been unimaginable to previous generations." 16 Later on, in the 60's, these post-war children became hippies and they fought against the war in Vietnam.
The war has undoubtedly the impact on human relations. Many men died in the war or came back with injuries. These were not able to work like the healthy ones and it did not bring so much satisfaction into families. We can also prove that war destroyed many marriages. Divorces "reached a peak of 60 000 in 1947, ten times the pre-war figure." 17 The reason of this shocking number was clear: men could not get used to the new situation of everyday family life on one hand, but on the other hand women did not have to keep marriages just because of husband's money. There was also a change in the law system; in 1949 the Legal Aid Act was passed and it "opened a possibility of divorce to many who had previously been deterred by the expense".18 But popularity of marriage as the social institution continued. "Even of those divorced, three quarters remarried." 19
After both world wars in the 20th century there was a baby boom; men came back from battle-fields and people felt safer because they knew that their children would be born for the peaceful life. The baby boom balanced also the loss of human lives during the war.
The Role of Woman
The Second World War affected also the position of woman in society. The changes started after the end of Victorianism and, as Marwick says, had been greatly accelerated by WWII. 20 Before the war, many women were at home to keep the households and to take care of their children; men were breadwinners. But the majority of men had to go to fight for their country, and women had to earn some money to survive. They took the men's position and they were good at it. They gained more self-confidence and therefore when men came back from battlefields they had to count on women as equal partners. Many wives became widows - most of them did not marry again because they did not have to - they could earn enough money for their life; but some were trying to find a new husband which was quite difficult because there was a lack of men.
Prisoners of war
Not only the men who returned from the war on the continent had big problems to get used to the normal life again. We cannot forget the prisoners of war who lived in terrible conditions of prisoners' camps. These were situated on Asian territories and it is clear that the living conditions were so cruel and degrading. Many of them died and those who survived came back home and they could never forget this horrible experience.
Just as the British Parliament has the reputation for being 'the mother of parliaments', so the BBC might be said to be 'the mother of information services'. Its reputation for impartiality and objectivity in news reporting is, at least when compared to news broadcasting in many other countries, largely justified.
In 1922 21 the BBC World Service was set up, with a licence to broadcast first to the empire and then to the other parts of the world. During the Second World War it became identified with the principles of democracy and free speech. It brought the news but also the commentaries and opinions and helped people to survive the horrible 6 years. Because the BBC had a good quality of broadcasting and the excellent reputation, people from the other countries used to listen to the BBC not only during the war, but also after the was in the 50's. It became very popular. People from the countries behind iron curtain used to listen to the BBC broadcasting which represented true and verified information. At the end of the war the radio services were reorganized into three: the Light Programme, the Home Service Programme, and the Third Programme.
The Second World War has influenced society, economics and minds of people not in Britain but all around the world. The life after the war was completely different from the one before 1939. People were experienced from the first war but the second one was much more cruel and it has a bad impact on generations. The eyewitnesses still remember the terror and they are able to hand over the terrible experiences.
The war has influenced all branches of human performing - literature, theatre, media, education, politics and social background not only in the 50's and the 60's.
The life is not only black and white. Every item hides also some positive traces even it seems to be impossible when we talk about such a terrible event like the Second World War. We can rank for instance completely changed life of women among the positive features.
The Brits are one of the rare nations who understand the needs of society and the seriousness of the situation and all the classes without exception can adapt to extreme conditions. They are able to cut down their expenses.
1 Thomson, D. England in the Twentieth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, page 259
2 Thomson, D. England in the Twentieth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971, page 260
3 Polišenský, Josef. Dějiny Británie. Praha: Svoboda, 1982, page 248
4 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 117
5 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 114
6 Maurois, André. Dějiny Anglie. Praha: Lidové noviny, 1995, page 446
7 Thomson, D. England in the Twentieth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971,page 264
8 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 88
9 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 89
10 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 80
11 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 82
12 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 120
13 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 71
14 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 71
15 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 72
16 Obelkevich, James, Peter Catterall. Understanding Post-War British Society. London: Routlege, 1994, page 149
17 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 60
18 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 60
19 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 60
20 Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990, page 63
21 Říman, Josef, et al. Malá československá encyklopedie. Praha: Academia, 1987, page 384