The Birth of the Affluent Society

On July 18, 1957, about a month before I was born Harold Macmillan uttered “the immortal passage”, as David Kynaston calls it, that encapsulates the period covered by his latest book on postwar Britain: “Indeed, let’s be frank about it; most of our people have never had it so good.” 

Looking back, what strikes Kynaston most forcibly is the sudden impact of consumer brands and, of course, television. By that summer, 45 per cent of British households had TV sets and within a year or two practically all the major genres we still watch today, from soaps to crime and game shows, were on air. Not everyone approved of the informality of the new mass medium. Hugh Trevor-Roper, soon to assume the Regius chair of Modern History at Oxford, could not bear the vulgarity of Cliff Michelmore’s BBC Tonight, a pioneering effort in current affairs, on which he had been invited to talk about Julius Caesar: “I felt that the whole programme was simply a succession of knock-about turns in which I would rather not take part.”

Class snobbery, while ubiquitous, was also treacherous territory. Writing to Dick Crossman, the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell expressed his private concern about the bumptiousness displayed by their younger colleagues Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland: “We, as middle-class Socialists, have got to have a profound humility . . . Now that’s all right for us in the upper middle class, but Tony and Roy are not upper, and I sometimes think they don’t have a proper humility to ordinary working people.” The whiff of Wykehamist noblesse oblige here may be comical, but Crosland already envisaged the destruction of the grammar schools, which in the late 1950s were providing ladders for the lads from the new council estates to climb, while Jenkins’s attitude to his Welsh compatriots is summed up by Nye Bevan’s response to the comment that Jenkins was lazy: “Lazy? Lazy? How can a boy from Abersychan who acquired an accent like that be lazy?”

If class was making a comeback, sexuality was emerging as an even more contentious badge of identity. A few days after I was born, the Wolfenden Report into homosexuality was published, triggering the first ever public debate on the subject in Britain. The report’s authors were quite conservative (the Tories knew how to pack a committee in those days), and they demanded measures against the London gay subculture of promiscuity and prostitution, but the key recommendation was the decriminalisation of homosexual relations in private between consenting adults. The BBC screened a balanced programme, albeit with health warnings, on the subject. Such permissiveness was too radical for the country, especially outside the metropolis, and Rab Butler, the Home Secretary, bowed to public opinion, though he and most others on both sides of the House were tolerant of the “queers” whom they actually knew. One of three homosexuals who had given evidence to Wolfenden was Patrick Trevor-Roper, the eminent oculist and brother of Hugh. His identity was disguised in the report as “the doctor”, but as a gentleman and a scholar he didn’t much care who knew about his proclivities. It is a safe bet that few if any of the thousand or so men in prison for homosexual offences were upper-middle class.

Sex, snobbery and secret agents combined in the person of James Bond, who became a household name during this interlude between Suez and Profumo, still in literary rather than cinematic form. But the nation was not yet in Bondage to 007. When Dr No appeared in April 1957, a young journalist (my father-to-be) accused Ian Fleming in the New Statesman of glorifying “the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanized, two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult”. It was, “without doubt, the nastiest book I have ever read”, wrote Paul Johnson — but Dr No was tame compared to what was to come. Two years later, after Roy Jenkins had piloted the Obscene Publications Act through parliament, which put an end to censorship of the printed word (though not on stage), Weidenfeld & Nicolson published Lolita. More than half a century later, we are still unsure how to deal with Nabokov’s subject matter: the sexualisation and abuse of children. Are the voyeurs of the internet age more depraved than the literary libertines of the 1950s?

Kynaston’s montage technique, which creates a palimpsest of private and public sources, is once again deployed to great effect in this, the fifth in a remarkable sequence of volumes that will eventually cover the period from 1945 to 1979. It is, of course, indebted to the television documentary, a genre which was also born in these years. The author disguises his own, much more liberal views behind those of his chosen witnesses, but they do surface occasionally — as when he concludes from his account of Wolfenden that, despite signs of the “Victorian permafrost starting to melt . . . for the moment this remained a right little, tight little island”. 

What Kynaston seldom or never does is to make value judgments about the cultural or moral quality of the society he is describing, let alone to compare it to our own. The “affluent society” was still emerging from rationing and inclined to go overboard in its eagerness for “mod cons”. However, as a child born in 1957 I was pleased to discover that creature comforts did not displace a selfless concern for and delight in new life. That year Panorama was already showing natural childbirth through relaxation, with a clip from a film by Dr Grantly Dick-Read, whose work inspired the Natural Childbirth Association, later National Childbirth Trust. The programme was denounced by tabloids as “REVOLTING” but it reminded me of the recent TV drama series Call the Midwife, based on memoirs and set in the East End of the late Fifties, which revealed another world — a world of poor, sometimes very poor, women at their most vulnerable, coping with childbirth. The solicitude of the midwives for their mothers and babies was real and unconditional. This was a society still culturally homogenous enough to care about its weaker members, with a welfare state still based on the contributory principle and still suspicious of wartime controls. Not everything about the Fifties was repressive or illiberal — it was also a time of great generosity of spirit. As Larkin wrote at the time: “What will survive of us is love.”

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