26 8.1. Society and Culture

Austerity: 1945–51

The Labour Party victory in 1945 represented pent-up frustrations. The strong sense that all Britons had joined in a “People’s War” and all deserved a reward animated voters. But the Treasury was near bankruptcy and Labour’s nationalization programs were expensive. Prewar levels of prosperity did not return until the 1950s. It was called the Age of Austerity. The most important reform was the founding of the National Health Service on July 5, 1948. It promised to give cradle to grave care for everyone in the country, regardless of income.

Wartime rationing continued, and was extended to bread. In the war the government banned ice cream and rationed sweets, such as chocolates and confections; sweets were rationed until 1954. Most people grumbled, but for the poorest, rationing was beneficial, because their rationed diet was of greater nutritional value than their pre-war diet. Housewives organized to oppose the austerity. The Conservatives saw their opening and rebuilt their fortunes by attacking socialism, austerity, rationing, and economic controls, and were back in power by 1951.

Prosperous 1950s

As prosperity returned after 1950, Britons became more family centred. Leisure activities became more accessible to more people after the war. Holiday camps, which had first opened in the 1930s, became popular holiday destinations in the 1950s — and people increasingly had money to pursue their personal hobbies. The BBC‘s early television service was given a major boost in 1953 with the coronation of Elizabeth II, attracting an estimated audience of twenty million, proving an impetus for middle-class people to buy televisions. In 1950 1% owned television sets; by 1965 75% did. As austerity receded after 1950 and consumer demand kept growing, the Labour Party hurt itself by shunning consumerism as the antithesis of the socialism it demanded.

Small neighbourhood stores were increasingly replaced by chain stores and shopping centres, with their wide variety of goods, smart-advertising, and frequent sales. Cars were becoming a significant part of British life, with city-centre congestion and ribbon developments springing up along many of the major roads. These problems led to the idea of the green belt to protect the countryside, which was at risk from development of new housing units.


The 1960s saw dramatic shifts in attitudes and values led by youth. It was a worldwide phenomenon, in which British rock musicians especially The Beatles played an international role. The generations divided sharply regarding the new sexual freedom demanded by youth who listened to bands like The Rolling Stones.

Sexual mores changed. One notable event was the publication of D. H. Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Penguin Books in 1960. Although first printed in 1928, the release in 1960 of an inexpensive mass-market paperback version prompted a court case. The prosecuting council’s question, “Would you want your wife or servants to read this book?” highlighted how far society had changed, and how little some people had noticed. The book was seen as one of the first events in a general relaxation of sexual attitudes. Other elements of the sexual revolution included the development of The Pill, Mary Quant‘s miniskirt and the 1967 legalisation of homosexuality. There was a rise in the incidence of divorce and abortion, and a resurgence of the women’s liberation movement, whose campaigning helped secure the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.

The 1960s were a time of greater disregard for the establishment, with a satire boom led by people who were willing to attack their elders. Pop music became a dominant form of expression for the young, and bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were seen as leaders of youth culture. Youth-based subcultures such as the mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads became more visible.

Reforms in education led to the effective elimination of the grammar school. The rise of the comprehensive school was aimed at producing a more egalitarian educational system, and there were ever-increasing numbers of people going into higher education.

In the 1950s and 1960s, immigration of people to the United Kingdom, mainly from former British colonies in the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, began to escalate, leading to racism. Dire predictions were made about the effect of these new arrivals on British society (most famously Enoch Powell‘s Rivers of Blood speech), and tension led to a few race riots. In the longer term, many people with differing cultures have successfully integrated into the country, and some have risen to high positions.


One important change during the 1980s was the opportunity given to many to buy their council houses, which resulted in many more people becoming property owners in a stakeholder society. At the same time, Conservative Margaret Thatcher weakened the trade unions.

The environmentalism movements of the 1980s reduced the emphasis on intensive farming, and promoted organic farming and conservation of the countryside. Religious observance declined notably in Britain during the second half of the 20th century, even with the growth of non-Christian religions due to immigration and travel. (see Islam in the UK) Church of England attendance has particularly dropped, although charismatic churches like Elim and AOG are growing. The movement to Keep Sunday Special seemed to have lost at the beginning of the 21st century.


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