‘British society in 1975 was different in every way to the one seen in 1951’ Discuss. The British society in 1975 was ‘certainly’ different from its own self in 1951. But, as radically the society changed, we cannot say that it was a total departure from the preceding ‘conformist’ state. The early 1970s British society is more or less a more ‘mature’ version of the gradually growing incoherent one that came into existence in the 1950s. Britain in 1951, though conservative, did acknowledge a new modern world of changes, social and technological progression rather than standing statically.
To see the differences created by social transformation, we need to look at the aspect of continuity and changes that distinguishes the two. In term of continuity, Britain in 1970s carries the legacy of increasing social mobility kicked off in the 1950s. It can be seen as a demographical change through a more geographical mobile system and migratory factors. One of the main features of social changes of Britain in this period was the development of a multiracial and multicultural society. Up until 1975, immigration and the social effects it brought posed to be a problem and at the same time, a benefit.
Before 1951, the symbolic arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 opened the influx of immigration from New Commonwealth countries, notably from West Indies. In term of demographic change, immigration was not the most significant factor but it did come under public concern. Putting aside the close historically multiracial tie of Britain with the Commonwealth, economic benefits, arguably, were the governments’ rationale at time to let in immigration. This created fear in the home-grown community of loosing occupational and housing opportunities to the immigrants.
Social tensions regarding racial relations were still a problem as of 1975. Despite the general feeling of ‘getting along’, we cannot overlook the existing prejudices and unpleasant examples of outright racism of the host community. If the tension simply based on number merits, it would be rather exaggerating. The proportion of people of non-European origins has never been more than 6% of the overall population of Britain. By the late 1950s, the situation took a disturbing turn with the exploitation of the shortage of accommodation and jobs to blame on the immigrant community.
The event of Notting Hill riots 1958 was an example of tension-turn-violence circumstances. The area of Notting Hill in west London oversaw mass riots of over 600 white males tried to batter their way into black-owned properties. The immigration issue carried onto the 1960s. Not an example of racism, rather a sentimental imperialist one, the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell in February 1968 spoke out against the surging influx of immigrants into the country. It stirred up racist feelings in parts of Britain, coming from such a high profile figure.
Also, noted that estrangement of the immigrant community in Britain might also be an explanation of the problem. The two Commonwealth Immigrants Acts introduced in 1962 and 1968 was condemned as racist, regulating immigration on the ground of ethnic and racial backgrounds. But, at the same time, the Labour Government of Harold Wilson did try to outlaw racial discrimination with the establishment of the Race Relation Board. Even seem to be a problem, immigration management of the British government proved to effective as of 1975.
Given the situation of early 1970s when an influx of immigrants of Asians from Kenya, Uganda and ‘boat people’ from Vietnam, Britain coped well with the social consequences in balance with economic contribution. Coming back to Powell’s speech, the imagery was rather falsified. Another point of importance is the breakdown of communities through urban development, modernisation of infrastructure and consumer affluence. In the early 1950s, there was enormous demand for new alternative housing to replace war damaged and old neglected ones.
From 1951, the Conservative government set up plan to build up to 300,000 new houses annually. This and establishment of new towns distributed the population to other areas outside of the already crowded cities such as London. Increasing car-ownership and infrastructure construction of new highway make the country more geographically mobile. This pushes the housing development to outside towns and cities. Established traditional communities were broken up as the population spread to other areas. Car travel also changed ideas of holidays and leisure.
The surging demand for cars cut out the demand for rail travel. In response to the Beeching Report of 1963, hundreds of unprofitable railways were closed, leaving a lot of rural areas in isolation. The society of early 1970s inherited a changing class attitude from the 1950s. British society in 1951 was ‘conformist’, ‘class-driven’ and favouring of establishments. There was breakdown of these principles in the following years but that does not mean that Britain has totally changed from being a ‘class-divided’ nation. Suggest by R. A.
Butler that the modern Conservatism of Britain was more of ‘have’ and ‘have more’ than a case of ‘have’ and ‘have not’. These social breakdowns should be viewed as results of economic conditions in the period, political shifts, the development of new standard of popular media and cultural changes. The growing affluence of the 1950s and 1960s set ground for social mobility. The old school class division was blurred out with the increasing availability of financial credit to mass public, contrasting to a credit system that only the rich could afford before.
Also, the spread of wealth across a much broader section of the population and rise in living standards contributes to this process of ‘new’ class division. The foundation of the welfare state by Clement Atlee and its continuance in the form of the ‘postwar consensus’ were an acknowledgement that the well being of the whole population was a matter of national concern. As we approach the 1970s, industrial disputes and energy crisis created deeper social polarisation of the society. The public was found torn between the unions and the government, trying to adapt to life of the ‘three day weeks’.
Tensions appeared as public reaction increasingly against union militancy. A new generation as of 1975 set out new ideas of classes in the society. This ‘baby boom’ generation did not live through the life of the Great Depression and World War II, so in possess of new of thinking and living. The new generation was more outspoken and openly critical about the governing body. Class division was now seen as something artificial and out-of-touch. Anti-establishment attitude began to get its way into the general consensus. This was fueled with new trends of popular media and events.
The failure of the Eden Government in dealing with the Suez Canal Crisis 1956 and the infamous Profumo Scandal 1963 put the establishment in question by the general public. During the Labour years of 1964-1970, anti-establishment campaigns were underway with the leadership of Harold Wilson. The development of mass media such as TVs and again, new generation of thought changed the shape of the society in term of class distinction and new culture. The popular press attitude changed from being deferential to a more critical and intrusive form, demonstrated by the Profumo Affair.
The press was more willing to dig deep into every juicy detail of a top-tier political story than ever before. The population now had access to mass media such as T. Vs; this exposed them to a wave of disrespectful satire from the press and media that weaken the position of establishments in the society. The social tensions and changes of the period was largely reflected and portrayed in popular culture and media. Compared to clean cut radio shows of the 1950s, new wave of media was more upfront and put out direct portrait of the society.
Gang violence was chillingly portrayed by Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The alienation of young working-class males was the theme of several films, especially ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, a big hit in 1960. There was also a drive to break down censorship and social taboos. Several plays and films pushed out the boundaries with portraying sex onscreen and dealing with issues such as homosexuality. Profanity was now more acceptable in uses on mass media, especially with the development of satire. The ‘satire boom’ of early 1960s scandalised and put out disrespectful political omments that hurt the old ‘class driven’ system. By 1975, popular music also developed as a philosophical and political soft tone that make it more acceptable with the general public, for instance in the case of The Beatles. The economic affluence, cultural changes and contemporary domestic and international events brought out a new wave of sub-culture and new concerns. By the early 1960s, the Mods and the Rockers attracts attention as they had violent clashes in resort towns along the coastline of Britain. Also, crime and hooliganism surged up in this period.
It riddled the general public as this happened in a time of affluence and a long period of mandatory 2 years of National Service for the youth. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, British society oversaw increasing peace movements and the birth of modern environmentalism. Set up in the early 1960s, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was a forerunner of other movements that worked outside the traditional framework of politics. In the heat of the Vietnam War, a 1968 protest outside of the American Embassy were part of this trend. Environmental movement emerged from the protests background.
Environmentalism concerns with industrial pollution, protection of wildlife and dangers from radiation and nuclear waste. The foundation of the British Ecology Party (later the Green Party) in 1973 was iconic for the increasing influence of this movement on Britain. The social trend and development of 1951-1975 was not a one-way movement. As mentioned, the class system was not totally broken, rather dented by changing attitude. This demonstrated by middle-class backlash in the early 1960s against the new immorality, notably with Mary Whitehouse.
And as mentioned, the class system itself changed to a new measure of wealth based distinction as much as social merits. British society in 1951 might be seen as drastically from its 1975 self, in a sense, a ‘near lost’ society. There were dramatic demographical, economic, and cultural changes that brought by a mass social revolution to Britain. It was social tensions, development of popular culture, growing mass media, changing social attitude and birth of new movements. There was still trail of the old society though. Britain of 1975 was still a largely ‘class-driven’ society as it was in 1951.