British Society in the Queen's Reign

Article excerpt

'WHEN you are faced with any question about any period', said my history master, addressing the Upper Sixth, 'you can always give your essay a respectable-looking opening by saying that it was an age of transition'. After a pause, he added: 'You can then go on to say that it saw the rise of the middle classes and the spread of a money economy. These remarks are true of any period whatever'. That history master happened also to be a County cricketer and a notable rugger player, so his remarks were discounted by the swots in the back row as the sort of thing he would say, wouldn't he? However, after nearly sixty years I have come to realise that there was more truth in them than I admitted at the time. They are certainly true of the reign of the present Queen, and in this article I would like to explore a few of the economic changes of the past years, the social changes to which they have led, and the political consequences of those social changes.

Every period needs to be set in context, so that one can gauge the starting-point. The Queen's reign has been effectively the second half of the twentieth century and the first period of the twenty-first. How did the second half of the twentieth century differ from the first? It is a truism to say that the first half was dominated by war, often seen as one war with a twenty-year armistice, the 'Long Weekend', as it was popularly described. This is a half-truth, of the kind more dangerous than a downright lie. The First World War shattered the equilibrium of the great nation-states. These great self-contained autocracies -- and even those which were nominally democratic, like Britain and France, were run on hierarchical lines -- had for a generation had many disputes between them, both on their frontiers and in the wider world. They had ground together like icebergs. A professional and dedicated diplomacy had prevented them convulsing into war, either by preventing the wars altogether or containing them so tha t wars like the Franco-Prussian War did not involve the whole of Europe. Such diplomacy could have coped with two or three mistakes, but in 1914 there were too many such mistakes simultaneously (Austria's feeling of injury at a Serbian-inspired assassination of the heir to the throne; the Czar's feeling that out of Slav and Orthodox solidarity he ought to support Serbia; the Kaiser's feeling that the Czar would never be so suicidally foolish as to support regicide; the Schlieffen Plan based on the German judgment that France had to be, and could be, crushed within forty days, which implied the invasion of Belgium; and France's feeling that, with Russian and British backing, they could recover Alsace-Lorraine) and the old autocracies embarked on a war with enough technology in it to ruin them all.

There was not much ideology in the First World War. In the Second, ideology was dominant. One ideology, communism, was triumphant on the field of battle, and got a second lease of life as a result. The other, Nazi-ism and its subsidiary company, fascism, was destroyed. In this war, it wasn't so much that the British disliked the Germans, although they certainly did, as that they disliked everything the Germans stood for and appeared to want to spread wherever they went -- symbolised by, but not confined to, the murder of the Jews. It was a striking result of the ten years after the war that Nazi-ism was utterly destroyed. Certainly one can find isolated fragments of its ideology here and there: there is some extreme nationalism; there is some anti-Semitism; there is some hankering after the corporate, disciplined state; but no-one has ever succeeded in putting the bits together into anything like the Party rallies recorded by Fraulein Riefenstahl.

In the late 1940s, Europe lay ruined. That is the key fact. It was not so much the roofless blocks in German cities, torn open by the RAF, as the near-complete wrecking of the continent's transport infrastructure, the lack of a labour force to get in the harvest and start rebuilding, the shortage of essential foods and fuel and the vast discrediting of almost everyone who had held any sort of public office. …