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. When food was tightly rationed in Britain, the public was invited to subscribe to funds to feed German children. Destruction was one thing: it could be seen, defined and repaired. Slow decay caused by the complete lack of maintenance was another. The British railway system suffered as much from that as the French system had suffered from the sustained bombing.

In addition to the physical ruin, there was the collapse of the ideology which had been so prominent. At an abstract intellectual level, existentialism and logical positivism -- the dominant philosophies of my younger years -- are both retreats from an assured view of the universe and man's place in it; at a more everyday level, the idea of the nation-state was no longer seen as guarantor of one's way of life and one's future. Of course, as Eurocrats tell us defensively and continuously, France is still France and Italy is still Italy ('and nothing we are doing in Brussels can take that away', is the subtext). But the fact is that 'France', as an example, is now a strong sentimental attachment to landscape, language, culture and cuisine. It is no longer the strong shield behind which one can shelter, which expresses all the population's hopes and guards them against their worst fears. France is a very nice club indeed, of which anyone can be proud to be a member, much nicer than the clubs across the Rhine or the Pyrenees (and certainly much nicer than the club across the Channel, with all that dreadful weather). But as a shield? Remember 1940! The relative fading of Gaullism once the General was no longer there, its re-shaping as a rather ordinary political party and the way in which the General's phrase about 'a certain idea of France' has been gently reinterpreted, I think, demonstrate all this. It is only in Britain, never occupied, and with the Channel and the Falklands Campaign to point to, that the nation is still seen as something more durable; and even here, a lot of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have their reservations.

This fundamental failure of one of the great building blocks of intellectual life leads, of course, to the European Union and the different concepts of what it should be and what it is for. It is not alone. In the great house-clearing of ideas which no longer serve, religion -- specifically, Christianity -- suffered a crashing defeat. Over the great band of society where, in 1914, it had been odd and disreputable not to go to church, it was now seen as odd and a form of infantilism to do so. As religion fell, so too did the 'authority principle', i.e., the idea that there were people and institutions who ought to be obeyed without asking why. It was hardly surprising that morality suffered too. Inculcating good behaviour is not the primary duty of the Church; it is a second-order task, derived from the feeling that her Founder, having been brought up as a pious Jew, probably disapproved, e.g., of burglary -- though He never actually says so. But it is quite hard to go to church and not run into the Ten Comman dments. Not going to church leads eventually to a softening of the hard edges and to a residual morality which turns on phrases like 'leading a decent life', 'not doing other people any harm', 'doing one's best', and so on, which turns out in practice to be quite compatible with coveting thy neighbour's wife, or his new car or his mobile phone, or anything that is his. Indeed, there is quite a sinister edge to the New Morality made up of the two ideas that self-expression is a good thing (well, repression is a bad thing, isn't it?) and that feelings like anger, envy, etc., are better let out than kept in, and that the Rights of Man refers to Me and include the right to be protected from all worldly ills -- or massively compensated instead. Fifty years ago a common phrase was 'There should be a law against it'. Nowadays there usually is, and the phrase used is 'Someone's got to pay for this'. There is, incidentally, quite as much hypocrisy in the New Morality as there was in traditional church-going, since it gives wide opportunity to pressure groups who can throw a specious cloak of morality over bad behaviour in the name of some Higher Good.

But while all this has been going on at a personal level, there has also been forming a general economic philosophy which has proved much more robust, because successful. Utterly pragmatic, it has been willing to take on new elements as fast as they prove their usefulness. It goes by the name of Liberal Capitalism, and its most extreme defenders justify it as 'the end of history', in Francis Fukuyama's phrase. It has proved so successful that it has cleared away all its competitors so that -- the argument goes -- from now on there will be no more debate over ideas; there will only be events.

It is not all new; some parts of it are very old indeed. What is new is the coherence of it all. Perhaps its oldest part is the invention of the law of bankruptcy in the medieval Italian merchant cities, to replace the cruel laws which governed debtors in the ancient world. We take this for granted, and forget that someone had first to have the idea that when one's business failed one had usually suffered enough and that it was sufficient for a court to ensure that one paid back what was possible. It is impossible to estimate how much enterprise, i.e., risk-taking, this has unlocked. Banks and the paper money that goes with them are also so old that we cannot imagine a world without them. In the 1690s, England invented the modern National Debt, partly to pay for King William's war with France and partly to give as many people as possible a vested interest in the Revolution Settlement. It was Fernand Braudel, I think, who first pointed out the psychological impact of transferable Government stock. When a medie val king borrowed money, he paid it back (generally), with interest, to the merchant who had lent it, and moving such debt around between merchants was not easy. The idea that one should be able, at any post office, to find a secure home for temporarily unwanted cash, buy 'Treasury stock' at a market price and be able to sell it again at a day's notice, is markedly beneficial.

When the father of Alexander Pope, the early eighteenth-century poet, retired from business, he took with him a trunk full of golden guineas, into which he dipped for his living expenses. Nowadays, this would be regarded as backwards even by Central European peasants; what they keep under the mattress is paper money, i.e., someone else's promise to pay.

Then there is limited liability, a marvellous idea. Just imagine an economy without it, one in which you had to know a business intimately before you invested in it because you would be liable for any debts it ran up. The money this has released from mattresses and chimneys is beyond calculation.

The rights of property are often mocked (Proudhon: 'Property is Theft'), but economic advance depends entirely on their security, and especially on the security of intellectual property. The amount of the latter has increased enormously over the last fifty years, and there is a case for pulling together the law and practice of copyright, patents and registration of trade marks and strengthening it. I wish we heard more of the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a branch of the UN, which could do more with advantage. It is interesting that in 1900 the head of the United States Patent Office seriously suggested that his office should be closed because everything worth inventing had already been invented! Someone who invents a new advance in computing can expect to become a billionaire -- in the liberal capitalist world, that is. It was a mark of communism that inventions were regarded as purely State property; witness Comrade Kalashnikov, who invented a device unfortunately in use across the globe, but wh o lived in poverty. The regulation and suppression of intellectual activity eventually killed Communism, of course; despite Cold War rhetoric, the West never had anything to fear from a system in which (in Romania) ownership of a typewriter had to be licensed by the police, who would require several sheets of its work to be deposited with them so that any unauthorised writing could be traced back. Only free men whose rights are protected can invent and innovate.

An historian should be interested in the things that do not happen when they might have been expected to. (For example, why did only thirteen colonies rebel against Britain in 1776? It looks absolutely right now, but there are unanswered questions about Canada and the West Indies.) Let us look for a moment at things that might have been expected to produce wealth, but do not. First is abundant natural resources. The United States and Canada certainly have them, but all the other leading economies are notably poor under this heading. Japan has virtually none; Germany, Britain and France have used up most of theirs, and even North Sea oil is slowly beginning to wind down. The countries with vast oilfields, goldfields and the like are none of them advertisements for that way of going on. Centrally planned or 'command' economies ought to do better than most, by avoiding waste and having clear objectives and priorities. They do not. Giving or lending large dollops of money to 'developing' countries does not seem t o do the trick either. What seems to do it is the education of the population combined with a guarantee that they can keep a lot of what they make. A technical college is better than an oil-well. Add to that a guarantee that you can think freely and publish the results of your thinking, however zany, tasteless or perverse they may seem to benign rulers, plus some of the old principles I have mentioned above, and you have a formula that can raise a flattened country, like Germany, to wealth in a generation; and even Britain has risen from 1945 levels to very substantial wealth.

(An honest commentator must always be aware of the exceptions to his argument. Japan has been notably inventive and innovative, and in so doing has made herself the second economic power; yet Japanese society is notoriously closed and conformist. She is, however, a very well-educated nation; perhaps education is the pivot on which it all turns.)

In 1997, Tony Blair announced that the three priorities of the Labour Government would be 'education, education, education' -- as though he had just seen a blackboard for the first time. He was quite right; his words often are (let us not look too closely at the performance). But it was not new. Shortly after the end of the War, secondary education for everyone was introduced -- perhaps the biggest change of the Queen's reign. Until the Education Act 1944, most children received only an elementary education; nominally until the age of fourteen. This meant, once they had learnt the Three Rs, say by ten or eleven, woodwork, cookery and football. Britain has fumbled ever since with the machinery for giving that secondary education, Secondary Modem Schools, Comprehensive Schools, City Technology Colleges and now Beacon Schools have come and been found fault with. But there is no doubting the sustained desire to push 'book-larnin' at children for as long as they can endure it, and that in spite of many and repeate d failures most of it has stuck. Now bookish skills are being replaced by computer skills, and again the successes are outnumbering the failures -- indeed, more children seem to take more readily to mouse and keyboard than they do to turning over pages.

Beyond secondary education, Higher and Further. It is easy to make fun of 'degrees' in Media Studies and Sports Management from new universities one has never heard of, and undoubtedly vast sums of money are being wasted. Students are being manoeuvred into debt and made unhappy by the discovery that they have wasted their time or been taxed beyond their power. All these things can be said. One simply has to hope that this is also an age of transition, as higher education finds ways of giving half the population something useful, which will also stick. The deeper problem for the universities collectively is that they have fallen into the Government's grip, and probably the Government sees more sense in Media Studies than it does in philosophy; there is at least a media industry which may find some use for some of these graduates.

To sum up: property rights, backed by the rule of law guaranteeing freedom to innovate and receive the rewards, enjoyed by an educated population, have transformed life in the half-century we are celebrating. It is not necessary to celebrate the many physical things, from cars to computers, which cram our homes and driveways. Perhaps a word might be said about the advances in intangible services, especially financial services. I recall going for a job interview in 1951 with a bank -- long since swallowed up by one of the 'big four' -- where I discovered that the duties of a manager consisted of staff control and the ability to draft a mortgage adequate to protect a loan of a vast sum like [pounds sterling]100; that was all a manager had to do. They were just beginning to type customers' accounts; I still save some bank statements written out in pen and ink. When I go into my bank nowadays, I am flustered by the range of activities and services being discreetly pushed at me.

Or take another example, the freedom of foreign exchange. It was not until Mrs Thatcher's time in the 1980s that exchange controls finally came to an end, and with them the freedom to travel and to buy that fascinating but run-down little manoir in the Dordogne. The back page of our passports used to be reserved for the bank, who would enter there the amount of foreign currency we had bought. At times [pounds sterling]25 was the annual amount we were allowed to lay our hands on. Fortunately, the pound was then worth thirteen French francs, and Air France advertised '[pounds sterling]25 -- pas de probleme; one could get a weekend in Nice for that. (Does anyone remember the brief craze for 'lunch in France' when the hovercraft began? I tried it once. The weather turned nasty, and the lunch took seventeen hours Charing Cross to Charing Cross. Now, thanks to the Tunnel, lunch in Lille is much easier.)

The people who invent all these devices, from unit trusts to hedge funds, are not, of course, trying in the least to advance the economy. Their only concern is to make themselves richer. But in so doing they have created a vastly richer Western world. The French Prime Minister who in the 1840s advised a deputation (complaining about the property requirement for a vote) 'Enrichissez-vous' spoke more truly than he knew. How stable is it all? I think, very stable, in the same way that the Internet is stable -- it is vastly decentralised. A major business collapse like Enron is very serious in Texas, and its ripples will be felt world-wide; when I turn on a tap in Somerset I am dealing with an Enron subsidiary -- they own the local water company. But it can be contained. The wealth this collapse has destroyed is a minute fraction of what there is. When the Internet bubble burst in the Spring of 2000, there were many sore heads and sore hearts. But the Dow Jones Index has settled at about 10,000, which is about wh ere it ought to be.

Perhaps future historians will say that the period from 1985 to the present, which has seen the rise of the Internet, saw a re-shaping of the world and the end of the Gutenberg Age. I am, I presume, too old and stiff in my mental joints, but I have yet to discover that shopping via the web is anything but an additional postal service, rather quicker but less reliable. And web-sites are still in their infancy; the problem appears to be that when a firm or other organisation decides it needs a web-site it engages a young person to set one up, who knows about computers but not very much about the organisation who have engaged him. I need only cite the low-grade drivel to be found on any BBC web-site (an organisation which ought to be at home with the web, if anyone is); I am sure I am not the only person who thinks 'Am I paying money to look at this?' as I reach for the off-switch.

I hope those future historians will be able to record in a footnote the rise and fall of an undoubted curse of the last twenty years, the Call Centre. No bank, insurance company or public utility now puts a local telephone number, or a name, on its correspondence. Any attempt to speak to them is routed to a vast office where harassed and underpaid staff attempt to deal with routine inquiries. It is amusing to guess, from the voice answering, where in the country the centre is. If a young female voice says 'Hello-this-is-Tracy-how-may-I-helpYEW?' in a breathless gabble with a rising inflexion, it is somewhere in the South of England. Scotland is home to a great many of these nests of vipers, because the Scottish accent is thought (by employers) to carry reassurance, with a suggestion of oatmeal, morality and the Kirk. Anyone who has lost money by entrusting it to a Scottish financial institution will know better.

I have mentioned the freedom to take our money abroad. The freedom to take ourselves there is also a major change over the years across which I am looking. There used to be a quip that the only times an Englishman went abroad were on his honeymoon or to go to war.

When the Queen came to the throne, it is said that the average Briton travelled five miles a day; now, he is said to travel thirty miles. This is of course one of those guesses which carries conviction if said in a loud enough voice: nobody really knows. But it sounds entirely in line with everyday experience, and is certainly in line with the sales figures of the petrol companies. I do not believe in a generalised concept of 'Freedom'. I believe there is a multitude of specific freedoms, of which the freedom to go where one likes is one of the most important. I call as witness the great desire of totalitarian regimes to take it away -- the call of 'Passes, please' in a German train, or the need for a permit to settle in Moscow (all with the best of intentions, of course). Now there is growing pressure from the Eurocrats for us to be forced to carry identity cards. And, more importantly, there is the need for money. I cannot recall a serious study of the benefits conferred on Victorian Britain by the legal re quirement that every railway company should run some trains on which the fare was one penny a mile, but they must have been huge, even though the companies used their oldest rolling stock for these 'Parliamentary trains', and ran them at the most inconvenient times and at the slowest speeds. And bicycles; it has been said, very fairly, that the greatest benefit of the bicycle was the freedom to find a wife or husband outside one's own village. Marrying the girl next door is often not a good genetic idea. I have been listening for half a century to clergymen intoning 'I publish the banns of marriage...' and can attest that fifty years ago the partners generally came from within a two-mile radius. Now it can be anywhere. Whether this is a good idea I do not know, except in the sense that people getting what they want is probably better than having to take what there is.

Daily travel is one thing. Going far for one's holidays is another. It was just before the Queen's accession that the first affordable package tour was offered, by an ex-RAF pilot (and his wife) who had bought an old Dakota, booked an hotel in Paris, and took their chance. The mass travel industry followed: and with it, many new social customs. One intriguing one is the appearance at provincial airports on Friday nights of young people with a bag and a passport, looking for an empty seat to anywhere which a travel company will sell off cheaply just to get something back. Corfu? Tunisia? -- sometimes they do not know where until they are in the air. A few minutes' casual conversation with a manual worker will quickly show that he can compare resorts in Austria with those in Italy, and have an informed view of the relative merits of the east and west coasts of the Isthmus of Kra. 'Too many Japanese down there', said one to me, adding after a moment: 'My father would have said the same'.

Are we any better? Not a new question: the Roman poet Horace remarked that 'those who cross the sea change the sky above them, but not their natures'. One can only be amazed that aircraft workers in Seattle, oil company employees in Nigeria, cooks and waiters in Spain, chambermaids in Jamaica, ticket clerks in Manchester and an infinite multitude of skills in every part of the world are employed so that drunken young Britons can fall over in the midnight streets of resorts from Cyprus to Florida. The most impressive thing of all is that we take this for granted, and are not amazed at the vast systems that have been woven in our lifetime to satisfy our whims. Keynes saw the first signs of this when, describing the golden age which finished overnight in 1914, he remarked that a Londoner, while sipping his morning tea in bed, could pick up the telephone and order (from the Army and Navy Stores, of course) pretty well anything from any part of the world. But, of course, that Londoner had to have money. Keynes did not live to see the mass market, where eighty per cent of the population has means. A few years ago, a despondent trade union leader meditating aloud on the decline of the militant Left, observed 'I have members who are car workers in Dagenham. There are two incomes coming in, three cars parked outside and they take two holidays a year in the Med. And I go to them and say "Brother, let me lead you out of your misery"'.

The line on the graph recording rising incomes crossed the line recording falling prices to create a situation without parallel in our history. One small example: in the year of the Queen's accession, my father bought a new car. It was a Morris Oxford -- a near relative of the Sherman tank -- and cost [pounds sterling]709, the annual income of a police sergeant, which he was. A police sergeant now can buy a better car for two months' income.

Pausing in the supermarket check-out queue (and noting that the peas in my basket have come from Zimbabwe, by air freight) I reflect that the young lady at the till is wearing better make-up than Cleopatra had, and is better-dressed than Queen Elizabeth I -- who, you will recall, was famous for her 365 dresses, 'and had a bath every year, whether she needed it or not'. Is she happier? Is she better -- in any of the twenty meanings of that word? She is not a bit grateful -- and why should she be?

George Wedd, C.B., is a retired Civil Servant.