With Britain wealthier than it has ever been, are the rose-tinted views of 60 years ago as true as we think theymight be, asks Gerry Hassan
The impending Diamond Jubilee evokes questions about the current mood of Scotland and Britain. There are constant references to the world of 1952, the Scotland and Britain of 60 years ago, but facts do not fully convey what it was like back then.
Perhaps going back to the archives of The Scotsman for May 1952 might help. On first impressions, so much has changed. The paper of 60 years ago is a very different design, crammed with small print, and very few photographs.
There are stories of “colonial development”, “American aid to Europe”, discussions on Egyptian independence, and the start of the “world’s first jet air service”, the Comet, from London to Johannesburg. There were shortages of housing, an “increase in the meat and tea ration”, while butter was reported as “now becoming a luxury”.
Some things never change. The BBC began broadcasting TV in Scotland on 14 March, 1952, with a few hours a day of children’s programmes, cricket and news.
Nearly immediately complaints began. On 8 May, JBI Mackay wrote: “It seems to be almost universally agreed that … the programmes broadcast are very poor.” They stated that when Scots complain: “London announces that the Scottish regional controller has full control and can choose whatever he presents.” And they said: “London appoints the staff in Scotland and pays it.” How things have moved on.
There was much less sport and football in the paper, often limited to the back page even though Scottish football was enjoying a long boom from the end of the war. The 1951-2 season was one of only two in post-war times where the Old Firm did not win any of the three major trophies: the other being 1954-5.
Hibs won the league and the Argentine authorities offered them £25,000 to play three games in Buenos Aires. Hearts and Hibs played an end-of-season East of Scotland Shield match with a ten-man Hibs triumphing 3-0.
Politics were dominated by Labour and Tories. The previous year’s election had seen the Tories finish with slightly more votes than Labour in Scotland, the same number of seats (35), with the Liberals on one and the Nationalists none. Winston Churchill was returned as Prime Minister.
George Duff on 23 May accused the two main parties of playing the Scottish card cynically, writing: “We have seen over and over again that the party in opposition, whether it be Tory or Socialist, makes such promises to Scotland and forgets the moment it accedes to power.”
This was the beginning of the era of Queen Elizabeth and a time when the Church of Scotland was approaching the peak of its membership and influence. The Queen’s letter to the General Assembly said that she would “maintain and privilege the true Protestant religion in Scotland”.
The Queen Mother inspected the Black Watch at Crail before they left for the Korean War. On 14 May, the paper reported: “Five hundred Balmoral bonnets, each with its red hackle, were raised aloft as the Black Watch gave three rousing cheers for Her Majesty, the Colonel-in-Chief”.
How do we make sense of this age today? The standard account is put by Andrew Marr in his new biography of the Queen, talking of “a nation in decline” over these past 60 years. Katie Grant gave a Scottish version of this last year, seeing the post-war story of Scotland as leading from one of emancipation to disappointment, regret and loss.
We really do need to ask: whose decline and whose loss? Britain is wealthier than it ever has been. For all the talk of “austerity Britain” and ripping up the social contract, we live in an age of unprecedented wealth, choice and abundance. But it doesn’t feel like that, with record inequality and insecurity. I don’t buy the story of loss and disappointment as the complete story. It touches upon the powerful tale of the TV series which began as Seven Up in 1964 (56 Up now) which has mapped social movement and mobility.
The debate on social mobility is about huge issues such as life chances, inter-generational opportunities and what happens to young people. It also leads to all sorts of confusions, as Nick Clegg showed in a recent speech on social mobility where he said: “Reducing inequality is a good and laudable aim. But unfortunately, it’s not the straightforward route to social mobility that its proponents suggest. In many ways, I wish it was.”
There is a lament for a simpler age, and an element of self-deception in those comments, in Clegg’s wistful sign-off, “I wish it was”. Combine those with the Marr caricature and power of declinism and no wonder we are confused.
What about a positive story of those years? Of a generation of working-class kids empowered and liberated by comprehensive education, council housing and the support of the state. Of a Scotland slowly moving to greater self-government and away from the discredited, broken Westminster system. Of a country which cares for its culture and its history more.
Then there are the domestic and “personal is political” revolutions we now take for granted. The emancipation from endless housework through consumer goods, free contraception, gay liberation and divorce-law reform have transformed the relationships of millions of people, including north of the Border. On a wider canvas, Britain presided over the end of its Empire, while Communism and South African apartheid collapsed.
These are unprecedented times of paradox, uncertainty and anxiety, but we shouldn’t pretend that the Scotland of 1952 was some “golden era” or better place. It was a masculinised, oppressive, hierarchical society where you were taught not to challenge authority whether it be parents, local council or the Kirk.
It was a duller, more predictable place, whereas today we are more disputatious and diverse. It is time to junk the stories of decline and disappointment, and find a new northern song which acknowledges complexity, messiness and, above all, the power of hope we all have in us.