I’ve just finished reading Peter Hennessy’s recent book, Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties. The title is derived from a speech by Harold Macmillan in 1957 in which he famously said:
most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to individual towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed ever in the history of this country.
And certainly we do tend to associate the 1950s with a surge of post-war optimism and prosperity –Modernism and Consumerism combining to give us sparkling new supermarkets, television, rock-and-roll, ‘dream machine’ cars, and an assortment of shiny chrome consumer durables. But Hennessy also reminds us that it all looked very different in Britain at the outset of the ‘50s, and that there were deep concerns about the health of the British economy and the cost of living all the way through the decade.
Anxieties about the post-war reconstruction of Britain meant that there was unprecedented state control of the economy in the 1950s. The most noticeable day-to-day state intervention in peoples’ lives was food rationing, which continued until 1954 for some products such as meat, butter, cooking fat, and bacon. There are some historians – Zweiniger-Bargielowska is one of them- who argue that discontent with rationing played a major role in the Labour government’s electoral defeat in 1951.
The Labour government had decided to call an early election in 1951 – just a year after the previous election – in part because they thought economic conditions were about to deteriorate. They were particularly worried about a potential coal shortage in 1951/52. The Labour Party manifesto specifically addressed the issue of consumer dissatisfaction about the cost of living. It acknowledged that prices were high, but argued that the cost of living in Britain was in fact lower than in other countries as prices had been controlled by policies introduced by the Labour government such as price maintenance, rent control, and food subsidies. The manifesto also included new proposals including extending price maintenance and introducing auction markets in provincial towns to help bring down the cost of fresh produce (Peter Joyce, UK General Elections, (2004), p. 267). In other words, Labour heralded these measures as a success, arguing that prices would be worse without state intervention, and they proposed that further measures should be introduced to keep food prices down. Traditionally sceptical of state interventions in the economy, the Conservative Party was never going to propose the introduction of any measures such as this. Their election manifesto blamed increases in the cost of living on the ‘socialist’ spending of the Labour government, the devaluation of the Pound, and purchase tax.
Hennessy begins his book by explaining how food (and the absence of it) was burned into the consciousness of a whole generation of Britons, and how
Some consumption benchmarks, such as the final ending of the sweet ration in February 1953 will, I suspect, be remembered by readers over sixty almost as
vividly as the Stanley Matthews Cup Final, the Coronation, and the scaling of Mount Everest in the same year.
So rationing dominates peoples’ recollections of this period, but I still think it would be wrong to portray food rationing as the decisive issue in the 1951 election. For one thing, although Labour lost 20 parliamentary seats, it in fact polled its highest ever vote at this election – 230,000 more votes nationally than the Conservative party. (Joyce, p. 273) Furthermore, the average swing of 1.1 per cent from Labour to the Conservatives was relatively uniform across the country – and the swing was lowest in parts of London, a region that traditionally turned Tory at the drop of a hat. In other words, Labour was, in fact, more popular than ever. Labour losing the election had more to do with the vagaries of the First Past the Post system than any indication that the electorate was turning against Labour and its policies.
It goes to show that it’s one thing to ask people if an issue was significant in their lives, but quite another to ascertain whether it actually caused them to vote in a particular way.