This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
The Diamond Jubilee unsurprisingly evokes questions about the current mood of Scotland and Britain.
There are constant references to the past world of 1952, the Scotland and Britain of 60 years ago, but facts and figures do not fully convey what it was like to live back then.
Perhaps going back to the archives of The Scotsman newspaper for the month of May 1952 might help. On first impressions, so much has changed. The paper of 60 years ago is a very different design and layout, crammed with small print, notices and articles, 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 TV broadcasting in Scotland on March 14th 1952 with a few hours a day of children’s programmes, cricket and news.
Nearly immediately complaints began. On May 8th, J.B.I. Mackay wrote that ‘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 went on to argue that ‘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 1951-52 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 1954-55.
Hibs won the league and the Argentinian authorities offered them the princely sum of £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 May 23rd accused the two main parties of playing the Scottish card cynically, writing that ‘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’.
In the local elections Labour regained Glasgow and Aberdeen, with The Scotsman announcing that ‘forecasts were wrong’ as the ‘Progressives’ fell back more than had been expected.
The Unionist Annual Conference saw calls to end the BBC’s monopoly and introduce commercial television, while the Edinburgh South Association asked the government ‘to take steps to prevent foreigners participating at the expense of the British taxpayer’ in the NHS.
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 stated 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 May 14th 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 last 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: £377bn GDP 1952 in today’s prices, £1561 billion now. 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 television series which began as ‘Seven Up’ in 1964 and is ’56 Up’ now which has mapped social movement and mobility.
The debate on social mobility is about huge issues such as lifechances, 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 declared, ‘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’. (see Stuart Weir's piece Nick Clegg vs the Spirit Level).
There is a lament for a simpler age, an elegy for lost hopes, and an element of self-deception in those comments, in Clegg’s wistful sign-off, ‘I wish it was’. Combine those with the Andrew 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 has changed family lives as it has the workforce. 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 within us.
This piece was originally published in The Scotsman.