Family Britain 1951-57

The 1950s used to be seen as the time when the British people believed that they might be in sight of the promised land. Even Tony Benn called his volume of diaries covering the 1950s Years of Hope. "The miracle has happened," declared the Economist in June 1954; "full employment without inflation." “The wealth and prosperity of the town is incredible," Harold Macmillan observed while visiting Stockton-on-Tees in 1956. Wigan, that emblematic northern town, had been transformed, in the view of one commentator, "from barefoot malnutrition to nylon and television, from hollow idleness to flush contentment".

Anthony Eden's concept of a property-owning democracy seemed to have provided the Conservatives with an ideological alternative to socialism. If everyone could become a property owner, then no one need be defeated in the class war. Indeed, there was no war, as there was nothing to fight about. "The class struggle is over," declared Macmillan after the third consecutive Tory election victory in 1959. Consensus reigned.

The 1950s found the left in some disarray, as it had predicted that a Tory government would not succeed in preserving either the welfare state or full employment. In his revisionist tract The Future of Socialism, published in 1956 and republished 50 years later with a foreword by Gordon Brown, Anthony Crosland told Labour that it had to reform itself. Its leaders, he was to say in 1962, were either radical but not contemporary - "discontented, but with a society which no longer exists" - or "contemporary, but not radical. They realise that the society has changed, but quite enjoy the present one." Yet the left was willing to reform any institution except Labour itself. Instead, it echoed Engels's complaint: "The masses have got damned lethargic after such long prosperity."

Family Britain is the second volume in David Kynaston's history of postwar Britain. Like the first - Austerity Britain 1945-51, published to considerable acclaim in 2007 - it seeks to analyse not high politics, but a popular mood. There is nothing, therefore, on German rearmament, and just one paragraph on Europe; but a great deal on the impact of the housing estates and new towns on those who had been uprooted to live there, together with miscellaneous information about the popular worlds of sport and entertainment. We learn more about the Glums and Wilfred Pickles than we do about Churchill or Macmillan. Family Britain is an entertaining bran-tub of information about the habits of the British people more than 50 years ago. It is a valuable corrective to the high-politics approach, but like the pudding served to Churchill at the Savoy, it has no theme.

The voluminous material in Austerity Britain was held together by one central argument - that, under the postwar Labour government, the gap between the left and the people widened, so that by 1951 they had ceased to understand each other. Kynaston cannot make up his mind whether that gap widened further during the 1950s, or whether the affluent society in which, for the first time, the working class could acquire consumer goods hitherto reserved for the rich brought government and the people closer together.

Should the 1950s be applauded because of the decade's achievements, or condemned because of its omissions? Was it a period of prosperity and achievement as the Tories suggested; or was it, in the words of Labour's slogan, "Thirteen Wasted Years"? Kynaston does not say. He gives us stream-of-consciousness history, culled mainly from the files of Mass Observation, and then steps back as if the material speaks for itself. But one always has to ask whether the interviewees and diarists cited are in any way typical, or whether they are interesting precisely because they are not. Scientific history can no doubt be very dull, but even stream-of-consciousness history, though wonderfully entertaining, does begin to pall. For this reason, Family Britain is unlikely to replace Peter Hennessy's Having It So Good as a standard history of the period.

Perhaps the real verdict on the 1950s was given by the voters. Twice, in 1955 and 1959, they re-elected the Conservatives with an increased majority - the first time this had happened to any governing party since the Napoleonic wars. There can be little doubt that the Conservatives were more attuned than Labour to the impact of social change. It is said that Oliver Poole, the Conservative Party chairman from 1955 to 1957, used to drive on Saturdays to Watford from his nearby country home to observe the crowds revelling in the new consumer goods that they had never before been able to afford. The Conservatives seemed to understand the needs of ordinary people much better than those on the left, who denounced them as meretricious. The affluent society, Aneurin Bevan declared, was "a vulgar society of which no decent person could be proud". The voters did not agree, and even in 1964, when they rejected the Conservatives, it was not affluence that they were rejecting, but rather the inability of the Conservatives to provide it in sufficiently generous quantities.

Seen in this light, the 1950s provide an important lesson for Brown: that the left can hope to succeed only if it bases its policies on a real understanding of and sympathy with popular aspirations. It is an easy moral to formulate. The history of the postwar era shows how difficult it is to put into practice.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His most recent book is "The New British Constitution" (Hart, £17.95)

Family Britain 1951-57
David Kynaston
Bloomsbury, 756pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End