Peter Kellner’s recent commentary on the polling YouGov has done for the Diamond Jubilee tells us that people show cheer towards the royals but pessimism as to whether life has really improved since 1952.
There appears to be some kind of collective nostalgia for the 1950s, which I believe is completely misguided. For a series of reasons, people choose to see the post-war years through glasses so tinted with rose they become totally opaque.
I was there. Born between Queen Elizabeth acceding to the throne in February 1952 and her coronation in June 1953, I attended primary school in from the late 1950s to the early 1960s. I suppose you could call these my formative years, and I have many memories of the way people lived then which I am very glad have changed for the better.
First and foremost, it was cold. The 1950s were still the era of the coal fire, which was fine for the room where the fire was lit. In cold weather going from one room to another could be like a trip to the arctic, as were the bedrooms. Heating upstairs was simply not done. We slept in the cold with extra blankets (duvets were still long into the future), bed-socks and even night-caps if you couldn’t bear tentacles like ice seeping through you.
While on the subject of cold, I remember icicles on the bedroom windows regularly in winter. At my primary school’s nineteenth century building the free school milk – one of the great benefits of the time – sometimes froze in the bottles as it was stored ready for us to drink at the morning break. The school lavatories also deserve a very dishonourable mention. Not only were they outside and therefore very cold for quite a lot of the year, they also lacked wash basins. As children at school, hygiene quite simply was not an option.
This takes me on to what I believe was the real scourge of the 1950s – poor health and illness. Killer diseases existed in large numbers. Children died of polio, and I remember seeing enough adults with disabilities caused by polio not to be surprised by them. Many serious illnesses for which there are now vaccinations were rife in the 1950s. I had whooping-cough, measles, mumps, rubella and, on one occasion, pneumonia. This was not unusual and I was not a specially sickly child.
These serious health problems should be looked at in conjunction with the low-level conditions which were suffered by very many people. Chronic bronchitis was everywhere as were other respiratory problems caused by the cold and the high levels of air pollution which caused smog. Small irritants such as chilblains brought on by the cold were universal. I challenge any young person to describe chilblains as they simply will not have seen them.
As if this were not enough, there were quite simply not the opportunities people have now. I was unusual in that my first trip to continental Europe was at the age of 11. Many never went abroad at all or did not manage it until their 20s or later. Neither was there the ability to travel in the UK we have now. Car ownership was much lower; my family did not have a car for some of the 1950s and early 60s. Although the train service was more comprehensive in terms of branch lines serving small places, it took a very long time to go any distance. The result was people stayed in their own areas, only venturing out for a summer holiday if they were lucky.
The YouGov poll shows people think Britain’s standing in the world was much higher in the post-war years that it is now. This is undoubtedly true, and maybe it’s this perceived loss of imperial power that is at the root of the problem. However, the huge advantages since the 1950s introduced almost exclusively by Labour governments – the National Health Service, the social security safety net, higher levels of equality in education and at the workplace, an improvement in the position of women – I believe outweigh the downside that Britain is no longer the world leader. We are still a world leader. I’d rather be slightly lower down the world pecking order and warm and healthy than right at the top with the risk of debilitating disease or worse.