Britain in 1951

Arthur Marwick takes a sweeping look at the society and culture into which History Today was born.

With a little bit of ingenuity historians can make the case for almost any year being a 'turning point'. In cultural history 1951 does have significance as the year of the Festival of Britain; if one peers deeply one can detect portents of change to come (and I shall go out of my way to pick these out in this essay); but in the longer perspective 1951 was simply a middle year in a fairly unified – as the ravages of war were steadily repaired – if slowly developing post- war era, 1945 to around 1958.

Certainly the change of government in 1951 had little effect on cultural developments. All of the arts in Britain had been touched by the aesthetics of modernism, itself perhaps a response to the catastrophic character of the modern world. But if modernism (sometimes in the form of reactions against it) was the governing force in elite culture, a crucial general influence was that of the new communications technologies, the basis of film, radio, and television. On the whole, however, the new mass media tended to aim for naturalism rather than modernistic innovation; this, to the despair of intellectuals, tended to be particularly true of Britain.

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