Arthur Marwick (1936-2006) was not a historian to harbour doubts. His judgements were forthright and bold. But looking back on the 1950s from his vantage point in 1991 he was uncharacteristically ambivalent. ‘Not a golden age’, he opined, ‘but not leaden either’, an airy dismissal that might apply to any postwar period.
To start on a basis we can all accept, the 1950s was a bleak decade. The Labour government, elected with a thumping majority in 1945, had laid the foundations of a welfare state but the benefits had still to feed through to a generation weaned on austerity.
Everything was in short supply. Rationing was still in force. Twenty million Britons lived in homes without baths and nearly a fifth of London’s housing was classified as slums. The brightest sights in the capital were the red buses. All else was black or sooty grey. Restaurant food was disgusting and service was a forgotten concept. The customer always came last. A repetitive refrain was heard throughout the land: ‘It can’t be done, Gov.’