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An Affluent Society? Britain’s Postwar Golden Age Revisited

Author(s):Black, Lawrence
Pemberton, Hugh
Reviewer(s):Clapson, Mark

Published by EH.NET (April 2005)

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Lawrence Black and Hugh Pemberton, editors, An Affluent Society? Britain’s Postwar Golden Age Revisited. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004. xi + 252 pp. ?50/$99.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-7546-3528-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark Clapson, Department of History, University of Westminster.

The great British paradox of rising living standards and prosperity accompanied by relative economic decline since 1945 is a much-studied subject. More has been written about affluence in postwar Britain than the introduction by Black (Lecturer in History at the University of Durham) and Pemberton (Research Fellow at the London School of Economics) would have readers believe. Nonetheless, the editors have brought together some impressive economic, political and social historians (including themselves) to produce a genuinely original, readable and useful addition to the literature on contemporary British history.

Originality is a hallmark of any worthy new book, and it is especially in evidence in the comparative chapters. Brian Girvin shows how conservatives in both Britain and the U.S. benefited from the welfare policies and interventionist apparatus installed by their political opponents. Understanding that the politics of affluence could dilute the class-based political language and policies of Labour and the Democrats, the Conservative and Republican parties encouraged growth and the fa?ade of boom that led to re-election. And in a comparative approach to affluence and national identity, Richard Weight provides an insightful account of how stereotypes of Johnny Foreigner — the deferential but calculating Germans, the sadistic yet resourceful Japanese and the confident if rather na?ve Americans — were intrinsic to the familiar feeling in Britain of having won the war but lost the peace. In a complementary chapter Hugh Pemberton discusses how economic policy during the 1950s and early 1960s was motivated by the fear of relative economic decline, and that the short-comings of Keynesian policy were often recognized at the Treasury. Roger Middleton in addition shows that economists during the 1960s were perhaps responsible for the dearth of any fresh initiatives in economic policy.

The 1950s witnessed many different political responses to affluence. Rodney Lowe explains clearly how some politicians within the Conservative Governments from 1957 to 1964 argued that the growth of affluence itself questioned the extent of the welfare system in Britain. Any proto-Thatcherite ideas, however, were marginalized by the perceived need to manage the economy and welfare policies more effectively. This led to an unprecedented level of corporatism during the Tory government of the early 1960s.

Within the Labour Party, perhaps more anchored in an atavistic class-based politics, both Anthony Crosland and less famously Douglas Jay emerged as modernizers during the 1950s. They certainly possessed contradictions in some of their positions, but understood the need to appeal to the affluent center ground, as did New Labour so successfully some four decades later. The chapters by Richard Toye on Jay and Catherine Ellis on Crosland, however, cleverly illustrate that too many convenient comparisons over time with New Labour’s later achievements can be fruitless.

Chapters dealing with social change constitute about a third of the book. Lawrence Black’s discussion of party political readings of working-class affluence and voting behavior, and of intellectual perceptions of class and culture, provides a strong summary of much of the existing literature. His approach also sets the scene for the chapters on social experience and cultural change. Black’s sweep is wide, incorporating — among many other subjects — the closer connection of the Conservative Party with glamor and with guiltless carefree spending. Black also looks at many of the negative representations and readings of consumerism as dangerously conformist, or culturally vacuous. These perspectives were influenced not only by wealthy British socialists by also by the ‘mass society’ approaches of David Reisman and Vance Packard and others from the U.S. The American influence was complex, however. Negative interpretations were mediated by the more nuanced and realistic sociologies of suburban life by other American academics, notably Herbert J. Gans and his more positive appraisals of suburban life during the 1960s. The Left certainly worried more about the cultural and political impact of spending on television sets and motor cars and other luxury and durable items, but it had no monopoly of such fears.

Few things in life are more irritating than watching world-famous millionaire ageing rock stars accepting lifetime achievement awards from record companies or television stations while posing as ‘alternative,’ or worse still, rebellious. The great merit of Christian Bugge’s chapter is that he debunks any idea that ‘youth culture’ is implicitly counter culture. Clever marketing backed up with often massive corporate finance has pandered to the myth of youthful rebellion. This point was missed by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, and its various fashionable academic gurus (who themselves made careers out of their Gramscian analysis of faux rebellion).

Following on neatly from Lesley Whitworth’s discussion of industrial design, and the cultivation of the more discerning consumer during the early postwar years, Matthew Hilton provides a stimulating chapter on the rise of consumer politics, showing how the Consumers Association was formed out of a myriad of voluntary consumer’s groups. Focusing on the one that began in the English city of Birmingham during the mid 1950s, Hilton discusses the rise of ‘polyester flannelled philanthropy,’ a rise that gave the lie to any notion of comfortable middle-class suburbs as full of passive receivers of the products placed in front of them. The Consumers Association grew to national importance, producing a magazine and influencing newspaper and television reports. It remains a fascinating lesson in demonstrating how the politics of consumption has been at least as important as the politics of the workplace.

A further point worthy of note is that the chapters on economic policy in An Affluent Society? pay homage to the work of Jim Tomlinson, whose emphasis upon ‘declinism’ rather than decline per se has been so influential in recent years. Tomlinson’s imprint is evident in many sections of this book.

An Affluent Society? is an original contribution to British contemporary history. It is generally lively but in no way superficial, and deserves to be included on the reading lists of second- and third-year undergraduate courses on postwar British history. And it will also act as a useful secondary source for postgraduate students looking for background information and starting-points for dissertations or theses on social, economic and political developments in postwar Britain.

Mark Clapson teaches history at the University of Westminster, London. His forthcoming book is entitled From LA to MK (and back): Americanisation and the Postwar British City (Routledge, 2006)

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Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII