As the country headed into the 1950s, rebuilding continued and a number of immigrants from the remaining British Empire, mostly the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, were invited to help the rebuilding effort. As the 1950s wore on, Britain lost its place as a superpower and could no longer maintain its large Empire. This led to decolonisation, and a withdrawal from almost all of its colonies by 1970. Events such as the Suez Crisis showed that the UK’s status had fallen in the world. The 1950s and 1960s were, however, relatively prosperous times after the Second World War, and saw the beginning of a modernisation of the UK, with the construction of its first motorways for example, and also during the 1960s a great cultural movement began which expanded across the world. Unemployment was relatively low during this period and the standard of living continued to rise with more new private and council housing developments taking place and the number of slum properties diminishing.
The post-war period also witnessed a dramatic rise in the average standard of living, as characterised by a 40% rise in average real wages from 1950 to 1965. Earnings for men in industry rose by 95% between 1951 and 1964, while during that same period the official workweek was reduced and five reductions in income tax were made. Those in traditionally poorly paid semi-skilled and unskilled occupations saw a particularly marked improvement in their wages and living standards. As summed up by R. J. Unstead,
“Opportunities in life, if not equal, were distributed much more fairly than ever before and\ the weekly wage-earner, in particular, had gained standards of living that would have been almost unbelievable in the thirties.”
In 1950, the UK standard of living was higher than in any EEC country apart from Belgium. It was 50% higher than the West German standard of living, and twice as high as the Italian standard of living. By the earlier Seventies, however, the UK standard of living was lower than all EEC countries apart from Italy (which, according to one calculation, was roughly equal to Britain). In 1951, the average weekly earnings of men over the age of 21 stood at £8 6s 0d, and nearly doubled a decade later to £15 7s 0d. By 1966, average weekly earnings stood at £20 6s 0d.
Between 1951 and 1963, wages rose by 72% while prices rose by 45%, enabling people to afford more consumer goods than ever before. Between 1955 and 1967, the average earnings of weekly-paid workers increased by 96% and those of salaried workers by 95%, while prices rose by about 45% in the same period. The rising affluence of the Fifties and Sixties was underpinned by sustained full employment and a dramatic rise in worker‘s wages. In 1950, the average weekly wage stood at £6.8s, compared with £11.2s.6d in 1959. As a result of wage rises, consumer spending also increased by about 20% during this same period, while economic growth remained at about 3%. In addition, food rations were lifted in 1954 while hire-purchase controls were relaxed in the same year. As a result of these changes, large numbers of the working classes were able to participate in the consumer market for the first time. As noted by Harriet Wilson
The significant real wage increases in the 1950s and 1960s contributed to a rapid increase in working-class consumerism, with British consumer spending rising by 45% between 1952 and 1964. In addition, entitlement to various fringe benefits was improved. In 1955, 96% of manual labourers were entitled to two weeks’ holiday with pay, compared with 61% in 1951. By the end of the 1950s, Britain had become one of the world’s most affluent countries, and by the early Sixties, most Britons enjoyed a level of prosperity that had previously been known only to a small minority of the population.
For the young and unattached, there was, for the first time in decades, spare cash for leisure, clothes, and luxuries. In 1959, Queen magazine declared that “Britain has launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living.” Average wages were high while jobs were plentiful, and people saw their personal prosperity climb even higher. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan claimed that “the luxuries of the rich have become the necessities of the poor.” Levels of disposable income rose steadily, with the spending power of the average family rising by 50% between 1951 and 1979, and by the end of the Seventies, 6 out of 10 families had come to own a car.
As noted by Martin Pugh,
“Keynesian economic management enabled British workers to enjoy a golden age of full employment which, combined with a more relaxed attitude towards working mothers, led to the spread of the two-income family. Inflation was around 4 per cent, money wages rose from an average of £8 a week in 1951 to £15 a week by 1961, home-ownership spread from 35 per cent in 1939 to 47 per cent by 1966, and the relaxation of credit controls boosted the demand for consumer goods.”
By 1963, 82% of all private households had a television, 72% a vacuum cleaner, 45%a washing machine, and 30% a refrigerator. In addition, as noted by John Burnett,
“What was equally striking was that ownership of such things had spread down the social scale and the gap between professional and manual workers had considerably narrowed.”
A study of a slum area in Leeds (which was due for demolition) found that 74% of the households had a T.V., 41% a vacuum, and 38% a washing machine. In another slum area, St Mary’s in Oldham (where in 1970 few of the houses had fixed baths or a hot water supply and half shared outside toilets), 67% of the houses were rated as comfortably furnished and a further 24% furnished luxuriously, with smart modern furniture, deep pile carpeting, and decorations.
The provision of household amenities steadily improved during the second half of the twentieth century. From 1971 to 1983, households having the sole use of a fixed bath or shower rose from 88% to 97%, and those with an internal WC from 87% to 97%. In addition, the number of households with central heating almost doubled during that same period, from 34% to 64%. By 1983, 94% of all households had a refrigerator, 81% a colour television, 80% a washing machine, 57% a deep freezer, and 28% a tumble-drier.
Between 1950 and 1970, however, Britain was overtaken by most of the countries of the European Common Market in terms of the number of telephones, refrigerators, television sets, cars, and washing machines per 100 of the population (although Britain remained high in terms of bathrooms and lavatories per 100 people). Although the British standard of living was increasing, the standard of living in other countries increased faster. According to a 1968 study by Anthony Sampson, British workers
“In ten years, from having had a much higher standard of living than the continent, they have slipped right back. Taking the national income per head (a rough yardstick), the British by 1967 had sunk to eighth place among OECD countries, with an annual income of $1,910 compared with $2,010 for Germany, $2,060 for France and $2,480 for Switzerland: and Britain’s falling position already shows itself in the lower proportion of new cars and new houses (though still leading with TV sets and washing machines).”
In 1976, UK wages were amongst the lowest in Western Europe, being half of West German rates and two-thirds of Italian rates. In addition, while educational opportunities for working-class people had widened significantly since the end of the Second World War, a number of developed countries came to overtake Britain in some educational indicators. By the early 1980s, some 80% to 90% of school leavers in France and West Germany received vocational training, compared with 40% in the United Kingdom. By the mid-1980s, over 80% of pupils in the United States and West Germany and over 90% in Japan stayed in education until the age of eighteen, compared with barely 33% of British pupils. In 1987, only 35% of 16- to 18-year-olds were in full-time education or training, compared with 80% in the United States, 77% in Japan, 69% in France, and 49% in the United Kingdom. There also remained gaps between manual and non-manual workers in areas such as fringe benefits and wage levels. In April 1978, for instance, male full-time manual workers aged 21 and above averaged a gross weekly wage of £80.70, while the equivalent for male white collar workers stood at £100.70.
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