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Taking the Great out of Britain

Saturday, October 1, 2005

Dominic Sandbrook.
Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles.
Little Brown. 848 pages. $41.35

 

Once, when asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan responded in his typically languid fashion, “Events, my dear boy, events.” The mid-fifties and early sixties were certainly full of “events.” On the foreign policy front, Britain had suffered a strategic defeat under Macmillan’s predecessor, Anthony Eden, when it was forced to withdraw its troops from Suez, while under Macmillan himself the country was in a rush to divest itself of its African colonies. And not only was Britain losing its empire, but its attempt to reorient itself toward Europe by joining the European Common Market was blocked by Charles De Gaulle in one of his fits of Gallic spite.

Domestically, things looked brighter: The last remnants of food rationing had finally ended in 1954, and people were dying to spend. The Macmillan years saw the emergence of the consumer society, a time of Italian coffee bars, tv sets, and washing machines. In the run-up to the 1959 general election, which he won handily, Macmillan boasted that “Most people never had it so good,” and most Brits agreed. Macmillan was known affectionately as “Supermac.”

But the Macmillan period was also a period of generational conflict, of “Angry Young Men,” of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches, of spies, fictional and real, of scandal, sex, pop, and moral turpitude. One critic, deploring Cliff Richard in all “his indecent short sighted vulgarity,” fumed: “He was wearing so much eyeliner he looked like Jayne Mansfield.”

Satirists like Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Alan Bennett were having a field day with everything from the fumbling Macmillan to the royal family, the national anthem, and the Church of England. In a celebrated monologue, a doddering Anglican clergyman holds forth on the theme, “My brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man,” the sort of droll humor which the world soon came to associate with Monty Python.

The older generation seemed at a loss as to how to respond: In 1958, R.A. Butler, then Home Secretary, was doused with fire-extinguishing foam and flour while giving a speech at Glasgow University. Instead of going ballistic, the Home Secretary, whose job is law and order, meekly responded, “I understand youth. I have children of my own, and I like to feel I haven’t lost touch.” In a lighter vein, when Paul McCartney and John Lennon tried out their new song, “She Loves You,” on McCartney’s dad, he objected to its rousing “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!” chorus, cautiously suggesting they go easy on the Americanism and sing “Yes, Yes, Yes!” instead. The lads were in stitches telling the old geezer, “No dad, you don’t quite get it.”

 

Macmillan’s britain is the topic of Dominic Sandbrook’s splendid Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. Having set out to write a book about the 60s, Sandbrook found that the natural starting point would be the Suez debacle of 1956, the logical endpoint the summer of 1970, by which time the optimism of the 60s had run out. Originally he had planned one long volume, but in the end he opted to split it in two — a wise choice, as he covers an enormous amount of ground political, economic, and cultural. Volume ii, entitled White Heat and covering the Wilson years, 1964–1970, will follow in due course.

As the above suggests, Sandbrook’s book is rife with revealing detail. Thus, for instance, Britain’s smug superiority as an imperial power is illustrated by a 1951 traffic report from an accident in Cairo involving the Rolls Royce of Egypt’s playboy king, Farouk, and a British army vehicle. As the army driver reported of the other vehicle: “Two wogs were inside, and their names were King Farouk and Ali Ismael” (the king’s chauffeur). When told by his commanding officer that he could not address the king of Egypt as a “wog” and would have to rewrite the report, the soldier’s emendation came back: “I asked them their names. . . . They were King Farouk and another wog called Ali Ismael.”

The Brits, therefore, were in for a rude awakening in 1956 when Egypt’s new president, Gamal Abdel Nasser — King Farouk having been deposed by nationalist officers in a 1952 coup — decided to nationalize the Suez Canal. Anthony Eden, who had taken over from an ailing Churchill, was now in 10 Downing Street, and he saw Nasser as a Mussolini-type dictator who had to be dealt with. Hence, a plan was laid in which a joint French-British force would occupy the Canal zone while the Israelis would attack from the Sinai.

According to Sandbrook, Eden was the essence of the well-dressed Englishman, who even lent his name to a hat; but as a leader he was a shy and high-strung workaholic, part “mad baronet, part beautiful woman,” in the words of one of his colleagues. And he had a delicate constitution: A 1953 gallstone operation that had gone disastrously wrong, and from which he never quite recovered, influenced his handling of the Suez crisis, especially his dealings with the Americans.

Because it was the Americans, not the ineffective Egyptian army, who doomed Britain’s efforts. The Eisenhower administration, facing reelection and not wanting to alienate the Arab world, opposed the invasion. The U.S. applied maximum pressure for a cease-fire, including refusing to support a loan to Britain from the International Monetary Fund to ease pressure on the pound sterling. Instead of seeing the job through, Eden, his nerves shot, gave in to the American demands and withdrew his troops unconditionally. Suez became a symbol of utter humiliation for Britain.

The rot, of course, had not started with Suez, but rather from the British sacrifices in two world wars that had exhausted the country economically and morally. But Suez brought it out in the open. “Suez,” Eden later wrote, “had not so much changed our fortunes as revealed realities.” He stepped down shortly thereafter, in January, 1957.

 

Enter harold macmillan as Britain’s new prime minister. Macmillan, a former Grenadier Guards officer in World War i, wore a great walrus moustache and dressed as an Edwardian gent, an elegant figure if a little frayed. He was exceedingly well-read in the classics and English literature, a fact he liked to advertise. Among his favorite pastimes, he once endearingly remarked, was “going to bed with a Trollope.” There was a touch of the vaudevillian about him. Under the languid and unflappable surface, a ruthless and cynical  temperament was hiding.

The most important task facing Macmillan was repairing the “special relationship” with America, which was in tatters after Suez. Back in 1944, he had said: “We must run Allied Headquarters as the Greek slaves ran the operations of the emperor Claudius.” Now he set to work on Eisenhower and, when John F. Kennedy became president, tried to play the role of wise old Greek to Kennedy’s impatient young Roman. On the surface, the two leaders got on well. It was to Macmillan that Kennedy confessed he got a terrible headache if he did not have sex once a day. (History has not recorded how Macmillan, who was forced into sexual abstinence in an unhappy marriage, answered that one.) But, according to Sandbrook, they were less close than the official statements would indicate.

Macmillan felt it was vital for Britain to have a nuclear deterrent in order to continue to be taken seriously as a great power. British scientists had exploded their first atomic bomb in 1951 and a hydrogen bomb in 1957, though the test was rigged. But they had failed to develop a missile system. At the 1962 summit in Nassau, Macmillan managed, after some American foot-dragging, to secure the American Polaris submarine system for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. But as the Americans insisted that it be assigned to nato, except in an extreme national emergency, it could not be said to be very independent.

As a result of Macmillan’s efforts to get Britain its own deterrent, the fifties saw the emergence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (cnd) in 1958, headed by the red wing firebrand Michael Foot and the historians E.P. Thomson and A.J.P. Taylor, and the Aldermaston marches, in which duffle coat-clad brigades congregated at the site of a nuclear research facility near Slough. They wanted Britain to publicly renounce the atomic bomb and thereby influence others to do the same. Though attracting a lot of press coverage, the cnd remained a minority pursuit — “a movement,” in Taylor’s own words, “of eggheads for eggheads” — with the Labour Party continuing to favor the bomb. As Taylor later put it, “We thought that Great Britain was still a great power whose example would affect the rest of the world. Ironically, we were the last Imperialists.” The cnd’s efforts petered out, and the last march was arranged in 1965 (though the movement did revive in the 80s).

The other urgent issue facing Macmillan was what to do about Britain’s African territories, which were beginning to resound with cries of “Uhuru!” In a speech to the South African parliament on his 1960 tour of Africa, he talked of “the winds of change” that were blowing through the continent and stressed the need to accept the growth of black nationalist consciousness as a fact. Having seen France forced to leave Algeria in 1959, after a vicious war there, the Brits wanted to get out of Africa as soon as possible. Sandbrook quotes Macmillan on a conversation with the governor general of Nigeria: “I said ‘Are these people ready for self government?’ and he said, ‘No, of course not.’ I said ‘When will they be ready?’ He said ‘Twenty years, twenty-five years.’ Then I said ‘What do you recommend that we do?’ He said ‘I recommend that we give it to them at once.’ ” Though Macmillan tried to give the impression that it was happening according to a longstanding and carefully thought-out plan, this was clearly a decision of panic and surrender.

To compensate for these losses, Macmillan turned his attention toward Europe. By temperament, most conservatives took a dim view of the Common Market, which they saw as a Catholic conspiracy. But with the importance of the Commonwealth waning, the British government, with the strong encouragement of the Americans, now concentrated its efforts on finding a place in Europe. When de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the Common Market, it was a humiliating defeat for Macmillan. The French president thought the British were too closely attached to the Americans — he saw them as an American Trojan horse in Europe. After the breakdown of the Common Market negotiations in Rambouillet in 1963, a triumphant de Gaulle told his cabinet, “This poor man to whom I had nothing to give, seemed so sad, so beaten, that I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and say to him, as in the Edith Piaf song, ‘Ne pleurez pas, milord’.”

No wonder the Brits had felt stung the year before, when former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, speaking at a conference at West Point, commented on Britain’s having “lost an empire, and not yet having found a role.” In his diary, Macmillan called Acheson “a conceited ass.”

 

But while the dismantling of the British empire may have concerned segments of the ruling class, it meant little to the man in the street and was accomplished with none of the bitterness and violence that had beset France after the pullout from Algeria. On the home front one saw the lifting of postwar blues. The ordinary Brit wanted a good time. British workers were making good money and were dying to spend it on tv sets, record players, transistor radios, scooters, a small car. And they wanted to travel.

Macmillan was a “one-nation” Tory, a left-wing conservative with more than a liking for centralized planning and in tune with the national mood. By instinct an expansionist, he expressed his economic philosophy in these words: “The real truth is that both a brake and an accelerator are essential for a motor car. Their use is a matter of judgement, but their purpose must remain essentially the same to go forward safely; or in economic terms, expansion is a balanced economy.” This may sound eminently sensible, but he much preferred the accelerator to the brakes, and as the Macmillan years progressed, one saw bursts of breakneck growth followed by severe deflation, which made it hard for firms to plan ahead. In 1962, on the “Night of the Long Knives,” he had to sack half his cabinet because things were not working out.

Another problem was that many of the goods the British consumed were not Made in Britain. In 1952, Britain had commanded 25 percent of the world’s trade. Ten years later, the figure was down to 15 percent. Between January and December of 1959, Sandbrook notes, imports increased by 10 percent, but exports by only 4 percent. Thus, in 1964, Britain’s balance-of-payments deficit was 800 million pounds, the largest in history. Britain had failed to modernize and invest in industry. Meanwhile, Germany — the loser of World War ii — had overtaken Britain, going from 7 percent to 20 percent of world trade in the same period. Thatcherites later traced a number of Britain’s ills back to Macmillan, and when Mrs. Thatcher started privatizing, an ancient Macmillan could be heard muttering that she was selling off the family silver.

Among the economic actors asserting themselves during the Macmillan years was one figure who had never been heard from before: the Teenager, in all his pimply glory. Sandbrook carefully dissects the emerging urban youth culture. Teenage culture meant mainly working-class culture, and young workers with more free time on their hands no longer spent all their money on food or lodging. Now they could afford luxuries: dance halls, records, and the like. Social deviance, rising crime and delinquency rates, and increased sexual activity were the inevitable result of the consumer society. Between 1955 and 1961, Sandbrook notes, the number of 14- to 17-year-old boys convicted of serious offenses doubled, as did the number of convictions of young men between 17 and 21. The flick-knife became the symbol of teenage delinquency.

The grown-ups who had been raised on thrift were less than confident in their handling of their offspring. One example of their cluelessness, in Sandbrook’s telling, was the occasion when the organizers of the London Union of Youth Clubs, seeking to “mould the citizen of tomorrow,” sent a group of 100 girls on board a ship to spend the night at sea with the sailors. Oh, happy sailors. The National Guild of Teenagers, more worldly-wise, frowned on “walks in parks, fields or woods, and trips to the seaside resort of Brighton,” as well as “visits to skating rinks, brothels or air raid shelters.” That about covers it, and one is particularly gratified that they remembered the brothels.

Judging from memoirs of the period, according to Sandbrook, one could get the impression that Britain was peopled exclusively by teenagers. This is, of course, not the case. Neither is it true that they were all delinquents. Some played in colliery brass bands, and some, as a contemporaneous Times editorial pointed out, were engaged in healthy pursuits like bird-watching (the innocence of which depends a little on what kind of birds you are watching, as Michael Caine’s “Alfie” might remind us). Rather, the book notes, the Teenager had become a metaphor for change, with people projecting onto him their own fears about the modern world.

 

Sandbrook carefully maps the translation of all this into literature, drama, films, and music. The fifties was the period of the “angry young men,” as they were dubbed by the press. These included the poet and novelist Philip Larkin, who, living as a sad-sack librarian in the city of Hull, one of Britain’s most charmless spots, was expert at conveying the melancholic existence of the sex-starved gray man, and Larkin’s Oxford contemporary, the novelist Kingsley Amis, whose Lucky Jim portrayed a member of “the white collar proletariat” in the red-brick provincial university making a drunken embarrassment of himself as he tries to find a place in the new Britain.

Working-class life in all its stuntedness was depicted in the so-called kitchen sink dramas, heavily promoted by the period’s leading critic, Kenneth Tynan, who saw them as a welcome reaction against the genteel drawing-room comedies of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan. Among the leading “kitchen sink” playwrights were Arnold Wesker and John Osborne, in whose 1956 “Look Back in Anger” the anti-hero Jimmy Porter rails against women, against politics, against religion, against the lot.

Though some of these authors called themselves socialists, they were not political in the strict sense. Osborne in particular was accused of cultivating “a free lance indignation” that would attack anything in sight no matter the ideological grounding. (Osborne once memorably described the monarchy as “the gold filling in a mouthful of decay.”) One reviewer wondered why they represented themselves as socialists when there was “no doubt what their protest is about. They resent the fact that Britain is no longer a Great Power. They do not like being ‘Little Englanders’.” Indeed, Osborne ended in deep nostalgia for the past, while Amis became an increasingly portly, conservative dyspepsic satirist.

The “kitchen sink” wave launched a raft of dreary working-class plays and novels about bleak northern towns, but they appealed more to academics than to the working class. “All I could ever see were beards and duffle coats every time I peered into the audience,” a theater worker recalls. “Instead of holding discussion groups or organizing amateur theatricals, the English working-classes have been reading women’s magazines and comics or watching television — and commercial television at that. What is worse, they have appeared positively to enjoy doing so,” regrets one commentator.

Some even wanted to break free from their class roots. The heroine of Keith Waterhouse’s novel Billy Liar (played by Julie Christie in the film version) leaves her northern town and heads south to swinging London, where the sixties were starting with a bang, so to speak. Penguin Books, the publisher of D.H. Lawrence’s steamy Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was charged under the Obscene Publications Act in 1960. Penguin’s publicity people cast the trial as a “conflict of generation and class,” and the prosecutor indeed managed to suggest this, asking the jury if this was “a book you would even want your wife and your servants to read.” The publisher was acquitted, and the book become an immediate bestseller — the starting shot of a new era of hedonism.

And for hedonism and escapism, nothing in the period quite matches the novels of Ian Fleming, the very guidebooks to the consumer society, brimming as they are with brand names. After the film versions of Dr. No and From Russia With Love came out, Bond books became the paperback sensation of the 60s, and they have it all: sex, spies, and glamour, with Bond invariably outperforming his American cousins. He is the consummate professional, unclassifiable and modern, the British male’s fantasy vision of himself.

Finally, Sandbrook supplies the soundtrack of the times. Few things bring back an age like its music, and music became a defining characteristic of the teenage consumer. The initial impulses came from America, starting with Bill Haley. When the Haley movie Rock Around the Clock appeared in the cinemas in 1956, a young Andrew Loog Oldham, future promoter of the Rolling Stones, “quietly tore a gash in his seat.” But Haley was a little too old to last. Elvis had what it took.

The first British Elvises were Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. In a 1957 essay entitled “Young England, Half English,” the novelist Colin MacInnes describes a Tommy Steele concert: “In his film or when on the stage, he speaks to his admirers between the songs, his voice takes on the flat, wise dry comical tones of purest Bermondsley. When he sings, the words (where intelligible) are intoned in the shrill international American-style drone. With this odd duality, his teenage fans seem quite at ease: they prefer him to be one of them in his unbuttoned moments, but expect him to sing in a near foreign tone: rather as a congregation might wish a service to be delivered in the vernacular, and the plainsong chanted in mysterious Latin.”

Both Steele and Richard soon settled into family-oriented safety, and their successors were less than inspiring: “one howling hooligan following another,” as a bbc disc jockey put it. For a while, it looked as if British rock were dead. Against this rather sorry background the Beatles sounded fresh when they broke though in 1962, and they won people over by their enormous cheekiness. At a Royal Command Variety Performance in 1963, Lennon asked “that the common folk on the cheap seats clap their hands,” while “the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” Whereupon the Fab Four blew them all out of their seats with “Twist and Shout.” While the Daily Telegraph saw the Beatles as the harbingers of Sodom, causing sexual hysteria “reminiscent of Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies,” other Fleet Street editors cast them as “the vigorous antithesis” to the tired and corrupt old men running the country.

 

The target of all these various pressures became the “Establishment,” a term originally introduced by A.J.P. Taylor back in 1953 to describe the ruling power structure, which by now had gained common currency — an impenetrable and self-perpetuating elite that had been to the same schools and universities, a decadent members-only club that was out of touch with the modern world and whose chief mission was protecting its own.

According to the journalist and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge, by the beginning of the sixties Macmillan seemed, in his very person, to embody the national decline. “He exuded a flavour of mothballs. His decaying visage and somehow seedy attire conveyed the impression of an ageing and eccentric clergyman who had been induced to play the prime minister in the dramatized version of a C.P. Snow novel put on by the village amateur dramatic society.”

What mortally wounded Macmillan politically was the Profumo affair. John Profumo, the conservative secretary of state for war, had, in 1961, shared a girlfriend — a 21-year-old prostitute named Christine Keeler — with the Soviet assistant naval attaché, who worked for Soviet intelligence. Profumo was certainly being “young with the young,” but this was going a bit too far. News of the affair broke in January 1963, and Profumo resigned in June. This was followed by the defection to Moscow of Kim Philby, the former head of the Soviet section of the mi6, and the revelation that he had been a mole for the Soviets from his Cambridge days, the man who had organized the defection of fellow spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean back in 1951. In the middle of this mess, Macmillan developed a prostate condition and decided to resign. The reins of government were handed over to Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Fourteenth Earl of Home, who renounced his membership in the House of Lords to become prime minister. Home was a Scottish aristocrat, all tweeds and grouse shooting. When asked in 1962 about the prospect of his becoming prime minister, he tried self-deprecating humour: “When I have to read economic documents, I have to have a box of matches and start moving them into position to simplify and illustrate the points to myself.” Cartoons inevitably appeared, picturing him as an aristo twit fiddling around with matches. At a time when gentleman-amateurism and inbreeding were an issue, Home was decidedly not a wise choice.

The great beneficiary was the Labour party’s leader, Harold Wilson,  a tactically shrewd Yorkshireman and Oxford economist, who had taken over the party leadership in 1963. He played the Profumo scandal beautifully. Looking “quietly predatory and carrying an ominous file” when entering the House of Commons, he concentrated on the security aspects, blasting the Macmillan years for their decadent materialism. Wilson was the first politician to vary his accent according to his audience: When in his man-of-the-people mode, he spoke movingly about his fondness for hp Sauce, a popular British condiment, and when in Oxford don mode he spoke of the possibilities of “White Hot technology.” The promise of White Hot technology drenched in hp sauce went down well with the electorate, and Wilson beat Douglas-Home handily in 1964.

How Wilson fared — and one should remember that in the days before Tony Blair, the only thing worse than an incompetent Conservative government was a Labour government, any Labour government — is the subject of the next volume. As are Carnaby Street, Mary Quant, and Mini Coopers. And in the shadows, a group of scruffy youngsters called the Rolling Stones lurks, ready to step out into the limelight. One wonders what the gentleman who worried about Cliff Richard and his eyeliner would make of the young Keith Richards.