Thursday, 19 March 2015

Then And Now

Sixty years ago to the month in 1955 a radical change was under way in British politics.  Churchill was standing down at the age of 80 to make way for Anthony Eden, who then cleared the decks to seek an election in the hope of securing a clear majority moving on from the hiatus since 1950 of governments needing to compromise with lesser parties.

Eden was 57, an age when Prime Ministers now look to retire early to spend more time with their financial advisers.  He had been a long time as Conservative Leader In Waiting and wanted to make a mark that was entirely his and not just as a key member of a Cabinet.

That election lasted 34 days, not weeks.  Eye and ear battered electors today can only dream of such a short period.  Even more than then there was some attention to key issues and fairly free of stunts, trivia, idiot ploys and such stupidities.

In 1955, for those that had it, there was just one channel of TV screening, the BBC, for limited hours and keeping politics to minimum reporting.  The radio was also careful about how much and what was said.  One of the chief political luminaries allowed on screen was Lord Boothby who also featured on the Radio "Any Questions".

Boothby was in theory a Conservative, but not as we know it.  Today he would be at home well to the Left.  See Wikipedia for his career in full and colourful private life.  As at the time much of this was known in the "right" quarters it says a lot about both the BBC and others.

But there were meetings which were often well attended.  I recall that in 1950 and 1951 the party leaders could command mass audiences and often in local meetings there could be a decent turn out to see and hear who was on offer.  I believe it was the same in 1955 and I know it was in 1959.

I was detached from this being abroad; over the hills and far away as the old song has it.  Now and again a newspaper would turn up days late and there was always faint jumbled BBC radio if the atmospherics were willing and the set was good enough.

Blighty was a dream world where there were pubs, an ordinary social life and you could sleep in.  Politics was off the agenda for most of us, a distant arcane ritual for adults who really ought to know better.

It is arguable how much real interest most of the population took in the campaign efforts that penetrated the average home.  If you were doing fifty plus hours a week there wasn't much time left after the basics of life.

My memory is the theory that most votes cast were those of habit, class or identity etc. So the race was on for any new voters, what was thought of as the marginal floating vote and that meant effort in constituencies that might be won or lost, the "marginals".

What mattered for most, given the history of the previous twenty five years was jobs, a feeling of security, housing, pensions and the basis of the welfare state.  We had been promised a new and better world during the War and the voters wanted it. to keep it and to keep the jobs they had.  They were never told a new age was on the way.

For many Defence still mattered a great deal and for some the dream of Empire still existed while for others the dream was of a family of nations living and working together in harmony.  For some it was a harmony led by the Soviets, for others the USA.  For most ordinary people the colour and output of Hollywood led the way.

At "the pictures", the newsreels did not tell us much only to remind us noisily of how limited and easily persuaded most of us were.  For many in the cinema it was the chance to go to relieve oneself or get an ice cream.

In the election itself Clement Attlee, then 72 with his lungs beginning to go, still led the Labour Party, trying to steer an uneven course between Bevan and sundry left wingers and the youngster Gaitskell, 49, and his Hampstead intellectual coterie of relative centrist socialism.

For many electors Bevan was too bossy and strident and Gaitskell rather detached from the masses and dangerously young.  Eden romped home in the end and the electorate hoped for a settled period of progress for a while, thinking he was a steady steersman at the helm.

Wrong again, just over a year later he had plunged Britain into a major foreign crisis, The Suez Affair, which brought on a fuel crisis in turn.  This had been done out of arrogance and the attempt to prove that he was leader of a major power and still a big player.

So sixty years ago we had an election in which we had well known leaders, all with some experience.  The election result gave a government with a clear mandate and fair prospects.  Yet it all went very bad very soon and it was international events as much as any which plagued it.

It was another world far away from the present.  But are the prospects any better?

1 comment:

  1. No I don't think the prospects are any better for politics or democracy. We are prosperous enough, or at least most of us are compared to sixty years ago, but that's about it. Maybe it's enough.