Scott lectures for New York University in London.
Fifty years ago last month, in one of his most notable speeches, the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan proclaimed ‘most of our people have never had it so good’ and in many ways he was right. The Macmillan era saw the birth of a new consumer society where the great majority of people gained access to goods and services that were once the preserve of the few. But rather than political consensus, it was dynamic change that produced this new society and turned the Conservative Party into the natural party of government during the post-war era.
The popular image of the nineteen fifties, as repeated by a BBC documentary about British cinema only the other week, is of grey conformity. But Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, first published in the fifties, were not successful, as the programme suggested, because they provided escape from the dreariness of the age, but rather because they reflected the aspirations of an emerging generation. In terms of economic opportunity the sixties really began in the mid to late nineteen fifties. For the Conservative Party the result was electoral domination. A political cartoon published in the aftermath of the third successive Conservative victory in 1959 depicted Macmillan surrounded by electrical goods such as televisions and washing machines and saying ‘Well gentlemen, I think we all fought a good fight.’
The foundations of this Conservative ascendancy were laid by Rab Butler, perhaps the most misunderstood British politician of twentieth century, during his period as Chancellor from 1951 to 1955. It would be no exaggeration to say that in 1951 Butler inherited control of a socialist economy, comparable in many ways to those of the eastern block. Rationing, price controls, building licensing, exchange controls and a whole range of restrictions were part of daily life. Over the next four years Butler swept all of this away. Labour’s argument that decontrol would result in rising unemployment became increasingly irrelevant and in the 1955 election the Government was able to proclaim that ‘Conservative freedom works’. The figure of ‘Mr Butskell’, an amalgam of Butler and his Labour predecessor Hugh Gaitskell, is a misleading historical myth.