Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Britain since 1945' is an ideal introductory text for students of British Studies, cultural studies and modern British history. Assuming no prior knowledge, Leese offers students of all backgrounds both the essential chronological grounding and vital insight into the issues of identity necessary for a full understanding of contemporary Britain.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Montage of Identities

Introduction: A Montage of Identities

Abstract
This is not a book about foreign wars, the symbolism of flags or the local loyalties of football fans. It is an account of how identities within the United Kingdom, past and present, have been formed and maintained in particular regions and cities, among certain sub-groups within society, in some areas of the collective imagination. In the debates of recent years on the nature of ‘Britishness’ and its constituent parts, identity has been viewed as a function of the nation state as well as a backdrop to the various nationalist political campaigns in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.1 But underlying questions of public political debate, matters of constitution, administration and legal framework, are the cultural roots of identity that also form the nation: individual mentality, family and neighbourhood life, local landscape, patterns of work or tradition. The problem for any such account is that identity is elusive. It cannot be recorded directly in a documentary format, but it can be shown indirectly by compressing time into a symbolic sequence, by juxtaposing a series of images, by showing a run of photographic ‘stills’: by montage.
Peter Leese

From War, from Modernism

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. Welfare’s Place

Abstract
On Thursday, 26 July 1945 a group of Conservative Party supporters gathered in the Kelvingrove Glasgow constituency to discuss the results of the General Election. Delayed for three weeks while the servicemen’s ballot papers were collected and counted, the outcome proved unpredictable. When it did finally arrive it was incomprehensible too, at least to this particular political salon.1 The overall swing meant no dramatic change in Glasgow as ten Labour MPs from the city had already been returned to Parliament in the election of November 1922.2 Nevertheless, the former Secretary of State for Scotland and Tory MP for the constituency since 1924, Walter Elliot, lost his seat to Labour candidate John Lloyd Williams by 45 votes. Just as disastrous for the Kelvingrove Conservatives, Winston Churchill was unceremoniously put out of office. ‘I shall write to Dave to demand how he voted,’ said Mrs Blane, speculating that the servicemen were responsible. ‘If he did vote Labour I shall tell him what I think of him.’3 Expressions of sympathy and of regret for the loss of the wartime leader were difficult to suppress in the discussions of that afternoon as the collective mood lurched from bewilderment to desperate humour and resignation. When the possibility of emigration was half-heartedly raised, it was immediately quashed by general admission that Australia already had a Labour government. Finally Miss Page, who administered trust funds for aristocratic families, came around to the view that all was not lost. ‘Of course I am very sorry about Mr Churchill, but I am not sure that it is not a good thing for people like me,’ she said. ‘Well, I am an underdog, am I not?’4
Peter Leese

Chapter 2. Looking New

Abstract
Reuniting across the country after a separation of months or years, readjusting to civilian society and the world after war, women and men found dealings with one another subtly changed; while the fractured bones of society could be set once again in common proximity, they would not fuse in the old way.1 Between 1939 and 1945 women’s work had extended further than ever before into activities previously reserved for men: from 1941 the wartime labour shortage meant that women were obliged to register as available for work. Subsequently they might be allocated employment in a factory, on the land or in auxiliary military service. Under these new conditions there could be freedom and challenge but also sometimes too a division of loyalty between commitment to family life and demands in the world of work. A number of women recalled war work fondly. ‘No matter what happiness came after that,’ one Land Army worker said of her time felling trees in the Timber Corps, ‘it would never be better than those three and a half years … They were complete freedom, where I had never known it before’.2 The diminished certainties of human relations, the unpredictable quality of life, made new experiences, both professional and personal, all the more vivid. The loosening of moral restraints, whether pleasurable or troubling, served to further change relations between the sexes. Many women married younger; some were distressed and endured separation only with difficulty; others took partners in the absence of husbands or boyfriends, black or white American servicemen for instance. The number of births to unmarried women doubled over the course of the war to nine per cent of all births in 1945.3
Peter Leese

Chapter 3. Soap-flake Arcadia

Abstract
Describing the virtues of the Hoover Electric Washing Machine in July 1950, an advertisement in the Radio Times explained how it might satisfy the housewife’s more mundane wishes. ‘Heavy tiring washing days a thing of the past,’ the potential purchaser learned, ‘saves hours of drudgery every week. It washes everything astonishingly quickly and spotlessly clean. Works in an entirely new gentle-on-theclothes principle …’. In 1955, and having recently given birth to her son, Cara Buckley was delighted to receive a washing machine for her twenty-first birthday. ‘They weren’t automatic. You still had to stand there. They had hand wringers, though my English Electric had a power ringer — it was wonderful.’1 While there was condescension in Nicolas Tomalin’s view of the later 1950s as a ‘soap-flake arcadia’, while washing machines left housewives with a waterlogged mass of blankets, shirts or underwear to somehow dry and air, while standards of cleanliness rose and the effort to achieve it entailed more labour, Cara Buckley still saw her new English Electric as ‘a revolution’.2 Released from maintaining basic family needs for cleanliness and sustenance by sheer physical labour; employed, though usually part-time, on low pay, and without prospects; consuming sometimes for pleasure as well as necessity: many more women could now view the prospect, if not the achievement, of an easier, more tolerable life.
Peter Leese

Pop Protest, Pop Arts

Frontmatter

Chapter 4. Britain’s Breakup

Abstract
‘The old British state is going down,’ wrote Scottish nationalist and political commentator Tom Nairn in 1977. ‘But, so far at least, it has been a slow foundering rather than the Titianic-type disaster so often predicted.’1 Prompted by the rise of nationalist sentiment across the United Kingdom from the mid-1960s, The Break-Up of Britain was Nairn’s attempt to explain why the stricken ship of state had stayed afloat so long, and why the prospect of secession had proven more popular than collective mutiny in the ranks. The ending of the colonial era, which decreased the mutual benefits of United Kingdom membership; the increasing intrusion of central government which accompanied postwar welfare; and the fading memory of collective wartime unity: all contributed to the feeling that the interests of the UK’s constituent states might better be served by localizing political power. What might replace this system remained uncertain. The Northern Ireland referenda in 1973 and 1975 did not register any wish for change because they were boycotted by catholics; the Scottish and Welsh plebiscite defeats of 1979 were frustrated, partly due to political machinations at Westminster.2 If nationalist allegiance was sufficient to register in the actions of a protesting voter, or even a bomber, it was insufficient to persuade the majority that their interests were best served by moving away from the institutions of the British state, and towards a more close-at-hand administration.
Peter Leese

Chapter 5. Limited Freedoms

Abstract
Women’s situation in that most mythic of all decades, the 1960s, may be said to flicker between defeat and optimism, between the mixed fortunes of two powerful fictional figures of the time: Jo, who is awkward, gauche, yet defiant, constantly struggling, with limited hope of success, towards self-realization; and Diana, who is glamorous and emancipated, yet still sometimes troubled, reaching for acceptance, security and fulfilment.1 Neither picture captures the complexity of everyday social experience, nor the changeability or gradations of women’s social roles as they are lived and imagined. Nevertheless, these two models hint at the range of human possibility in an age of newly liberated values as well as the continuing constraints of convention, at aspiration towards a new society expressed in popular music or state legislation, and at the harsher limits imposed by personal finance and national economy.
Peter Leese

Chapter 6. UK Anarchy

Abstract
Wedged between the years of relative optimism and confidence before 1973, and the rise of populist Conservatism after 1979, the 1970s, as recorded in Jonathan Coe’s fictional account The Rotters’ Club (2001) say, is a time of strikes, political violence and racism. While this reflects popular memory as it has been distorted by the Tory ascendancy that followed, the sense of unpredictable times, of stagnation, of events unravelling at unprecedented, alarming speed, was nevertheless powerfully present through these years.1 Yet new thoughts accompanied the failure of old certainties. In The Passion of New Eve (1977), for example, Angela Carter imagines a band of women freedom fighters who reconceive relations between the sexes: they transform Evelyn into Eve, their call becomes ‘Time is a man, space is a woman’. Man is identified with the stiff, upward trajectory of space rockets, with the efficient prosecution of warfare; woman, by contrast, is identified with the fabulous envelopment of cycles and replication.2 Both identities are invented, both require continual, self-conscious remaking. Carter’s novel was one of many possible re-workings of male–female relations to emerge in the previous few years, but a notable one because of the author’s playful treatment of gender conventions and restrictions. In the day-to-day world women also took new roles: as trade union membership peaked at the end of the decade, South Asian factory worker Jayaben Desai became a national figure in the predominantly male world of trade unionism.3 She led a two-year long strike at the Grunwick film processing and mail order plant in London, beginning in August 1976, where about 500 mainly immigrant workers were employed. While the strike to establish basic union rights faltered eventually, Desai nevertheless saw positive effects. ‘The dispute is bringing up so many good things. Before the mass picketing began in June the issue was not so clear in our community, it was misty before. But now the Asian community sees what we are fighting for. And before the trade unions in this country were feeling that our community was not interested.’4
Peter Leese

Post-empire, Post-aesthetics

Frontmatter

Chapter 7. Communication Webs

Abstract
The collectivist ethos and welfare ideals of the postwar era were stretched to their furthest extent by the winter of 1978–9: health, welfare and education had improved immeasurably for the majority of the population since before the Second World War. Yet as the memory of military conflict and of factory production in the mass industrial age began to ebb, new tides caught the collective imagination. In Scotland, where unity, equality and labour remained powerful creeds, and where industrial development had profoundly affected ways of living, the passing away of heavy industry, and of the radical idealism that accompanied it, was often a cause of regret. Journalist Ian Jack, using his father’s life story as a medium through which to trace wider social and urban developments, observed that by around 1985 the old collective routines and urban environs were almost lost. The house that Jack’s father had grown up in was gone; in its place stood a traffic island; the school that had taught him such carefully sculptured handwriting was demolished, replaced by a supermarket; and the mine where he had spent much of his working life was covered over by urban grassland and carparks.1 When Irish writer Colm Tóibín visited Glasgow in 1993 he discussed the city’s political heritage with author Jim McCormack, whose father had travelled from Ireland in 1934. McCormack, by then in his fifties, still ‘loved and respected the older men who tried to run a revolution in Scotland, men who spoke to Lenin’. He also saw the persistence of these values not so much in politics as in the arts: theatre groups such as 7:84 and the Citizen’s Theatre, singers, poets and writers, whose activities became ‘the flowering of the old socialist/communist world’.2
Peter Leese

Chapter 8. Fractured, Rearranged

Abstract
In Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls (1982) a group of women from throughout history gather to celebrate the promotion of Marlene as Managing Director of the Top Girls job agency. Among them is Dull Gret, who in Breugel’s painting heads a charge into Hades; the apocryphal Pope Joan, stoned to death as, during a procession, she gives birth to a child; also Patient Griselda, submissive wife in Boccaccio, Petrarch and Chaucer; and Lady Nijo, member of the thirteenth century Japanese court, subsequently a wandering Buddhist nun.1 To Marlene all these women are sources of strength for her own success, but as their overlapping stories are told the collective mood darkens. In each case, their achievement is at great personal cost; Marlene herself has a disowned daughter. Top Girls is less a political commentary than an observation of human experience. Nevertheless, Churchill’s (b.1938) play expresses a vivid awareness of social opportunity and disadvantage, of the world women found themselves in by the early 1980s.
Peter Leese

Chapter 9. Fragile States

Abstract
The paradox of the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s was that while ‘Brit-’ became a common prefix to describe whatever was new, youthful or innovative, the constituent nations were increasingly divorced from a collective British unity. The cultural roots of nationalist devolution were deeply set, yet in the new global age, the idea of nationhood was called into question. The symbols of twentieth-century national achievement, the Second World War in particular, were examined closely as a series of anniversaries came and went, yet there was recognition too of the decay to which collective memory was subject. Eco-protesters, Scottish nationalists and homeowners who defaulted on their mortgage repayments found, however, that the nation-state was not about to die away. Artists too questioned where and how to recall past lives. Sculptor Rachel Whiteread’s answer was that the local and domestic provided as much of a clue as national symbols; that personal history mattered as much as the collective past. Describing her best-known piece, House (1993), Whiteread (b.1963) stated. ‘Everyone has an experience of the fragility of life. There were 20 houses here once. Now there is one that cannot be lived in. By using a cheap building material, I was making a statement. I was not trying to make a pretty object — but I do think it is very beautiful. I chose the colour of the concrete: it is the same kind used to restore the white cliffs of Dover.’1 By spraying concrete into the interior walls of a derelict residential terrace in East London, filling the ‘cast’ and then removing the exterior, Whiteread pictured otherwise invisible interiors. As in her earlier work, which made, remade and meditated on the artefacts and structures of domestic life: mattresses, sinks, the area beneath chairs, House, among other things, observes a ‘feminine’ domain. It outlines the patterns of movement through space which make up daily routine — sleeping, working, eating — and in doing so acts as a memorial to the fragility and temporality of the human state.
Peter Leese

Re-locating, Re-imagining

Frontmatter

Chapter 10. Millennium Life

Abstract
Historical navigation is most difficult in the immediate past. Many possible sources such as unwritten memoirs are not yet on the horizon; some, including government papers which will be long outside the public domain, stay invisible below the waterline; others, private papers, news sources or official reports, are so vast that they remain uncharted seas. While what follows can only be a rudimentary mapping of coastlines and cape tides, the salient features remain those explored throughout this study, namely the remaking of identities in aspects of locality, society and the creative imagination. Three particular landmarks stand out on the horizon at this moment: the effort to renew nationhood in the light of devolution; the attempt to leave behind the age of post-industrial ‘lost certainties’, especially by redevelopment and urban renewal; and the creation of a new imaginative consensus, a reworked version of the post-1945 ‘fair shares for all’ ideal based on the model of multi-ethnic cultures.
Peter Leese

Conclusion

Abstract
Traditionally studies such as this are expected to reach a conclusion. But reaching a conclusion might in this case mean arriving at one description of identity. Would it be satisfactory to conclude that Britain since 1945 has many faces, many identities? Trivial as it might seem, this would not reduce the variety and complexity presented so far to a few convenient labels. Categorizing and classifying are at odds with selection, however representative, and montage. Identities — loyalties, feelings of belonging, images projected outward — have a density of lived experience when viewed from the individual’s perspective. The question of who I am or where I belong may be urgent, troubling; or in may not be consciously admitted. In either case, the answer to it might be found not so much in intellectual debate as in social interaction, in exchanges of viewpoints, jokes, everyday banter and business. Belonging can be deeply embedded in place; it may reside in religious or political belief or simply in loyalty to family and friends. It is through these human connections that pockets of collective opinion and action are formed, that ways of living are extended. As identities and commonalities of interest and action become more public, they also become more self-consciously formed and imagined. The simple, single messages that give impressions but cannot convey the complexities of the everyday are identity’s news headlines; individual and local ways of living are its small print (see figure 2).
Peter Leese
Additional information