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When Harold Macmillan said that most of our people have never had it so good what did he mean

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It was estimated that in 1947 that there were a mere ten self-service stores throughout Britain. This figure rose to three thousand by 1956, quadrupled to twelve thousand in 1962 and doubled again to twenty four thousand by 1967. The sale of frozen foods doubled between 1955 and 1957, and doubled again by 1960. By the end of the fifties, forty two million loaves of sliced bread were being sold each year throughout the UK and the growth of the tea bag was extravagant, as Tetley’s Tea opened in 1952 and commanded three quarters of the market by the early sixties.

Other products such as American influenced ‘soda’ was being commercialized, and Britain saw the development of produce such as newly promoted ‘health drinks’ such as Iron Bru, Vimto Tizer, Coca-cola and Pepsi. With the large growth acceleration of Sainsbury’s supermarket in the 50’s and the end of food rations in 1954, the food consumer market was now open and fully operational.

The consumer society was now tremendously booming and everything was working towards better personal convenience, especially with banks now offering larger credit opportunities and businesses proposing suitable pay-back schemes for large purchases such as televisions, refrigerators and other electrical household appliances. ‘You can do your week’s shopping in a day… here is the refrigerator to give you a fresh interest in food, more fun and more leisure’1 claimed a British mother, pointing out some of the advantages of transforming Britain.

The new phenomenon of the contemporarily named ‘affluent society’ was becoming apparent. Throughout this essay I will be examining the social boom of the fifties alongside the advantages and disadvantages of the new change and its overall effect. I will also analyze whether the social transformation was either positive or negative and why exactly Britain underwent this huge social modification. The booming fifties can be seen as an age of opportunity and possibility, where people could borrow money from the banks more easily than previously possible.

People were given the chance to improve their personal lives, especially with the average weekly wage almost doubling from £6 eight shillings in 1950 to £11 two shillings in 1959, as families started putting money to one side so that they could afford new technological appliances that would make their lives easier and more relaxing. These were new appliances such as televisions, fridges and washing machines. By 1956, most of the middle class couples could afford to buy luxuries such as vacuum cleaners, record players, cameras and enjoy weekly outings to the cinema.

However, the ‘crowning glory of the household’2 was the motorcar and not the washing machine or the television that everybody seemed to desperately crave. Just like most of the other transformations of the affluent society, the car-revolution was based on pre-war tendencies: in 1919 we could account for only 100’000 private vehicles; in 1939 there were a little over two million; in 1955 three and a half million and by 1965 there were over nine million cars throughout the UK.

This lead to rapid road infrastructure development, as society saw the introduction of traffic lights and the building on multiple national motorways. Furthermore the rapid growth of the car not only gave people more freedom, but also allowed them to get away from the population that they were limited to. This meant that the population had more liberty in where they wanted to work, as travel became an option whilst regarding other employment possibilities. However it wasn’t until the sixties that we saw a real consumer increase in car purchase, as only 27% of the British population owned a car in 1960.

This rose to a staggering 37% in five years, but it was towards the end of the sixties that the population started using their motorcars on a daily basis, driving to and from work. This lead to dramatic change in the consumer’s life as it gave them new social perspective. They became more and more able to do various things that they would never dream of doing. A Cornish man described that, “once I acquired a car out came the map and we were able to go place we’d only dreamed of before… it was possible to go to the Lake District and Scotland, it was like going to a foreign land. You were seeing things you’d only read about in a book.

This man’s view is exactly what the feeling of the affluent society was all about at the time, especially as they became highly intrigued and their sense for discovery positively developed as they now had the opportunity to achieve things that they could only have been described as a dream. Conversely it was the uprising of a society that wanted increasing amounts of time dedicated to personal leisure. It was obvious that the growth of the television allowed people to do just that, however the amount of time gained through the technological improvement of household appliances was becoming more and more noticeable.

The washing machine saved considerable amounts of time and also reduced the amount of manual labour as did many others such as the hoover. Nevertheless it was the growth of sport throughout the fifties and sixties that really took to British society. With more money and time on their hands, the people enjoyed Sunday outings to watch Manchester United play for only 15p a ticket. The popularity of Cricket also largely evolved after the Second World War, and sporting events such as the Ashes, a highly competitive test match versus Australia, could continue and the people of Britain could finally fully enjoy the prosperity of the nation.

Moreover, the development of the cinema became highly relevant in British society towards the mid 1950’s. After the Second World War there were five thousand cinemas across the UK, most of them interlinked with American studios such as ABC. Throughout the decade we saw the expansion of other film providers such as Odeon and Gaumont, and it was this progression that allowed the classes to merge together, particularly as ticket prices dropped and individual wages rose.

The cinema was seen as a social escape from society, and it was calculated that in the fifties the average Englishman or woman goes to the picture on average twenty eight times a year, the highest proportion in the world. 4 Nevertheless it wasn’t only adults that attended the cinema regularly, nine out of ten children made ‘regular visits’ whereas five made it once a week. 5 However this social change was not all positive. In 1956 the majority of the people living in claustrophobic terraced houses alongside the Manchester canal shared fire-heated family baths and toilets with their neighbors.

It was clear that the ‘prosperous’ society was not visible among all, where the new sparkling televisions and washing machines were a mere imagination to the reality of most of their lives. Eighty six percent of homes in Britain had electricity (mostly unsafe and unreliable) however some working class families resorted back to using the fire as the central hub of the household, as it provided them with heat, hot water and light. We could directly see that the ‘prosperous society’ of Harold Macmillan could only be applied to the middle and higher classes of British society.

Conditions for the working class were getting a lot better, but were still not to the standards of what the middle classes were enjoying and discovering. “Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country”6 stated the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. It was coming to the point where the boom of the fifties was so powerful that it could be seen as a large scale unintentional social reform, as everyone seemed to be changing in various different ways.

Society seemed to be less suppressed to routine, as a new image of social change emerged along with the consciousness and acceptance of it. The nineteenth century had not started well, especially with the emergence of communism, the breakout of two terrible World Wars and the uprising of the masses who finally understood that authoritarian power could be over thrown. The question to ask is why exactly did this boom suddenly happen? There are many answers; however it would be reasonable to conclude that it is the generation that grew between both World Wars that had never felt the feeling of comfort.

The beginning of the nineteenth century demonstrated accelerated social change, where nothing ever properly settled, and it could be argued that it was only after the Second World War that the feeling of settlement through social exhaustion that people began to believe in society finally being able to find a constant positive rhythm in their lives. In conclusion, it would be fair to argue that British society was advancing at a rapid pace. The consumer societies saw rapid development of everything surrounding them, and were taking full advantage of the new luxuries.

Availability was becoming a factor that grew on the nation, and people started having the option of getting things when and wherever they felt like it. Harold Macmillan was not wrong in stating that our society has ‘never had it so good’, because the simple truth of the matter is that they haven’t, and it is through the consumer boom that this statement can be proved correct. British society had never been so prosperous, and people were starting to enjoy the advantages of social improvement.

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