It remains true that while Britain's economy appeared to flourish in the 1950s, the growth in affluence was not matched by a comparable growth in production. Elsewhere in Europe, as in Japan, it was different. Europe, especially hitherto industrially backward southern Europe, was hastily breaking through into a modern, urbanized, industrialized society: France, Italy, Spain. A world of peasants was fading almost overnight into a world of high rise flats, pollution, advanced technology. The interface between peasant and technocrat is far more intimate in southern than in northern Europe. Germany, Britain's traditional industrial rival, was modernizing on a different tack. Vastly more damaged by the war than Britain, the will to recover proved more emphatic. By the end of the 1950s Britain was in fact slipping badly back in Europe's economic race. Its industrialization and urbanization had taken place too long ago, its war scars were too relatively mild.
The Conservatives who had achieved power somewhat insecurely in 1951 were returned with resounding success in 1955 and again in 1959. The world relaxed. Stalin died and East-West relations grew easier. African empire, it was quietly recognized as the decade wore on, would soon have to go the way of India, and no one minded too much. The thing to do was to make the process as gracious as possible. Even the foolish fiasco of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956, undertaken during Eden's brief premiership, disastrously divisive as it was, proved to matter far less than seemed possible at the time. It certainly hastened the pragmatic recognition that Britain's imperial power was shrinking fast - faster than people had imagined even in the gloomy early post-war days. But what would it matter? Macmillan was now Prime Minister and, under the genial mantle of SuperMac, as the Empire shrank, the Commonwealth expanded. Happy little independent States, each endowed with a parliament on the Westminster model, would succeed to the old colonies. Trade would grow. Everyone would be free and content. 'A wind of change' was blowing across Africa and indeed across the world, Macmillan warned the South African parliament in Cape Town in February i960, a non-racial and democratic wind, but so long as you go along with it, there should be nothing to fear.
There were, of course, some signs in the later 1950s that there might still be things to fear - the Notting Hill race riots in the summer of 1958 being one of the more obvious, and the explosion of Britain's very own hydrogen bomb another. Ever since Attlee, the government had been adept at spending ever greater sums on nuclear weaponry without discussion in parliament or -by and large - anywhere else. Only at the end of the 1950 did the horrifying reality of nuclear war hanging over the world since 1945 start to penetrate the imagination of the multitude. Nevertheless it is impossible not to recognize the sense of controlled content the nation felt at the time. Unemployment never reached half a million. At the end of the decade industrial production was still rising, the balance of payments was fairly favourable, inflation reasonably low, income tax down (and twopence off the price of beer). National service was phased out after the White Paper on Defence of 1957 while, internationally, cold war confrontation was being transmuted in the age of Khrushchev into rivalry over space exploration and a race for the moon. Even divorces, which had been high just after the war, were now well down.
The avuncular and unflappable character of Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, provided the ideal coping-stone for this Indian summer of content, a benign and comfortable age. In earlier days he had been more drawn to enthusiasm. As a very young man he was close to becoming a Roman Catholic under the influence of his tutor and friend Ronald Knox, almost but not quite. In the inter-war years he had been the Conservative protester, both over unemployment and over Munich, so much so that he was close to joining the Labour Party, almost but not quite. By the early fifties, as Minister of Housing, he had become the most sure-footed of all the Conservative team, and in the post-Suez disarray he righted the boat with remarkable aplomb. A liberal Conservative if ever there was one, he yet now seemed rather less reformist than Rab Butler and more acceptable to the Tory right wing. All things to all men, he was the crofter's grandson who believed in one nation; the Duke of Devonshire's uncle who saw fit to bring the Duke into his government - and got away with it. 'You have never had it so good', he told the nation and though that rather simple message has subsequently produced many sneers, it was yet substantially the truth and people of later, more harassed, generations would look back to the age of Macmillan - so much more comfortable and relaxed than that of Churchill and Attlee before it, more confident and hopeful than the age of Wilsonafter it - with increasing nostalgia. If the affluence was genuine and widely spread, it was, of course, part of a global movement of prosperity and political relaxation. In its local expression it was firmly grounded upon the maintenance of Attlee's welfare state with which it combined a renewed stress on personal freedom and the celebration of England's past. Macmillan was Britain's last truly imperial premier. He epitomized the central social, political and religious judgment of the age: in everything a little bland, a little too reluctant to delve uncomfortably into the murky deep. Nevertheless beneath the blandness, humanity steadily prevailed. In July 1955 Ruth Ellis, the mother of two young children, was hanged in Oxford Gaol for shooting her lover. He had been both unfaithful and cruel. She had just had a miscarriage, brought on very probably by his punching her in the stomach. She wanted to die. Eden was Prime Minister at the time and Major Lloyd George, an elderly nonentity, Home Secretary. That such a thing could happen, despite protests, for a crime which in other western countries would certainly no longer have been punished in this way says a good deal about the underlying unimaginative moral conservatism still normative in the mid-1950s. But in fact she was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. The Commons lobby for the abolition of capital punishment had been growing steadily stronger, and the very next year on a free vote there would be a majority for abolition, though this would only become law ten years later. The hanging of Ruth Ellis appears strangely barbaric to the Englishman of the 1980s; to most Englishmen of the 1950s such a thing still seemed in theory justifiable enough, as running a world-wide empire seemed justi-fiable; both had seemed so for centuries. In practice, however, neither appeared any more quite the right thing to do. Macmillan's genius lay in the skill with which he epitomized a somewhat jaunty Conservatism while in fact keeping the ship of State moving rather rapidly forward. British society was in reality changing fast in the 1950s and woe to them who failed to see beneath the drapery of tradition the emergence of a new and unimperial age.
1. Hastings A. (1991) A history of English Christianity 1920-1990, SCM PRESS,