VARIOUS TEXTS: Sixty Years of Progress? - Britain is a better place today

Sixty Years of Progress?
From: Prospect Magazine of June 3, 2012

(abbreviated version)

Britain in the 1950s was deeply conservative. The expansion of secondary education after 1944 was making little impact on the class system. The idea of new grammar schools as a social conduit* for working-class children was, except for a tiny number, a myth. Post-school education was available to barely five per cent of young people. Slums existed everywhere, in town and in country. Abortion was illegal and divorce difficult. Most people believed in capital and corporal punishment and in the criminality of homosexuals. As Jonathan Miller was later to remark, “England was stuck in the thirties until the sixties.”

The most visible sign of change emerged in a renaissance in London’s cultural life. Anti-establishment sentiment* stirred in the theatre and literature and spread to fashion, music and the BBC. Miniskirts paraded in Carnaby Street and the King’s Road. The first “mini” car was produced by British Leyland in 1959. The Beatles and Rolling Stones swept the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Writing was by “angry young men” (not yet women) such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Kingsley Amis and John Wain. The magazine Private Eye first appeared in 1961. The BBC’s late-night show, That Was The Week That Was, broadcast satire that was savage* even by today’s standards. In 1966 Time magazine hailed the maturity of “Swinging London.” A self-satisfied metropolis responded by permitting ugly concrete hotels and “point blocks”* to rise above its once restrained* skyline, as at Centre Point, the Euston tower, Stag Place, Victoria, and around Hyde Park. The rot* started when Macmillan overruled local planners to allow a Hilton hotel in Park Lane. Yet conservatism was deep enough to survive the miniskirt and the Beatles. A devaluing currency could stave off* commercial decline for a while, but in the early 1970s Britain saw its first actual recession since the 1940s. It was derided by the American statesman, Dean Acheson, as “having lost an empire and not yet found a role,” and the economy was rocked by the “British disease,” a combination of industrial strife, government inertia* and trading failure. It sank fast down the European ratings in GDP* to below France and Italy.

The means by which the country hauled itself back to recovery in the 1980s have been controversial ever since. The Thatcher years (1979-90) were dramatic and divisive. They began with an engineered recession, with mass bankruptcies and inflation driven down to five per cent by 1983. But the defeat of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands the previous year and the crushing of left-wing militancy in the unions and local government brought a new direction and purpose to government. Thatcherism and privatisation supplanted* welfarism as the dominant ethos of the day.

By 1995 virtually the entire utilities* and trading sector nationalised in the 1940s had returned to private hands. It is hard to imagine a Britain in which the state supplied not just gas, electricity and water but railways, airlines, ports, coal mines, steelworks, telephones, shipbuilding, car-making, oil-drilling and even computing. The structure of the private sector changed radically. Extractive* and manufacturing industry went into rapid decline, with services rising from 30 per cent of output at the start of the Queen’s reign to 70 per cent at the dawn of the 21st century. Britain’s balance of traded goods, in surplus throughout recent history, lurched* into the red from 1983 and never recovered, the gap being covered largely by financial services.

Margaret Thatcher remains an enigmatic* figure. She never enjoyed strong popular support, and trailed behind most prime ministers in opinion poll approval. But she reflected a steeliness that had long been absent from British politics, built, so she claimed, on the growing aspirations of a neglected “lower middle class.” The face and fortune of Britain undeniably changed in the period.

Thatcher’s “supply side” reforms — weakening the power of labour and bringing competition to bear on public and private sectors alike — were not reversed by her successors, John Major and Tony Blair. Labour under Blair went even further after coming to power in 1997. He left in place Thatcher’s union reforms and curbs on local councils, and turned the majority of public investment over to private finance, much to the gain of the newly deregulated* City of London.

The turn of the 21st century had seemed to offer the same gilded* horizon as had spread before the nation in 1952. The advent of the internet in the 1990s and the computerisation of swathes* of the economy liberated millions from the drudgery of the factory and the typing pool*. Most Britons, even those in receipt of welfare payments, now had access to a television, a car and a regular holiday. For all its suddenness, the second recessionary dip in 2012 saw the nation’s prosperity regress only as far as 2005. But the good times had lasted so long that bad times proved hard to stomach.

Delving into* the national psyche over time depends in part on generations. To older people, the most remarkable shift in outlook over 60 years has been a declining obsession with class, however much Britons may still differ in accent and style. Thatcher infuriated the old left by declaring that she never met a member of the working class who did not want to escape it. As Lawrence James points out in The Middle Class: a History, by the turn of the 21st century, a posh accent had lost its cachet* and indeed was often a liability*. Social surveys showed two thirds of Britons considering themselves “middle class,” with the result that “a version of classlessness has been achieved simply through more and more people becoming middle class.” Even the Queen had flattened her vowels: “May hesband and I” became “my husband and I. “

Unlike most countries of Europe, Britain has continued the steady centralisation of state power begun in the two world wars of the 20th century. Local participation in politics has declined and local democracy withered* to an extent that baffles Germans or Americans. While the aggrandisement* of the state is opposed by politicians out of power, it continues unchecked when they assume it. This is reflected in incessant measures to reorganise the NHS, criminal justice, local government, defence and education, each one increasing the size and cost of government.

The one significant reaction against centralism has come from the erosion of the United Kingdom itself. Most of Ireland went between the wars, and Northern Ireland was to remain only at a horrific price. But in 2000 Scotland and Wales won a measure of autonomy which, in Scotland’s case, may yet progress to substantive independence. The Queen could yet oversee the dissolution* not just of the greater British empire but of the lesser one as well. ......
1140 words

* conduit - Verbindung, Verbindungslinie
* sentiment - Stimmung, Gefühl
* savage - brutal, schonungslos
* point blocks - High apartment-building with the circulation and services in the central core and the residential areas grouped around it on several storeys
* restrained - maßvoll, zurückhaltend
* rot - here: Verfall, Dilemma
* to stave off - abwehren, abwenden
* inertia - Trägheit, Tatenlosigkeit
* GDP (gross domestic product) - Bruttoinlandprodukt
* to supplant - verdrängen, ersetzen
* utilities - öffentl. Versorgungsbetriebe
* extractive industry - Grundstoffindustrie
* to lurch - taumeln
* enigmatic - rätselhaft, mysteriös
* to deregulate - liberalisieren
* gilded - vergoldet
* swathes - Schwaden
* typing pool - Schreibzimmer
* to delve into - sich eingehend befassen mit
* cachet - Gütesiegel, Prestige
* liability - Belastung, Nachteil
* to wither - verkümmern
* aggrandisement - Aufblähen, Anmaßung, Selbstverherrlichung
* dissolution - Auflösung

1. What features contributed to the change of a more modern Britain at about 1960?
2 a. The decline of the classical industries and the 'British disease' led to a recession in the early 1970s. Comment on these negative phenomina.
   b. Which industries were the classical industries replaced by ?
3. What were the consequences of Thatcherism on Britain's economy, trade unions and the welfare system?
4. What impact did the internet and computerization have on Britain?
5. Although the British upper classes do not play such an important role anymore as in previous times, they are still playing a vital role in Britain. Which institutions do you think still reproduce the upper classes?
6. Centralism of state power is not very popular in Britain. Where can this be observed best?

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