There is no better measure of the pivotal importance of 1963 than to recall what Britain was like in the early 1950s, as we slowly emerged from the shadows of the second world war. The great Labour experiment of 1945 had petered out in a grim slog through years of austerity and rationing. With Winston Churchill back in No. 10, life had begun to crawl back to ‘normality’. Conservative values ruled: respect for tradition, discipline and authority. The old class structure still stood. No extramarital sex or homosexuality. In the cinema we were entertained by cosy Ealing comedies and films portraying the ‘stiff upper lip’ spirit which had won the war. Pop music, hardly ever allowed on the BBC, centred on crooners such as Frankie Laine and adaptations of folk songs. The pomp and pageantry of the Coronation in 1953 reminded us how Britain still stood proudly at the centre of a worldwide empire.
Between 1955 and 1957, however, this complacent mood was rudely challenged by the first harbingers of a different world to come — commercial television, the great rock’n’roll craze inspiring a new ‘teenage culture’, ‘Angry Young Men’, the humiliation of Suez. As this turbulence died away, the British in the late 1950s sensed that they were being carried forward into a wholly new kind of future, the ‘age of affluence’. Television had moved to the centre of national life. Traditional moral values were losing their hold. But no one seemed more successfully to ride this ‘wind of change’ than the new Conservative prime minister, Macmillan, hailed as ‘Supermac’, winning in 1959 a landslide election victory and the following year coining that very phrase, to reflect the speed at which Britain was divesting herself of her colonial empire.
By 1960 the sense that an unprecedentedly hopeful new age was dawning was nowhere better symbolised than in the election of John F. Kennedy as the youngest US president in history, to become the new decade’s first towering ‘dream hero’. But no sooner had Macmillan made in 1961 his most daring move to break with the past, by bidding to take Britain into ‘Europe’, than the mood again abruptly changed. Suddenly, not least in contrast to Kennedy’s youthful glamour, the ageing Macmillan came to be seen, by a new generation of young satirists, as an upper-class Edwardian relic, quite out of touch with the new world. Catching the same irreverent spirit were an unknown group of young Liverpudlians singing rock ’n’ roll in Hamburg nightclubs. By the end of 1962, as a former US secretary of state proclaimed that Britain had ‘lost its empire and not yet found a role’, in a country now increasingly scornful of all those traditional values and assumptions which had been losing their grip, the stage for the watershed year of 1963 was set.
This is an excerpt from an article in today’s edition of the Spectator. Subscribers can read the whole article here. Non-subscribers can join us today by following the link below.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.