Seeking a Role: The United Kingdom 1951–1970 by Brian Harrison - review by Kenneth O Morgan

Kenneth O Morgan

Landscape Gardeners of the Centre Ground

Seeking a Role: The United Kingdom 1951–1970


Oxford University Press 658pp £30

Historians love labels. Post-1945 Britain has long been stereotyped as an Age of Austerity. The Fifties and Sixties resist such easy definition. Some historians see them as an Age of Affluence, the economy enjoying a Golden Age. For neo-liberal conviction politicians, they marked the road to serfdom, with dependency culture and debilitating consensus sapping the national will. David Marquand’s recent Britain Since 1918 viewed them in more dynamic terms, an ongoing dialectic between Whig imperialists and democratic collectivists. For Brian Harrison, in the latest volume in the New Oxford History of England [sic], this is an era of corporatism, Cold War and, above all, consumerism. Its icons are the consumer durables of One-Nation Toryism. Its rulers are bourgeois centrists planning for a better tomorrow. Its political model, if anyone, is Mr Butskell, ambiguous apostle of bipartisan approaches including an abortive incomes policy. Its key institutions are the nuclear family and the fabric of positivist planning, buoyed up by the educational upsurge after the Butler Act. Its essential importance is seen as lying in the evolving structure of society, the vibrancy of an English-language culture, and social equipoise marked by a new balance between the public and the private. This is a relatively harmonious and civilised world. The Winter of Discontent and the hegemony of Thatcherism seem far off. Only then could Roy Jenkins’s Dimbleby lecture fear for these landscape gardeners of the centre ground as ‘lacking all conviction’.

The book takes its title, of course, from Dean Acheson’s famous remark (5 December 1962) about Britain having lost an empire and not yet found a role. But that was directly related to Britain’s sudden indirection in foreign policy after the Americans abruptly cancelled the Skybolt missile on

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