There’s a certain type of pleasant American one meets at parties who likes to reminisce about visiting Britain in the 1950s. Standing, glass of wine in hand, in a room filled with people dressed in that muddy mix of clothes described as "smart casual," he tackles his subject with enthusiasm.
Oh, he remembers it well — the cold, the terrible, perishing cold. The food — fish-paste sandwiches and lots of strong tea, horrid stews of indefinable meat, vegetables cooked beyond recognition — and the horror of most hotel food in general. The impossibility of getting much — if anything — to eat in a provincial town after about 8 p.m.
But then he recollects other things, and the tone changes. There was something wonderful about London then: It was a magnificent city with real atmosphere. The people! The accents! The cut-glass vowels, the crisp consonants! And the clothes — bowler hats and neatly furled umbrellas — all so immaculate. People were so extraordinarily polite — formal, of course, much more formal than today, but so polite . . . and so amusing, so unconscious of how, well, English they were.
All true, of course, and as this refers to an England that I can just remember, I usually enjoy the conversation. Americans of this type, who have of course been visiting Britain with reasonable regularity over the intervening years, are not being, except in rare circumstances, nostalgic in the sense of wanting to go back 60 years. They are happy to be in a Britain of central heating and modern conveniences of every sort, and lashings of food, and they know that we are, too. But it is nevertheless not just a desire to revisit history that makes them look back. There’s also a sort of unspoken wish to discuss some of the underlying issues — or, rather, one underlying issue in particular.
It’s this: How did it happen that the country that seemed to stand so tall, morally and culturally, in the years of post-war hardship — when London still had bleak bomb sites, and all sorts of everyday items were in short supply — is now, in the years of plenty, a place of violent crime and broken families? How can it be that the grandchildren of the skinny but cheery London youngsters pictured on the old newsreels of the 1950s are themselves now the grandparents of children whose main identity is to be found in a culture of gangs, drugs, or TV-induced consumerism?
Of course, we can all point to the massive social changes: the arrival of television, large-scale immigration, contraception, legislative upheaval such that pornography and abortion are now a standard part of life and homosexual unions formally recognized. We can note the destruction of the old grammar schools and the collapse of academic standards through imposition of a range of wrongheaded policies in education. Even the physical appearance of the countryside changed: motorways, cars, the closure of many railway lines and country stations, the creation of vast prairie-style fields to conform to the European community’s policies. And the place of Christianity is crucial: problems within the Catholic Church worldwide and somersaults within the Church of England that saw it overturning or abandoning central beliefs and disciplines.
But what is so thought-provoking is that all of these things really do shape people, form their identity, ground them in new realities. Within three generations, a nation can be transformed — not merely swerve, smoothly accepting certain necessary and useful changes, as we were taught to expect in the 1960s, but change utterly. And this is not just because a new generation is born that did not know the older pattern of life: Older people reared in a strong and confident culture change, too.
Change is necessary, central to our existence. Change is, as expressed in an often-quoted and misunderstood phrase, evidence of life itself. We need to change in order to grow. There was definitely a sense of stagnation in the Britain of the 1950s. There were unresolved injustices, social-class barriers, cruel prejudices. There was smugness and much that was small-minded and mean-spirited. The pregnant unmarried girl facing social ostracism and the shipwreck of all her future, the newly arrived immigrant from the Caribbean shunned and homeless, were evidence of a society that had cruelty beneath a veneer of serenity. And even the nation’s greatest claim to moral strength — the sacrifices made and heroic deeds performed in the victory over Nazi Germany — was tainted by the sour reality of the agreement made on Britain’s behalf at Yalta that yielded Poland’s freedom, and all of Eastern Europe, to the rule of the despot Stalin, the Gulag, and the KGB, with little protest back in an exhausted Britain.
But could change have occurred without the savage destruction of so much that was good — the humor, the courtesy, the academic and cultural standards? Could we have avoided the destruction of so much beauty in the ripping down of older buildings in the 1960s and 1970s? Could we have given wider educational opportunities instead of lowering educational standards? Supported marriage and families with greater legal protection? Established higher moral standards for TV and restricted displays of pornography when this was still a technical possibility?
Could we have had some of the good changes — a wider variety of food, accessible opportunities for foreign travel, shops filled with all sorts of useful and luxurious things — without the social disorder, the high crime rate, the soaring figures for divorce and for teenage abortion that now beset us?
It’s my conviction that we could. It would have been possible to retain some of the things that my American acquaintance so relished about the Britain of 60 years ago while working on the social changes that were needed and accepting those that came along unheeded.
We could, for example, have recognized the huge new influx of enthusiastic Christianity that came with immigration from the Caribbean, instead of endlessly talking about "multi-culturalism" as if these English-speaking, church-attending, cricket-playing fellow citizens were from another planet and did not share our deepest spiritual beliefs and values. We could have set our faces firmly against killing unborn children by abortion and against denigrating marriage and violating childhood integrity; we could have said a clear "no" to any policy of giving teenagers contraceptives and of any form of propaganda masquerading as "sex education" in schools. We could have kept traditional schools and allowed them to thrive. We could have set out deliberately to cherish old and valued buildings and picturesque views. We could have opted to cherish and support the institution of marriage, keep divorce as a last resort, and condemn cohabitation as financially and socially ruinous.
And now we are drawing to the close of the first decade of a new century, and those who visited Britain in the 1950s will find fewer and fewer people here who can echo their memories. Can we now rectify mistakes made long ago, learn from what was done and not done, look ahead to new possibilities? It depends on those who are now young in Britain. Many face huge personal difficulties through growing up amid the broken relationships of various parental cohabitations. Others have been given the huge grace of good spiritual formation, strong families, educational opportunities, and a Church led by Pope John Paul II and now by Benedict XVI. They will be in late middle-age by the 2050s.
Let’s see what they can make of Britain in the intervening years.
Joanna Bogle is an author and broadcaster living in London