Is Britain a better or worse place compared to when the Queen came to the throne in 1952..?
Better – 38%
Worse – 30%
Neither – 17%
So were the results of a YouGov poll published on 30 May 2022 ahead of Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. But how could nearly 40% of people surveyed – YouGov is a reputable pollster – conclude that life was better in Britain in 1952?
The year of the Queen’s accession was the year that post-war tea rationing ended. Few people could afford televisions, though, because they cost around £1,800 in today’s money – nor fridges, at around £1,000. Toxic smog killed 4,000 Londoners, while across the country tramways were being ripped up to make urban centres more accessible for motorcars. On average, Britons spent around 30% of their income on food, compared with 10% today. Much like today, Britons were feeling a cost of living squeeze, with inflation leaping from under 2% to more than 10%, in part fuelled by the Korean war and a resulting commodities price spike.
In a number of cities, there were still bomb sites from the Second World War. Average life expectancy was 68 (in 2022 it is 81). There was more illness, less chance of curing your cancer, or dying of a heart attack, healthcare generally more basic. Houses did not have central heating, hot water systems, and many did not have indoor toilets. Within society there was significant discrimination for women and of course laws criminalising gay people. Racism was common against minorities. So on very many metrics, life in 1952 Britain wasn’t a bundle of laughs for many people.
So why is there a nostalgia amongst some for the 1950s and what are the implications? It doesn’t seem to make much sense. You would have to be in the 85+ age range now to have significant awareness of the year 1952 and understand and compare life then to today. Most people alive today who were alive in the 1952 are probably just remembering selective aspects of their childhood. But those baby boomers did grow up in the 50s and 60s and so normal childhood nostalgia naturally associates with those periods. Who doesn’t like a comfort zone? I have a nostalgia for 1980s television!
But are people saying ‘life was better’ a proxy for something else? Life was simpler perhaps, less complicated? Less technology? Or is there another undertone e.g. there were fewer immigrants or other more conservative social attitudes that they know don’t like and don’t want to overly admit now?
If think there is some truth in the fact for some people the 1950s and the 1960s were a positive time; some things got better, and there was an increase in living standards, wealth and consumerism – a sweet spot of capitalism if you like after the Second World War, which has since gone wrong. If you had a basic work ethic, you could get a job and have a family, usually with only one breadwinner. Those boomers then hit the economic complications of the 1970s and 1980s, including deindustrialisation, inflation, oil shocks, and unemployment. They are now elderly and certainly in the UK are the generation with the highest voting levels – politicians have noticed!
The desire to return to a safe, clean, happy, prosperous, (mostly) non-existent 1950s has long been a potent political impulse (see some of the rhetoric employed by Trump and Brexit arguments). It has also manifested in Poland, Hungary and Russia in recent years. Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski (and his handpicked Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki) in Poland and of course Vladimir Putin in Russia – all of whom have obtained power by promising a return to a time when their countries were isolated from Europe and the West, supposedly free from ethnic and religious minorities, and lacking uncertainty or change. It is a superficially attractive manifesto, that lends to soundbites, that is hard to counter when based in nostalgia their voters might recognise.
Of course simple messages peddled by Trump, Putin, Orban and others inevitably come up against reality – they can’t deliver against the soundbites. They have two responses to that: change course, or double down with other measures to appeal and / or repress, some of which lean towards fascism. This is when nostalgia becomes dangerous, but it is hard to combat. I think those more immune to nostalgia (dangerous or otherwise) are younger, better educated, at ease with technology, more travelled, and comfortable to a certain extent societal change.
So back to that YouGov poll and the age breakdowns bear this out – older age groups were more likely to say they thought 1952 was better. Perhaps it was – I wasn’t there, but I guess there is ultimately a limit to this nostalgia – these people are reaching the end of their lives now, they will die, and politicians fishing in this voter pool will eventually come up against massive demographic change in voters with liberal tendencies as the conservatives die off.