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About 1951-1964

Prime Ministers and pop music


From the austerity of the post-war years, with their lingering shortages, the fifties and early sixties saw growing affluence. A sense of hope permeated British society. With this new sense of liberation came a sense of insecurity. The previous cultural and social status quo began to be questioned. The suggestion of a more unpredictable, fragmented life loomed.

With Labour’s defeat in the 1951 General Election, the Tory government assumed power. The government was headed by a 76 year-old Winston Churchill. The Conservatives’ election campaign heralded a movement away from Attlee’s ‘state control’ towards greater individual freedom. Its slogan was ‘Set the People Free’. Unemployment remained low and road haulage and steel production were privatised. The standard of living rose.

Three more Conservative prime ministers followed. Anthony Eden succeeded Churchill. His tenure was particularly significant on the international stage; the Suez Crisis in 1956 forced Eden’s resignation. It also demonstrated that Europe was a diminished global power in the face of the USA and the Soviet Union. Harold MacMillan, nicknamed “Supermac”, replaced Eden and sought to restore a sense of confidence.

On the home front there was restlessness. The country witnessed race riots in 1958. The riots followed the arrival of newly invited immigrants from the ex-colonies of the West Indies. The brief succession of Alec Douglas Home in 1963 marked the end of the Conservatives’ thirteen-year run in office.

Socially British life also underwent significant change. This change was largely brought about by the birth of mass media. Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 was a spectacular affair. Only two million homes had a television but 20 million citizens watched the coronation. They crammed into families’, friends’ and neighbours’ sitting rooms to watch. It was the nation’s greatest mass viewing of a televised event to date. 

By the late fifties, the music and fashion scenes exploded with change. A separate youth culture emerged for the first time, mirroring what was then happening in America. “Mod” and “Rocker” youth sub-cultures came on the scene. With them came sensationalism, particularly when the groups clashed violently on a Bank Holiday in 1964.

By the early sixties a television in every home was becoming the norm. There was a perceived narrowing in the division between “high” and “mass” culture. This challenged the older belief in a strong class system. For many this narrowing was becoming a cause of concern. Increased mass access to education, greater affluence and social mobility blurred previous social divisions. Women began to see a growing freedom available to them through the advent of the contraceptive pill.