No Turning Back: The Peacetime Revolutions of Post-War Britain by Paul Addison

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No Turning Back: The Peacetime Revolutions of Post-War Britain by Paul Addison

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A comprehensive history of the changes in the character of British society since 1945, against the political events which brought them about (or sometimes the political trends which they actively resisted).
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: June 2010
Publisher: OUP Oxford
ISBN: 978-0192192677

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In the opening chapter Addison, a child of the 1940s, starts by comparing the leaders of the peacetime administrations that did most to change the face of Britain after 1945. The first, Clement Attlee, was a modest, unassuming, even uncharismatic personality, yet he still led a genuinely radical and reforming government. As the second, his admirer Margaret Thatcher, would point out in her memoirs, not only did he achieve a great deal, but he did so because of, or perhaps despite, being all substance and no show.

As Prime Minister for the first six years of post-war Britain, Attlee presided over a country which faced a financial Dunkirk. It was also for a time a heavily-regulated country in which the Archbishop of York asked if it was necessary when they were crying out for labour to employ an army of 570,000 clerks and secretaries in the Civil Service to keep the law-abiding citizen in order, when even left-leaning writers like George Orwell feared that some of the younger generation were openly advocating a totalitarian way of life, and when Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, decried the waste of material used in making long skirts; the shorter the skirt the better (He did later add that there had to be some limits introduced by other considerations).

For several years, moderate Conservative and Labour governments alternated, and as this book demonstrates, they only had minor impact and influences on the evolution of British society. The old class distinctions gradually became blurred (and yes, there is an allusion to the fondly-remembered 'Frost Report' class sketch featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett), and the old morality, such as attitudes to censorship and divorce, softened considerably. In 1948 a Pathe news commentator could announce that more than half of the world's merchant fleets were being built in Britain, and despite competition from Germany and Japan in particular, in the 1950s the British still firmly believed that they led the world in science and industry. Only after the Suez crisis of 1956 and the creation of what was then the European Common Market the next year did Britain's decline become perceptible.

In retrospect, there was little difference between the governments of the two bold modernisers, Wilson with his 'white heat' of the technological revolution, and Heath's slightly more right-leaning 'quiet revolution'. Both men shared in practice the goal of converting Britain into a flourishing social democracy on the West German or Swedish model, or at least until 1973 when the long post-war boom was over and Heath was led into confrontation with the miners which led to the downfall of his government. Economic woes and conflict between trade unions and government bedevilled the next Labour administration under Wilson and Callaghan. As the latter commented during the 1979 election, which he lost, there was a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change. As he predicted, that sea-change led to three consecutive victories for Mrs Thatcher, whose remarkable run of good fortune – notably the risky but ultimately successful Falklands campaign, and an opposition divided between the newly-invigorated Liberals, then Lib/SDP Alliance, and Labour under the hapless Michael Foot – ran out with the unpopular poll tax and party divisions over Europe. These and other factors were seized upon by a revitalised Labour party, or rather 'New Labour', which in 1995 removed Clause IV of the party's constitution committing it to wholescale nationalisation, and took power two years later with an electoral swing unparalleled, it is said, since the Reform Act of 1832.

However, this book is not completely about politics. The social changes, and introduction of once revolutionary ventures which we now take for granted, are all well documented. Austerity was succeeded by the years of you've never had it so good and then the permissive society with the end of old taboos, and greater liberalisation towards divorce, homosexuality and abortion. In the early 1960s students normally looked and behaved like young adults (the author's words), but by the end of the decade, it was all jeans, long hair and bemused elders whispering is it a boy or a girl?, while the Open University was launched in the early 1970s. From that decade onwards the march of Scottish and Welsh nationalism gave rise to talk of the possible break-up of the United Kingdom, while attitudes towards European integration were constantly shifting.

This makes a very good book for the general reader, though it is also aimed at a more academic audience, with various tables, graphs and maps integrated within the text. A few incorrect dates (the Falklands issue was in 1982 not 1983, and the aforementioned 'Frost Report' was in 1966, not 1961) could do with correcting in later editions. That apart, I can see this book being a standard text for some years to come, alongside the author's earlier 'The Road to 1945'.

Our thanks to Oxford University Press for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For further reading on the period, why not also try The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, for a parallel history on the same era; the short but lively commentary The Sixties by Jenny Diski, or for more detailed studies of particular eras, Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy, and When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett.

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