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1956: The shock of Suez

The final instalment in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1950–1999. The debacle in North Africa confirmed the fact that Britain was no longer a main player on the world stage, says Pat Thane, while at home Angry Young Men challenged the old order…

Published: December 27, 2021 at 7:20 am
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We can’t isolate British history in the second half of the 20th century from world events. The year 1956 began with signs that the Cold War was thawing. In January, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, admitted and denounced Stalin’s crimes. In April Khrushchev and the Soviet premier, Bulganin, made the first visit to Britain of Soviet leaders since 1917. They aroused popular curiosity and the concern of the security services who, apparently unknown to the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, sent a frogman, Lionel “Buster” Crabb, to inspect their ship. He did not return and his headless body was later found floating along the coast near Portsmouth. Doubts over how much Soviet attitudes really had softened were justified in October, when the Hungarian uprising against Russian domination was brutally suppressed.

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The disastrous attempted invasion of Suez signified that Britain was no longer a first-rank power. In July President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the company which owned the Suez canal, which was jointly owned by the British and French governments. Nasser was desperate to avenge the USA and Britain’s refusal to offer Egypt financial support following its decision to sign an arms deal with the USSR – and seizing control of the most direct route to Britain’s colonies in the east appeared to be the best way of going about it. Tension was also fanned by British concerns over Egyptian support for insurgents in Aden and Nasser’s support of the Algerians’ bloody battle for independence from France.

1956 in context

With unemployment down and improved standards of living, Britain was enjoying times of stability – but it was not to last
The period between 1945 and the mid-1970s was an unprecedented “Golden Age” of near-full employment and rising living standards, though the benefits were not universal: there was periodic unemployment in regions such as Clydeside and Merseyside, and regional inequalities in income and health. Pay and work conditions improved, notably in the large, key industries nationalised by the post-war Attlee government: coal, iron, steel and railways. Almost everyone had two weeks’ annual holiday with pay. For the first time, retirement at 60 or 65 became normal, providing an unprecedented period of leisure in later life.

Women had access to a wider range of jobs, but were still limited in pay and had fewer opportunities for promotion and training. This caused growing protest in the 1960s and 70s, leading to the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Inequalities diminished but remained significant to the end of the century.

This was the heyday of the long, stable marriage, with life expectancy rising and divorce hard to obtain. Most women married and had children at earlier ages than before. Families remained small – averaging 2.5 – and most women expected to return to work as their children grew.

The Attlee government did much to reconstruct the post-war economy and made a brave but incomplete attempt to construct a “Welfare State”. However, by the mid-1950s it was clear that much poverty remained. The Labour governments of 1964–70 attempted to carry forward the Attlee legacy, introducing comprehensive education.

The next 25 years were quite different. Following the “oil shock” of 1973 and growing international economic stability, unemployment rose, remaining high for over 20 years and fuelling fears that the British economy was failing to compete in Europe, the US, and increasingly Asia.

In response, the Conservative governments of the 1980s sought to reconstruct the economy. As a result, the manufacturing industry declined causing growing unemployment and cultural dislocation in industrial areas.

The 25 years between 1975 and 2000 saw significant demographic changes too. The birth-rate declined, divorce soared, fewer people married and co-habitation became socially acceptable. By the end of the 1980s one-third of babies were born to unmarried, often co-habiting partners.

The unified British state was also breaking up. Conflict in Northern Ireland between Roman Catholic Nationalists who sought a unified Ireland and Protestant Unionists raged from 1968 until the end of the century. Nationalist movements in Wales and Scotland led to the election in 1999 of devolved assemblies, with considerable control over domestic affairs.

Eden’s ignominious exit

What followed was a shattering blow to British prestige. Following international attempts at mediation, in October, Israel, who feared Nasser’s growing strength, attacked Egypt in secret collusion with France and Britain. When Nasser refused to back down, British and French forces bombed and invaded Egypt. There was an international outcry, strong opposition in all political parties in Britain and France, condemnation from the UN and, most strongly, from the USA. The value of sterling collapsed, the invaders were forced to withdraw ignominiously and Eden resigned, being replaced by Harold Macmillan.

Britain was fighting several other conflicts in its dwindling colonies. In Malaya a communist-led insurgency began in 1948 and ended with independence in 1957. In Cyprus, Greek nationalist violence led to their spiritual leader Archbishop Makarios’s deportation to the Seychelles in March 1956. After the Suez Crisis, Macmillan began to negotiate independence for Cyprus, achieved in 1960. Kenyan nationalism led to Mau Mau guerrilla terrorism between 1952–57. The British army failed to quell the uprising and Kenya gained independence in 1960. In September 1956, Britain agreed to independence for the Gold Coast, now Ghana. A “wind of change” was indeed blowing through Africa, as Macmillan put it in 1960 – though not in South Africa where he coined the phrase. In 1956, Reverend Trevor Huddleston left the country, following the publication of his bestselling exposé of hardening apartheid, Naught for Your Country. For the next 35 years he was a leader of the British anti-apartheid movement.

Meanwhile six European countries moved towards signing the Treaties of Rome (March 1957). Yet Britain held aloof, giving priority to its ties with the Commonwealth and the US.

We never had it so good

The mid-1950s saw important transformations within Britain, with unprecedented improvements in living standards and consumption. More houses were built, though in 1961 3.2 million people in England and Wales still did not have a fixed bath or shower. More people took holidays, some of them abroad. More owned vacuum cleaners, washing machines and television sets. Commercial television had been introduced in 1955, so there was now a choice of two channels. Recognising that more people could save, the 1956 Budget introduced Premium Bonds, described by the future Labour leader, Harold Wilson, as a “squalid raffle”. Leisure patterns changed: attendance at cinemas, spectator sports and religious services fell, while “do-it-yourself” and gardening grew. Recorded crime also grew, but so did the efficiency of detection and recording.

Full employment and prosperity encouraged immigration from poorer Commonwealth countries. But immigrants from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan often faced hostility. Serious racial violence in Notting Hill and Nottingham led to legislation to restrict immigration in 1958. In general, prosperity bred contentedness – as Harold Macmillan put it in 1957: “Let us be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good” – but also the confidence to criticise. Easter 1956 saw the first protest against Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, leading to the foundation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. The nuclear issue exacerbated splits in the Labour Party, which was going through a bout of internecine struggle that rendered it unelectable in the 1950s.

The Conservative governments of the 1950s, sometimes reluctantly, sustained the Welfare State. They feared that its most popular feature, the National Health Service, was wastefully expensive. However, the Guillebaud Committee, established to examine this proposition, reported in 1956 that there was no “widespread extravagance” in the NHS and no need for change. The Conservatives did most for health with the Clean Air Act 1956, which reduced air pollution – a major cause of death, notably during the great London “smog” of 1952. They also achieved a massive increase in local authority house building. Clement Attlee’s governments had built relatively little, mainly due to their determination to build to high standards. But the council houses built in the 1950s were of poorer quality, creating the “sink estates” that Conservatives later condemned.

Middle-class benefits

The inadequacies of the post-war Welfare State were becoming obvious even to some of its strongest sympathisers. Richard Titmuss, Labour Party welfare policy adviser, demonstrated that the middle classes gained most from the Welfare State and that much poverty remained. In 1957, JE Floud, AH Halsey and FM Martin published Social Class and Educational Opportunity, establishing that the 1944 Education Act had not greatly improved the educational opportunities of the working class. The main beneficiaries of the 11-plus examination and grammar school education were middle-class boys. In fact, girls of all classes fared worst. There were fewer grammar school places for them, so they had to score better than boys in the 11-plus. The great majority of children who left the lower-status secondary modern schools at 15 had few or no formal qualifications. The numbers in higher education were far fewer than in other high-income countries. These findings led to the introduction of comprehensive education by a Labour government in the mid-1960s.

Nevertheless, work and relative prosperity gave working-class youth greater independence. Youth culture was reinvented, breeding moral panics about “juvenile delinquency”, stimulated by shock at the Teddy Boy style of young men with long hair, sideburns, Edwardian-style draped jackets and narrow trousers. The film Blackboard Jungle did little to quell the fears of Middle England. Released in Britain in 1956, it portrayed violence in US High Schools, accompanied by a soundtrack by the first major rock ’n’ roll phenomenon, Bill Haley and His Comets. In 1957 Haley and His Comets toured Britain to a frenzied reception.

Despite these concerns over the moral fibre of young men, most spent two years in National Service, sometimes dying in the post-colonial wars. The rest spent most of their time in work or education and married in larger numbers than ever. There were low levels of “illegitimacy” in an atmosphere of strong social disapproval of sex before marriage.

An assault on accepted conventions

Older, more celebrated and more disaffected were the “Angry Young Men” of the arts. Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, published in 1956, was an anguished, if often obscure, assault on contemporary society. It appeared in the same week as the first performance of John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, a more overt assault on accepted conventions. Noel Coward’s wholly conventional Nude with Violin, first performed shortly after, attracted bigger, if less intellectual, audiences.

Angry young women were fewer, or anyway less visible and celebrated. Women’s campaigning for equality was weaker than in the 1920s and 1930s, but it had not disappeared. In 1955 women in the civil service, local government and teaching gained equal pay for which they had campaigned for decades. Hopes that the private sector would follow were not fulfilled. In Women’s Two Roles (1956) Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein showed that women lacked equal work opportunities. They demanded more training for older women returning to paid work, extended maternity leave, better child care and shorter working hours for both parents – foreshadowing the Women’s Liberation campaigns after 1968. It seems that the 1950s was not quite the dull, grey decade often depicted.

History facts: 1950–1999

Average life expectancy at birth: 1950, 73 (male), 80 (female); 2000, 83 (male), 87 (female)

Unemployment: 1950 1.5%; 1970 3.0%; 1982 13.0%; 1990 6.7 %; 2000 4.0%

Percentage of 18–21 year olds in higher education: 1954 5.8; 1970 13.0; 1990 17.0; 2000 35.0

Cinema admissions: 1950 1,396m; 1970 193m; 1990 79m; 1999 134m

Housing (% owner occupied): 1951 29.6; 1971 50.1; 2000 67.8

Housing (% local authority rental): 1952 18.6; 1972 30.4; 2000 16.5

Key years : other important events in the second half of the 20th century

1960 – ‘Supermac’ visits South Africa. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan tells the South African parliament that “a wind of change is blowing through the continent” and Reverend Trevor Huddleston establishes the British anti-apartheid movement, yet this doesn’t stop police killing 67 Africans at an anti-apartheid meeting at Sharpeville. The dawn of the 1960s also saw an increase in Cold War tensions, partly due to the shooting down of a US U2 spy plane over the USSR. That same year, in the face of a growing anti-nuclear movement, Britain got its first Polaris missile base.

1964 – Wilson wins the General Election. After 13 long years in the wilderness Labour, led by Harold Wilson, returned to government with a majority of just four seats. Yet it wasn’t all plain sailing for Wilson. Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker was defeated in Smethwick in an election campaign dogged by allegations of racism. In fact, the battle for the Smethwick seat was so bitter that Wilson described the eventual victor Peter Griffiths as a “parliamentary leper”. Elsewhere, United States aircraft attacked North Vietnam, beginning the Vietnam War.

1968 – Anti-war marches spark violence. Four years of increasingly bloody conflict in Vietnam led to a series of huge anti-war demonstrations in cities across the world. London’s march centred around the home of the US ambassador to Britain on Grosvenor Square, and culminated in clashes between the protesters and police. Catholic demonstrations for civil rights in Derry, Northern Ireland, also descended into violence when the protesters were attacked by police. The incident marked the beginning of sectarian conflict in the province.

1973 – Britain joins the EEC. Prime Minister Edward Heath finally took Britain into Europe after two previous applications to join (in 1963 and 1967) were rejected by the French president De Gaulle. There was bloodshed in London at that time as the IRA bombed the city centre. These attacks accompanied the first elections for the new Northern Ireland assembly. Meanwhile, an increase in petrol prices sparked an international economic crisis, bringing the “Golden Age” to an end.

1979 – Economic gloom descends. As the decade neared its end, Britain found itself in the grip of the “Winter of discontent”, marked by crippling strikes, the “Three-day week” and growing unemployment. This spelt disaster for Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, and he was replaced by Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

1982 – The Falklands War. On 2 April 1982, Britain was rocked by the news that Argentinian forces had seized the Falkland Islands, ending 150 years of British rule. A task force of over 100 ships and 27,000 personnel was hastily dispatched and wrestled control of the island from Argentinian dictator General Galtieri in a conflict that cost hundreds of lives. Hostilities formally ceased on 20 June, by which time Galtieri had resigned.

1989 – The end of the Cold War. The USSR’s policy of glasnost (openness) inspired risings against Communist leadership in Eastern Europe. Mass movements through the Iron Curtain culminated in Berliners destroying the wall that had divided the city since 1961. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie alleging anti-Islamic blasphemy in his Satanic Verses. British Muslims demonstrated against Rushdie. High unemployment and a growing AIDS crisis afflicted Britain.

1997 – Tony Blair wins by a landslide. The Labour Party, led by Tony Blair, ended 18 years of Conservative rule with victory in the general election. One of Blair’s first acts as prime minister was to join forces with US President Clinton to persuade the IRA to act as a political party rather than a fighting force. Blair’s first few months in office were also marked by the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris. Diana’s death caused a remarkable outpouring of national grief. Blair went on to be Labour’s longest-serving prime minister.

1999 – First elections for Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are held. Also, the minimum wage was introduced this year. The Metropolitan Police was accused of institutional racism in an enquiry into the 1983 death of Stephen Lawrence. In politics, the number of hereditary peers allowed to participate in the work of the House of Lords was reduced to 92. Abroad, British forces entered Kosovo as part of a NATO force.

More turning points in British history

Go back: 1916: The long march to modernity

Pat Thane is professor of contemporary British history, and Director of the Centre for Contemporary British History, Institute of Historical Research, University of London. Her books include The Foundations of the Welfare State, published by Longman (1996)

Further reading: Twentieth Century British Political Facts, 1900–2000 by David Butler and Gareth Butler (Macmillan, 2000); Twentieth Century British Social Trends by AH Halsey and Josephine Webb eds (Macmillan, 2000); Cassell’s Companion to Twentieth Century Britain by Pat Thane (Cassell, 2001); Land of Hope and Glory. Britain, 1900–1990 by Peter Clarke (Penguin, 1996); One World Divisible: a Global History since 1945 by David Reynolds (Penguin History, 2000)

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This article was first published in the November 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine

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