The End of Austerity
End of Austerity: Overview
- Austerity, characterised by rationing and economic hardship, began to phase out in Britain post 1951.
- This period was followed by a prolonged economic boom with increased prosperity, tagged as the end of austerity.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the Conservative Government
- Harold Macmillan, the then Prime Minister under the Conservative government, famously asserted in 1957 that “most of our people have never had it so good”.
- The government maintained full employment, with around 98% of the population in work.
- Wage rates were increasing faster than prices for the first time in decades, allowing people to have a higher disposable income.
Economic Growth and Consumption
- There was steady economic growth and an increase in wages allowing people to own items previously considered luxuries like washing machines, refrigerators and television sets.
- Increased wages also meant that people had more money to spend on leisure activities, resulting in a ‘leisure boom’.
- Car ownership surged with one car for every five people by 1961, a drastic increase from one in 20 in 1951.
Declining Importance of Rationing and Austerity
- Rationing on almost all products ended by 1954, symbolising the end of austerity and ushering in a new era of consumption and affluence.
- Unprecedented housing boom took place, with millions of new homes being built throughout the decade.
The ‘Never Had It So Good’ Society
- The phrase “never had it so good” became emblematic of the end of austerity era; representing increased consumption, higher living standards and a sense of optimism pervading the society.
- Growth of the mass media, particularly television, played a significant role in shaping public perception and value system.
- The rise of the ‘teenager’ as a distinct demographic group with its own lifestyle and fashion also marked this era.
Impact on Social Class and Mobility
- The end of austerity era led to some changes in social mobility and class structure.
- More opportunities for higher education led to the expansion of a more affluent middle class.
- However, wealth and opportunities were not uniformly distributed across regions and classes. The North-South divide in wealth persisted, with South being more prosperous than de-industrialising North.
End of Austerity: Criticisms and Consequences
- Despite the general feeling of prosperity, critiques argue that this period also saw missed opportunities and a lack of adequate government planning.
- The government faced criticisms for failing to invest enough in infrastructure and industry, which would hurt Britain’s competitiveness in the long run.
- Historians continue to debate the legacy and impact of this era on British society and its economy today.