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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > From Solving Problems to Selling Product > Context > Social Reform 1930-1950
 
CONTEXT – SOCIAL REFORM 1930-1950

Up until the outbreak of war in 1939, British society had retained a rigid class structure, with the educated middle and upper classes tending to believe in their own moral and cultural superiority over the working classes. Proper models of behaviour were seen to emanate from this section of society, including correct pronunciation, table manners, appropriate dress and even the courting of wedding partners. With few exceptions, the holders of power and authority came from an upper class background and had a public school education. They saw themselves as the guardians of culture, and those lower down the social order seldom questioned their position. It was a social and cultural hierarchy that was largely self-policed, with members of different classes rarely willing or able to move to alternative social groupings. It was expected that people would conform to the values of their peer group, and any attempt to transcend this hierarchy was restricted by social convention.
 
The Second World War
 
The experience of the Second World War was to have a profound effect on the way British people saw themselves, both in terms of their role in society and in the expectations they had of their own quality of life.

Even though Britain’s involvement in the war resulted in great hardships, it also led to many positive changes in British society. Through its efforts to win the war, the country experienced a powerful sense of unity. The government, realising the importance of morale in sustaining the war effort, actively encouraged this feeling through its own propaganda campaigns. Above all, there was a general belief that after the war Britain would be a better place. In spite of the sacrifices made to sustain the war effort, the population was confident that Britain would eventually see full employment, a universal education system, social welfare, a national health service, and redesigned and modernised towns and cities – all the social amenities that had been lacking for the majority of people before the war.

This momentum for social reform resulted in a surprise Labour landslide victory in 1945, at the first post-war general election. Labour had spelt out their intentions in their manifesto, Let us face the future, and it captured the mood of the nation perfectly. They promised:
 
The establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – freely democratic, efficient, progressive, public spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people.
 
Out of necessity, many of the nation’s utilities and resources had already been nationalised during the war to allow centralised control and planning. The rationing of food, clothing and other luxury goods had become a way of life. As a consequence of rationing, commodities had for the first time been distributed on the basis of need, rather than wealth. Ironically, for many less well off families, there was an improvement in their diet during the war years. For the most part, rationing continued until 1948, with the availability of some items remaining controlled until 1954.
 
Post-war Cultural Values

Labour extended the policy of state intervention into peacetime, with the establishment of a National Coal Board, a British Railways Board, an Electricity Board, a Gas Board, and the creation of the National Health Service. The net effect of these policies was a society that became used to central controll by a paternalistic government. In spite of these changes, the values espoused by the new socialist government still sprang from the same power base as the inter-war period, with a powerful professional middle class maintaining their position of authority. Thus, in many areas of life, the cultural values of pre-war society remained unchanged. The division between High Culture (classical music, opera, theatre, fine art, literature and architecture) and mass culture (popular music, cinema, pulp fiction and commercial television) remained largely intact, and tended to reflect class-based differences. It was only by the late 1950s and 1960s that these views began to be questioned and that powerful cultural changes began to sweep across British society.

To see how these wider social conditions are reflected in the British design industries follow the link to Design Reformers. To see how these wider social and cultural attitudes changed in the following decades follow the link to Cultural Revolution.
 
Mini Assignment

What is class? Prepare a short statement (around 500 words) discussing how class is defined. It should include considerations of income, education, occupation, leisure activity, taste, etc.

The following texts have useful sections defining class. You should be able to find other reference sources by searching your university library catalogue:

Robert Bocock, Consumption, Routledge, London, 1993
Gary Day. Class, Routledge, London, 2001
Peter Lloyd Jones, Taste Today; The Role of Appreciation in Consumerism and Design, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1991