Citizens had to adjust to Britain’s new place in the changing world order. Before the war, the British Empire still enjoyed enormous influence around the world; now its power began to decline. In 1945, the United Nations was established to bring world countries together to work in peace and cooperation; though Britain was a leader in the U.N., it no longer dominated world affairs. Britain gave up control of India and Pakistan in 1947. The Suez Crisis of 1956 resulted in a U.N. ruling that forced withdrawal from Egypt—an embarrassing blow to Britain’s international status. Meanwhile, the United States and the U.S.S.R. were emerging as the world’s superpowers, and their escalating Cold War meant that people everywhere lived with the daily threat of nuclear annihilation.
On the home front, the rigid class structure was challenged. The demand for social reform put the Labour Party into power, and its leaders enacted social programs that would establish a new “Welfare State” in Britain. Welfare did not just mean help for the poor; it was a promise of security for all people “from cradle to grave.” The central government or local authorities were to provide basic living needs—well-paid jobs, education, comprehensive health care, and insurance coverage. Private industries like the coalmines and the railway system came under national control. The Education Act of 1944 guaranteed free secondary schooling for all citizens. Several new “red-brick” universities were created for working-class students—a radical difference from the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge that were accessible only to the upper class.
All of these changes promised more equality, opportunity and visibility for Britain’s working classes than ever before.
Within a few years however, enthusiasm over the new Welfare State faded. Social programs proved costly, and the benefits most people received were disappointing. Britain’s economy struggled after the war; the promise of prosperity and comfort was deferred. Rationing of food supplies, enacted during the war, remained in force until 1954, due to a shortage of food supplies—in some cases, postwar rations were more severe than during the war.
Although the economy improved in the 1950s, strong class divisions remained and a more equitable society failed to emerge. A new class of “educated proletariat” graduated from the universities and found no opportunities for meaningful work. These young people had a better understanding of the class system that oppressed them for centuries – but no idea of how to improve it.
Look Back in Anger plays at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre/Laura Pels Theatre January 13, 2012 through April 8, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Look Back in Anger, Upstage