How has Britain changed since the Queen's accession in 1952?
- Credit: PA
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. I discuss Kings and Queens a lot in this column, so I won’t be discussing that topic here today. But in what ways has the nation changed in the 70 years since February 1952?
Britain was in some ways, fundamentally the same. We were still a parliamentary democracy. We had a Conservative Government led by Winston Churchill, which had been elected narrowly the previous October. People went to work, children went to school, people went to the shops just as they do today. But there were many differences too. Many, many differences.
70 years after the war, rationing was still in place in Britain. Money was different: decimalisation was still 20 years away. 240 pence still made up a pound. The death penalty still existed. Two men were hanged in Britain in February 1952. 25 were hanged during the course of the year. Homosexuality was still illegal for men in 1952. Alan Turing, the father of modern computer science was amongst those convicted for homosexual acts in 1952. Turing, who had played a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages during the Second World War, committed suicide in 1955 at the age of 41.
We were different in other ways too. Today, barely anyone at all under the age of 80 has any memory of the Second World War. In 1952, virtually everyone had at least some memory of it with the exception of young children. Indeed, every adult age group included a significant proportion of men with a record of wartime military experience. Even many First World War veterans were still of working age. The Prime Minister, Opposition leader and the US president were amongst those who had all served in the Great War. Today, there are no veterans at all from the first conflict and only a dwindling number from the second, all of whom are at least in their 90s. But, chances are, in 1952, if you met a man of 30, 40, 50, 60 or even 70, any one of them might have had experience of wartime service. Indeed, there were a significant number of veterans from the 1899-1902 Boer War still alive then.
A large number of British military personnel were actively engaged in the Korean War in 1952. Around 14,000 men were deployed at the peak of the conflict and amongst them was the future film star, Michael Caine. A large number of them were drawn from the ranks of those who had been recruited through their National Service. The UK commitment occurred as a direct result of our joining NATO in 1949. We are still in NATO today although the Cold War is long over. In 1952, the USSR was still under the iron grip of Stalin who later died in March 1953. The space race had not yet begun: no dogs, monkeys or satellites had yet been sent into orbit let alone any humans.
Only 14% of households owned a TV set in 1952. There was only one channel. By the end of the decade, the number of people with TVs began to outnumber those without. Today, around 95% of households have a TV. Radio was still the dominant home entertainment medium. The Goon Show broadcast on the BBC Home Service was becoming extraordinarily popular. Some shows such as radio soap operas, The Archers, Woman’s Hour and Desert Island Discs which were broadcast then, are still broadcast today. UK cinema attendance was close to its all-time high at around 1,300 million admissions a year. This is around seven or eight times as high as it was in 2019.
With the possible exception of certain members of the Royal Family and the actress Joan Collins, nobody who was famous and alive then is famous and alive now.
In short, it was a different world.