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Britain’s Social and Liberal Systems History


Compared to the 1970s, Britain’s social and liberal systems in the 1950s were retrogressive and did not address the building blocks of the society adequately. Hence, the systems to a larger extent, allowed less active participation of women in political and social welfare as well as in the labor market. The systems in the 1950s placed little emphasis on health and education. The education sector was far less developed as depicted by the limited number of schools and institutions of higher learning that existed. Though, the economy was affluent and resulted in better living standards, insufficient effort(s) by the regime, the Labor government, impacted minimally and eroded the gains in the social welfare of the people. Strangely, compared to the 1950s, the 1970s contributed greatly to both achievements and challenges in Britain. Despite an enhanced education system and profound recognition cum support of the role of women in social and political spheres, crises in the economy, the Youth culture and employment arenas, among others, became commonplace.

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This paper addresses the question: ways and why British society became more social and liberal in the1970s than in 1950s. The writer sets out to demonstrate that despite the challenges in the 1970s, the British society was more social and liberal than in the 1950s in aspects such as social welfare and health, the economy, housing, education, youth culture and women’s movements. This was aimed at improving the well-being of its people and embrace globalization.


Social Welfare and Health

The labor party provided a comprehensive form of social services for all British citizens in 1950s. Hennessy (2006) illustrates this system was essential for addressing and supporting various social problems such as illnesses and old age as well as creating equal opportunities among its citizens. The period was marked by the government’s liberalization of the social sector, where individuals were allowed to purchase services such as insurance. The social welfare package fixed by the government in 1950s was unique: it was made up of National Health Service, universal social insurance, state-supported housing and public education. Hennessy notes the National Insurance Act of 1946 helped to strengthen health service delivery in the 1950s (2006).

The Act created a contributory cum compensatory system, where people paid a flat rate to purchase insurance against those times when they could not find work. The National Assistance Act established in 1948 firmed the system into a more inclusive one by involving those who did not qualify for social insurance. The system was further strengthened in the 1970s when the Act was revised to adopt issues of the changing times. The revised act has continued to provide support for integrated services to date (Agh, 1998).

The Labor government introduced charges for patients seeking spectacles in the 1950s. It was followed in 1952 with charges on the debentures, prescriptions and dental treatments. These charges ran into opposition in 1970s. In 1975, the child Benefit Act was fixed. It substituted family stipends with the child and lone parent subsidy. However, not everything went smoothly as Thatcher’s government introduced new charges for eye tests in 1970s (Agh, 1998).

Godthorpe (1980) explains that In France, like in Britain, health care received liberal reformation in 1970s and then in 1950s. The France health system experience controls in capital expenditure and constructions. This was as a result of the Hospital Act implemented in 1970. The Act streamlined the hospital sector in matters such as population based delivery of services, planning procedures and the availability of efficient medical technologies. These measures were in contrast to those embraced in 1950s where hospital facilities were less organized. The government also increased its conventional price control on the daily charge in all public hospitals by imposing a total expenditure ceiling for public hospitals. Perhaps, this was used to restrain the use of medical care services (Hobsbawm, 1994).

The economy and its Challenges

According to Alford (1988), the year 1973 indicated the end of British economic austerity enjoyed in the 1950s. Unemployment, in Britain increased by 1 million by 1975. It was more than five percent of the workforce. By 1977, it had grown to 5.5 percent, and in 1979 it remained at 5.3 percent. This period was characterized by high inflation rate. Hence, this time was better described as a decade of economic crises. The UK witnessed unprecedented inflation and the government went bankrupt, requiring a global loan of $5000. The pace of overall economic growth suffered a significant decrease: between 1974 and 1975, the economy was tightened. This was unlike the 1950s when Britain was a prosperous society.

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An ordinary person had enough disposable income on luxuries. Consumer goods were available. By 1960, about 44% of households possessed a laundry machine. The rate of inflation was higher than in 1950s. This continued until 1983 when inflation begun to slow down. Alford (1988) argues that the economic crisis of the 1970s in Britain begun in the 1960s. It was characterized by a high rate of unemployment. According to Alford (1988), the government of the day was to blame for the crisis. The government placed more emphasis on the productive health of the economy; this was aimed at stabilizing the UK economy. On the other, Chick (1998) indicates that the basis of the economic downturn was a result of political misunderstanding between the ruling parties at the time.

The popularity of the government in the perception of its citizens declined and in 1979, the Conservatives won the elections with Margret Thatcher becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister. According to Chick (1998), Thatcher introduced significant measures to improve the British living standards. These included: a free market economy, a decrease in the welfare budget and encouraging people to help themselves rather than waiting for the government and other taxpayers to solve their problems (Frances and Cloward, 1993).

The period also marked a shift in priorities for the government from maintaining full employment to controlling inflation (Robbins, 1994). The modest reallocation of wealth and income attained in the 1970s was overturned by cuts in income tax and a trend to a more reverting form of indirect taxes through Value Added Tax. This was at variance with the 1950s where the people had excess disposable incomes.


The social policies in the 1950s left a lot to be desired in terms of the social welfare. During this era, poverty had disenfranchised and alienated the average British family. The healthcare system had failed to protect citizens, yet this was one of the fundamental rights of each and every citizen. During Margaret Thatcher’s reign, many people opted for local authority housing rather than private housing in which they were subjected to exploitation.

The 1970s saw a shrink in confidence as the ambitious housing projects undertaken by the local authorities and the government were faced with a myriad of challenges and technical mishaps. The post-war reconstructions were hampered by poor building of the houses and marked with constant increase of rents, which eroded the tenants’ confidence in the councils and the government. The 1970s also ushered in the championing of consumer rights and social welfare agitations to safeguard the interests and rights of tenants. The period also witnessed widespread rent strikes in Britain. Cities such as Glasgow, London, Liverpool and Sheffield attracted crowds venting their dissatisfaction and anger on the streets.

France served as another epicenter of the second world-war, and as a result, suffered a massive blow as far as housing was concerned in the 1950s. The post-war construction had placed enormous pressure on the French government to take necessary drastic measures to address the social menace of housing. The pressure on housing was catapulted mainly by immigrants and the native French citizens. In 1970s, France embarked on an ambitious plan to transform its cities through a comprehensive urbanization program. The program was to modernize the nation through infrastructure, which comprised mainly of housing. The French government also faced a fair share of bottlenecks, the chief of which were the immigrants from its colonies in North Africa.


In the1950s, the education system was not universal. It lacked various facilities. In addition, the schools were insufficient to absorb the rising population because of the baby boom of the time. Though, the school going children were supplied with free milk and in the 1950s, free milk initiatives were abandoned in the 1970s (Robbins, 1994). The 1970s saw secondary schools becoming universal, there was a growth of higher education, thus in the 1970s, there was a total of forty six universities and thirty polytechnics compared to only seventeen universities in the 1950s. Another improvement which had an impact on education was in 1973, the government raised the school leaving age to sixteen years (Robbins, 1994).

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Youth Culture

The 1970s was characterized with “punks” and “skinheads” throughout the decade. The youth were a separate entity. They were knit together by pop music and fashion. The Rock ‘n’ Roll music introduced by the Americans in the 1950s characterized the youth popular culture. Bands such as the Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, and the Beatles led to rebelliousness among the youth, in a new and marketable manner. That is, it gave them a taste of ritual and an iconic figure as well as an argument which was closed to their elders, to whom its charm and attraction stayed unknown. According to Cronin (1975), the onset of youth culture during this time coincided with the rise in what was known as the “permissiveness”.

The absolute liberation of the youth from parental control was perhaps because of permissiveness. This was attributed to various factors. Robbins (1994) illustrates the decline of Christianity as a major cause. Christianity loosened the grip of the Victorian morality on the mid class and the “respectable” working group (Cronin, 1975). The massive growth of institutions of higher learning took many young people away from their parents. This led to a new generation of students, the “revolutionaries”. They sought to accelerate the pace of social change, to destroy the capitalists whose prosperity and welfare state made it possible for them to attend the universities and to democratize the institutions of higher learning.

The youth doctrine was part of reserved personal preference, part of idealistic socialism and part of opposition to authority; it gained pace in 1970, in many sit-ins and protests. Another cause of permissiveness was the spread and improvement of contraception, which was introduced in the 1960s and had a significant effect on sexual behavior and attitudes. Also, affluence in itself gave all the people, young and old, exempt from the traditional discipline of economic survival and encouraged instant satisfaction of individual needs (Cronin, 1975). In the 1970s, the effects of permissiveness such as drugs, sex and crime were opened to all conventional Britons. Thus, in this period, about three-fifths of couples were embracing contraceptives and about twenty percent of married women were using the pill. In greater numbers, women assumed that sex was something for men to enjoy as well as something for them. The rate of premarital sex increased as the “sexual revolution” of the Western world occurred in Britain. The figures of illegitimate births shot up by sixty percent in 1970s.

Women Movements

According to Thane (1996) women were more vocal about feminist issues in the 1970s than in the 1950s.The majority of British feminists of the 1950s were linked to the New Left. Thus, it was viewed that the advances towards equality for women had not resulted into something successful. In the 1970s, many women felt that the sexual objectification and the society’s customs, and beliefs for women were also restraining. They determinedly tried to dislodge the profound cultural roots of their oppressions as females. They created strong actions against wife battering and rape (Thane, 1996). The leading British feminists were Germaine Greer and Doris Lessing. Greer was an able feminist activist. She argued that the new objective of the women’s movement was to be a revolution in gender relations. In the Female Eunuch (1970), Greer focused her anger into an attack on gender typecasts and the course of their social edifices (Hobsbawm, 1994). Greer contended that in a capitalist society, women were taught to be both the mighty spenders and emblems of liberal spending; thus, they were made into submissive and insensitive sex objects. On the other hand, Lessing wrote of the difficulties women faced in winning psychic wholeness in a society controlled by men. For her, liberation confirmed self-understanding and incorporating personality.


The British society achieved much in the 1970s as compared to the1950s. However, various challenges stood in its way of success. The economic crisis, which was a major global problem during the 1970s, affected its economy. The country experienced high inflation and unemployment rates among other challenges. This was in contrast in the 1950s, where the general living standards of people were high and people had extra income to dispose.

The education system gained much growth in the 1970s than in 1950s. There was an increase in institutions of higher learning and raising of the school going age to sixteen. This was in contrast to the1950s. During the 1950s, women were not active and were most inclined towards New Left ideologies. However, in the 1970s, the role of women assumed a new direction. Women were determined to displace the traditional myth that women were meant to be submissive. The active role of women was illustrated through Germaine Greer and Doris Lessing.


Agh, A., 1998. The Politics of Central and Eastern Europe, London, Sage.

Alford, B.W., 1988. British Economic Performance Since 1945, London, Macmillan.

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Chick, M., 1998. Industrial Policy In Britain, 1945-1951, Cambridge, Cambridge University press.

Cronin, C., 1975. Permissive Britain: Social Change in the Sixties and Seventies’, London, Pitman.

Frances, F. P., and Cloward, A., 1993. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, New York, Vintage Books.

Godthorpe, J.H., 1980. Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, Oxford, Clarendon press.

Hennessy, P., 2006. Having It So Good: Britain in the 1950s, London, Allen Lane.

Hobsbawm, E., 1994. The Age of Extremes – The short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, London, Michael Joseph.

Robbins, K., 1994. The Eclipse of a Great Power – Modern Britain 1870 – 1992. 2nd edition, London, Longman.

Thane, P., 1996. Foundations of the Welfare State. 2nd edition, London, Longman.

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