Was 1956 the year that paved the way for modern Britain?

Was 1956 the year that changed Britain?

Was 1956 the year that changed Britain? - Credit: Archant

Daniel Wittenberg talks to historian Tony Russell, who is convinced that 1956 was a pivotal year of global dilemmas and domestic rebellion.

Sixty years ago now, Britain was approaching a period of global dilemmas and domestic rebellion.

The Conservative government, along with France, faced difficult decisions over military action in the Middle East, whilst a response was less forthcoming as the Russians reacted with force to events in their neighbouring countries.

Nationally, Britain launched a cultural attack on austerity, debated immigration and began to reassess its role in Europe. Sounds familiar? It is tempting to suggest that the politics of 1956 hardly seems to differ from the politics of today.

“It is almost as if we have learned nothing,” says Muswell Hill historian Tony Russell, whose new book recreates the tone and texture of 1956 to expose it as a defining year that heralded the modern era.

Six decades on from pivotal developments – such as the Suez Crisis, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the eruption of a revolutionary spirit amongst young people – the publication anticipates some pertinent anniversaries in 2016.

Yet, Russell and his co-author Francis Beckett, best known for his biographies of Tony Blair and Clement Attlee, avoid the extravagance of arguing that history is currently repeating itself, favouring the dictum of a seismic shift.

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“We view it as the year in which the world suddenly shifted gear,” Russell says eruditely. “More than a decade after the Second World War, the shadow it cast over a generation started to fade and people became more adventurous.

“1956, we believe, included more significant events than any of the surrounding years a decade in either direction. It was the end of post-war deference and the beginning of rebelliousness – and there are still pockets of that now.”

Through a single, seamless narrative, the authors turn the clock back for an immediate and evocative account of 1956, focus on the trendsetting political and cultural shifts that still influence society.

It is a story of shattering assumptions, which emphasises the almost simultaneous failures of Britain to occupy the Suez Canal zone and suppress the Soviet sphere in Hungary as uniquely numbing to the national self-consciousness.

A chilling foretaste of the Cold War and a game-changer in the British approach to foreign affairs, these geopolitical manoeuvres are presented as unnerving for the establishment: “We no longer ruled the world. We no longer secured the command of a vast empire. Our position was diminishing.”

Only coupled with the cultural advancement, centring upon the rock ‘n’ roll revolution and launch of independent television, however, does the extent of the twelve-month transformation emerge.

Older generations were as shocked by the incomprehensible behaviour of teenagers, relieved of post-war poverty and the duty of National Service, as they were unsettled by international conflicts.

Russell, who specialises in the history of popular music and writes obituaries of musicians for the Guardian, gleans a great deal about the social upheaval of 1956 from its radical compositions.

“Rock ‘n’ roll put an end to the cosy music business, previously ruled by the taste of mums and dads because they had been the only people with the money to buy records. There is nothing as ground-breaking in music as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley finding fame in the same year,” he reveals.

What distinguishes his latest book is the political expertise provided by Beckett, a journalist and contemporary historian, used alongside his knowledge of arts and entertainment. Together, they deliver a dynamic take on history, detailing both the national headlines and human reactions.

The synoptic account invites readers to draw parallels between politics and culture, such as the ever-growing presence of America in foreign affairs and music, and provokes questions about the relative significance of each field.

“You might argue that politics builds the house in which we live but culture decorates it,” Russell illustrates. “It doesn’t just decorate it. It fills the house with things which make life worth living.” Adopting this trope to describe Britain in 2016, it appears 1956 laid many of the foundations.

1956 is published by Biteback Press (£20)