When they look back at the 20th century, future historians may well view the 1950s as its least typical decade. Peacetime full employment and steady economic growth may be seen as aberrations in a century characterised by recession, unemployment and military conflict. Yet today there is a tendency — of which both political right and left have been guilty — wilfully to misrepresent the 1950s. Conservatives indulge in a mythologising, idealising, ‘reinvention of tradition’ process, whereby that period is portrayed as a laissez-faire paradise before the 1960s ushered in permissiveness and a welfare explosion. The left have been equally guilty of depicting the 1950s as a time of Butskellite torpor, in which social policy issues were little discussed. According to this scenario, the social work profession is said to have been paralysed by a mindless ‘psychiatric deluge’ mentality; poverty remained undiscovered; substantial class and gender inequalities in access to good secondary education were tolerated; and the National Health Service complacently ignored all those important issues that were to come back and haunt it in the 1980s and 1990s.

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