Queen Elizabeth II's 70 years of tumultuous economic change

The UK may not be as powerful as when she ascended the throne, but it remains in a good place

Britain was a manufacturing and trading colossus in the 1950s, when Queen Elizabeth II became the nation's monarch, with shipbuilding one of its preeminent industries. PA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Had she seen out the rest of this year, Queen Elizabeth II would have witnessed her country pass a milestone that was scarcely believable at the outset of her reign.

The British monarch, whose father was King Emperor of the sub-continent, has died as India is set to overtake the UK in terms of economic might.

India was only just an independent nation, having freed itself from British rule, when the queen ascended to the throne in 1952. Seventy years on and the country will, later this year, officially become the world’s fifth-largest economy. Britain slips to sixth, although some economists maintain its real ranking is eighth.

Back in 1952, it was an indisputable third, behind the US and Soviet Union. As a further show of strength, the UK joined the superpowers that year as a nuclear power.

Britain was a manufacturing and trading colossus. Coal mining, shipbuilding, heavy engineering, car-making, textiles: the list of activities, and mass employment providers, that dominated the country’s industrial heartlands of the north of England and the West Midlands, went on. Many of them were state-owned.

The docks in Liverpool, Southampton and the East End of London, were in full swing, mostly receiving and sending vessels to and from what was still a formidable, if creaking, British Empire.

Everywhere there was building, as a people ravaged by war and sustained bombing, embarked on recovery. Vast areas of the urban population had to be rehoused, and councils seized the opportunity to condemn the Victorian-era slums that blighted so many towns and cities.

Motorways were coming, and the new National Health Service and welfare state demanded the construction of hospitals, clinics, offices. School buildings, too. Britain was buzzing with activity.

For all that, times were hard. Rationing of some staple foods continued to apply and dual-income families were not commonplace. Having been employed during the years of conflict in a variety of sectors from armaments to agriculture, women found they were no longer required, as industries returned to being almost exclusively male.

It may have had a female head of state but Britain afforded few opportunities for women who sought rising career paths. A woman in a top job was a rarity. Females made up a third of the workforce, but they were often in posts that offered little prospect of meaningful advancement. In 2022, the gender split is roughly 50-50, and women have risen to the most powerful positions, such as prime minister, on three occasions.

Then, university graduates were predominantly male; today, females account for the majority of those studying for first degrees.

Much of the shift was due to enlightenment. Similarly, in 1952, divorcees and single-parent families struggled for acceptance. Not any more. In 2021, most births were to unmarried parents.

Great social changes, that led to a decline in church attendance, legalisation of abortion and homosexuality and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, played their part. The economy was responsible, too, as large-scale manufacturing waned and disappeared entirely in many places. This was replaced by more female-conducive service industries at which, incidentally, Britain excels.

From sitting at the pinnacle of an imperial domain that went right around the globe, Britain has had to come to terms with not only the loss of its colonies, but also the rise of new economic forces: globalisation and digitalisation.

China's proxy UK manufacturer status

Where once it faced no or little competition, Britain must fight for every gain. Asia, particularly China (now number two in the economic chart), continues to flex its considerable muscle. Once, for instance, the iconic British sports car, the MG, was made near Oxford. Today’s electric MG is produced in China.

For a long period, membership of the EU and having a free trade bloc on the doorstep, compensated for the diminishing empire. But that has gone, and the Britain of 2022 feels very much alone, having to find and strike trade deals. Several of them, ironically, have been made with countries that in 1952 were completely under its purview.

The economy, for all that, is transformed — five times bigger than in 1952. Productivity, however, has slipped and defies repeated efforts at improvement.

It’s a more crowded country, with many additional mouths to feed. When the queen succeeded her father in 1952, the total British population was 50.4 million. Today, it’s 68.3 million. Much of that rise has come in the last three decades as net immigration has increased.

Queen Elizabeth timeline - in pictures

There are more people, then, and they’re living longer. Once they hit 70, men and women in 2022 can both expect to live seven years longer than in 1952.

But, by and large, they’re richer, enjoying comfier lifestyles. Public ownership has given way to privatisation. Collective transport on buses and trains has been supplemented and surpassed by individually owned and driven cars. Council housing has declined, in favour of private housing (and with it, the advent and establishment of attendant industries wholly devoted to home improvements). Restaurants and fast-food outlets are on every high street. We’re also eating healthier and more varied foods ―thanks in part to quicker transport links ― imported from overseas.

In 1952, the average house price was less than £2,000 ($2,311) ― which is equivalent to £60,000 today. Currently, the average house is worth £274,000, says the Nationwide Building Society (let’s not forget, either, as pounds are cited how the currency switched ― from shillings and pence to decimal).

For much of the queen’s reign, average wages in the UK outstripped inflation. They didn’t after the financial crisis of 2008 and they may not do so again this year, as double-digit inflation hits.

Trade unions, once so dominant during nationalisation, saw their influence recede during the Margaret Thatcher years. In 2022, against a backdrop of rising cost of living, they’re making their presence felt, threatening national strikes.

Having experienced high taxes at different stages in the Queen Elizabeth II period, the UK, during and post the Thatcher premiership, became used to low taxation and market forces supplanting public intervention. Gradually, though, higher taxes have returned. The response to Covid and the 2022 fuel shortage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have prompted government measures that, while designed to be beneficial to the bulk of UK citizens, must be paid for.

A recession looms. There’s a strong sense, however, of being here before, of having overcome peril and prospered. During seven decades, Britain’s economy withstood oil shocks, the Suez crisis, the Falklands War, the devaluation of sterling, the exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM)… again, it’s a long roll call.

It may not be as powerful as it once was, but Britain remains in a good place.

Published: September 14, 2022, 12:10 PM
OPINION