The Festival of Britain was a “tonic for the nation” in the last age of austerity, a series of events in London (with a touring exhibition), intended to usher in a new world of modernity and abundance – often with a socialist slant. The Skylon and its demolished nearby structures – the Dome of Discovery, Sea and Ships, Power and Production or the Telekinema – or the Royal Festival Hall, the survivor, symbolised the embattled optimism of the postwar Labour government; a road not travelled politically as much as architecturally. Its buildings, influenced by Swedish Modernism, imagined Britain as a northern European social democratic country, not a mid-Atlantic one. A place comfortable with modern architecture, modernity and material production, rather than the Americanised, deindustrialised mess we put up with. It was as much a monument of the era as the NHS, universal benefits or nationalised industries, and faced a similar fate.
It is ironic that the festival is being revived under the coalition, as the original buildings – save for the more permanent Festival Hall – were wantonly smashed when the Tories miraculously won the 1951 election, despite Labour winning a still unprecedented 49% of the popular vote. Churchill called it “three-dimensional socialist propaganda” – and it was. Yet there’s a deeper reason for the two to coincide.
My historical research interests are wide and varied, and I’ve always been interested in the Festival of Britain. My father had the guide book, which enthralled me as a child. I still have it here. Best Beloved went to the exhibition, too. Milton Keynes — the village, not the new town — won an award for being pretty during the wider national festivities of 1951. I am too young by a good 20 years to have been there.
The fact the 60th anniversary is being held at all is a measure of the impact the original festival had at the time. What is worrying is how inept the revival looks like it will be.