In 1851, the world had come to the magnificent new glass structure of the Crystal Palace, to the Great Exhibition, when Britain was the ‘Workshop of the World’.
During the Second World War, the Royal Society of Arts suggested a sequel: why not do the same in 1951? After the war, the new Labour government had an over-riding economic objective: exports, and the dollars they earned. This was also born of a genuine optimism, which did not prove misplaced, that Britain was the great exporting nation, and a great innovator: in 1949, the British de Havilland Comet became the world’s first commercial jetliner to be tested. Britain, went the message, was open, at the cutting edge, and open for business.
That was, emphatically, a government message, one sold in the Britain Can Make It exhibition of 1946.
By 1948, the government had enthusiastically looked to the ten idea of a national festival to celebrate all that Britain could do, aimed at boosting morale at home, and sales abroad.
It was centred on the run down South Bank of London, and was cantered on technology and the arts. Then, as now, the arts acted as a way in which people were drawn to the site.
But it went well beyond London. A portable Land Travelling Exhibition toured the major cities, but the government also gave money for local celebrations (mostly centred around the arts).
And here in The Observer’s film of the event.
Did it matter politically? probably not. In the same year, Labour lost an election, but they polled their highest ever share of the popular vote. But Britain was not old, nor past it. it was modern, artistically creative, and still the workshop that produced one in four of the manufactured goods of the world.