Much like the 1950s

David Edgar

  • White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook
    Little, Brown, 878 pp, £22.50, August 2006, ISBN 0 316 72452 1
  • Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook
    Abacus, 892 pp, £19.99, May 2006, ISBN 0 349 11530 3

Early in 1982, at the nadir of the fortunes of the first Thatcher government, a number of ministers sought to identify the causes of the riots that had erupted in British cities the previous summer. On 27 March, the prime minister herself blamed events in Brixton and Toxteth not on economic or political forces but on a decade. ‘We are reaping what was sown in the 1960s,’ she announced. ‘Fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint were denigrated.’

Happily for the government, General Galtieri was already planning his April invasion of the Falkland Islands. However, the idea that the indulgences of the 1960s were to blame for the pathologies of the 1980s had been established. As Dominic Sandbrook points out in Never Had It So Good, the first volume of his monumental history of Britain since 1956, big guns like Norman Tebbit continued to lambast ‘the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of the third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the 1960s’. Three years later, Thatcher blamed the 1960s for ‘“the block mentality: tower blocks, trade-union block votes, block schools” and the insidious cult of “breaking the rules”’.

In the introduction to his second volume, White Heat, Sandbrook assures his readers that he has tried to avoid ‘the predictable and tiresome ritual’ of either demonising or romanticising the 1960s. This implies that he doesn’t have an argument, which is far from the case. But however partial they end up being, his 1500 pages turn with speed. Set pieces such as the 1963 Conservative leadership crisis, the 1966 World Cup final and the 1970 general election are extremely well done and exciting to read, even for those who remember who won. His treatment of major political figures is untypically nuanced: both Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson escape the caricature that popular history has handed down. He writes effectively about the ins and outs of economic policy, charting the complex conflicts between One Nation Toryism and incipient neoliberalism during the Macmillan administration, and presenting a convincing justification for Wilson’s delay in devaluing the pound. His sense of social detail is acute, as he reports Alec Douglas-Home’s doomed attempts to be trendy (he announced in a 1964 election speech that his party ‘is delivering the goods and it goes places and it will never, I promise you, get stuck in the mud’) and reveals that Edward Heath was probably the first leader of his party to have fitted carpets. White Heat contains a comprehensive collection of George Brown stories, although the best one remains the incident when the worse-for-wear foreign secretary was rejected by a gorgeously attired Peruvian whom he had approached for a dance at a diplomatic reception, on the grounds that he was drunk, the music being played was the Peruvian national anthem, and his prospective partner was the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima. There are some heart-tugging moments, too. The discovery that Alf Ramsey took elocution lessons and described his parents as living ‘in Dagenham, I believe’ doesn’t devalue the power of his exhortation to an exhausted England team about to play extra time: ‘You’ve won the World Cup once. Now go out and win it again.’

Sandbrook’s touch is sure on those cultural areas which are clearly to his taste (from Philip Larkin via James Bond to Dad’s Army); his own affections lead him to spot nostalgia in places you wouldn’t immediately expect to find it. However, his tastes and affections contribute to a thesis which is in itself suspect, and whose generalities are argued with neither the precision nor the rigour which he brings to social, cultural and political specifics.

The thesis is that Britain changed much less in the 1960s than is generally argued (usually, by unspecified ‘historians’). Most accounts of the decade, Sandbrook states, ‘concentrate overwhelmingly on the activities of a relatively small, well-educated minority, usually people who were in their teens or twenties at the time and went on to become well-paid writers, journalists, publishers and so on’ (a minority that includes me). The much vaunted social and sexual changes of the period (including reforms of laws relating to homosexuality, abortion and divorce) were exaggerated in their extent and impact, limited in their reach (the pill was very slow to reach Hull), had their roots in earlier periods, or came to full fruition later on. The so-called permissive society provoked as much unease and anger as celebration, and the counterculture and the New Left had little lasting influence. Life at the end of the 1960s was much more like life in the early 1950s than is generally presumed, notably in the areas of popular culture and leisure activities, in which Britain remained doggedly committed to traditional tastes and pursuits. In summary,

the millions of people who passed through adolescence in the late 1950s and 1960s should not all be judged by the antics of a wealthy and well-educated minority, by the posturing of the most radical, by the violence of the most disaffected or by the promiscuity of the most wanton. The teenagers of the 1960s, after all, were also the estate agents, loss adjusters and car park attendants of the 1970s.

If this analysis is right, then Britain is a much more conservative and hidebound country than we thought, and if change in the 1960s was as glacial as Sandbrook suggests, then the prospects of addressing our current inequalities and prejudices (in an age of apprehension and fear) are bleak indeed.

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