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.

In order to downgrade the importance of change, Sandbrook draws frequently on opinion polls and other statistical sources, particularly attendance and viewing figures for events whose popularity or otherwise buttress his arguments. To support his claim that the television satire boom of the early 1960s was nothing more than a brief ‘vogue’, he points out that the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was was watched by a quarter of the upper class but less than 20 per cent of the working class, a statistic which looks less dramatic when you work out the difference between a quarter and 20 per cent. The comfortingly conservative Dixon of Dock Green’s regular television audience of 13 million suggested ‘that many viewers still preferred nostalgia and reassurance’ to the ‘grittiness and realism’ of programmes like Z Cars; nonetheless, Z Cars peaked at 17 million viewers and, with its sequel, Softly Softly, ran for 13 years. Similarly, the success of the reassuringly nostalgic and comforting Forsyte Saga (watched by a third of the population) can be trumped (if trumping is what you have in mind) by Ken Loach’s proverbially gritty Cathy Come Home, whose total viewing audience comfortably exceeded it, again by around four million. Warning sternly against inflating the World Cup victory into ‘a national triumph to set alongside Trafalgar and Waterloo’, Sandbrook points out (correctly) that tens of millions had no interest in football and failed to watch the game. Still, the 1966 final remains the most watched programme in British television history (Princess Diana’s funeral comes second), and if England’s victory was not an overwhelming national event, it’s hard to imagine what one might look like, outside total war.

Sandbrook’s judgments are as slippery as his statistics. In one paragraph, ‘it is easy to exaggerate the impact of fashion in the 1960s’; in the next, fashion ‘genuinely became more important in the 1960s’ as (among other things) ‘a powerful metaphor for wider social and cultural changes’. Interest in pop music and football is held to be inflated (‘young people spent more time in their bedrooms or at church youth clubs than they did at rock festivals or on the football terraces’), but is also cited as mass popular entertainment to trump the bohemian counterculture. Keen to challenge stereotypical views of what the majority of the population was like, Sandbrook is happy to caricature minorities of which he disapproves: pale duffel-coated students read Kerouac, smoke Gauloises and ponder the world’s iniquities; devotees of the ‘alternative society’ are attracted to jazz, ‘impenetrable poetry’ and arthouse films; while ‘insufferably precious’ folk-singers celebrate the Tolpuddle Martyrs and wear Aran sweaters (CND activists, too, are damned by their knitwear). Nowhere is it acknowledged that it was possible to watch both Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars, to spend time both in your bedroom and on the football terraces, to campaign for peace and shop at Biba, to smoke Gauloises and listen to the Searchers.

All of Sandbrook’s rhetorical armoury is deployed during his frequent and often insightful references to the Beatles. Sometimes the band are a minority taste (‘a large proportion of the population . . . remained completely indifferent to their music’), sometimes their majoritarian populism is used as a stick to beat the avant-garde (by contrast to New Wave cinema, A Hard Day’s Night ‘broke all records for a pop musical’). Warning that the Beatles were ‘never universally or unconditionally popular’, Sandbrook cites their debt to British comedy and musical tradition as ‘an excellent example of the underlying continuity of British cultural life’. Now Abbey Road (apparently their biggest selling LP) is being outsold by The Sound of Music; now Sergeant Pepper is alternating with Abbey Road for seven months at the top of the LP charts. Reputedly baffling and confusing to many, Sergeant Pepper nonetheless proves that ‘for musical range, lyrical dexterity and cultural awareness’, the Beatles were unmatchable (‘no other group better captured the sound and spirit of the 1960s’). Two prevalent Beatles myths are reiterated (it was all down to George Martin, and all downhill from the White Album); and it’s no surprise that Sandbrook prefers McCartney to Lennon. But although, yes, transcendental meditation was ‘never especially popular in the back streets of Bolton’, Indian mysticism was certainly of a lot more interest (and influence) after the Beatles had taken it up, even in the North-West. And while Lennon had his self-indulgent and self-pitying side, and may well have said, ‘I like to write about me’ (as opposed to the outgoing McCartney), we are after all talking about the man who wrote ‘Revolution’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and ‘Imagine’.

If his desire to steer an even course between contradictory judgments leads Sandbrook to hedge his bets on fashion, football and the Fab Four, no such mixed messages are present when he turns to those forces of social, cultural and political opposition whose influence he seeks not so much to play down as to write off. With one notable exception, he believes, no campaign which sought seriously to challenge the status quo in 1960s Britain was successful in its ambitions or even worthy in its aims. The largest campaign of the 1950s, CND, was ‘a movement rooted in the leafy suburbs of the middle class’, which never seized the imagination of a majority who had ‘better things to worry about’ than the prospect of nuclear annihilation. The purpose of the Committee of 100 (which introduced direct action techniques to Britain and whose leaders were jailed for conspiring to enter US airbases) was merely ‘to arrange outings and day trips for the stars of the British New Wave’. The films of that New Wave (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving, This Sporting Life, Billy Liar, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner) quickly blended into ‘one enormous working-class blur’. The satire boom is dismissed once again: on grounds of its durability (‘could not sustain itself’) and its material (‘typically unfunny’). Neither very revolutionary nor popular with audiences, the 1956 upheaval in British theatre had little effect ‘on the lives of millions of people much more comfortable with bowls, gardening and the Daily Mirror’.

But Sandbrook’s insistence in Never Had It So Good that ‘most theatre historians now agree that Look Back in Anger was not really a revolution after all, that the theatre of the early 1950s was actually much more satisfying than the drama of the New Wave’ is based on just two sources (‘most’ theatre historians think nothing of the kind). In support of his argument that the new theatre was commercially unpopular, he cites the supposed failure of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal at Stratford East to gain a working-class audience, ignoring the considerable popular success of Littlewood shows like Make Me an Offer, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’ Be and Oh! What a Lovely War in the West End. Of course there were examples of avant-garde plays which didn’t go down well, and John Arden’s Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance was a notorious box-office disaster. But Arnold Wesker’s Roots (which is cited as having disappointing ticket sales in its first run) did capacity business on its revival alongside the other two plays in the trilogy. And Look Back in Anger itself was an immediate television hit, a successful movie and was brought back four times at the Royal Court before being produced on Broadway. Once it found a producer who didn’t insist on textual changes, it was also presented in the West End. Sandbrook is right that the play didn’t have as many performances as the musical Charlie Girl, but the allegation, supported by highly selective examples, that ‘the celebrated plays of the late 1950s were rarely very popular with audiences’ is fallacious.

And then there’s the New Left, whose 1957 foundation is noted in two lines of Never Had It So Good, before Sandbrook moves on to blame it for Sartre-reading students and generally sneers at it. It ‘talked a great deal about the plight of ordinary people’, he tells us, but ‘never really appealed to those it sought to defend’; and most of its writings were ‘didactic, abstract and often rather impenetrable’. In alliance with others, however, the New Left became a leading element in a genuine popular movement. Sandbrook takes the view that the Vietnam War, despite consistent opinion poll hostility to it, never mattered very much to the British: ‘the prospect of British involvement in Vietnam was still very far from voters’ minds as they enjoyed the last summer days of 1965.’ By 1968, as polls continued to show ‘widespread public opposition’ to the war, that opposition still ‘did not really appeal to the electorate at large’. In October 1968, ‘thousands of young people had marched through London, but then most of them simply went home’ as ‘the revolution went out of fashion.’ On the following page, at least some of these fashion-conscious go-homers are engaging in protests and marches ‘everywhere from the universities of Essex and Leicester to the Regent St Polytechnic and the Holborn College of Law and Commerce’. When this movement spreads to Hornsey College of Art, the ‘best glimpse of public opinion’ is provided by hostile editorials in the Daily Telegraph and the Wood Green, Southgate and Palmers Green Weekly Herald.

Sandbrook’s most substantial charge against the British antiwar and student movements is that they were an ersatz creation, copying ‘the style of American protest movements because they thought they were fashionable’. In fact, the British antiwar movement drew on the experience of the American antiwar movement (as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association drew on the civil rights movement in the American South), not because it was fashionable but because it was politically innovative and markedly successful. Freed earlier and more substantially than the British intellectual and student left from the dead weight of Communist orthodoxy, the American equivalent was able to enter into an alliance with disenfranchised Southern blacks which effectively desegregated the South in the decade following Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955. Aided and abetted by the draft system, the student arm of that movement formed the backbone of the antiwar campaign which brought down one president (in 1968) and arguably destroyed his successor six years later, having turned public opinion against the war and eventually made its successful propagation impossible. Certainly, British supporters of the antiwar cause (and of civil rights) looked across the Atlantic and drew inspiration from what was going on there.

Britain’s New Left made a significant contribution to the renewal of the international left in the late 1960s. Sandbrook briefly acknowledges that what he labels ‘the so-called New Left’ was founded by disillusioned Communists, and that one of its characteristics was that it paid attention to aspects of life that went beyond the left’s traditional concern with economic management. What he doesn’t do is draw a line between the New Left expansion of the political and the movements that were to emerge out of the late 1960s, or connect the thinking of Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Stuart Hall et al with other strains of thought that also challenged the accepted borders between the political and the personal. So, while Sandbrook has considerable fun with the chaotic Albert Hall poetry festival of June 1965 (the poetry mostly ‘impenetrable piffle’, the event ‘the most famous example of the countercultural “happenings” of the mid-1960s’), he doesn’t mention the (equally chaotic) Dialectics of Liberation Congress of July 1967, at which Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, Allen Ginsberg and Stokely Carmichael were brought together not by a university or a political party but by a group of dissident psychiatrists living in a commune in London’s East End. The role of R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry movement in laying the groundwork for the politics of personal identity has tended to be underestimated, not least because of the subsequent history of its most noted proponents. But Sandbrook is supposed to be telling us how the 1960s were, and you really can’t do that without outlining Laing’s critique of conventional psychiatry and the nuclear family, a critique posed in a series of books and popularised in novels, television plays and films. Sandbrook names one of his chapters after Richard Neville’s Play Power, which (so he claims) gave rise to very little. He doesn’t mention Laing’s The Divided Self, which made a major contribution to the personalising of the political, and thus to the most potent and lasting 1960s movement of all.

Which is why Sandbrook’s chapter on women is such a surprise. True, it’s called ‘Desperate Housewives’, and begins by questioning the presumption that the role of homemaker was necessarily trivial or unsatisfying (even though the number of married women going out to work increased from one in five to almost one in two in twenty years). But when he moves on to feminism, suddenly, like clouds parting, the inverted commas and the ‘so-calleds’ disappear. Acknowledging that it is possible for a movement to arise both out of and in opposition to its progenitor, Sandbrook explains how the women’s liberation movement was largely founded by New Left women furious with the practice of its male leaders, quickly mushroomed into seventy-odd groups, drew strength from the efforts of working-class women, contributed to the passage of the 1970 Equal Pay Act and held its first national conference at Ruskin College, before coming to popular attention with the publication of The Female Eunuch and the disruption of the 1970 Miss World contest at the Albert Hall.

Sandbrook concludes the chapter by acknowledging that, despite being regarded by most people as a ‘minority obsession’, what he eventually stops calling ‘women’s lib’ contributed to enormous changes in people’s lives. Accepting (on this occasion) that it’s possible for a social movement to have a lasting effect without starting out as a majority persuasion, he admits that the change in the status of women in the 1960s was a genuine social revolution. The reason being that, for once, he is judging a phenomenon not by its immediate purchase but by its historical legacy.

Sandbrook doesn’t extend this way of thinking to other movements which began in the same period. He ignores the gay rights and anti-racist movements, sees the Northern Ireland civil rights movement as an IRA plot, dismisses the environmental movement as an atavistic reaction against modernity, and keeps the scare quotes firmly locked around any manifestation of the counterculture. The continued vibrancy of the oppositional arts eludes him; however bust the satire boom might have looked after That Was the Week That Was, satire has remained one of the most persistent (and persistently reinvented) forms of popular television ever since. And he fails to ask perhaps the most interesting question about the social movements that grew out of the late 1960s: why, unlike the civil rights and antiwar movements in the United States, did they become movements of popular protest after, rather than before, their concerns were addressed through legislation? The fact that the women’s liberation and gay rights movements postdate reform of the abortion, divorce and homosexuality laws, and that even the anti-racist movement emerges after the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts were passed, suggests either that liberal reforms were not enough, or that they were not the real issue.

At the beginning of Never Had It So Good, Sandbrook points out that hostility to the 1960s was one of the many elements of Thatcherism eagerly embraced by New Labour. In July 2004, Tony Blair attacked the era of ‘freedom without responsibility’, which had produced ‘a group of young people who were brought up without parental discipline, without proper role models and without any sense of responsibility to or for others’. He called for a return to rules, order and ‘a community where the decent law-abiding majority are in charge’. Superficially, this is a surprising demand to come from the first British prime minister not only to own a guitar, but to appear relaxed with a Britain in which women, gays and black people were visible and even prominent in public life. But what Blair actually did was suck the politics out of the movements that gained such visibility, dismissing the idea that they might provide alternative role models and new forms of mutual responsibility, and turning them into little more than matters of individual lifestyle.

Beginning with a description of Churchill’s funeral and ending in praise of Dad’s Army, White Heat argues that ‘the continuity of national history was much stronger and more resilient than the transient whims of fashion,’ that, for all the ‘Minis and mini-skirts, the sex, drugs and rock and roll’, Britain in the 1960s refused to make it new. The contrary view – that the 1960s sowed seeds that were to bring about irrevocable changes in the way British men and women defined themselves, in relation to each other and the planet – is expressed most succinctly in one delegate’s recollection of the first women’s liberation conference at Ruskin College. ‘You thought,’ she said, ‘this is the first time anybody’s noticed this and, by God . . . it’s going to be different tomorrow.’