Published on
19 May 2005

The ‘Sixties’ in Historical Retrospect

By: Prof. Sir Brian Harrison


Prof. Sir Brian Harrison was Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography from 2000 to 2004 Seminar on Thursday 19 May 2005

1. Introduction

The title of this paper has the ‘1960s’ in inverted commas, because I am concerned not with what happened in the decade, but with the ‘60s’ as a concept. I came to be thinking about this subject in the course of writing the last volume of the New Oxford History of England 1951-1990. I am at present on Chapter 9 out of a projected eighteen chapters of that work, and Chapter 9 just happens to on the ‘60s’. So I particularly welcome the opportunity to talk to a group like this since it enables me to hammer out some ideas and see where I am going wrong.

The 1960s is like a number of other decades since the 1840s: it has a distinctive image about it. It is like the 1840s, the 1890s, the 1920s, the 1930s and the 1980s for being in some sense distinctive. Other decades since the 1840s are split by wars or by elections and they do not hold together in the way these five decades that I have mentioned do hold together. The 1960s, of course, was divided by an election, too. The 1964 general election involved the succession of a Labour government to a long-running Conservative regime, but in retrospect that transition does not seem all that important, for two reasons. First of all, the transition was not a significant one in terms of policy; the Conservative governments from 1951 -1964 were not Thatcherite, but rather corporatist-consensus in their attitudes and so was the Wilson government which succeeded them. Secondly, I do not think actually that studying 1960s politics is terribly important; much more important are social changes and social development about which I shall spend quite a lot of time talking.

The concept of the ‘60s’ is controversial. What I want to do is to provide a few facts as a sort of framework for discussion without committing myself to any particular position on what the ‘60s’ stands for. I should start by saying that the discussion cannot treat the United Kingdom as an entity: regional diversity and national diversity within the United Kingdom is terribly important for understanding what was going on in the ‘60s’, and so, of course, is the fact that Britain was a sort of entrepot in this period between American and Commonwealth influences on the one side and European on the other. A lot of influences on the ‘60s’ are international in nature.

2. When did the ‘Sixties’ begin?

The first question I want to ask is: when did the ‘60s’ begin? They did not begin in 1960. Culturally, I think the ‘60s’ began in the mid-1950s. The performance of Waiting for Godot in 1955 was an epoch-making performance and was followed in 1956 by the first performance of Look Back in Anger: these were major cultural moments in the history of the theatre and pioneered many of the developments that would subsequently come to be associated with the ‘60s’. Indeed the ‘angry young man’ concept is certainly well developed long before the ‘60s’. Beyond the Fringe was admittedly an occurrence that happened in 1960, but it grew out of the phenomenon of the after-dinner smoking concert familiar to people in Oxford and Cambridge, and its pedigree really lies in public school and undergraduate humour – not at all radical in its real inclinations. Fashion also is something which changes markedly in direction in the mid-1950s. It was in 1955 that Mary Quant opened her shop in Chelsea.

So culturally I think the ‘60s’ began in the mid-1950s. Politically also, in some sense, they began in the mid-1950s. The ‘Suez Crisis’ was a major moment in shifting opinion away from consensus Conservatism and towards a sort of radicalisation on the left. You might object that the latter did not actually cause the Conservatives to lose the 1959 election, and that is right. My point is that the ‘Suez Crisis’ was more important retrospectively. The full scale of the deception of the British people in the Suez venture did not become apparent until the 1960s, but well before then a lot of people suspected that there had been substantial deception, and the whole thing came home to roost in a sense in the mid-1960s.

Morally, the ‘60s’ began well before even the 1950s, in the sense that, if we are concerned with sexual morality, a lot of the conduct that is associated with the ‘60s’ is as old as the hills. You will remember the famous line of Philip Larkin: ‘sexual intercourse began in 1963, which was rather late for me’, but what is not often quoted is a letter he wrote in 1984 after reading about H.G. Wells for a review, when he discovered, he said, that ‘sexual intercourse began in 1895, before I was alive’. In fact, the concept of a mistress and of promiscuity in sexual relations was common-place within the nineteenth- century upper-classes, and what was happening in the twentieth century was its gradual percolation down society through the fashionable middle classes between the wars and further down thereafter. The theory of the divorce between sexuality and procreation is all there in 1901 in H.G. Wells’s book Anticipations, and it was fully formulated and worked out in Bertrand Russell’s astonishingly radical book, Marriage and Morals published in 1929. These ideas were still very much on the fringe until the 1960s, but the ideas were certainly around. Much of the change in the 1960s was more a matter of appearance than of reality. Just one individual example: the pregnancy of Harold Macmillan’s daughter, Sarah, probably actually the daughter of Robert Boothby, before her marriage in 1953 was terminated because, as her mother put it: ‘to continue with it would ruin your father’s career’.

The mid-1950s are important for other changes in moral sensibility as well: Premium Bonds introduced by Harold Macmillan in his Budget in 1956; the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality in 1957; and that remarkable film, A Taste of Honey came out in 1961, having first appeared on stage in 1958. These represent changing public attitudes to morality well before the 1960s began, quite apart from the conduct associated with the ‘60s’ which began earlier even than that. An accumulation of many of these shifts takes place within the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which started in 1958 and attracted large numbers of young people in unison with rather aged pacifists from the 1930s, but with a sort of age-gap in the middle . Many ‘Sixties’ attitudes – radical politics, irreverence for fashion and convention and tradition – focused and concentrated in the CND movement. All these ideas which I have briefly mentioned were carried further in the 1960s, and I shall discuss four of them in the next section: the cult of youth, political radicalism, the pursuit of spontaneity, and the advance of hedonism. I shall take them in turn.

3. The cult of youth

The cult of youth is very much a ‘60s’ theme. It is of course a perennial theme. Dr Johnson was saying in 1778 that ‘subordination is sadly broken down in this age, and no son now depends upon his father as in former times’, but there was something new about young people’s situation in the 1950s – a combination of four things. First, earlier sexual or physical maturity, owing to long-running physiological changes mainly resulting from better nutrition. Secondly, realisation on the part of certain commercial elements that there was a teenage market to be tapped, again another phenomenon of the 1950s. Thirdly, extended education, with people staying ever longer in the educational process beyond the compulsory leaving age . Lastly, there was the development of closer international linkages between young people. All these things made the situation of youth in the 1960s rather different from what it had been before.

Matters of clothes and hair became extremely important symbolically. There was a rather marvellous moment when Bernard Miles, the theatrical impresario, pointed out, when people grumbled about the long hair of the young in 1964, that this is the usual image with which Christ is portrayed. A general acceleration of the cult of youth, took place in the mid -1960s with the opening of BIBA, the shop in Kensington which set trends in fashion. There burst onto the stage in 1966 Twiggy, a woman with an extraordinarily slim figure, a miniscule skirt, and hardly two words to put together. Journalists were amazed at just how inarticulate she was. The whole fashion model idea was changing, aided by a number of fashionable photographers. The upper-class image of the model was rapidly being broken down. Habitat, the furniture shop , opened in 1964. There was a mid-1960s acceleration in the cult of youth and in the adoption of new fashions.

The public schools were put on the defensive. Some of you may have seen the film If… filmed in 1968. When I saw it, I was not surprised that headmasters were pretty terrified at what they witnessed: a complete subversion of authority portrayed with some sympathy ending with one of the pupils machine-gunning other pupils, masters and parents from the roof of the school. There was a considerable loss of deference to authority in general in the public image of the decade, and the acquisition simultaneously of respect for significant groups – most notably school-children. It became unfashionable to beat school children. The idea of the ‘progressive school’ and its humane treatment of children is certainly something associated with the ‘60s’. Likewise the repudiation of old-fashioned ideas of chivalry – standing up for women, etc. – which were assumed by the American-influenced feminists to be patronising. It was during the 1960s when chivalry of the old-fashioned type went out of favour, but in the interest of a particular group which required a new respect, namely , women as women and not merely as an adjunct to whom men would pay a sort of formal respect. And of course the homosexual was very much understood for the first time in the 1967 Act which I shall go on to discuss later.

All of this had considerable implications for youth organisations which were really alarmed at the developments: so much so, that the Boy Scouts, to take one example, appointed what was called the ‘Advance Party’ to report on why their membership was in decline. It is a very respectable report. I was very impressed when I read it: it is a good example of an institution taking itself firmly and saying ‘where are we going wrong?’ and trying to learn from informants who were not ‘establishment’ or people in an older age group but from among younger people. That also stands for a number of other organisations that were in decline. They tried to learn from what was going on and adapt accordingly.

4. Political radicalism

Secondly, let us turn to the phenomenon of political radicalism. There was a sort of rationalistic mood of optimism about the ‘60s’ which is epitomised by a journal in which I first learnt to write reviews of books: New Society, founded in 1962 and deeply influenced by the culture of social work and sociology. Sociology was in many ways irreverent in its tone, it wanted to understand why institutions worked as they did and whether they could be made to work better. It was corrosive, in a sense, of authority and tradition. So, from a different perspective, was another fashionable discipline of the time, social anthropology, which encouraged a relativist approach to all institutions, particularly to British ones. This was an intellectual climate in which a number of very significant sociological books appeared whose pedigree can be traced back into the 1950s, most notably through the Institute of Community Studies, whose flavour is decidedly radical and irreverent towards established institutions. There was also an ideal of meritocratic participation very much alive in these institutions in this period which was captured to some extent by the Liberal Party through the Young Liberals before the end of the decade. The radical implications of John Stuart Mill’s Liberty was captured and lived on in the 1960s with a vengeance. Many of his ideas about freedom were being practised in new dimensions and he was very much not a Victorian figure consigned to obscurity.

The youth cult was taken up by Harold Wilson, who was relatively young for a political leader and tried to cash in on the youth culture which had swept President Kennedy to such prominence in the United States. There was a general mood within the Labour government of 1964 of modernity, a contempt for tradition and a belief that a rational restructuring of British institutions would pay dividends. The parallels with the present government are quite strong. However, as you know , a lot of the promises failed, and there was a lot of disappointment. The National Plan, the ambitious scheme for government co-ordination of economic relations in late 1965, hardly even got off the ground. The devaluation which the government had firmly resisted from the start in 1964 ineluctably happened in 1967 with much humiliation for the Chancellor of the Exchequer – recently deceased – James Callaghan. And incomes policies failed in the 1960s, as they always did. It was not clear, however, by the 1960s that incomes policies were doomed to fail; after all, the Attlee government’s incomes policy had actually been rather a success (though possibly because it lasted only two years). Certainly, the Wilson government’s incomes policies got nowhere in the long-run, other than to succeed in antagonising the trade union movement, with disastrous results for internal relations within the Labour Party.  Reactions to these disappointments might have been expected to boost the Conservative Party, but it did not happen that way. Ted Heath did win the 1970 general election, but not with any comfortable margin. The interesting fact in retrospect is not the Conservative victory in 1970 but the fact that a lot of people – especially the young at university – responded to disappointment with the Wilson government by moving further left. They were disillusioned, not only with the practical failures of the Wilson government, but also by Wilson’s tactical, pragmatic, one might even say, cynical approach to politics. A certain disdainful repudiation of Wilson’s style in politics helped to fuel a series of protest movements which anyone of my generation at university remembers very well. It extended not merely beyond seeking to join the system, which the radicalism of the late 1950s had involved, but to seeking to destroy it, or to supersede it. Of course, this was the approach of a small minority – and I shall go on to discuss the ‘minority’ issue later – but it was a minority fuelled by a number of ideas, many of which were not British, most notably Marxism. Marxism was very much the flavour of the month within the study of politics, sociology and even history. A number of distinguished historians were deeply influenced by Marxism. Another factor was the Vietnam War which brought a dose of radicalism from the United States in the late 1960s and was, very often inappropriately, adopted within the United Kingdom, fuelling a sort of international mood of protest. This was reinforced in 1968 by the famous ‘days of May’ in Paris.

The international dimension of the ‘60s’ is very evident by about 1967. There followed a dialogue of the deaf between politicians and radical students.  One only has to look at the diaries of R.H.S. Crossman to see how uncomprehending a distinguished politician was of what was going on. There were also two anti-political responses: first, the response of dropping out – the drug-taking culture, the abandonment of involvement in politics at all – and, secondly, direct-action violence, adopted again by a fairly small minority, influenced by the Baader-Meinhof gang in Western Germany which called itself the ‘Angry Brigade’. This was very much under the influence of strange French ideas, a sort of fascism of the left, which led to the blowing-up of a few back-gardens in the Hampstead area and a certain conspiratorial movement which was soon squashed by fairly ruthless and clever police work, with the imprisonment of the leading culprits in 1972. A milder version of this fascism of the left can be seen operating in Malcolm Bradbury’s very symbolic play The History Man, first published in 1975, which was made into a memorable television film. You may remember, those of you who watched that programme, the moment when the right-wing student – George Carmody – at Watermouth University, one of the new universities, asks his sociology tutor Howard Kirk whether he must share Kirk’s views to pass his course: ‘It’s not required, George, but it might help you see some of the problems inside the society you keep sentimentalising about’. The customary British response to political extremism on the left was, of course, co-option, a familiar tactic adopted from the first Reform Bill (1832) onwards. The Beatles got their MBE in 1965 and young people got votes at 18 in 1969. Jack Straw, then president of the NUS, got his dinner at 10 Downing Street in 1970.

5. The pursuit of spontaneity

The third strand in the ‘60s’ to be looked at here is the pursuit of spontaneity. This is an awfully difficult thing for historians to study because by definition it is not recorded or documented, but we know it happened. The pursuit of spontaneity is partly a matter of carrying forward democracy and ideals of democracy and the Enlightenment programme whereby formal structures and traditions are repudiated in the belief that human nature is fundamentally good and that one has only to remove hidebound traditions for mankind’s goodness to emerge in its full flowering. Like changes in overt sexual behaviour, also a very long-term process, it is not something that suddenly starts in the 1960s. In some ways it goes right back to the Romantic revival, and one might say probably earlier than that. The retreat from formality is a very long-term and continuous business. E.M. Forster, the novelist, for instance, commented on the way in which between the wars there had been a movement from strangers beginning their letters ‘Dear Sir’ to ‘Dear Mr Forster’ in a more familiar style. Nonetheless, the 1960s do take us very much further in this regard; and from the top. If one reads Tony Benn’s diaries, or R.H.S. Crossman’s diaries, one will see slightly pathetic grumblings about cocktail parties or sherry parties at the palace – how can they get out of them? Must they wear their morning suits? Can they actually wear lounge suits to a Guildhall dinner? Great angst was created. At the top level they are merely echoing something which goes very much further lower down in society. There is a repudiation of ‘manners’ going on in this period by people who, slightly self-righteously, see manners as formulaic, as acted upon unthinkingly, and as being in some sense insincere. The most extreme case of this was the treatment of women, but it extended right across the board. In addition to a long-term tendency towards informality, there are also short-term international influences operating, most notably American ‘glad-handedness’. There were also the media which encouraged a matey friendliness which Evelyn Waugh regarded with extreme distaste. There was even encouragement to rudeness. Rudeness was at least spontaneous – there was something human going on – so quite a number of media people, already in the 1950s, were making their names by being rude – Gilbert Harding, for example.

I have mentioned the impact of feminism. Feminism was obviously well established in Britain long before the 1960s, but it had got into a trough-period between the 1930s and the 1960s, and it was an injection of American influence from about 1964 or so that caused it to accelerate or change into a new style. The strange attitude lying behind this informality was a sort of atomising of the individual oddly combined with statist views, e.g., on the economy and welfare. The individual was divorced from his occupation, his background, his parentage, his social class, his school, his personal achievements whether good or bad, and seen as an individual very much not with medals or ribbons attached; not even with a surname if young, but just with a first name. This had implications for penal policy. The Victorian idea of cultivating the character of the non-offender gave way to the idea that the offender should remain anonymous. There was an abandonment of uniforms, for a uniform is a prime way of ensuring that people be in some sense identifiable. The notions of correct speech also came under challenge from university experts in linguistics, though this did not go very far in the 1960s. It went much further in the 1970s. There was also the beginning of the abandonment of formality in liturgy. Bishop John Robinson had a considerable impact on discussion about the Church of England in the 1960s, and his whole ethos was really one of impatience with formal structures which he regarded as a sort of incubus on Christianity to be shed. All this was, as I said, linked to a very profound optimism about human goodness and human capacity, which in retrospect seems rather ironic. Perhaps the most extreme and obvious example of this spontaneity advertised to public view was the adoption of ‘method acting’ as it was called on the stage. Method acting was, as I understand it, a belief that the performer just needs to understand and think himself inside the character and does not need to rehearse much or go through any formal training. He will just be superb in the part if he thinks himself into it. There was a sort of repudiation of professionalism and of formal training which Noel Coward found quite impossible to deal with. He wrote some memorable and, really, rather funny, articles in the Sunday Times in 1961 saying what nonsense it all was. Of course he was one of the major casualties of this development. There are also a number of symbolic events which I could name but not date which epitomise or exemplify the retreat of formality. The most obvious of these in the late 1960s was the abandonment of standing up for the National Anthem at the end of theatrical or cinema performances. It was not really protest that led people to give it up, but rather the fact that people wanted to get out of the car-park earlier than everybody else.

So spontaneity is an important theme, though terribly difficult to document precisely.

6. The advance of hedonism

The last is what one might call the advance of hedonism. There is a lot one could say on this, but I have not got time to do so. I think that what really happened in this area, as in so many other areas of moral change, was that one change generated others, and the whole process of change became in some sense organic or self-generating. This certainly happened with moral change in the ‘60s’. The Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 saw Penguin Books arguing, really po-facedly, the aesthetic merits of that novel. Freedom of public speech rapidly accelerated. Ken Tynan first used the word f**k on British television on 13 November 1965. I still remember being rather shocked when I was teaching in Ann Arbor in America in 1969 when one of my graduate students referred to America as being a f****d-up society. This is a change which certainly happened in the 1960s on the public stage. There were also a number of other important legal changes, less important in their substance at the time than they seem in retrospect. The 1966 Abortion Act, whose role was to formalise the c.100,000 abortions a year that were going on in the 1950s and bring it under professional medical control. Likewise with homosexuality. Legalisation in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was associated with attempts to restrict freedom of homosexual conduct and particularly attempts to restrict paedophilia. As with so many of these so-called emancipations, there were linked attempts at further restriction. The emancipations were not as emancipatory as they seemed at first sight . Something certainly was going on in the 1960s and, of course, I do not need to mention that this was at the same time as the Pill became generally available.

7. When did the ‘Sixties’ end?

I will just finish off briefly in the last five minutes with when the ‘60s’ ended. Just as I suggested that they began at least as early as the mid-1950s, so I do not think they ended in 1970 either. I must emphasise that the conduct associated with the ‘60s’ was never more than that of a small minority. Nonetheless, minorities make revolutions, and revolutions tend to acquire a momentum of their own and to extend almost spontaneously. I mentioned that the so-called liberating legislation aimed simultaneously to restrain conduct, but in fact, once the concession had been made the concession was opened out and pressed further and did not stop where its original promoters had intended it to stop. In a sense, I think the ‘60s’ have never ended, they are still with us. There is no terminus, because so many of the changes I have discussed persist. Three of the four certainly do: the cult of youth, the pursuit of spontaneity and the advance of hedonism. Youth is still idealised, not least by this government. The modernising label is espoused even by the Conservative Party. If you want to get on in the Conservative party today, call yourself a moderniser. Informality in speech, certainly did not stop in 1970, and is going on apace, reinforced by the advent of the football culture, which I think really accelerated in the 1980s. It is encouraged, of course, by technical aids like mobile phones and e-mails. Informality in liturgy pervades the churches to an ever-greater extent as far as I can see. Nobody on television today seems to wear a tie. The stiff-upper lip was shown to have been weakened during the ‘Lady Di’ affair in the late 1990s. The retreat from formality has really hit the monarchy very hard. The first walkabout after a trial-run in New Zealand, occurred in Coventry in 1970, and the monarchy has been struggling to adapt ever since. Likewise moral relaxation continues to open out: gambling, drinking, sexual promiscuity. With the aid of the internet they are now in full process to what would in the 1960s have seemed an unheard-of extent. One thing leads to another. When the line against birth-control was abandoned, effectively endorsing the separation between sexuality and procreation, homosexual relations are difficult to fend off, and the line against pre-marital sex is even more difficult to defend. Once happiness is the criterion for personal relations, divorce becomes justifiable on humanitarian grounds, and once pre-marital sex is accepted, single parenthood is less easy to fend off. Once divorce between heterosexual couples becomes prevalent, gay marriage moves in from the fringes. Once single parenthood gains ground, the case against single -sex couples as parents is undermined, and so on and so on. Pre-marital intercourse soared in the 1970s with growing numbers choosing to cohabit for life rather than marry, and by the early 1990s nearly half of conceptions were taking place outside of marriage. The percentage of live births that were illegitimate doubled in England and Wales between 1970 and 1985.

The one exception among the four ‘60s’ themes is political radicalism, which has not carried on. I think the overriding late-twentieth-century story – in the political sphere – is the defeat of socialism and the retreat from planning. The Wilson government appears positively ambitious in its radicalism when viewed through the lenses of New Labour. Student protest persisted until the mid-1980s and then retreated. In general the mood of rationalistic and irreverent radicalism that was so important in the ‘60s’ has run into the sand. What is remarkable in this situation is that no political party has set about trying to reverse the ‘60s’ trends which in my view are still going on. Mary Whitehouse’s crusade to keep the media pure ended in almost total failure. There is a striking reversal of moral priorities when moralistic indignation now confronts the proponents of traditional morality, not those who breach it. When Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal leader, confessed in 1992 to adultery with his secretary there was an upsurge in his popularity ratings. For all the traditionalist moralising that lay behind Thatcherism, her repudiation of the ‘60s’ focused upon political and architectural matters and not upon sexuality and morals, which were very much left to the individual. Moralism has been integral to New Labour. Yet while accepting most of the Thatcherite economic revolution, New Labour has also avoided any repudiation of ‘60s’ values. So in my view the ‘60s’ are still with us.

Discussion following paper by Prof. Harrison

Andrew Hegarty: I wish to take up the idea of ‘moralism’ or morality, public and private: my family originates in Ulster and the Irish seem to have had – at least until quite recently – a very different approach to ‘public’ and ‘private’ morality from that of the English. Simplifying greatly, and to the point of serious exaggeration, it could be said that in England, from an older Irish perspective that is now fading, there has seemed to exist generally very little protection for what the Irish have regarded as private morality, and at the same time what they have thought a hypocritical attention to the details of public morality. Meanwhile, turning things the other way round, the English looking at the Irish of relatively recent times have often thought them hypocritical with an (apparently) Jansenistic private morality and at the same time an (apparent) lack of regard for morality in the public sphere. What I find interesting, as I have been looking at Ireland in the last couple of decades, is that at the same time as there has been there a retreat from traditional private morality (Jansenistic or otherwise) there has been a much greater emphasis on public morality along the lines of what we have known here for a long time. In a sense, a common theme emerges: the desire to regulate public life becomes ever greater as regulation of private life diminishes. There seems to be some kind of inverse relationship between the two spheres. I should like to know what you think about that.

Sir Brian Harrison: Yes. There are two things which come out of that interesting question. First of all, I have failed to mention Ireland throughout my talk, not because I think Ireland is unimportant, in fact the IRA seems to be the one significant anti-system pressure group that survives and it owes a great deal to 1960s American ideas. That’s one thing I get out of what you say. The other thing reminds me of something I intended to say and forgot. The climate of political discussion about moral conduct changes in a very interesting way between the 1940s and the 1960s. Instead of there being abstract principles which say ‘thou shalt not’ or whatever, and which do not really need to be argued for, there is a change, even on the part of the people resisting the changes I am discussing, to cast the arguments in terms of empirical evidence; that is in the context of the collection and the presentation of facts. So that, for instance, regulation of abortion will be justified in terms of how many people die through illegal abortion. So it becomes a question of whether you limit the number of people who die more effectively by making abortion legal than by keeping it illegal. That sort of argument also applies to crime, for example. Instead of having a sort of ‘life for a life’ attitude, hanging is abolished, and there is a very detailed argument in the Royal Commission report on capital punishment which is heavily empirical in nature and doesn’t really raise questions of principle at all. So what I am saying is that there is a change in the way in which moral questions are discussed in public, from taking certain moral principles for granted towards arguing on an evidential basis. That seems to me to be a very interesting and important change. It precedes the advent of a multi-cultural society, but it may have quite a lot to do with the advance of a more secular mood in society, which is of course another feature of the ‘60s’ which goes together with the rise of spontaneity. Formal Church observance is in massive decline in the 1960s and that is possibly linked with changes in the style of argument.

Peter Adams: I should like to know what you think about the use of television, which in the ‘60s’ must have grown enormously: whether you see it as simply a channel for ideas or as a force for change in itself.

Sir Brian Harrison: This is of course the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I personally think that it is much more than a channel. I think that certain attitudes, styles of behaviour, among quite small minority groups, become influential through television, that would not otherwise have had such a platform, nor would such behaviour have been practicable or be thought desirable or useful as was encouraged on the ‘box’. So I think the media are much more a causal thing and not just a medium. If I put my cards on the table a bit: I think that Mary Whitehouse, very much a figure of fun in intellectual circles and in culturally avant-garde circles, was a very brave woman to tackle this very powerful force in society and say ‘well, maybe this is what people want, but we should at least be discussing it and debating it’. I think her failure was complete in challenging the media and their values, but nonetheless the challenge ought to have been offered and was rather courageously offered in her case. So I think the media are more than a channel and if one wants to add figures to it – mass ownership of televisions is accelerating very fast in the 1950s and that is again a change that started well before the 1960s. The media, then, were very important in rather unorganised and intangible ways in changing attitudes and behaviour.

Anthony O’Connor: You touched on lots of specific examples of this, but generally: how do you think that institutions, or the establishment institutions or the forces which one would imagine to be reactionary, actually undermined themselves and were wrong-footed by ‘progressive’ sources and how much are they themselves responsible for some of the trends described? The Church, the Conservative Party and the Monarchy are the most glaring examples.

Sir Brian Harrison: These are very difficult questions. But I think that relevant to this is the fact that a lot of politics was about economics in most of this period. It was about how to manage the economy with an insurgent trade union movement, and to get things on an even keel in that respect. The public was not mainly concerned with moral issues. The moral legislative changes I have discussed were back-bench measures, they weren’t front-bench measures, and the political parties were very reluctant to touch these issues. They left it to back-bench movements to get this legislation through. The main thing that the politicians care about was the economic agenda. So I do not think you can blame politicians in this sense. They weren’t concerned with this area, and the essence of the Conservative Party’s philosophy was to leave this to the individual anyway; it did not generally seek to regulate the private activities of individuals. As far as the Labour Party is concerned, they too are competing with the Conservatives in managing the economy better, using their hold on the trade union movement to introduce a more effective variant of corporatism – this is the agenda really right up until 1979 for the Labour Party. The more moralistic style within the Labour Party that is associated with people like R.H. Tawney was very much on the retreat from the 1940s and to a very limited extend has come back under New Labour, but not very much. So I think my answer to your question is that I do not think politicians should be blamed; they respond to shifts within society and society was not pressing them to give a greater priority to moral issues in relation to economic ones.

Do you want to come back at me on that one? I may not have answered it successfully.

Anthony O’Connor: It was more a question of how these institutions might better have reacted. I am interested in a more general way as to what extent establishments or institutions just went along with what was happening anyway, when in fact they could have done rather more to stop it than they did.

Sir Brian Harrison: They would have stopped it if the public had wanted them to, but they realised that there wasn’t anything politically to be gained from it. They did what they had to do in the circumstances. I would not want to blame them.

Joseph Egerton: I wish to address one effect of television. Until the 1950s and early 1960s, if you wanted entertainment you had interact with your local community. You therefore had to live in that local community, and certain norms had to be enforced because otherwise the local community would break-up. When you get television and other things of the type, when you no longer depend on your local communities, then you get a change in the moral environment since you no longer have the pressure to keep the pre-existing norms. This seems to me to a very important factor that made for change in the ‘60s’. Associated with that is an observation in A.P. D’Entreves Natural Law: An Introduction to Legal Philosophy (Hutchinson, 2nd revised edn., 1970). D’Entreves says (p.134) that Professor Goodhart and he both observed that in British society in the 1950s there was a remarkable degree of convergence, not found anywhere else, including the United States, between the moral law and the criminal law – morality and law, Goodhart suggested, were intertwined in England.

Sir Brian Harrison: I am very much with you on this. Another former pupil of mine, David Miliband has been appointed minister for communities, and: what is he going to do? You are entirely right in say that lying behind so many of these changes I have described are spontaneous changes which have taken place within the community without any government involvement, without any legislation, which are destructive of the closely-knit type of community which one can over-sentimentalise. The change certainly had a great deal to do with the advent of the motorcar, the decline of the bus , the advent of the television, the decline of community recreation, the opening of the bar within the drawing room and the decline of the pub, and so on and so forth. I think that these are structural changes. And I think the politicians are running behind all these events. They are being hit by them. They do not know how to cope with them and they normally avoid coping with them by leaving them to back-bench MPs rather than having a programme. So I agree very much with your analysis of the social context within which so many of these changes happen.

Russell Wilcox: The question I have relates to a number of contemporary thinkers who have developed very interesting critiques of some of the developments to which you have been referring. Frederick Jameson, for example, has written a book entitled, Post Modernism: The Latest Stage of Capitalism in which he looks at a phenomenon that directly descends from ‘60s’ ideals. There he argues that although the post-modernist critique of capitalist society presents itself as profoundly radical in nature, it is in fact the opposite, since whilst it helps escalate the number of choices people make, it forces those choices to operate at an increasingly superficial level. In consequence, the coordinating logic of capitalist society co-opts the post-modernist critique for its own ends whilst undermining the autonomy of other countervailing sources of power. Both Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor develop their own variations of this argument and, in their case, this is particularly noteworthy since previously they were both active members of the New Left. If we are going to know whether society has improved or become worse, we must have a more robust conception of what a healthy community is, and linked in with that, a more philosophically informed notion of what freedom is. Now if the ‘60s’ and subsequent developments have been propagandised on the basis that they are increasing people’s freedom and if that claim is based upon a false conception of what a healthy community is, then such claims act as a form of false consciousness which feeds into the undermining of the very thing, namely freedom, that it claims to be supporting. What do you think of such an argument?

Sir Brian Harrison: Well there are really two things which come out of that. First of all, I do not think that there was a ‘conception of society’. I do not think anybody thought they wanted a society like what they actually had. I think it just happened, and happened as result of a lot of spontaneous and individual decisions such as I have described. It was not a plan. There was no programme which had this as its blue-print. So if that was so, I do not think the way to counter it, if you are minded to counter it, is to have a blue-print. You have got somehow to work with the grain of society, and turn it in another direction.

Russell Wilcox: But is society developing according to the logic of capitalism?

Sir Brian Harrison: No, frankly I do not think capitalism has got much to do with it. I think this is operating at levels of personal conduct where employment relations and class relations are unimportant.

You are of course right in implying that the reaction against the ‘60s’ owes quite a lot to people who were in their day enthusiastic about what was going on in the ‘60s’. Thatcherism was that the people Mrs Thatcher really liked were old Labour people who had shifted camp. There were quite a cluster of them, many of them associated with the Centre for Policy Studies in the late 1970s who in a sense created Thatcherism. Now, that is a reaction against the ‘60s’ only in the economic-cum-political sphere – the reaction against corporatism – but it is a good example of the way in which a degree of reaction against the ‘60s’ certainly did take place as a result of former enthusiasts losing their enthusiasm and campaigning for the other side.

Hugo de Burgh: Although you said that reversal is not taking place and nobody has tried it, and you said the consequences of the ‘60s’ are still with us – and in many senses you are quite right – I wonder whether you would not like to consider that there are some changes going on which indicate that the ‘60s’ may not be always with us? For example, a few years ago there was no consensus about the unintended consequences of the ‘60s’: Left and Right felt very differently. You could not have had a room full of the people here and of my academic colleagues because they would have killed each other. They felt so differently about the social developments which we attribute generally to the ‘60s’. Today, I think that there is almost a consensus on some of the detrimental social consequences, and we can talk more concretely if you wish. I assume you know what I mean: the broken families, the drunk and disorderly in the streets, the unfortunate children, and so on. This consensus is one indication that things are changing. There are opinion-formers and decision-makers who now think differently from those of a generation ago. Another change, possibly less significant, in the short-term in any case, is that a lot of young people seem to be turning to hard-line religious groups and that is quite a change from a few years ago. They are joining groups with very strict ideas about what life should be. A third indication, I suppose, is that young people in opinion polls increasingly seem to say that what they want is a traditional conception of the good life: a marriage, two children, a stable job, a nice solid community and something which they believe their great -grand- parents possible had. When you combine that with the small number of trends in the Arts in which we are seeing the cultural vanguard taking apart the changes that you have described so well – Michel Houllebecq is an obvious exemplar – it seems to me that there are some developments which indicate that reversal is not impossible.

Sir Brian Harrison: You have made a lot of interesting points. First of all, I think of course that things are going to change and patterns are going to evolve in different ways. As I have myself said, big changes often begin with very small minorities. Those attached, for example, to ‘hard-line’ religious groups, are actually children of the ‘60s’ in the sense that they are ‘New Age’. They are creating a religion for themselves without guidance from authority. That is a ‘60s’ trait, if that is what you mean by hard-line religious groups. It shows how fertile the ‘60s’ were in a sense: you cannot now go into a bookshop without there being a New Age section on display. But a lot of the changes you say are happening are doing so in accord with the way I have said changes do happen. First of all, there are undeniably problems of transition from the old society to the new, and society is developing corrective mechanisms spontaneously. Not through a crusade, not though people waving banners and so on, but through people developing practical solutions to practical problems from day to day on their own. This is the way in which I think a new consensus is built up, and it is a sort of testimony really to the self-curing processes societies have; not only our society but all societies.

Lyman Stebbins: I have a question about antecedents to the long 1960s and particularly about the break-up of the British Empire in the post-World War II period: what is the relationship of that with what you have been talking about?

Sir Brian Harrison: Well you are quite right to raise that. The Cold War did not feature in my talk very much at all. My book will be stopping in 1990, and that date is important. It is not just the end of the decade and the year Mrs Thatcher goes, but also the end of the Cold War. Looking back at that period, which is really all my adult life and a bit more, it was dominated by this overriding feature – the Cold War – which wasted two years of my life in National Service between 1956 and 1958, and likewise of all my generation. This was profoundly influential and it is linked to the ‘60s’ in the following way. The call up ended in 1960, and a lot of the impetus behind say Beyond the Fringe or That was the Week that Was or Private Eye was a reaction against the hierarchical uniformed boring old ideas that our fathers and grandfathers had been going on about for so long. A lot of this is associated with what seemed a moment when the Cold War was about to end – much earlier than ‘in fact’ it did. There was that brief period between about 1953 and 1964 when it really did look as though this frightful constraint on everybody was being removed and many of the ‘60s’ values I have been discussing are associated with that optimistic moment. Of course, it was another great big disappointment. Along came Brezhnev and others and the collapse of the whole thing was postponed for another 30 years. I think a lot of the impetus behind the ‘60s’ is a reaction against National Service culture and the legacy of the Second World War.

Michael Elmer: You spoke about the climate of opinion. I want to agree with that from the perspective of being involved in a new political party – a centrist Christian Democratic party, non-confessional, which obviously derives its inspiration from Judeo-Christian roots. In arguing on questions such as abortion and marriage we are finding it most effective to speak along the lines of the damage abortion does to the health of the woman involved, the statistically-increased chances of breast cancer, reduced fertility, as well as providing moral arguments about the destruction of a unique and precious individual. Similarly with marriage, whilst we would stand philosophically on the proposition that it is the basic building block of a healthy society, at the same time one can demonstrate statistically that co-habitees have a seven-times greater chance of splitting up with all the damage that does to children. That type of argument we have found more effective, and generally more accepted, in debate nowadays, than the more philosophically-oriented arguments we espouse.

Sir Brian Harrison: I am interested in your perception as to how to get results in practical politics. Why do you need to argue in this way? Why is it the empirical argument that is effective and not the arguments from principle?

Michael Elmer: One of the things is the absence, particularly in younger people, of any philosophical or religious background, owing to the massive dilution of content of R.E. lessons. For example, if you look at some of the popular quiz programmes these days, the level of ignorance displayed by people under the age of about 35 is astounding. They are unfamiliar with concepts such as Lent and Advent, things which would automatically be known by people older than that, because they would have learnt it as part of the ‘agreed syllabus’. That has now been very much diluted, and with it any kind of knowledge of the philosophical notions that would underpin a lot of our political doctrines. So one falls back to operating at a pragmatic level on things which can be demonstrated statistically.

Sir Brian Harrison: That is interesting. In a sense you are selling out by using that style of argument!

Michael Elmer: Only in the sense that it is necessary to get a wedge into the door and then other things follow.

Sir Brian Harrison: I must stress, reverting to Russell Wilcox’s remarks, that I am not confident in the future. I am worried by a lot of the things I see around me, as no doubt everybody in this room is On the other hand, I am encouraged by a lot of things. One holds one’s breath sometimes. I can’t call that ‘confident’, perhaps ‘hopeful’ is a better way of putting it.