Wednesday 8 February 2006

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles

Dominic Sandbrook

We think we know the basics about the sixties and the social changes that they ushered in. Against a background of mini-skirts, mods and rockers, the forces of conservatism were dealt a mighty blow to the relief of all, and a new day dawned in whose light we have basked ever since. Really, we don’t know the half of it, and many of our perceptions are the products of carefully-crafted legends. Indeed, the title of this book is taken from the words of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (‘most of our people have never had it so good’) - which recognised that poverty was still a feature of post-Beveridge Britain - but which have been famously misquoted as ‘You’ve never had it so good’, an imputation of supposed Tory complacency. This book is an almost magistral attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of, and thoughts about, that time.

Realising that, when it comes to epochs, decades are not co-terminous with the calendar, Sandbrook starts his account in 1956 with the Suez Crisis, when British troops were sent to seize the nationalised Suez Canal and the subsequent failure of this strategy made the political establishment appear weak and incompetent to a public still tasting the fruits of the victory won eleven years earlier. It’s impossible for him to avoid covering some familiar historical territory: ‘Butskellism’, the consensus politics of support for the welfare state and Keynesian economics followed by both parties and which took its name from a conflation of the names of Conservative Chancellor Rab Butler and his Labour predecessor Hugh Gaitskell (question: do we now have ‘Blatcherism’, a new consensus politics combining globalised capitalism and political correctness?), the power of the trade unions, the Conservative leadership contest of 1963 (toffs versus meritocrats), the Profumo affair (which recalls that ancient ethic which required that politicians who knowingly misled the House of Commons were expected to resign), the satire boom and the birth of Private Eye magazine, and the eruption of youth culture. But he does so with a combination of freshness and thoroughness that make them worth revisiting even for the reader for whom they are familiar.

Where Sandbrook really makes his mark, however, is in drily debunking some standard myths that have been propagated since the sixties about that era. The concept of ‘suburban blues’ - a sense of alienation supposedly suffered by suburb dwellers - was a snobbish myth: most dwellers in the ‘burbs’ were happy with their lot. This is unsurprising: for many inner-city residents, the fifties were not an era of shiny household appliances, but of townscapes riddled with smoky streets and communal outside lavatories that had hardly changed since Victorian times. Kingsley Amis wrote the seminal novel of youthful rebellion against the old order Lucky Jim (1954) but, along with fellow writers in the so-called Movement such as Philip Larkin, he still respected old cultural institutions. Critically-touted ‘New Wave’ films such as Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) have been hailed for their social realism, but they were not the only ones to have dealt with social problems: films such as The Blue Lamp (1949) and Cosh Boy (1952) had also done so, but had not had the New Wave’s ‘lofty artistic aspirations’ nor were they ‘dressed up with didactic pseudo-intellectual rhetoric’ (incidentally the gunned-down policeman from the former would be resurrected as the star of television’s long-running cop series Dixon of Dock Green). Indeed, the heroes of the New Wave novels, plays and films exhibited no real political radicalism: they combined personal ambition with dislike of a changing world.

Meanwhile, traditional plays remained firm favourites among theatregoers. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), whose duffle-coated marchers were another icon of the era, had little popular support, and anti-Americanism seems to have been a factor among some CND supporters. The racism shown by the English to immigrants was nothing new either: hostility to newcomers had been noted among the English from Medieval times, and was not peculiar to the sixties (and playwright Noel Coward held views on decolonisation that - despite his sexuality - would not have earned him a place in today’s gay showbiz pantheon were he still alive).

The author of the classic novel of sixties youth culture Absolute Beginners (1959) was Colin MacInnes, who was middle-aged and the cousin of former Conservative pre-war Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. And the importance given to the ‘rebellious’ youth culture of the sixties has been exaggerated - even by such an experienced commentator as Eric Hobsbawm - for many young people of that era would become conventional citizens and, in any case, they formed only one demographic group among many. Many teenagers of the sixties were ‘ambitious, fashionable and cheerfully conservative’. They may have sported the outward and visible signs of contemporary youth culture, but they would help elect Margaret Thatcher to power. The ground-breaking satire programme That Was The Week That Was (usually known as TW3) was not cancelled due to ire from the establishment that it lampooned weekly, but because it had run out of ideas, the nadir being reached with a ‘lachrymose, crawling tribute to President Kennedy’ on the night of his assassination. By contrast, spy novels and films such as Moonraker (Ian Fleming, 1955), The Ipcress File (Len Deighton, 1962), and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (John le Carre, 1963), routinely derided as gung-ho, superficial and sexist, contained insights about changes in Britishness, the nature of morality, and class mobility. (With its working class anti-hero, Harry Palmer, The Ipcress File is wittily described by Sandbrook as the Lucky Jim of spy fiction).

Every reader with an interest in this period will probably spot omissions of what he or she thinks are important features of this time, and Sandbrook has covered his back here by saying that such topics may be dealt with in the sequel, White Heat (due in August) covering the years 1964-70 but, then again, may not. But such omissions are minor in comparison with what he has achieve. If only such a forceful - and thorough - critique of the sixties had been around at the time! Meanwhile, this book is a reminder that history is made not only by winners, but by those who shout loudest. A point that should be remembered not only by future historians of the present time, but also by us now as we evaluate the seductive, siren voices of those who proclaim today’s supposedly-dominant trends.



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