Tuesday 5 September 2006

White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties

Dominic Sandbrook

The idea of the Sixties as an era of exciting change for everyone has remained more or less the accepted orthodoxy - until now. Few commentators have been prepared to dissent from the prevailing view. But Dominic Sandbrook has come along, ready to enter the fray and revise our opinions about what many still venerate with all the enthusiasm given to cherished myths. What does he have to tell us about this legendary time?

Sandbrook - whose previous book, Never Had It So Good, covered Britain’s history from Suez to the Beatles - has three stories to tell, all of which intertwine to make up the era under discussion. The first is political. Opening with an account of the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill - Britain’s wartime Prime Minister - in 1965, he starts with the country’s political fortunes or, rather, lack of them. Some aspects have a familiar ring about them. Labour was elected in 1964 as a reaction against what was seen as the incompetent fogeyism of the Tories, despite the fact that the Conservatives had ushered in a period of affluence. Prime Minister Harold Wilson promised that - in the wake of the ‘white heat’ of the scientific revolution - Britain’s social and economic attitudes would be transformed.

This was not to be. The economic effects of the Seamen’s Strike of 1966 resulted in British foreign, defence and economic policies being yielded to American control in return for financial aid (with the pound eventually being devalued in 1967). Rhodesia declared independence to prevent majority rule (it would take a Conservative government to resolve the issue). Cherished dreams about economic planning failed. ‘MiniTech’ - the name given to the Ministry of Technology under whose aegis industry was to be revitalised - wasn’t given th institutional means to achieve its goals. The White Paper In Place of Strife, containing proposals to curb strikes - now seen as a serious threat to Britain’s economy - was overturned. In the meantime, Wilson was able to survive by skilful opportunism, appealing to different political and social factions and - despite continual prophecies of his impending demise - managing to retain power. He deserves credit for being able - unlike one of his Labour successors - to keep Britain free from military involvement with American foreign adventures (in this case, Vietnam).

‘Swinging London’ - and the artistic and social changes for which it has been taken as a metaphor - is Sandbrook’s next story. The rise of bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks is familiar territory from which he is able to mine unfamiliar nuggets. Despite the music scene’s reputation for ignorant yobbishness, it’s good to read that British blues bands were often shocked by the grim realities of American racial attitudes which they encountered when they toured the States. And, although the pop scene had an apparent worship of all things new, bands such as the Beatles and the Kinks often looked to English influences for their material, the latter’s lyrics celebrating, amongst other things, roast beef on Sundays and Blackpool holidays. Mary Quant’s fashions appeared to offer liberation to women from middle-aged styles of dress but - to the disquiet of some commentators - appeared to infantilise their wearers.

Despite talk of emerging classlessness, the London scene was dominated by public school-educated figures such as art dealer Robert Fraser and antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs. Modern home improvement would eventually yield to a renewed interest in Victoriana, with posters of art by Beardsley and Mucha decorating the walls of student rooms for the next decade. The British film industry didn’t produce any directors of the stature of Alfred Hitchcock or David Lean, whilst films which took ‘Swinging London’ for their theme soon lost their novelty value, made box-office losses, and led to withdrawal of American funding. Trendy boutiques such as Biba would eventually fall victim to commercial pressures as high street chains took up the new fashions. However, Terence Conran’s Habitat, with its furnishings that reflected ‘economic wealth, artistic effervescence and technological sophistication’ would survive the decade.

Outside the metropolis - or, rather, Chelsea, Mayfair and the West End - how far did Britain swing? Again, Sandbrook challenges the conventional views. The Beatles ‘Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever’ was beaten to number one by the luxuriously-sideburned popular crooner Engelbert Humperdinck with ‘Release Me’, whilst the nation’s gardeners were guided on television by the equally uncool Percy Thrower. The success of the ‘Carry On’ films - which depended for their humour on taboos about sexual bawdiness and bodily functions - showed that traditional attitudes to sex were still largely unchanged despite changes in the law about abortion and homosexuality, a situation that would change little for another two decades. On crime and punishment - in particular, retention of the death penalty - young people were often more conservative than their parents’ generation, whilst support for Enoch Powell’s (misnamed) ‘rivers of blood’ anti-immigration speech betrayed scant enthusiasm for multi-culturalism. The television adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novel The Forsyte Saga on BBC2 was a runaway success, with churches having to alter their service times so that worshippers didn’t miss it.

Many writers looked askance at the decade. Kingsley Amis and Margaret Drabble looked back to a world of lost simplicity and innocence, whilst Anthony Powell and Simon Raven were drily critical of student revolution, social change, and those establishment members who condoned them. The growing educational reforms of the decade, such as Labour’s commitment to comprehensive schools, caused the emergence of the critical ‘Black Papers’ on education. Portrayed by the liberal press as ‘right-wingers’, the papers’ authors concluded Labour-voting scholarship men such as C.B. Cox and A.E. Dyson (the former had campaigned for Labour, the latter had been a vocal member of the Homosexual Law Reform Society), but the educational establishment generally showed little enthusiasm to question the progressive orthodoxies of the decade.

Sandbrook manages to pack a wealth of information into his book without making any of it seem trivial. He also does so with an attractive, off-the-cuff humour: speaking on MiniTech’s first head, Frank Cousins, he says of Cousins’ lacklustre performance in the Commons that ‘he made Edward Heath look like Demosthenes’. Heath - who had a famously wooden style of presentation that would drive a present-day spin doctor into a frenzy of despair - was to succeed Wilson as Prime Minister at the end of the decade. We can look forward with relish to Sandbrook’s account of the make-or-break era over which Heath would - at first - preside.


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