Wish you were living in the Sixties? You must be mad. It was a ghastly decade
By Simon Heffer for The Daily Mail
Things must be even worse than I thought if one-third of my fellow Britons would, according to a poll, rather live in the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’ than in the present day.
The popular conception of Harold Wilson’s Britain as an ‘age of change for the better’ could not be more mistaken.
Wilson’s Labour government can most politely be called a catastrophe.
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Like all Labour administrations, Wilson’s lived far beyond its means. This caused a 14 per cent devaluation of the pound in the autumn of 1967, final proof that we were no longer a serious economy.
It taxed people at a top rate of 83 per cent. And for the so-called seriously wealthy — which in reality was more or less anyone who owned a few shares and drew a dividend — a 15 per cent super-tax was added on top of that, causing most of them to flee abroad, taking their wealth-creating potential with them.
The nostalgia for the Sixties as a golden age is, I am afraid, a stark reflection of the quality of history teaching in our schools. For the sample surveyed in the poll for a TV channel was aged between 18 and 60 and few who participated will have had first-hand experience of the years we are talking about.
It is clear that our national obsession with pop culture has fed this longing for the era, with few realising there was actually more to the decade than the priapic Mick Jagger and the celebrated IRA sympathiser John Lennon.
It was, above all, the age of the great experiment with the liberal society. Certainly, it was right and just to de-criminalise homosexuality in 1967, thereby putting an end to the unwarranted intrusion of the state into the private lives of adult men.
However, the Sixties was also the decade that effectively created abortion on demand. It was the decade in which divorce law was reformed to the point where marriages could be dissolved at the drop of a hat, leaving us with a poisonous legacy of dysfunctional families and damaged children.
It was also when the death penalty was abolished in 1965, and some of us hopeless reactionaries remain unflinching in our belief that human life was cheapened as a result.
The Sixties and I came in together. Being about three when The Beatles unleashed themselves upon the world, and seven when psychedelia and Flower Power were the rage, I can hardly claim to have been an active participant in the heady days of sexual freedom.
But my abiding memory of the world around me at the time was that, frankly, it was pretty damned weird. And it also seemed that most of the things that did seem rather normal and pleasant were in the process of being destroyed by the relentless drive for something called ‘progress’.
The town nearest to where I lived as a child had fine Georgian streets and a handsome Victorian Corn Exchange ripped down, to be replaced by charm-free, brushed-concrete shopping malls.
The one good thing about Sixties architecture is that it was so badly built, and with such defective materials, that much of what has not already fallen down is now being pulled down. Hideous scars are finally being removed from our landscape and liberating people from appalling high-rise housing.
I remember the decade, too, as a time of distinctly dodgy haircuts, preposterous clothes and ubiquitous tinny noises emanating from cheap transistor radios. One of my earliest memories is of Clacton-on-Sea, not far from the village where I grew up, becoming something akin to a war zone because Mods and Rockers were using it as a giant gladiatorial arena, as they exercised their right to express their own variants of the new culture.
Later, the Western world was convulsed with student protests, carried out in a drug-soaked atmosphere of mindless, Left-wing malevolence. If the middle-aged radicals look back on the era now with fondness, to many at the time it seemed as though it was an attempt to replace civilisation with self-regarding anarchy.
Perhaps because our parents’ generation had been used to wartime rationing, or because the government’s rigid exchange controls meant people seldom travelled abroad to see how others lived, nobody complained about how incredibly bad everything was.
It wasn’t just the food that was appalling, but almost every consumer product.
In the British provinces one went out to eat at one’s peril, the national cuisine having apparently chosen the Sixties to reach a historically low ebb. Vegetables were there to be cooked to extinction, and it was easier to win the weekly Premium Bonds draw than to find an avocado.
I’m only glad, in retrospect, that I was too young to drink. The height of sophistication appeared to be a toxic sludge called Emva Cream — a syrupy Cyprus ‘sherry’ whose success relied solely on the ignorance of the public about the existence of any other brand — and wine was generally a near-drinkable form of paint stripper.
The national drink, beer, also underwent horrors in the Sixties. Big brewers gobbled up small ones, and replaced their distinctive, traditional ales with fizzy slop so weak it could almost be sold to babies. This was an era of national shame: the era of Watney’s Red Barrel.
Cars were rust-buckets. Leave the average Sixties Ford, Austin or Morris out in the rain for a week and you could probably put your fist through the bodywork at the end of it.
And, even though many claim it was a golden era for TV, other than the BBC’s 26-part series on The Great War, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series and The Forsyte Saga, most of us would struggle to think of anything memorable from the decade that introduced the nation to Jimmy Savile, Dave Lee Travis and Rolf Harris.
Meanwhile, televisions themselves were temperamental, unreliable and mostly black and white. They received two or, if you were lucky and lived near a BBC2 transmitter, three channels — and the most effective way to get a decent picture on them was to thump them very hard.
This was hardly the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ that Wilson claimed he would harness if elected in 1964. His friends in the trades unions — old men with bad teeth and Brylcreemed hair who seemed to run the country with the actual Prime Minister acting only in an advisory role — saw to that by squashing innovation with their addiction to restrictive practices.
Watching U.S. television shows in those days was like observing activity on another planet. Even rudimentary American kitchens had waste disposal units, fancy gadgets such as coffee grinders and ice cream makers, and fridges the size of Yorkshire.
We were way behind, and not just with our primitive kitchens. Central heating was a luxury even in the grandest houses. Millions of people in the Sixties still didn’t have mains drainage, and, thanks again to Mr Wilson’s friends in the unions, if you wanted a telephone installed you might have to wait up to six months.
And, of course, life expectancy was shorter. Most serious illnesses were incurable. Diseases such as smallpox had yet to be eradicated, and celebrities appeared in advertisements professing that smoking was positively good for you.
Despite David Cameron — despite, indeed, Ed Miliband — I would struggle to say that I would rather have a re-run of the 1960s than carry on through the 2010s. But, if I were offered the 1860s, and a few years under the exciting and benign rule of Lord Palmerston and Mr Gladstone . . . now that would be quite another matter.