1964: Annus Mirabilis
Outside Agitator (they/them)
- Jul 29, 2012
1964: ANNUS MIRABILIS
NEW PARTISAN REVIEW, 1974
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-four
(If we’re still keeping score) –
Between the end of the cinema ban
And the threat of nuclear war.
Philip Larkin, 1967
Nineteen sixty-four, twenty years before Orwell’s fateful imagined future, came as the high noon of the Bevanite revision. Accordingly, with perfect mathematical logic, we might look back on it as the high point of that strange post-script to the Mosley era. Was it, as Larkin suggested, the great and premature climax of the Sixties, after which everything in that decade felt like a fading after-image? Or is this just the conclusion of those bitter in the knowledge of what followed?
Let’s suppose Larkin is right. How does he build his case? The argument rests almost entirely upon one fact: sexual liberation – the momentous defrosting of tightly guarded British values about Puritanism and morality that had survived the revolution unscathed. Larkin says that Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-four, and perhaps he is right. Mosleyism had been an austere beast. For all of its borderline fascistic veneration of youth, energy, action, masculinity, and so on ad nauseam, it remained a sexless cult. Love-making did not exist; sex was for making babies, and there would be no great revolution in our private lives. In Mosley’s Britain, the liberated woman could work, if she did not have any childcare responsibilities, but this more or less marked the outer limit of her liberation. (The Communists of the 1930s had tried without success to bring in wages for housework, but they were kicked out of power before their plans could come to fruition.)
David Widgery, revolutionary polemicist and general practitioner.
Therefore what a shock to the system awaited in January 1964, when Britain saw the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual relations between men. This was but another milestone in the wider campaign to liberalise the penal code, undertaken by Domestic Secretary David Lewis starting the previous autumn with the statutory abolition of capital punishment. It continued over the spring and summer with the relaxation of laws surrounding divorce and abortion, which would have been far more scandalous had their smooth transition into fact not been overseen by the defiantly reformist Lewis, who would brook no hindrance in his quest to put ‘clear red water’ between the new government and the last. Revision of the absurdly outdated apparatus of domestic Britain allowed an easy win when options like economic revival and political overhaul seemed less appealing, or required a stronger stomach.
Not that Bevan’s government didn’t try. 1963 had seen reasonable foundations laid for the overall revisionist project in the form of economic and industrial reforms. In May 1963 Bevan’s wife Jennie Lee became the director of the new Office for Economic Coordination – somewhat inexplicably renamed from the old Office for Economic Planning, perhaps to suggest a lighter touch where a lighter touch may or may not have actually been found. The following month, new Employment Secretary Michael Foot was able to take the credit for reforms to labour law actually drawn up under the stewardship of his predecessor Annie Maxton. The tight leash forced onto the unions in 1950 was loosened a little, with the strike ballot requirement in key industries reduced to a simple majority from the previous two-thirds. This allowed soft Bevanite TUC boss George Woodcock to claim a mollifying victory, championing progress on the issue of worker rights while doing nothing to touch the outstanding dispute of the past decade: the persistence and proliferation of managerialism in British industry.
George Woodcock, General Secretary of the TUC (1959–66). Eyebrows wilder than his policies.
In broader terms, this was a problem that the Bevanite project fast encountered once in power. Their dispute with Mosley had been for the most part characterised by arguments over political and social freedoms. Bevanism was a fundamentally liberal movement, which is no great problem in itself – but it remained trapped by the notion that it was something more revolutionary. Aneurin Bevan was near enough the only British premier since 1934 who could lay claim to having been a bona fide revolutionary, yet finally coming to power more than three decades after the revolution he was forced to confront the fact that, below the illiberal surface, there was little he could find wrong with the structure of the Commonwealth as he inherited it.
By the same score, this reality defined the limits of the Bevan government’s sustainability, engaged as it was in the project of converting that which it found favourable from the opposition movement of the previous decade into the workings of the state. Hence Socialist Youth found a form of rebirth in Dick Crossman’s education reforms, which augmented the national curriculum to include the sort of humanist lessons in practical citizenship that had previously been provided by the former organisation. Elsewhere, the old liberal socialist dream of open-access education was given a fillip towards reality by the promise of more extramural teaching for workers under the banner of the new ‘Open University’, the flagship policy within the Education Secretariat’s push for a renovation of higher education in the Commonwealth. Accompanying this was a physical renovation of the Commonwealth’s social service infrastructure, with expansion and modernisation works slated in schools, hospitals and care homes across the country. Veteran Health Secretary Edith Summerskill was tasked with overseeing the construction of twenty brand new general hospitals – a mere five having been built since 1945. Meanwhile campaigning nurse Edith Ramsay’s report into nursing practice and education standards pointed towards a shift in priorities for British science and technology, which would henceforth reduce its interest in useful-for-their-own-sake grand projects in favour of increased resources for socially useful disciplines like medical research.
Dr. Edith Summerskill, Health Secretary (1961–7).
But all was not well in Nye Bevan’s alliterative New Britain. The longer the government refused to admit to the awkward fact of its uneasy foundation – on a bedrock of social liberalism, manifest as a proactively conservative movement – the more space was given over in which tensions could grow. Larkin himself admits this; his poem ends by placing the year 1964 in context, between two stern reminders: both of a troubled past and a troubled future. Proceeding according to good Hegelian dialecticism, these contradictions within British society in the mid-Sixties foretold the nature of the society’s end. At home, the same liberalism that defrosted the state of public discourse encouraged a new mode of auto-critique – undeniably healthy for the permanent revolutionary, but fatal to the powerful. Moreover, any thaw worth its salt is liable, perhaps out of necessity, to promote dissent equally in all places. Thus the same largesse that encouraged the Partisans and tolerated the New Spectator also gave tacit blessing to darker voices like Enoch Powell, whose rise towards the end of the decade exposed the grim fault-lines plaguing the shifting boundaries of the cultural revolution.
While still insured against the worst abuses through a legal formation that proscribed “capitalist and imperialist political organisations” – a Communist-era law given new life after the expansion of the People’s Assembly announced in October 1964 – there was little to prevent siren voices reaching British shores where overt political organisation was not a factor. There is something of an inevitable irony in the fact that, just at the time the CBC was expanding to accommodate previously underground tastes and cultures, new oppositional media were starting to smuggle their dangerous foreign ideas into Britain from abroad. An increased US Army presence in Germany from 1962 not only brought Europe steadily closer to war as the decade continued, but by the end of 1964 had made its mark on European culture too. Radio Free Europe, the pompously named official radio station of the US forces stationed in Germany, broadcast a heady cocktail of American music and opinion whose reach could be felt quite conspicuously even outside of German borders. From its headquarters in Bonn, RFE could be picked up by anyone who happened to be surfing the airwaves in the middle of the decade as far away as London and Paris. Thus American rock ’n’ roll and rhythm ’n' blues wormed their way into the consciousness of a certain section of the youth impressed by the loudness and swagger of American music, and fed up with the jazz– and folk-based sound of the British underground. The American Invasion fomented a minor R&B craze in London around the turn of 1964/65, spearheaded by the virtuosic musicianship of groups like The Bluesbreakers and The Blues Incorporated, and leaving in its wake the brash white rebel blues as espoused by bands like The Rolling Stones. In France, this craze for all things transatlantic during les années americaines was expressed through the music of yé-yé, a detectably mocking term that unfavourably contrasted the quality of these new rockers’ output (“yeah! yeah!”) with the wit and lyricism of java and chanson.
Beyond the world of popular music, RFE also gave a platform to less benign influences. Strident opinion pieces and current affairs programming worked in concert with a choice light programming schedule to bring Western Europe the best in American propagandising. Most notorious no doubt, for its absurdity as well as its impact, was the programme Storytime, presented by the infamous Roald Dahl. Dahl, a naturalised American whose Norwegian family had quit Britain for Canada shortly after the revolution, came across as a real-life comic-book villain over the airwaves. Having achieved renown as a flying ace with the US Air Force during the Pacific War he had gone into diplomatic service, and eventually became a writer of some reputation. Working by day to convince the America First isolationists who populated post-war Washington of the evils of their creed, he was possessed by a belief that Europe had to be rescued from the penury of communism. By night he moonlighted as an author, writing both darkly mischievous children’s books and macabre, moralising adult tales that told of goulash syndicalism and capitalist plenty. These he slipped into Britain three times weekly, exacting his ex-pat’s revenge upon any who would listen.
In hindsight, Britain had enough spy-film villains at home to do without Dahl’s grim fantasies. Equally obsessed by what he saw as Britain’s great ‘decline’ during the 1960s was Enoch Powell, who most certainly did not agree that life had never been better than it was in nineteen sixty-four. Powell was a figure quite unlike Dahl, an obscure but freakishly brilliant classicist – not entirely of the mortal plane – who in 1938, at the age of 26, had become the youngest full professor in the Commonwealth. Powell had tolerated the Mosley years through gritted teeth, disagreeing with its economic ethos while broadly approving of its pro-British chauvinism. In the early Sixties he had come into the circle of Iain Macleod and the Social Democratic Initiative, centred on the New Spectator, but he broke with them after the formation of the African Syndicate in 1963. Unshakeably convinced of the moral imperative for British hegemony in the Third World, Powell was deeply disturbed by the Bevan government’s rejection of a ‘fourth empire’, believing that a British exit from Africa would signal the end of the Commonwealth’s status as a global power. Simultaneously, and somewhat paradoxically for an evangelising free marketeer, he despised the ‘Americanisation’ of the globe; Powell feared the possibility that the United States would claim the vacuum of control abdicated by the vacating British, annexing Africa of behalf of the American empire.
Yet even this was not enough for a living host of contradictions like Powell, and his ideas about foreign policy went further still. In its antithetical way, Powell’s schizophrenia struck at the heart of the Bevanite project’s frustrated attempts to construct a coherent diplomatic strategy. Fenner Brockway’s time as International Secretary before the 1963 election was marked by the resurgence of what might be called a genuinely disinterested internationalism in the British outlook for the first time since the Thirties. In 1964, a year after Brockway’s retirement, the British global sphere continued to reap the benefits of this idealism with the push for pan-African self-determination across the Eurosyndicalist sphere, and encouraging moves in Asia during the period leading up to the formation of the South Asian Community of Nations in 1965. By this point, the scheming Bob Boothby had taken up the role of International Secretary, complicating what might have otherwise been a simple transition from short– to long-leash paternalism. Far more than uneasy bedfellow Brockway, Boothby held little regard for the moral argument that Britain had to abandon its influence in the Third World. At the same time, events in Europe were increasingly drawing his attention closer to home. Nye Bevan’s personal crusade towards the implementation of an international nuclear test ban received a welcome boost following the landmark visit of Soviet First Deputy Premier Alexei Kosygin to Antibes in April 1964, where he met with Eurosyn leaders to discuss the strengthening of Soviet–Syndicalist ties in the face of mounting American interest in Europe. At the same time, the ambidextrous diplomats in Washington were keeping busy confronting Syndicalist and Communist interests in Latin America and South East Asia. As the Sixties ticked into their second half, with Larkin’s “threat of nuclear war” disconcertingly real in the public imagination, any idea of a general British retreat from its prior obligations around the globe looked hopelessly naïve.
In the face of this governmental crisis of purpose, it is not hard to grasp how Powell’s ideas could find a niche – albeit a small one in 1964. Their eventual course across the rest of the decade – from Edwardian colonial enthusiasm to out-and-out race-baiting – is well known, but outside of my immediate focus. For now, it suffices to say that his place in British society, anomalous perhaps, was not inexplicable. Underneath the excitement lay an anxious underbelly; the unthinkable is but the ugly cousin of free expression. Lifted up into power, the former opposition gifted its humanism to the state apparatus. In turn, it had to contend with new and ever more insidious modes of dissent. (Such is the central bargain of power.)
And what of Mr Larkin? Was life really never better than in nineteen sixty-four? I was only seventeen, so what the hell would I know. Certainly, Britain had yet to reach the point where the optimism of the post-Mosley age soured into a full-blown identity crisis. The Commonwealth was a country still coming up, creeping towards the brink of a comedown. Ten years on from the inflection point of the last decade, we can appreciate a new sense of equanimity: thankful for the lessons learnt in the comedown, when it came; hopeful we will not have to repeat it for some years to come.
1: This terminology follows a suggested historiography of the British Empire which holds that the First Empire was concentrated in North America; the Second in Asia and Africa; the Third in the attempt to build a bloc of dominions and protectorates after the Great War; and the Fourth in renewed efforts at British control over the autonomous colonies within the Syndicalist system.