Historical Notes: Roy Jenkins - the hero of the Sixties

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The Independent Culture
LIKE NEW York's Greenwich Village, an intellectual-cum-social concept never so limited as to be an actual geographical enclave, "the Sixties", another such phenomenon, was always more than mere chronology: a state of mind rather than a mere decade. The beginnings can be traced to the late Forties, among the US beats whose anabases across America can be seen as triggering all that would follow, and the termination in the late 1970s, in the supposedly anti-hippie, but far more anti-establishment world of punk. And in between a variety of melodramas: the annus mirabilis of '63 (Beatlemania, Profumo, the Kennedy killing) the "Summer of Love" of '67, the "revolution" of '68, the Oz Trial of '71 and all the rest.

But dimensions are not the point. The bigger question remains: what was it all about? Generalisations stink, but I'd suggest that in the short term, and for a strictly limited guest list, it was the most wonderful of parties. Like every party it had its ups and downs - the drunken couple brawling in the corner, the comatose doper laid out on the floor, the tedious, inevitable poopers - but at its best it thrilled and delighted, with its costumes, its games and its momentary madness.

And the longer term? Dare I propose a Britain that in one short spell saw its mores change in a way unprecedented in an entire century? A range of social engineering, on "Obscene Publications", on the ending of capital punishment, on divorce, on gay rights and on abortion that dragged the country, however reluctantly, into the "modern world".

Factor in accessible contraception, the seeds of gender politics, the first shoots of "green" consciousness, the increasing consumption of "recreational" drugs and even the idea that neither the grey suit nor the twinset need represent the ultimate in sartorial style, even the concept of "doing one's own thing" and one sees a blueprint for all that has followed.

What links such changes is democratisation. Nothing that would be brought to the mass by legislation had not always been on offer to the privileged few. Most of the cultural "revolutions" were far from new: one had been able to procure an abortion, to utilise contraception, to take recreational drugs, to read illicit literature, to divorce and to indulge in same-sex relationships. But none of it had been very open, and in most cases such freedoms needed money.

Contraception was different: the exclusivity there came from gender rather than income. The complaisant doctor, the discreet cohabitation of a pair of bachelors - such things were the perks of the middle classes and above. There had also been vegetarians, feminists, British Buddhists, free lovers, communards and the like - but these were simply "cranks". What the Sixties brought was the end to a value system that had stood in place for more than a century. In many ways the critics were right to worry; it was indeed the end of their ordered, hierarchical, deferential world.

Such changes even have a hero. If a Howard or a Straw - right-wingers compensating for their innate mediocrity with knee-jerk authoritarianism - represents the man in the Dover saloon bar, then Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967, emerged from an Oxbridge high table. The idea of a liberal Home Secretary is anomalous, but so he was. As a private member he had piloted through the Obscene Publications Act; now, in power, he shepherded along his raft of ground-breaking liberality. We were all grown- ups, we could be treated as such. Nanny, that figurehead of British life, was, albeit briefly, sent packing.

Such legislation, more than "swinging London", than Carnaby Street, more than a whole carillon of be-belled and beaded hippies, changed Britain and changed it for good. Nanny returned in 1979, and grows ever more arrogant, but Pandora's Box - a repository not of evil but of knowledge - was opened. Try as they might, those who fear such knowledge will not replace its lid.

Jonathon Green is the author of `All Dressed Up' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)