Podium: Glen O'Hara: It's time to take the swing out of the Sixties

From a lecture by the Graduate Scholar of University College, London, on conflict and consensus in Britain in the Sixties
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The Independent Culture
TO JUDGE by newspapers, magazines, books and television programmes, the Sixties were a libertine heaven, a social revolution of cheap and easily available contraception, pornography and drugs bursting over a traditional and conservative society.

Traditional party politics has been similarly caricatured, represented as a world of agreement and co-operation in which harmony reigned, entrenching a shared commitment to social services that had been born in the wartime coalition and had weathered all the storms since. Taken together, social change and political harmony constitute the myth of the British Sixties.

When these myths and legends press too close, it is almost impossible to think of the Sixties without summoning up a host of cliches. Lists of commonplace black-and-white images - including, no doubt, Jean Shrimpton's earrings, Michael Caine's glasses and David Frost's sneer - take about 10 seconds to bring to mind, but much longer to forget. Even our very terms, the buzz-words in which we speak about the Sixties , have been infected by this tendency: "swinging Sixties", "consumer society", "cool London", "Beatlemania", "permissive society" trip off the tongue.

Concentration on social change, important as it was, has acted to conceal the nature of the nation that did not shop in Carnaby Street or live on the King's Road, that, in the words of John Mortimer, "went on going to church, respecting their parents and even standing up for the National Anthem". For Britain, far from basking in a new, consumer society governed by politicians who pursued affluence and differed only over how to achieve more market freedoms for their people, remained divided on class lines, geographically - and politically.

For one thing, so-called affluence was far from evenly distributed. People at the time both knew, and gave voice to, this fact. Opinion surveys registered large majorities agreeing with such statements as "there is one law for the rich and one for the poor" and, "there is such a thing as a class struggle in this society".

The British state was no neutral arbiter of a society growing richer, more equal and more tolerant. Its provision of services was uneven, even glaringly unjust. Thousands of schools lacked inside toilets, playing- fields, gymnasiums and central heating, and they were predictably clustered in Britain's poorest areas. The slums had not shrunk or altered their character a great deal since the Thirties.

What we read as the history of a new Britain, fostering the success of sons of the skilled upper working class - among them Terence Stamp, David Bailey and any number of other cultural icons - is in fact the story of a cosmopolitan social elite, rather than the story of a united nation. If we did not insist on treating that foreign country as the germ of our own society, and instead looked at it realistically, we could begin to salvage the Sixties from the myths and legends.

We should not be surprised to find politics, even politics in the narrow sense of the clash of parties at Westminster, dominated by bitter ideological dissension as to how to govern this fragmented society. In every field of policy, policies that were followed in government were more radical and more extreme than the headline result of a continuing "welfare state" has led us to believe.

Just take one example: the housing policies of the Wilson governments of 1964-1970, so derided for their ideological timidity at the time, were in fact consistent throughout - more houses in the public sector at subsidised rents, more public ownership of land through a central holding agency, more powers for local and regional planners to disperse the urban working classes to new towns: a limited, but recognisable, socialist programme, however pragmatic and cautious Labour's leadership.

A disunited nation that was led by a divided political class: not the typical picture of the Sixties that we have been led to believe in. It is, however, the vision that must prevail if our Sixties are to be seen as objectively, and historically, as our 1860s.