Rethinking Britain’s Sixties

There are currently two major paradigms in British Sixties scholarship: my new book seeks to introduce a third.

The orthodox accounts, mostly written in the 1990s and early 2000s, interpreted Britain’s Sixties as a ‘people’s revolution’. In this view, the Sixties witnessed substantial changes amongst the mass of the population: moral change was prompted by social factors, such as affluence, economic growth, or technology.

In the last fifteen years, though, this orthodoxy has been challenged by a wave of revisionist scholars, who argue that mainstream British society did not actually change very much during the 1960s: the major social shifts, they argue, began in the very late 1960s, and did not become widely influential until the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst there were some radicals in the 1960s, they were not typical.

This seems correct, but it also seems unsatisfying: if not much change occurred in the 1960s, why were so many people convinced of the opposite? Why all the sound and fury?

My work suggests that, by adopting recent developments in cultural theory, we can find a new, post-revisionist path between these two approaches. As I argue in the book, we should see the late 1950s and early 1960s as a period of the widespread perceptions of social change, and the late 1960s and 1970s as a period when these perceptions became reality, as people began to act out in practice what they thought everyone else was doing. In this way, we can explain the (incorrect, but sincerely believed) orthodox perception of massive social change in the early 1960s, but also accommodate the revisionist finding that large-scale social change didn’t occur until the late 1960s and 1970s.

This approach inverts the normal explanations of British Sixties. The conventional approach assumes that social conditions (affluence, peace, technology, etc.) were fundamental, and they drove cultural changes (secularisation, individualism, sexual revolution, etc.). But the post-revisionist approach suggests the opposite: that cultural changes (invented metanarratives of irreversible secularisation, growing anti-authoritarianism, sexual revolution, etc.) were fundamental, and that they drove social changes (people enacting these things).

In this vein, I have written on the invention and enactment of Britain’s secular society, on the invention and enactment of Britain’s sexual revolution, and on cultural paths into Sixties political radicalism.

But this raises the question: why was there a sudden cultural paradigm-shift in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

If you look at the classic revolutions of Western modernity, they typically occur during episodes of major crisis. The French revolution of 1789 looked very unlikely until the crops failed, and the state went bankrupt; the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 looked unlikely until Russia started badly losing the First World War; the Nazi revolution of 1933 looked unlikely until the Great Depression of 1929. In my new book, I argue that Britain’s Sixties was chiefly triggered by fears of nuclear annihilation, during this most desperate episode of the Cold War.

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