Trapped in a time warp

October 24, 1997

Not coming to terms with the freedoms of the 1960s has cost the Tories dearly, argues Richard Cockett

In July 1967, an ambitious young television producer called John Birt staged one of the more surreal "happenings" of the 1960s when he flew Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones to a country house lawn confrontation with the "Establishment" for the ITV programme World in Action. Confronting the icon of youthful rebellion when he descended from his helicopter was a select band of the great and the good, including a token bishop and the new editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg. The producer, and certainly the viewers, must have hoped for, at the very least, an almighty row, and at best, physical violence. All were to be disappointed, especially Rees-Mogg who was astonished to discover that Jagger was a "right-wing libertarian - straight JohnStuart Mill".

In terms of political economy, Rees-Mogg was, on this occasion, showing a high degree of foresight, anticipating the day when the Rolling Stones tours would be sponsored by Coca-Cola and the Hell's Angels would move on from clubbing innocent bystanders to death to erecting corporate hospitality suites. The Rolling Stones, like most of that generation of rock stars, showed no enthusiasm for the high taxation and redistribution of wealth that was supposed to underlie the more equal and socialist society that they sometimes paid lip service to; many of them, like the best tycoons, went into tax exile, only to return to Britain in the 1980s. The Beatles had already written Taxman as their own protest against collectivism through taxation. Rees-Mogg might by the mid-1990s have collected his peerage, but Paul McCartney had been made a knight. So the counter-culture of one generation seemed to flow seamlessly into the mainstream of the next.

In one sense, then, the individualism of the 1960s was accepted and even encouraged by good Tories such as Rees-Mogg, but only when it was applied to the limited field of economics. It was the rest of the agenda of 1960s individualism - the freedoms to choose your own sexuality, to have children inside a marriage or without, to accept a traditional "British" culture or reject it, the freedom of women to gain equality with men - that the Tories never really came to terms with, and which has come back to haunt them in the 1990s. Most of the long-term implications of the 1960s were brushed under the carpet by the Tories of the Thatcherite generation. Only now, with attitudes and assumptions that seemed so radical in the 1960s becoming the norm, is Toryism having to form a coherent response to them. That debate, which has been shirked for so long, really started two weeks ago at Blackpool.

Thatcher's memoirs are very illuminating about her own response to the 1960s, especially as at the beginning of that decade she and Denis (himself divorced) were living just off the King's Road. "By 1964 British society had entered a sick phase of liberal conformism passing as individual self-expression". And, more tellingly: "A whole 'youth culture' of misunderstood eastern mysticism, bizarre clothing and indulgence in hallucinatory drugs emerged ... I had mixed feelings about what was happening. There was vibrancy and talent, but this was also in large degree a world of make-believe. A perverse pride was taken in Britain about our contribution to these trends. Carnaby Street in Soho, the Beatles, the mini-skirt and the maxi-skirt were the new symbols of 'swinging Britain'. And they did indeed prove good export earners.'' At times she sounds like an alien who has landed, by accident, on another planet. However, she was prepared to put up with some of it as long as it contributed to the balance of payments - the political economist's response to the 1960s. What is missing is any acceptance or understanding of these new freedoms on their own terms, and Thatcherism as it developed in the 1980s studiously tried to ignore or sometimes to reverse what was stigmatised as the "permissive" legacy of the 1960s. Such an attitude was already beginning to look a little threadbare by the mid-1980s. In the mid-1990s this Victorianism looks positively antediluvian.

John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign blew up in his face as his ritual endorsement of "family values" quickly descended into a bedroom farce acted out by his own MPs. The Tories, rightly, end up appearing as the party of sexual hypocrisy. 1980s Conservativism had trumpeted economic libertarianism while trying to suppress or ignore the sexual, social and women's revolutions that has come to dominate much of the private and public discourse of the 1990s, and they eventually paid the price.

New Labour, on the other hand, has outflanked them by successfully embracing many of these changes in society of the past two decades, and the parliamentary party now contains a much more representative cross-section of the country, with 101 women, three openly gay and one lesbian MP. And none of this is even considered worthy of much comment any more. The Conservative Party, by contrast, looks trapped in a time warp.

What Hague was attempting to do at Blackpool was to redress the balance of the party's liberalism, to rescue it from the cul-de-sac into which it had been driven by his predecessors. Michael Portillo, who had positioned himself as the leader of the Tory right with a series of extremely aggressive and intolerant speeches in 1992-93, led the way by preaching the virtues of tolerance, a theme picked up by William Hague in his own leader's speech. Tolerance, of other people's lifestyles, sexuality and colour, is, of course, one of the defining characteristics of liberalism. Hague would have doubtless have got two cheers from William Rees-Mogg and probably a whole three from John Stuart Mill.

What they were responding to is the fact that a generation brought up on the economics of acquisitive individualism of 1980s Toryism never made the kind of distinctions that the Thatcher generation (brought up during the war) made between economic liberalism and social liberalism. The under-40s, who now largely view the Conservative party in the same way that Thatcher viewed the King's Road in 1964, are the legatees and principal beneficiaries of the 1980s as well as the 1960s. New Labour has successfully provided a political synthesis of this twin inheritance; Hague, in his rather hesitant and naive manner, has started to try to do the same for the Tories, knowing that the alternative is for the party to literally die on its feet.

Richard Cockett is lecturer in modernhistory, Royal Holloway, Universityof London.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments