This is adapted from an essay I wrote earlier this year, which attempted to ascertain whether the 1960’s were, for Britain, a period of change or continuity. Its flaws are now all too apparent, but I hope it will prove useful to somebody. For those interested in the subject, I would recommend Arthur Marwick without hesitation.

When social historians refer to “The Sixties”, it is rare that they are talking about the decade in its entirety or that decade exclusively. For example, some claim that the sixties began, as a cultural phenomenon, in 1963. A convincing case can be made in support of this. Events such as the assassination of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King’s “Dream Speech”, the debut albums of both The Beatles and Bob Dylan immediately appear as cultural turning points. I would agree that 1963 appears to be the point at which civil rights, counter/youth culture and a new, somewhat alien mentality began to emerge into the mainstream consciousness. In spite of this, I concur with Arthur Marwick’s conception of the “Long Sixties”. Marwick has argued that it is impossible to view the phenomenon in a “hermetically sealed” time frame, and that it truly began in the late fifties, and came to its conclusion in the early seventies. This is compatible with the idea that 1963 was important, indeed Marwick suggests it marks the beginning of the “High Sixties”, but we must also acknowledge the gathering momentum of change in the years leading up to this point. Thus, the period of the Long Sixties I will be discussing here refers to 1958-1974.

A far more difficult definition comes with the terms “cultural” and “revolution”. To further complicate matters, when the two are used together, we can turn them into a proper noun, as with Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Thus, it is important for us to differentiate between that Cultural Revolution, and cultural revolution in the far broader terms we are describing here. Was this a collective movement towards a universalistic revolution, or were individuals campaigning for their own singular interests? So what is a revolution, and, perhaps more pertinently, what is a culture? Revolution is a term which appears with startling regularity in world history, and has been applied to many different things. In this case, revolution refers to a paradigm shift in the way in which people live. The Industrial Revolution is perhaps the most notable of these cases. Here we can see a massive, quantifiable change (e.g. the appearance of the factories, the urbanisation of the population) that had inescapable ramifications for every strata of society. This widespread change in the lives of the population, and changes in the social structure of British society, is the definition of revolution that I will be using in this discussion.

Not surprisingly, a shift in culture is far harder to measure than a change in the means of production. What is it that we mean by culture? Over the past two decades there has been much debate on the precise meaning of culture. Culture has, in the common lexicon, come to mean what we might more specifically refer to as “high-culture”, the realm of literature, classical music and theatre, and generally the domain of the refined, educated middle and upper classes. My definition, for the purposes of this discussion, is that culture is the manner in which people live. I shall analyse some of the elements which constitutes a culture, and attempt to evaluate whether these elements underwent significant change. Therefore I will examine youth culture, the role of women, education and religion.

First, it is important to put the era in context. In 1957, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made perhaps his greatest contribution to the writers of historical essays when he stated, “some of our people have never had it so good”. The direct implications of this statement are clear, from an economic perspective. Britain was a nation finally shaking off the doldrums of post-war austerity, with rationing (abolished in full by 1954) becoming a rapidly fading notion with staple food now cheaply available, the luxuries and conveniences we now consider to be the central appeal of modern suburban life were becoming widespread . The shift towards increasing leisure time, particularly with regards to women, was significant. The burden of domestic drudgery was lifted by labour-saving devices such as automatic washing machines (introduced to Europe in 1951) and electric steam irons (1952), was symptomatic of an increasingly affluent middle class. Entertainment too, was taking on a more universalistic role in society. Radio (although the transistor radio was only invented in 1953) and cinema were of course long established by this point. Television was also beginning to slowly pervade the cultural consciousness, but was not yet widespread. Certainly it would be sometime yet before this would become the utterly dominant social force that it is today, it was still reserved for the most part for the middle class. Remarkably, coupled with this new wave of prosperity, Britons were, for the first time, enjoying the benefits of a National Health Service (as of 1948), increased housing standards (the general move away from terraced housing, and toward suburban semi-detached) and a new education system (the Tripartite system which emerged following the Butler Act of 1944). What seems so striking is that such a seemingly socialist society could exist under successive Conservative governments. Indeed, the continuation of such institutions seem anathema to Tory ideology. What we must appreciate is how different Conservative policy, particularly under Harold Macmillan, was during this period. Instead of the almost dogmatic devotion to privatisation and laisez-faire that characterised the 1980’s Tory governments, the period of the 1950’s saw a more compassionate mix of free market capitalism and state intervention.

So it is from this point that we mark the beginning of our “Long Sixties”. A prosperous decade ensued - between 1955 and 1969, the increase in working-class and middle-class earnings averaged 128% (Government Statistics). Britain was a country which retained, for the most part, a long established culture. Many of its politicians, lawmakers and cultural icons still belonged to Edwardian age, not least the “aristocratic” Macmillan, its social mores and values (e.g. attitudes to women, attitudes towards the Empire) still adhered to the sensibilities of a more fastidious time. Indeed, while Britain may have economically re-emerged from the shadow of the Great Wars, its national psychology was indelibly marked by them. However, in the early 1960’s, almost 40% of the population was under 25. The increasing affluence of Britain’s youth provided them with greater personal choice and freedom. Between 1958 and 1966, young people’s real incomes almost doubled in real terms. Akhtar and Humphries’ (1988) suggest that disposable incomes rose further. Indeed, the divides between the declining mainstream establishment culture and its ascendant youth counterpart were becoming increasingly apparent. Youth culture had existed in the past, the Jazz Age of the 1920’s being a famous example, but never before had young people gone to such great lengths to express and distinguish themselves, through fashion, politics and music. We can attribute this, in part, to the increasing influence of American culture on British society. The curious mixture of rebelliousness, individuality and uniformity of fashion espoused by the likes of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry in the mid to late 1950’s would serve as the early reference points for such a movement. With the rise of the mass media, as well as the increasing availability and affordability of travel, the distinctions between the two separate cultures were becoming increasingly blurred. The onset of American popular culture on British youth was very difficult for the mainstream, “Establishment” culture to absorb. This movement was a rejection of all values and desperate attempt to generate new ones. It could be argued that as the Sixties progressed youth culture became increasingly indifferent to society, focusing instead on music, drugs, sex and fashion. This rejection of established values and traditions has been attributed to a number of factors. Some would argue that the abolition of National Service in 1959 created a vacuum which undermined their sense of collective duty. Others would point towards rising levels of youth delinquency, manifested in gangs such as Teddy-Boys, Mods and Rockers, as well as the rise in violent crime. Indeed, the youth generation of the Long Sixties could certainly be labelled the first truly “permissive” generation. Fashion and music became, paradoxically, both more androgynous and sexualised. It was becoming increasingly acceptable for young men to grow long hair, and for women to dress in traditionally “male” clothing. Musicians such as the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix were respected for glorifying illegal activities such as drug taking. Extra-marital sex gained increasing acceptability. Crucially, for the first time in Britain’s cultural history, it was young people themselves who began to set the trends that they would follow. However, youth culture was not purely hedonistic, as youth found alternative ways to challenge the establishment. One must only regard the long list of student causes of the time, nuclear disarmament (CND was founded in 1958), environmental issues (Greenpeace was founded in 1971), women’s rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, to argue that this was perhaps the most politicised generation, before or since. This is vindicated by the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1968. In addition, the changes in fashion and music were often a conscious affront to authority and establishment tradition, and thus were revolutionary in their own way. Thus, I believe that an irrevocable change in the youth culture of British society took place.

In terms of equality and liberalisation regarding women, the law perhaps changed at a faster rate than it has before or since. In 1967, a range of laws were passed that changed the rights of women, and thus their lifestyle, forever. The Family Planning Act, made contraception widely and freely available to all women. This revolutionisd the power of women to have a children when, and with whom, they chose. In addition, the sexual freedom that contraception afforded women (equal to that of men), profoundly altered sexual life in Britain forever. Moreover, the Abortion Act legalised abortion of pregnancies up to twenty eight weeks in development, and was an incredible catalyst in changing the lives of women. Two years later, the Divorce Reform Act reconfigured the way in which people perceived marriage, as it now allowed divorce under the looser condition of the “irretrievable breakdown of marriage”, which greatly empowered women to end marriages. It also provided Legal Aid to women applying for divorce, which meant it was no longer beyond the means of the poor. Following this Act, the rate of divorce approximately doubled. One of the criticisms levelled at the “permissiveness” of the era is the legacy it left in terms of single parent families and rising divorce rates. But can we label such trends “moral decline”, or were they merely the by-products of an increasingly liberated female population? By 1964, half a million women were making use of the contraceptive pill, perhaps enabling an attitude towards recreational sex equal to that of men. On the other hand, Geoffrey Gorer’s survey (April-May 1969, “Sex and Marriage In England Today“) found that 40% of couples did not make use of birth control, and of the 19% of married women using the pill, they were mostly from “younger and wealthier” groups. Gorer also found an immense variety in attitudes towards sexual behaviour, although there was a slow movement, particularly in the middle classes, of changing social mores. The influence of the feminist movement (which initially emerged from the |United States of AmericaUnited States), also began to effect the attitudes of many women, albeit those from predominately educated, middle class backgrounds. Combined with increasing numbers of women entering higher education, this led to an increasing awareness of the repression of women in the traditionally patriarchal society. The introduction of labour saving devices meant that women were no longer tied to the household, and had greater amounts of free time. This shift in perspective was epitomised by the Equal Pay Act of 1970 (although this did not become compulsory until 1975). The low unemployment rate and growth of service industries following World War II led to an increasing demand for women in the workplace. How does this suggest a cultural revolution? I would argue that as women’s role in society fundamentally changed, from mother and wife to salary-earner so did their function in our culture. The Long Sixties represents perhaps the move away from patriarchal culture, what Marwick referred to as “the end of Victorianism”, and toward a more egalitarian model (e.g. the changing role of women in the workplace). I would hypothesise (although this of course would be difficult to prove) that Britain could not have had a female Prime Minister without the change in attitudes experienced during the 1960’s. Without doubt, the nature of life for women in the Long Sixties changed completely.

The corner stone of any significant cultural change must surely come from education. If one thing could characterise the changing nature of education during this period, it would be the shift toward a more egalitarian system. In 1944 the Butler Act had set up the Tripartite system as the basis under which state schools would operate in Britain. At the time, this was seen as a revolutionary measure, as it promised an education tailored to young people of all abilities and backgrounds. The principle was that with each person taking standardised tests at the age of eleven, the education system would progress towards a state of equality. However, over the twenty one years that followed its instatement, it became clear that the system was based not only on raw intellectual ability, but the outcome of the system also reflected the class system it was supposed to disintegrate. Additionally, the so called “parity of esteem” that was alleged to exist between grammar, secondary modern and technical schools, (that each would be treated with equal prestige and value) was widely regarded by employers and the general public as fallacy. Not only were secondary moderns under funded in comparison to grammar schools, but were regarded by the public as inferior. There was a far lower proportion of people to emerge from them with qualifications, and for many professions and Universities, a grammar school education was all but a prerequisite. One could argue that this system meant that children of privilege, but limited ability, would be similarly treated to their working class counterparts. But it could not be this simple. Children from wealthy backgrounds who “failed’ the Eleven Plus test were often simply entered into fee paying schools, were they got the same, if not greater, standard of education that they would at a grammar school. In this way, privilege could be perpetuated from generation to generation. This was seemingly the case until 1965, when Harold Wilson’s recently elected Labour government instituted the Comprehensive school system. The principle here was that instead of Tripartite’s gradual movement towards social change, the creation of a single type of institution, the Comprehensive school, would bring about a an education system that was entirely meritocratic, in which the trappings of status and upbringing meant nothing, and the most naturally gifted students would be rewarded. Indeed, in many ways, this was a success. From 1957 to 1967, the percentage of people who attended Universities from working class backgrounds rose by a staggering 130% (HMSO, 1969), and the Labour government did its best to keep pace with demand, creating modernistic “Polytechnics”. It was not, however, the revolution that some may have hoped for. Some grammar schools were allowed to exist alongside comprehensives at the discretion of local councils, and such authorities were perhaps inevitably, in the more affluent areas of the country, reinforcing the idea that such education was primarily the domain of the wealthy. Private education, and most significantly public schools, were allowed to continue, with all the class divisiveness that that implies. To this day, a disparity of academic achievement based upon background exists at all levels of the education system (people from middle class backgrounds are more likely to leave school with qualifications, and go on to higher education), although certainly not the degree to which it was present prior to these changes. While following governments have indeed experimented, to a very minor extent, with the system, it is still largely intact from the mid-sixties, and so I contend that a revolution took place in education during this period.

When considering religion during the 1960’s, many people tend to immediately think of often esoteric, occasionally wildly extreme cults and movements which seemed to proliferate in this era. Indeed, we cannot ignore the rising eminence of “New Age” spiritualism during the period, and the exponential growth in “alternative lifestyles”. The increasing availability of travel and foreign literature allowed people greater access to the traditions of other cultures. In spite of this, I would suggest that the unorthodox nature of such belief systems, and the peculiar nostalgia attached to them would tend to exaggerate their importance at the time, and draw attention away from the true paradigm of the age: the decline of established monotheistic religion. Of course, what we are really referring to by this is mainstream Christianity. Nevertheless, the snowballing decline in Church attendance far outweighed this. From 1961 to 1971, the number of baptisms per year fell by 65,000, and the number of confirmations decreased by 80,000 (National Census, 1971). What is the explanation for this sudden slump? Could it be that New Age cults successfully lured away previously dedicated churchgoers in their thousands? While certainly some did convert, the real phenomena that took place was the secularisation of society. Why then did such changes take place? One could argue that the Long Sixties was a very scientific period. The Ban The Bomb symbol became perhaps the iconic image of the decade. Indeed, the existential rationality that pervaded intellectual circles of the time must surely have been seeping into mainstream culture in subtle, yet powerful ways (towards the end of the Sixties, popular music, such as The Beatles‘ “Strawberry Fields Forever“, began to tackle such issues). Could faith exist in an age were cynicism and nihilism (symptomatic of the paranoia of the Cold War) were becoming cultural traits? Youth culture also provided young people with ready alternatives to religious devotion. John Lennon was doubtless exaggerating when he claimed his band to be “bigger than Jesus”, but the fanatical fervour that “Beatlemania” invoked should not be underestimated as a cultural force. So, it would seem that Britain over the course of the period, despite its reputation as being a very “spiritual” decade, was a nation in which religion was declining; “we are a post - Christian era” wrote Theodore Roszak in 1969. The social implications of this, as to whether it was an important step in the personal liberation, or the first step in Britain’s moral undoing, is very much a matter of individual interpretation and outlook. What seems beyond doubt, however, is that the religious structure of the nation had changed forever, and thus in the context of religion, I would argue that a cultural revolution certainly did take place.

While these arguments certainly make a compelling case for the occurrence of a cultural revolution it implies that all elements of society were affected by the changes that occurred. Some historians have proposed that instead the Sixties represented a period of continuity. For example, for much of the working class, life did not significantly change over the Long Sixties. Much of the mainstream press, particularly the tabloids (often the best indicator of mass opinion) remained staunchly reactionist, and it would be incredulous to argue that by the early 1970’s the majority of Britons had developed an enlightened attitude to homosexuality, race or even women’s rights. As Christopher Rowe observed, “There was not much of a social revolution happening at, for example, the Women’s Institute Flower show in Dunster, the hunt in Northamptonshire, or among the men playing dominoes in the Working Men’s Club in Rochdale.” Rowe has a valid point, but has evoked archetypal bastions of conservatism and tradition, and these would not represent the entire nation. It is misleading to suggest that the Sixties marked the beginning of many social movements. The women’s liberation movement, for example, had its origins pre-First World War. Most damaging, perhaps, to the assertion that a revolution took place is the relatively fast withdrawal of many of the values that it promoted. By 1979, Margaret Thatcher won an election with an image and agenda akin to the early 1950’s. Some historians therefore argue that the events of the Sixties could be seen as short term cultural trends, rather than long term social change.

In 1970, Bernard Levin wrote that in the 1960’s, “we saw an old world die, and a new one come to birth”. This statement encapsulates the nucleus of the debate. Can it be justified? Unfortunately, there are two flaws in this contention. Firstly, that in many ways the old world strongly resembled the new. The culture that existed in Britain prior to the Long Sixties was by no means destroyed in the events which took place, and the new culture created by its conclusion was far from reaching universal acceptance and influence. Some peoples lives remained mostly similar from 1958 to 1974. Indeed, it would be fair to say that for some people, the 1960’s was simply another decade. Which brings is to the next fault in Levin’ statement. If we are to accept that a new world was created during this era, then could not the same be said of any decade? No civilisation is unaffected by the passing of time, and no culture exists in absolute stasis for any protracted periods. Thus, could not the term “revolution” be applied to all historical change? So, it would seem preposterous to claim that an absolute cultural revolution took place. However, we cannot ignore the significant and accelerated changes that I have attempted to analyse. The legal and social changes which affected women during this period were profound and the position and role of women had altered dramatically. Not only did the lives of young people change beyond recognition, but the pervasiveness of youth culture into the mainstream had a lasting effect, well beyond the confines of the Long Sixties. With the two main pillars on which culture rests, education and religion, it seems that the changes that took place had profound effects for most of society. The beginnings of secularisation in the late 1950’s, in addition to the New Religious Movements that emerged in the 1960’s, exacerbated the changing nature of Britain’s morality and beliefs. In terms of education, we cannot say that the system was entirely replaced, nor was the class system destroyed. However, in principle, Comprehensive education provided greater social mobility, in terms of class, gender and race. The legal and cultural changes that occurred during the period are still having an impact on contemporary society. For example, the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967 prompted changing attitudes. Whether all of these changes were beneficial or damaging to society is a matter entirely of subjective opinion.

While revolution seems an ultimately inappropriate term for the phenomena that occurred, it is crucial that we do not underestimate the gravity of the changes that took place during the Long Sixties. While there were aspects of Britain’s cultural life which I have not examined that remained relatively unchanged, I would argue that the particular elements of culture that I have focused on would certainly appear to have undergone revolutionary changes in this period. Perhaps then what the period really constitutes is a period of accelerated evolution, in which a wave of accumulated changes finally broke.


The Sixties- Arthur Marwick
Oxford University Press Oxford, 1998

British Society Since 1945- Arthur Marwick
Pelican Middlesex, 1982

The Age Of Extremes- Eric Hobsbawm
Abacus London, 1994

Very Heaven, Looking Back At The 1960’s- Sara Maitland
Virago Press London, 1988

Britain Since 1945, A Political History- David Childs
Routledge London, 1984

The Sixties, Mainstream And Counter-Culture- Open University
Open University Press Milton Keynes, 1998

Britain In The 20th Century- Liz Petheram
Nelson Thornes Chester, 2001

Britain In The Twentieth Century, A Documentary Reader- Butler & Jones
Heinemann Educational Secondary Division Oxford, 1994

Contemporary Britain: 1914-1974, Robert Pearce
Longman Harlow, 1997

The Fifties And Sixties: A Lifestyle Revolution- Miriam Akhtar & Steve Humphries
Boxtree London, 2001

The Pendulum Years- Bernard Levin
Icon Books Cambrige 1970

The Making of a Counter Culture - Theodore Roszak
Faber & Faber, London, 1969

Britian 1929-98- Christopher Rowe
Heinemann, Oxford, 2004

National Statistics Online

The Times

The Sunday Times

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