So farewell 2008 and the 68ers

Hardly surprisingly the Baby Boomer media elite have been reliving their youthful rebellions and revolutions of 40 years ago. More surprisingly, many have lost their triumphalism. Sadly, too few understand the death of “institution” which characterised the Sixties.

A personal note

In 1968 I was a long-haired 22-year old in patched jeans. Yes, there were beads. I was an anxious supporter of the US in Vietnam. I was not pro-Tory but I was anti-Labour. I had no sympathy with the idea that Britain was in need of any sort of revolution. I admired the British Constitution. I had never admired Bob Dylan but thought Cream were probably the best band in the world and that Good Vibrations was probably the best pop song of my generation. At the time, I was driving vans for a grocers’ firm called Walton, Hassell and Port out of a Victorian warehouse in Spring Place, Kentish Town, London. During the time I worked there, I may have overlapped with the spell David Aaronovitch spent at Gospel Oak Primary School just round the corner.

The bigger picture

David Aaronovitch made a very good programme for Radio 4 (The Sixty-eighters at 60) which anatomised the problem with 1968. (Broadcast in August and repeated in December 2008.) This isn’t so much that lots of the young revolutionaries have grown up in a greater appreciation that their country (and the US) was in better shape than they then supposed. And the nuclear family turned out not to be awful and probably better for most of us than communal upbringing. That’s all gratifying to those of us who never thought otherwise.

But one could argue that these retreats are from youthful extremes rather than from the underlying beliefs of the period.

David Aaronovicth’s programme was most interesting because it took a flying look at the influence of  Sixties radicalism.

Some of his interviewees were fascinating on the perverse effects of the wrong-headed application of 60s radicalism to northern Ireland’s much older sectarian wrongs. (It put the wind up a generation of Protestant unionists who might have been a bit more biddable if they had not seen such intensity of radicalism threatening them on all fronts.)  More widely, I’d note that the US got out of Vietnam because of massive mainstream antagonism whose expression was if anything delayed by national outrage at long-haired protest (whose main effect was to bolster Richard Nixon’s anti-radicalism, as argued by Rick Perlstein in Nixonland). The era of Reagan and Thatcher was a revolt against welfarist creep and economic fudge (and not any sort of response to Sixties radicalism).

For politicians older than Mrs Thatcher, the ’68ers were probably more or less indecipherably off-the-scale (and often more comic than threatening). She herself was very definitely a pre-Beatle type, and really an anti-Beatle type. It may be galling to them, but the 68ers really got their moment with Tony Blair. He was more or less effortlessly a reflection of their style, except that he was also some sort of an old-fashioned moralist who one could imagine ironing his jeans.

Is that it? Is that all there is?

One might be tempted to say that our sexual and moral freedoms are a product of the 68ers. But reforming men like David Steel, Hugh Greene and Roy Jenkins were not, I think, much inspired or empowered by the ’68ers.

Still, the youthful enthusiasms of (nearly) an entire generaton are apt to express some large social tendency and are apt to produce long-term social effects.

It’s more interesting to touch on the way that the ’68ers believed and still believe that “institutions” are a Bad Thing. The problem isn’t so much that they thought love and anarchy could run art schools and universities. It’s more that they found it – find it – hard to believe that structures, hierarchies and organisations are more valuable than the sum of their parts. I think the best quick discussion of this business is to be found in Confessions of a Reformed BBC Producer, Antony Jay’s pamphlet for CPS.

I have a profound problem with authority myself, so I may be a natural ’68er. I am certainly at least half a bohemian and I know what it is to be drawn to the Romantic as well as to the Classical. These are all Sixties tendencies.

These are the sorts of reasons for my feeling that the big claims of the 68ers – to have seen a new future both for individualism and for communalism – are not so much wrong as over-egged. These are very old tensions and putting them in jeans and setting them to electric guitar proved not really to much invigorate them.

Meantime, someone will have to rebuild the idea and practice of institutions. I have been very struck by the lack of institutional wisdom or memory in the modern BBC and the modern Parliament. The BBC can safely be binned. But Parliament is in the curious position of needing to rediscover old strengths (independence of character and mind) in order to also summon up the flexibility to bin old mummeries.

This is of course the point of my project, Making Better Government.

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Publication date

24 December 2008


On TV & Radio