Finding A Role? The United Kingdom 1970-1990
‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role,’ said the US Secretary of State Dean Acheson in 1962. Acheson’s famous remark sets up Brian Harrison’s two volumes in the New Oxford History of England – but not for a fall. Like Seeking A Role: The United Kingdom 1951-1970 (2009), this is a brilliant work of modern history.
Harrison concludes that the British still haven't found a role. But, while wrestling with status anxiety, they have created a richer and freer society for themselves. Our families and communities are less cohesive than they were 40 years ago but that’s down to affluent Britain, not ‘broken Britain’. The reason why the number of people living alone doubled between 1977 and 1996 is because the generations choose to live apart now. Family breakdown is also a cause, but the higher divorce rate stems mainly from ‘higher expectations of marriage, especially among women’ rather than rank immorality.
Taken together, Harrison calls this ‘a revolution in British social arrangements comparable with and perhaps more lasting than the growth of class consciousness during the industrial revolution’. Greater individual freedom brought about by affluence has forced governments to be more socially liberal, for example by legalising abortion. ‘After the 1960s,’ the author observes, ‘British institutions – the law, the taxation system, schools, churches, political parties – stumbled awkwardly in [the] wake’ of changing lifestyles.
Given that the young drove this revolution, it’s surprising that Harrison doesn’t take youth culture more seriously. He dismisses the Sex Pistols’ 1977 song ‘God Save the Queen’ as a ‘sneering attack on British ideals’ and ‘a childish publicity stunt’. The lasting appeal of punk’s howl against class privilege surely signifies the decline of deference in modern Britain and of Royalism in particular. Which is why Diana’s celebrity glamour and the Queen’s ‘sheer professionalism’ both failed to restore the monarchy’s popularity.
That said, the book’s only major flaw is the section ‘Multiculturalism?’ Harrison takes the view that ‘practical grievances’ of the white population explain hostility to immigration more than racism. Hence we are told that the ‘regional concentration’ of immigrants was a valid concern; the trouble with Enoch Powell’s repatriation plan being that it was an ‘utterly inadequate remedy’. In fact, both ‘problem’ and ‘remedy’ were framed by racist ideologies which had been developed to justify empire and which survived decolonisation. It was the pernicious influence of those ideologies in most zones of public culture, bleeding into daily life, which so divided the British in this era.
What redeems Harrison’s analysis is that he is alive to the differences between immigrant cultures. And, crucially, he doesn’t elide class and race, pointing out that as more blacks and Asians achieved success ‘the effect of the free market, which Powell championed, was to disperse them, geographically, like their Jewish predecessors, by social status’.
Published in a period of cynicism about Britain’s political elite, Harrison’s book is a reminder that the relative peace and prosperity of the postwar era is partly due to good governance:
In the 1970s and 1980s politicians helped to ensure that substantial immigration occurred without prompting wholesale violence, that the Cold War did not become hot, that class war was a fading vision, that Northern Ireland did not become a Lebanon, and that the United Kingdom held together. And although they failed to find a role for the UK, their failure reflected the doubts of the people they represented.
The evolution of Britain into a more secular nation has not made it a more rational one. Charles Darwin may have graced the £10 banknote but a third of British people said they believed in ghosts when surveyed in 1989, twice as many as had done in 1973 when church membership was higher. It’s one of many facts that Harrison uses to illustrate his belief in ‘the continuity, and perhaps conservatism of British life’ amid all the doubt he describes.
This book lacks the lyrical verve and radical bite of A.J.P. Taylor’s England, 1914-45, which concluded the original Oxford History of England. But Brian Harrison’s work has a greater range and depth, which should ensure that it too is regarded as a classic for years to come.
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