Recently I have been helping with a proposed exhibition of the arts scene in Seventies Bath. It was a particularly vibrant time, centred on the boho area of Walcot Street, and well worth remembering I knew it well as a student and after. There was still a Sixties feel of vibrant colour and all manner of experiment. It was conducted in a party mood, but serious careers with substantial achievement were the lasting results.
I have written of this elsewhere of this. Sadly, it’s all in the past. Walcot Street is respectable now, a succession of upmarket shops chiefly to do with home dÃ©cor and furnishings. As a metaphor of social contrasts it works disappointingly well. All things must pass, but the hope is something even better takes its place. Whatever happened to the Sixties?
1960 didn’t usher in a sudden change. It took a while for things to get going. The mini-skirt had to wait until 1966. Jean Shrimpton shocked everyone at Melbourne Races. Then the Queen raised her hemline. Long hair for men never quite gained such acceptance. Princes and politicians remained shorn. For many men in authority it was a last-ditch stand against the threat of a subversive underground, an alternative society. Irreverent idealists were challenging normative values.
Of course all that scene was soon absorbed into fashion statements. By the late Seventies it was over. If the tide could not be turned it could be halted. The counter-culture came to be seen not as social development but as an aberration.
This was the dominant political mood, with some popular assent. The media, with a show of reluctance, accepted the new orthodoxy as a key to survival in a time of vengeful reaction.
What went wrong? Why didn’t the idealism of the Sixties and the Seventies become the revolution of the Eighties? Part of the answer lies in an electoral political system that is self-perpetuating. Democracy is narrowly defined in terms of parliaments, assemblies and councils. Discourse is conducted in these terms even, or especially, in the liberal media. A political class makes the decisions. These decisions are reported by a commentariate closely linked by association and feeling to the political class.
As the Sixties drew to a close the Headmaster asked the sixth form what the culture of street protest was all about. ‘Bringing democracy back to the people,’ I said. The Head took me seriously. ‘You mean people feel alienated from conventional politics. So what can we do to include people?’ A good question. Had Mr. Henderson remained at Fettes he would have posed that question to Tony Blair. ‘What is to be done?’ was the phrase running through pre-revolutionary Russia. The question has to be asked by us now.
One thing is certain: our current leaders are not asking that question. Or, rather, their answer is to forget the last fifty years and more ever happened. A stylized retroversion to previous social norms is prevalent in the governing party. They are all too reminiscent of those of my generation who were never of my generation. They weren’t there then and they’re not there now.
Where are they? Well, they are clearly not in charge of events. When they lose all control a new government will have to clear up the mess. It will be blamed for that mess by a vengeful media. Part of the reconstruction must be a new convention of social responsibility in our public life, our media and our general discourse. That means a change of heart that very nearly happened once. The need, if not the impulse, is as urgent now as it was then. Unfortunately and inevitably, too many vested interests are there to obstruct a natural and necessary development. ‘I have my career to think about.’
There are good reasons to forgo some personal comfort in response to social need. Ignore the necessary future and you consign all that you have to the past. Think of a once-treasured possession half-buried in the ruins of your house. If reconstruction does not come about by common purpose and good will it will come about after civil conflict and a terrible loss of conscience, benevolence and life.
We have an inflexible and obtuse stance of a government inadequate in practice and in principle. It is seeking impossible and unworthy objectives. It is supported in this by a populist news agenda that is not in the public interest. It speaks in the name of freedom. This notion of freedom translates as selfishness.
Liberation was the watchword once. That depends on seeking common purpose as well as personal identity. Some may speak of social purpose [or ‘the will of the people.’] They do not have society’s best interests at heart. They despise society as a credible framework of common identity in favour of a romanticised picture of an island nation.
It is too serious a failing to be accorded conventional respect and courtesy. Our public duty is to demonstrate our lack of faith in the thoughtless and insensitive polity that erodes the social fabric as a matter of deliberate intention. Philistine and self-satisfied domesticity cannot be the aim of a thinking democracy in a creative culture. But as we have neither of these things we have no common ground where we may share our sense of public good.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall