This is the first of 3 blog posts I had planned to publish starting at the end of last month, following a further spell in hospital. An unexpected fifth, and hopefully final, one-week admission to hospital interrupted those plans. In total, I have spent 42 nights as an in-patient in the hands of the NHS – and, as a by-product, have seen first-hand the disgraceful and unsafe levels of staffing resulting from Osborne’s misguided austerity policy choice since 2010.
The second and third posts will cover, firstly, my views on Theresa May’s performance so far as Prime Minister and a kind of wish-list – “vision” would be too grand a description – of how I would like to see the next couple of years pan out and the kind of Britain I would want to live in.
But first, I want to give a broader sweep of how I think Britain has changed over my lifetime. (I can’t but help get rather reflective during all the boring hours I’ve spent cooped up as a hospital in-patient!)
The 1950s and 1960s
I was born four years after the end of World War II, a child in the 1950s and spent my formative teenage years in the 1960s. What follows is a very personal account of my memories of those years, filtered by time and the black-and-white images repeated on TV documentaries and elsewhere.
The 1950s, to me, were, in a word, dull. Everything was shut on Sundays. Pubs shut every afternoon – a hangover, still in force then, of emergency legislation passed during WW1. The feeling of those times was perfectly captured in a classic episode of Hancock’s Half-Hour, repeated regularly on Radio 4Extra. Just say “Stone me, what a life…” to anyone of my generation and that feeling instantly returns. In the 50s, everyone knew their place, authority was never questioned, the Catholic Church was free to condone sexual abuse on children forcibly removed from single mothers and other “undesirables”. No one had the temerity to question such authority.
There was a general air of sexual repression. Homosexual acts between men, even those in private and with consent, were criminal. The choice of food gradually improved following the end of post-war rationing, but British food was characterised as stodgy and uninspiring. That a future Conservative Prime Minister (David Cameron in one of the few things to his credit) would lead Parliament to legalise same-sex marriage was, literally, unthinkable.
The early 1960s were much the same, but things began to change, first in the world of arts (Beyond the Fringe, Look Back in Anger, etc), and, 3-4 years later, the politicians started to play catch-up. Harold Wilson ended “18 years of Tory misrule” and his “white heat of technology” and (in public, at least) embracing of popular culture – think Beatles, Mary Quant – are frequently cited from these times. (Incidentally, I saw the Beatles live at the Hammersmith Odeon, now Apollo, in 1965 and watched England beat West Germany in a pub in West Germany on a tiny black-and-white TV the following year. I obviously saw it with a German commentator, so it was several years later before the phrase “They think it’s all over, it is now…” made any sense to me!)
Social attitudes were shifting. The anti-Vietnam war protests in the USA and elsewhere and the “Summer of 1968” (particularly for French youth) showed that something fundamental was stirring. Abortion, albeit with strong limitations and still today not available to women in Northern Ireland – an abuse of women’s Human Rights, says the UN – was decriminalised.
To be a child of the 60s was to be optimistic for the future.
Attitudes to Smoking
One interesting example is the shift in public opinion in relation to smoking in public. In the 1940s and 50s, most men and half of women regularly smoked. As recently as the early 1970s, people were free to smoke anywhere on the tube: platforms, escalators and in all but two carriages of the trains. The shift to a total ban on smoking on public transport took about two decades to achieve. The horrendous Kings Cross St Pancras fire had a lot to do with it, but a gradual change in public attitudes payed, I believe, the major part.
Racism and Immigration
Overt racism was spoken everywhere. We’ve all seen the footage of the “No Blacks, No Irish” signs in the windows of rented accommodation. Immigration, mainly from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent was frequently resented and the immigrants themselves openly abused. “Paki” was a generic term of abuse for anyone from South Asia, Pakistani or not.
Things have generally improved over my lifetime and overt racism is much rarer. Morons like UKIP and the far right have poisoned the atmosphere as a direct result of Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum, but public attitudes in general seem to have moved in a progressive direction. Hostility to immigration has shifted away from black and Asian British people to more recent arrival from new EU countries in Central Europe, with Poles being the largest group (unsurprising as Poland has, by far, the largest population of the “new” EU countries).
New Labour and Anti-Discrimination
The New Labour years saw much anti-discrimination legislation: the Equality Act 2010 was a key consolidation measure. The incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU directly!) into UK law in 1998 was a landmark New Labour decision. It felt that the government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led public opinion slightly during this period, social attitudes shifted in a progressive direction under New Labour, notwithstanding their failure to move away from (albet watered-down) Thatcherite economic policy.
The 2010-15 coalition government under David Cameron included Cameron’s attempt to detoxify the Tory “Nasty Party” image with some genuine progressive moves: remember that George Osborne was a fervent advocate of same-sex marriage, more than counterbalanced by the most vicious and unnecessary economic policies of austerity seen in the post-war period.
All of which brings me to my main point. I think we have entered a new era of change in public opinion, and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has caught the public mood, particularly with young people.
It all started (in the UK) with revelations about Jimmy Saville. The more recent publicity about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women has made the movement for change global. Sexual harassment and abuse by the powerful (usually men) over the more vulnerable (usually women) is rapidly becoming as intolerable as smoking in public. #MeToo and similar online campaigns are the most manifest signs of this shift. A sea-change in public opinion is happening, which creates a period of upheaval and great danger.
Progressives and the (Far) Right
Those of us who consider our views to be progressive and in tune with what I call the “march of civilisation” must be extremely vigilant in such times. Our default mode is to try to enter into reasoned debate, using the evidence accumulated over our lifetime’s experiences: this blog being an example of exactly that! I like to think that there is an ethical code which underpins all my actions and arguments. Above all, the left has values and principles and something like the European Convention on Human Rights is on excellent example and a carefully constructed – after much dialogue – embodiment of those values.
By contrast, the populist right is opportunistic and seeks to appeal to peoples’ basest emotions. Facts are spun and cgerry-picked by the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and their ilk to put their chosen enemies, especially the BBC, in a bad light. Unfortunately, the unmediated tweets and posts which constitute Facebook and Twitter, binary “likes” and algorithms based on numbers of hits provide more fertile ground for this type of nihilistic behaviour than that of reason.
Things Can Only Get Better
And yet… I remain an optimist. The march of civilisation will continue, over the medium to long term. The term “British values” is exactly wrong and summons up a Little England mindset. “(North) European values” makes more sense to me, or just plain “civilised values”. Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on our membership of the EU on an ocean of misinformation and lies was the single stupidest political decision of harming the national interest in my life time. Ask a stupid question… It’s like taking a massive wrecking ball to the delicate structure of civil values and the checks and balances of democracy slowly developed over centuries of history. It just divides us and breeds intolerance.
And yet… I remain an optimist.
As I ststed above, the next 2 blog posts will be an update on how well Theresa May is doing as PM and some sort of hopes, wishes for an ideal way in which the next few months and years pan out. Watch this space. I’m back from 42 nights in hospital since Christmas and I have things to say. Watch this space…