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So, should we blame all our problems on the Sixties?
By The Independent
Jul 20, 2004, 1:33pm

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It was the decade when all you needed was love. Yet Tony Blair now implies that the permissive society's 'liberal consensus' has had dire consequences. Is he right? Six commentators give their views

'Which punitive measure of the Fifties would Tony Blair like to reintroduce?' - Joan Bakewell, Broadcaster and critic

It's a sad day when Tony Blair appears to repudiate the achievements of Roy Jenkins, who as Home Secretary oversaw much of the liberal legislation of the 1960s.

The 1950s was a punitive decade: there was hanging for murder and jail for homosexuality; abortion was illegal and book and stage censorship severe. I wonder which of these measures Tony Blair would like to re-introduce? Prisons are already overcrowded, and more being built. What exactly has he in mind?

The 1960s rethought our attitude to child-rearing, and some mistook a sympathetic understanding of their behaviour for all-out permissiveness.

Too often this translated into indifference. And from this has stemmed the bad manners and casual crime we see today.

Children need loving discipline within which they can flourish and feel secure. Teachers and parents need society's support in providing that.

On the other hand in the 1960s, we did not see such conspicuous displays of wealth as we do today. Gross, fat-cat salaries and bonuses for some while others feel trapped in the poverty rut. In the 1980s the market became king and getting rich was the objective. Amid a superfluity of goods, it began to seem natural to want them.

The 1960s weren't greedy years. People had less but they took simpler pleasures, in their music, their clothes and each other. There was a more caring mood: self-help groups flourished.

This is when organisations like Shelter, and Crisis, Centrepoint, Release, and the Consumer Association all began. No good waiting for politicians. Communities got on with making things better for themselves. We need more of that today.

'You can trace the word hooligan back to the 19th century. It's not new' - David Wilson, Professor of criminology at University of Central England, Birmingham

In the 1960s there was a consensus among Labour and Conservative politicians that law and order would not be used as a political weapon. Labour won both general elections in 1974 without any mention of law and order in its manifesto. It was Margaret Thatcher who made it an election issue and the other parties had to respond.

The reason it never appeared on the political agenda was because there was a belief that playing on people's fears of crime was a bit dirty and below the belt.

There had been a great moral panic in middle England about the teddy boys in the 1950s and the Mods and rockers in the 1960s and about the youth culture generally. But the consensus was if you tried to police this you actually made the problem of deviancy worse by giving them the label they were after.

Today, each party tries to out-tough the other in how they respond to people's fears of crime. The most visible things they can do are put more police on the beat, even though there is no evidence to support it as a way of reducing crime, and put more people in prison - even though there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this makes people re-offend.

A great result of the 1960s was the legalisation of homosexuality. It is good for a healthy democratic society to show there is no hierarchy based on people's sexuality. In places where there is, you lose the skills of those who are marginalised.

Every generation suffers from amnesia. They forget they were young once. You can trace the word "hooligan" back to the 19th century - it's hardly a new phenomenon. There is too much demonising of young people and not enough done to recognise the potential every young person has. The irony is that it is today's Labour politicians who benefited from the liberalisation of the 1960s that are behind the hardening of law and order policy.

In 1963, Grendon Prison opened, the only prison that operates wholly as a therapeutic community. To this day, Grendon is the only prison in Europe that can demonstrate that if a prisoner spends at least 18 months there, they will have a reduced rate of recidivism. If the 1960s had never happened, places like Grendon would never have existed.

The Sixties also saw the abolition of capital punishment and corporal punishment, both in prisons and the armed services. And yet today we are having these debates about the rights and wrongs of smacking a child. I mean, how many angels can you have on the head of a pin?

'Freedom doesn't necessarily bring joy' - Roger McGough, Poet

Since the 1960s there has been a gradual process of giving people more freedom and control over their lives. Before this we were more tightly controlled, controlled by laws but also by religion and by our families.

Now the concept of shame is no longer prevalent. It used to be the case that teenage boys didn't get teenage girls pregnant. Of course they did, but it was a matter of shame when they did so.

You can see some of the other changes in the alcohol industry. In the Sixties the pubs shut at 10 o'clock, were closed on Sundays and while there was a certain amount of drunkenness it was much less than the alcohol-related violence we see today. We can't suddenly start behaving like continentals, change our whole temperament in one generation.

Because you were writing poetry in the 1960s, it doesn't mean you were a free-loving drug addict. I was always a bit of a Captain Sensible. I was brought up a Catholic and never got into drugs. But we did like to take the mickey out of society.

It certainly wasn't the golden days but you knew who the criminals were. Freedom doesn't bring joy, it's a lot more complicated than that.

'Thatcher had a much greater effect' - Meredith Etherington-Smith, Author

Margaret Thatcher had a much greater effect on British society than the Sixties ever did. She gave us a huge amount - the post-imperial identity that we so desperately needed. But the Sixties were the first really modern decade. After the Second World War, Britain went back to living in the 1930s. If you look at pictures of people in the Fifties the girls all wanted to look like their mothers in their pearls while all the men were running around with short hair and hats. We, however, were the first teenage generation and we saw the old ways break down, and it was about time they did.

But the Sixties weren't responsible for this, it was the march of history. The single biggest change was the development of the Pill. Before then, nice girls didn't because nice girls didn't want to get into trouble. After that nice girls did, but that wasn't a good thing. The Pill got into a lot of young hands which weren't necessarily responsible hands. The tragedy we have now is of the family unit breaking down. As for drugs, people had been drugging since the 1920s. In the Sixties, everything became democratised - fashion was for everyone, higher education became more readily available and we all had big wage packets for the first time.

'We still don't recognise the bad things that result from family breakdown' - Anne Atkins, Social commentator

Many of the problems we face in society do not stem just from the Sixties but from the past couple of generations. This said, some of the changes made to the law have had a good side as well as a bad one.

It is great, for example, that we are prepared to listen to children more than previous generations did. But it is not good that we are not prepared to give them the moral lead in the way adults used to.

Children should challenge authority, and any intelligent adult would agree a child has a legitimate point of view. But what is stupid is when adults have such a crisis of confidence that they listen to the child when it is obviously wrong, although they know better and have much greater experience

It is good that we make provisions for single parents, but we still do not recognise all the bad things that result from the breakdown of the family.

But the very worst thing that came out of the Sixties was the Abortion Act, far and away the worst thing we have done in the history of the 20th century.

I take the long view that in 100 years they will look back on the Sixties and think, 'How could they have done that'. It will be the same way people nowadays look back on the Holocaust.

The sacred cow of women's rights means we cannot act. But the Abortion Act did nothing for women's rights. The most important thing in helping women has been education, more important even than when women got the vote. Abortion and the sexual revolution have done nothing to help women.

But the expansion in higher education has not necessarily been good either. It is much better if people are allowed to go into doing what they want at an early age. The most disastrous thing was abolition of grammar schools.

Changes to divorce have also led to the concept of no-fault divorces and this has not helped to stem the breakdown of marriage. It has removed people's power to make their marriage work, removed their control over it and removed people's dignity.

Legalising homosexuality was humane, although this is no way justifies the proslytising we see today. One gay friend told me he is glad the laws were not changed when he was young, and he was able to make his mind up about being gay without pressure from predatory older men.

On the positive side, Sixties' music was very good. It was the greatest musical decade of the 20th century.

'People realised they were free and not the subject of a medieval system' - Tony Benn, Government minister, 1964-1970

The first reaction of New Labour is always to blame someone else. Now they are blaming dead people. The 1960s was a period of flowering when the peace movement, CND and other excellent changes took place.

In 1960 they threw me out of Parliament for having blue blood. I wasn't allowed to renounce my right to succession. The decade was a time when people realised they were free and not the subject of a medieval system ruled from above, though it now looks like that is going to start again.

First of all we are told to respect the law, and this from a government which has just broken international law with the war in Iraq. Then they talk about respect for individuals and this is from a government which champions market forces.

After the Second World War, people realised the 1960s was about building a better society. There were important changes like the abolition of capital punishment and the women's movement.This government encourages greed and war, then talks about moral values. It is so contradictory.

Winston Churchill, when Home Secretary in 1912, said: "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of convicted criminals, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man - these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it."

Astonishing words.

20 July 2004 13:19

Reprinted from the Independent


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