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Dominic Sandbrook and questionable history – the sixties and the Daily Mail


Dominic Sandbrook and questionable history – the sixties and the Daily Mail
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Reading the Daily Mail can, obviously, be bad for one’s health. But recently I was directed to a piece by a Conservative-supporting Facebook friend of mine condemning the legacy of Labour in the 1960s. Pretty normal for the Mail, of course, and nothing new from Sandbrook. However, his basic conclusion – that the use of experts in the 1960s ruined Britain – is a little difficult to swallow unless one deliberately distorts history to justify the neo-liberal turn of the late 1970s.

To start, I would point people to Anthony Seldon’s work on the post-war period if they’re after a less partisan, Conservative (big and little “c”) account.1 As he points out, historical reviews of Harold Wilson (Prime Minister 1964-1970 and again 1974-1976) and Ted Heath (1970-1974) have overtly blamed the 1960s and 1970s for destroying Britain. It’s not difficult to see why. For the Conservatives, it becomes easier to justify the radical and decidedly un-conservative politics of the Thatcherites if Keynes’s poster children are painted as incompetent monsters.2 Similarly, New Labour required the failure of the 1970s to justify policies which abandoned “socialism” and nationalisation of industry.

The 1960s are just… well… a little less interesting than that. Undoubtedly, Labour had problems with the economy, many of their own making.3 The poor response to the sterling crises created problems with inflation, and economic grown was uneven (despite being on a generally good positive trend). Heath also had issues in the 1970s, forcing him to abandon his more hard-line economically liberal policies.4 Heath’s three-day week and Callaghan’s Winter of Discontent signalled the crisis of Keynesianism which allowed Thatcher to present the British electorate with an alternative. The blame obviously lay at the feet of those “liberals” who demanded the death penalty be repealed; who built Milton Keynes; who tried to plan the economy.

Harold Wilson, Prime Minister 1964-70, 1974-76.

Harold Wilson reflected his times. Sandbrook’s insinuations that it was his government and party that ruined Britain ring hollow. Image from Wikicommons.

Sandbrook’s main ire (aside from his typical Daily Mail disdain for women getting access to birth control, young people taking drugs and boys with long hair) is, however, reserved for “the expert”.5 Of course, this was not a Labour invention. It wasn’t even an invention of the 1960s. The rise of the expert is a phenomenon seen in British politics from at least the Second World War. Indeed, the War was apparently won (even by the Daily Mail’s standards) by experts at Bletchley Park, canny radar operators, and the great civil servants who planned the wartime economy and kept us all calm while we carried on. Expertise is not, in itself, a problem. Indeed, as the world became an increasingly globalised and complicated place, it was the experts that made sense of the machines and administrative departments that controlled our lives.

Harold Macmillan’s Public Expenditure Survey Committee looked to harness this new spirit of planning to help direct the economy. Wilson had his own visions for the Civil Service as he looked to wrest it from the control of public school boys with Oxbridge humanities degrees and put it in the hands of people with genuine academic and practical experience. Heath updated PESC with his own Programme and Analysis Review. Planning wasn’t Labour’s brain child; it was set up and actively pursued by Conservative politicians. Macmillan and Heath have been accused of many things, but I don’t think “socialist” can be said to be one of them.

Indeed, Margaret Thatcher was also big on planning; albeit with a different set of “experts”. For it seemed that “academics” and “professionals” served only their own interests. But the world of business could be trusted to have the economy’s (and therefore the people’s) best interests at heart. While Brian Abel-Smith6 was a communist evil trying to make the health service a monolithic money sink, Derek Rayner7 was a knight (literally) in shining armour (not literally) looking to slash expenditure. Under Thatcher, health service targets, the national curriculum and league tables reduced autonomous professionals to disciplined workers. Whether these genuinely raised standards or cut costs is immaterial – this was the basis for the Thatcherite revolution, and the one that has been seized upon by all governments since.

In any case, the overall point is that to blame Labour for either a) introducing this mindset or b) exacerbating it makes no sense. It was Conservative governments that did both. It is intriguing, therefore, that Sandbrook uses Wilson and Crosland as his poster children, and focuses predominantly on the 1964-70 governments. It’s almost as if he has an agenda(!).

But, of course, “the death penalty”. The imposition. The anti-democratic attempt to destroy law and order and British tradition. Well, the problem was that the British people continued to support people who wanted to make the world a better place. Regardless of whether presentist readings agree, the general attitude of the 1960s was one of (tempered) optimism for a better tomorrow. Repealing the death penalty was the result of a decades-long campaign, and a Private Member’s Bill (i.e. NOT the government) from a Labour MP.8 At the same time, abortion controls were relaxed (another Private Member’s Bill, this time a Liberal),9 and homosexual sex was legalised (oops – this one was a Bill by a Tory).10 And then you have divorce law reform, gender and race equality legislation… The filthy liberals were everywhere, even in the Conservative Party. Was this because Westminster hated the people, or because Westminster reflected the general attitude of the times? Either way, it doesn’t suit the Daily Mail narrative to consider this.

Professionals and experts do have a tendency to go looking for problems to fix to justify their continued existence. We have rightly grown to question and hold accountable those who offer us solutions to our problems. However, the world is a very complicated place as a result of advances in technology and our ability to handle vast amounts of information. The simple fact is, most of us don’t know how to educate our children; we don’t know how to administer a social security system; we don’t know the really effective ways to reduce crime; we don’t know how to run a hospital, perform organ transplants or develop new cures for diseases.

We may have anecdotal evidence or passing experience in these areas. But just because we think Latin will make our kids smarter, private companies will run jails better or cutting benefits will make our poor work harder doesn’t mean we’re right. The experts don’t hold all the answers. They can tend to live in a vacuum which means they ignore knock-on effects in other services. But it also doesn’t mean we should ignore their advice or warnings simply because it conflicts with how we want to see the world. How the Daily Mail has ruined Britain is by convincing us to believe in superstition dressed up as “common sense” at the expense of people who actually know what they’re doing.

Images courtesy of Wikicommons.
  1. See Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson (London: Routledge, 2004); The Heath Government, ed. Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon (London: Longman, 1996).
  2. Anthony Seldon, “The Heath government in history,” in The Heath Government, ed. Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon (London: Longman, 1996), pp. 12-14.
  3. Stephen Thornton, “A Case of Confusion and Incoherence: Social Security under Wilson, 1964–70,” Contemporary British History 20, no. 3 (2006): pp. 454-55.
  4. Michael A. Young, “The One Nation Government,” Contemporary Record 3, no. 2 (1989): p. 26.
  5. Hilton, Matthew Mouhot Jean-François, The politics of expertise : how NGOs shaped modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  6. A professor of Social Administration, and part of a group at the London School of Economics that helped Labour plan their reforms of social services from the 1950s onwards. Along with Peter Townsend, Richard Titmuss and others, they were highly respected left-wing academics by both major parties. They were, perhaps, forerunners of the “SPAD” (special advisers) which are now a common route to becoming an MP and front bencher. David Cameron, for example, was a SPAD in the Treasury.
  7. CEO of Marks and Spencer. Thatcher felt that business leaders knew how to reform services to make them more cost efficient. Rayner’s first task was to review manpower in the government, and he recommended reducing the number of researchers in Whitehall. Conservative-approved think tanks picked up the slack, producing reports that were more favourable to the government. To be fair to Thatcher, she was not the first post-war Prime Minister who had justified concern that the Civil Service was too conservative to make genuinely radical reforms. Wilson had a similar attitude.
  8. Sidney Silverman. See Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. Second reading debate HC deb 21 December 1964 vol. 704 cc. 870-1010.
  9. David Steel. See Abortion Act 1967. Second reading debate HC 22 July 1966 vol. 732 cc. 1067-1165
  10. Humphry Berkeley. See Sexual Offences Act 1967. Second reading debate HC Deb 11 February 1966 vol. 724 cc. 782-874.
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