Saturday, 3 January 2015

A time before political correctness

Let us take a trip back to a time before the arrival of political correctness. It is early 1963 and Britain is in the grip of the worst winter of the century. Harold Macmillan is the prime minister, the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell had recently died and has been replaced by Harold Wilson. The Cold War and the Space Race dominate the headlines. The Beatles had just reached the top of the charts for the first time, and the Profumo scandal was about to break.

Britain at the time was run by a conservative political establishment, who believed in traditional values and the virtues of the stiff upper lip. It was a very male dominated society - there were no female judges and very few female MPs. Industry, commerce the trade unions, the media, the civil service and the legal establishment were almost entirely under male control. The old school tie still counted for quite a lot in career advancement. Cultural politics scarcely existed, the dividing line in politics was largely economic, the only notable exception being that the Labour Party was more egalitarian in outlook, on this basis favouring comprehensive schools, whereas the Conservatives supported grammar schools, believing them to provide a more challenging education for academically gifted pupils.

This conservative establishment was seen as rather stuffy and complacent by some of the more iconoclastic trendsetters exemplified by the satirical TV programme That Was The Week That Was, which enjoyed taking a pop at some of the more pompous politicians of the time. It was this programme that ended the general deference shown by the media to the political class, and which opened the gates to the destruction of the conservative establishment, which since then has incrementally led to the politically correct establishment of today, that has firmly entrenched itself into virtually all aspects of our society.

With the exception of the education question previously mentioned, virtually none of the politically correct issues of today were discussed by the politicians or media of the time. Let us examine them one by one. Homosexual activity between adult males was still illegal. The Wolfenden Report of a few years earlier had recommended decriminalisation for men aged over 21, but the Conservative government refused to act on the recommendation fearing a backlash from the public. Juries, consisting of ordinary people, were happy to send men to prison for this offence. Indeed there was considerable public distaste for this activity, many fearing that the nation's youth would be corrupted if there was any relaxation of the sanctions against this kind of 'unnatural vice'. Nobody thought to ask why only men, and not women, should be subject to these criminal sanctions. Needless to say the supposed evils of 'homophobia', 'transphobia', or the promotion of same sex marriage, were beyond the imagination of anyone living at the time.

On the question of sexuality more generally Britain of that time was fairly uptight and repressed. Both pre-marital and extra-marital sex were condemned, indeed any open reference to sex in the media was discouraged. However, there were some tentative signs of a relaxation of this taboo. The Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial had resulted in a spectacular own goal by the prosecution. As a result millions of British people experienced the frisson of seeing some naughty four letter words in print for the first time. Since the start of the sixties some critically acclaimed British films had begun to explore sexuality in a bolder way than hitherto. Saturday Night & Sunday Morning examined the relationship between the working class hero and a married woman, A Taste of Honey portrayed an unmarried mother and an inter-racial sexual liaison, and Victim highlighted the plight of homosexual men subject to blackmail. The cinema was more adventurous than television in this respect, the only programme that might in any way be described as arousing was the annual Miss World beauty contest which regularly attracted record viewing figures during the sixties, with its slightly more generous than usual display of attractive female flesh. There was no talk then of the 'objectification' of the contestants or any comparisons with a cattle market. With the exception of some religious prudes nobody at that time considered it in any way unusual for men to be attracted to feminine beauty, or for women to exploit their attractiveness. Pornography (if it can be so called) at the time was very mild comprising nothing more than photos of young attractive topless women.

The attitude to children was very much different to what it is today. Fathers were expected to firmly discipline their children in the home for unruly behaviour, and school teachers appreciated the widely exercised right to beat children for disobedience. It was very much a society in which all adults could pretty much control any child in any way they thought fit within the law, and children had very little say in the matter. The advantage of this system was that children very quickly discovered what was right and what was wrong and delinquency was largely contained. However, in some respects children enjoyed more freedom than today. From the age of about 5 or 6 children were free to roam the streets and play with friends anywhere they liked provided they returned home at meal times or bed time. They were warned not to take sweets from strangers or to go off with them. But there was none of the paranoia over paedophiles that blights their lives today, or fears that men might consider physically undeveloped girls to be 'sexualised'.

During this time backing for the nuclear family was a top priority, divorce was relatively low and support for the institution of marriage, both in the media and government, was very high. Men were largely seen as the breadwinners and women were expected to take the lead in bringing up children and running the family home. Couples married at a very early age, women in their late teens and men in their early twenties. There were no social problems caused by teenage pregnancies since these very largely took place within marriage. Single mothers were stigmatised and ostracised and could expect to be pressurised into giving up their child to infertile married couples. In so doing society then took the view that the interests of the child should take precedence over the feelings of the mother.

On the subject of race there were absolutely no laws whatsoever and citizens could express views and discriminate on racial grounds to their heart's content without the authorities being able to do anything about it. Moreover, there was very little public pressure to change this state of affairs, although there was increasing concern about the amount of 'coloured' immigrants coming into Britain. The Conservative government had recently addressed this matter in a half hearted fashion with the introduction of the first control of immigration legislation. It is worth remembering that the much overused word 'racist' had yet to make its appearance in the mainstream media. The only regular black faces on TV were the calypso singer Cy Grant on Tonight and the blacked up male vocalists on the now reviled Black & White Minstrel Show, a programme that at the time was considered to be wholesome family entertainment which absolutely no one found objectionable. No politician preached the virtues of diversity and multiculturalism. Future governments would soon end this hands off approach and very quickly the issue of race would become a cornerstone of the politically correct agenda.

Both smoking and drinking were seen as confirmation that an individual had left childhood behind them and that they had entered the world of adulthood. So teenagers, particularly youths, were motivated to indulge in these habits as soon as they could get away with it. As a result, nearly three quarters of men smoked as did almost half of women. The link between lung cancer and smoking had recently been discovered but this had not yet been translated into restrictions or controls. There was no ban on tobacco advertising nor were there health warnings on cigarette packets. People could smoke just about anywhere unless it was specifically forbidden such as in no-smoking railway carriages or the lower decks of buses. Cigarettes could not legally be sold to anyone under the age of 16 but this was very laxly enforced. Cynically tobacco companies provided affordable packs of five cigarettes targeted at children to spend their pocket money on. As a consequence most smokers started the habit in their early teens. Alcoholic drink was not quite so easy to come by as it could mostly be only found in off licences since most supermarkets did not yet stock it. Alcohol could only be sold to those over 18 but as with cigarettes this was very laxly enforced. Youths in the 16-17 age range would only be rarely challenged by bar staff. There was no concern then about binge drinking although public drunkenness was an offence. The government did not trouble itself recommending how many units of alcohol their citizens should consume each week. Illegal drugs were virtually unknown at this time.

Concern for the environment had a low priority at the time although the recently introduced clean air legislation put an end to the notorious smogs which had affected London. Campaigning groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth had not yet been established. Absolutely nobody, including scientists, was worried about global warning, unsurprising as global temperatures had been falling for the previous 25 years despite a huge increase in CO2 emissions during that period. Instead, people at the time were petrified that the planet would be destroyed in a nuclear war, a fear that came dangerously close to being realised during the recent Cuban missile crisis.

This then is a brief synopsis of Britain in early 1963 before the liberal takeover moved into gear. It was a male dominated society that exuding smugness, self importance and inefficiency. Conservative prime ministers of the time were lampooned for their grouse moor image, a factor exploited by the new Labour leader Harold Wilson who was promising to harness 'the white heat of the technological revolution'. The conservative establishment would soon be holed below the waterline following the Profumo affair revelations. This allowed the forces of the left to credibly present themselves as a modern progressive force attacking an ossified privileged establishment. Indeed their early goals were both constructive and necessary, but in time they became dizzy with their own success, and above all they became convinced of their own moral superiority, and self righteousness became their default position. Instead of debating issues in an open minded manner they would attempt to hector, intimidate and silence opponents through the use of pejorative language. These developments will be explored in future blogs.

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