The 1970s have been in my mind over the past few days, not only for the obvious reason, but also because I visited the Glam exhibition at Tate Liverpool last weekend. Not only were the seventies the final decade of an electrical-chemical epoch that stretched back to the late nineteenth-century, they were also the time when the sexual and political experimentation of the 1960s and a sense of being part of a cosmopolitan world order became something for the masses, for the working class, and when the old social order started to dissolve. In the experience of many people, the sixties happened in the seventies, as it were.
But my main thoughts, concerning Britain at any rate, have been about social division, and about some oddly paradoxical features of British life before Thatcher. There’s a very real sense in which postwar British society was very sharply divided. On the one hand, it was possible to be born in an NHS hospital, to grow up on a council estate, to attend a state school, to work in a nationalised industry and, eventually (people hoped), to retire on a decent state pension, living entirely within a socialised system co-managed by the state and a powerful Labour movement. On the other, there were people who shared the experience of the NHS but with whom the commonality stopped there: they were privately educated, lived in an owner-occupied house and worked in the private sector. These were two alternate moral universes governed by their own sets of assumptions and inhabited by people with quite different outlooks. Both were powerful disciplinary orders. The working class society had one set of assumptions – welfarist, communitarian, but strongly gendered and somewhat intolerant of sexual “deviance”; middle-class society had another, expressed at public (that is, private) schools through institutions like compulsory Anglican chapel. Inside the private-sector world, at least, there was a powerful sense of resentment towards Labour, expressed in slogans about “managers right to manage” and so on that later found expression in some of the sadism of the Thatcher era towards the working-class communities that were being destroyed. Present too, at least in the more paranoid ramblings of those who contemplated coups against Labour, was the idea that that the parallel socialised order represented a kind of incipient Soviet alternative-in-waiting that might one day swallow them up.
The revolutionaries of Lindsay Anderson’s If …. (1968) were rebelling against the regime of middle-class expectation rather than against an unjust class-based social order, but a sense of an ending was everywhere. The new left and the rising trade union militancy of the 1970s were both breaches with rather than extension of the old order in which the interests of the working class were either promoted or betrayed (depending on your perspective) by negotiations among middle-aged men about incomes policy and the like.
Cut to the present and that overt division is gone. Now we have radio presenters talking about how Margaret Thatcher fostered “social mobility”. Other conversations turn on things like “aspiration” and people being able to buy their council houses. My inner social scientist protests: don’t these people know that social mobility is down since Thatcher, that it’s now harder for people to escape the circumstances of their birth than it was then? But the true observation that it is more difficult for people to rise come up against the pervasive perception that people can now be what they want to be and aren’t constrained by strong expectations of social role. The decline of democracy in the sense of popular control contrasts with a sense that society is more democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else; the intensification of real economic inequality has coincided with a much greater cultural egalitarianism than existed before. British society is less racist and less sexist than it was and (outside football) people are very tolerant of sexual difference. Even though, because of the decline in economic mobility, it is as hard or harder for working class women to escape poverty, wealthier women are everywhere present in the public and corporate life. In the sixties and seventies we had great popular music and some terrific high culture; now it seems as if almost the entire country tunes into X-Factor and Strictly. Progress, of a kind?
Has the meritocracy risen? Not really. Actually not at all. The advantages of birth and privilege are entrenched as never before. But the perception that we are all equals allows for the illusion of a meritocratic society and for the ritual blaming of those who fail. Both the failing and the blaming were hardly possible when, in principle but not in practice, the social classes were officially confined to their separate spheres. The successful congratulate themselves as never before on their own responsibility for their success and in the tabloid imagination, the formerly working class, stereotyped as “chavs”, have migrated from a parallel society replete with roles and expectations to an underclass existence. In a sense what we have is the Americanisationof Britain, or at least of England. A society where everybody has then sense that they can be anything they want to be, and where hardly anybody can. Just as pure luck matters more than ever did, the stink of desert and entitlement pervades. We are all in it together, ruled by “Dave” and “Nick”, ordinary aspirational blokes, modelled on “Tony” who was just like Basildon man, and “got it”. Except, of course, Dave, Nick and Tony went to Eton, Westminster and Fettes and thence to Oxbridge (full disclosure: me too). By contrast, in the earlier society, divided but actually porous, the political class reflected the social structure of parallel societies: Labour contained its share of Oxford dons, but many of its MPs had a trade union background. Now hardly any do.
A coda: Ken Loach has been going on about reclaiming the spirit of 1945. But there’s no way to go back and start again. The working class both exists as never before—since more people than ever have to go out to work in order to live—and has ceased to exist because all of the social institutions that gave it life have either atrophied or been captured. Some of that destruction was the work of the Thatcher government, but mostly it was the work of global economic and technological changes. Whatever future the egalitarian left has—and it needs one because of the objective rise of inequality—it can’t begin from the fantasy of a parallel society that has ceased to exist and which was limiting and stultifying in its own way.