TO JUDGE by newspapers, magazines, books and television programmes, the Sixties were a libertine heaven, a social revolution of cheap and easily available contraception, pornography and drugs bursting over a traditional and conservative society.
Traditional party politics has been similarly caricatured, represented as a world of agreement and co-operation in which harmony reigned, entrenching a shared commitment to social services that had been born in the wartime coalition and had weathered all the storms since. Taken together, social change and political harmony constitute the myth of the British Sixties.
When these myths and legends press too close, it is almost impossible to think of the Sixties without summoning up a host of cliches. Lists of commonplace black-and-white images - including, no doubt, Jean Shrimpton's earrings, Michael Caine's glasses and David Frost's sneer - take about 10 seconds to bring to mind, but much longer to forget. Even our very terms, the buzz-words in which we speak about the Sixties , have been infected by this tendency: "swinging Sixties", "consumer society", "cool London", "Beatlemania", "permissive society" trip off the tongue.
Concentration on social change, important as it was, has acted to conceal the nature of the nation that did not shop in Carnaby Street or live on the King's Road, that, in the words of John Mortimer, "went on going to church, respecting their parents and even standing up for the National Anthem". For Britain, far from basking in a new, consumer society governed by politicians who pursued affluence and differed only over how to achieve more market freedoms for their people, remained divided on class lines, geographically - and politically.
For one thing, so-called affluence was far from evenly distributed. People at the time both knew, and gave voice to, this fact. Opinion surveys registered large majorities agreeing with such statements as "there is one law for the rich and one for the poor" and, "there is such a thing as a class struggle in this society". …