The 1960s were a time of rapid social, political and cultural change in Britain. The decade saw Britain – and especially London – finally steal the crown of cool from the United States. British pop culture exploded and was exported around the world. With National Service abolished in 1960, the first teenagers free from conscription drove this rapid social change: whether by turning on, tuning in or dropping out. Social reforms led by the pioneering Home Secretary Roy Jenkins made British society more tolerant, diverse and modern. The 1950s, a drab and grey decade still struggling to rebuild after the Second World War, had been replaced by the brilliant technicolour of the “swinging sixties”.
But the history of the 1960s in Britain isn’t all tie-dye, mini-skirts and mop-topped pop stars. Many people were deeply uncomfortable with the rapid social change that they felt was being imposed upon them. Although many individuals experienced the decade as one of comfortable prosperity, this masked a decline in the relative competitiveness of the British economy against its European rivals. Strikes were increasingly common as workers tried to fight for better conditions. The end of the British empire led to anxiety about Britain’s place in the world, and increasing levels of immigration led to a rise in racist politics and bitterly divided communities. Women enjoyed more freedoms than before, but still felt ignored and oppressed by male-dominated politics and society. In Northern Ireland, the divided sectarian politics erupted into the Troubles by the end of the decade. And British young people were anxious about the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and their future in a turbulent and uncertain world. This course will explore some of the themes, tensions and contradictions in the history of Britain in the 1960s. We will work with an interesting and varied historiography, as well as a rich collection of archival material including pamphlets, speeches, audio/visual materials, memoirs and autobiographies, and legal and government documents.