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The white heat of politics

Thirteen years of Tory rule, a season of scandal and Labour on the rise – the hectic Britain of 1963 holds a mirror up to today.

By Alan Johnson

If any period in our national story justifies Alan Bennett’s definition of history as “one f***ing thing after another” it must be the three years covered by David Kynaston in the latest instalment of his epic history of postwar Britain, “Tales of a New Jerusalem”.

Beginning with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 and ending with the death of Churchill in January 1965, the events cascade unceasingly: Henry Cooper floors Cassius Clay days after Profumo resigns, the Beatles’ second UK album is released on the day JFK is killed in Dallas. The narrative teems with names – Keeler, Beeching, Philby, Rachman, Wilson, Twiggy, James Bond – and occurrences: Stephen Ward’s suicide, the Great Train Robbery, the Big Freeze, mods vs rockers.

The country is gripped by a political mood not dissimilar to today’s. In 1963, after 13 years of Conservative rule, the Labour opposition is 20 points ahead in the polls with an election approaching. The Tories are besieged by scandal. As John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler is exposed, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan recorded wearily in his diary: “woman this time, thank God it’s not boys”. Decay and decline are in the air. A future Catholic archbishop describes the local area of his church in Stepney, east London: “dosshouses and a brothel, derelict buildings, the remains of bombed houses where meths drinkers gathered, streets full of litter and debris”. In the midst of this was a Tory poster reading: “Don’t Let Labour Ruin It.”

Race is a constant theme. A Birmingham hotel bans “coloured people”, Bristol bus workers refuse to allow West Indians to work with them, a Conservative MP says something so shockingly racist on Any Questions that I almost lost my page, and 16.5 million watch The Black and White Minstrel Show.

The chancellor is Reginald Maudling and his “dash for growth” has led to an imports-led boom, a deteriorating balance of payments and accompanying pressure on sterling reserves. The governor of the Bank of England is advised that “devaluation of the currency… may be a necessity but only as a confession of ineptitude and irresponsibility”.

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Labour’s new leader, Harold Wilson, faces a poisonous inheritance should he win power. Wilson was elected by Labour MPs following Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in January 1963. When Macmillan steps down because of poor health that October, his successor “emerges” from a gathering of Tory grandees who decide that the 14th Earl of Home is a good chap who deserves a turn at the crease. Alec Douglas-Home had actually played first-class cricket but, as Kynaston records, cricket’s “internal apartheid” between “gentlemen” and “players” had ended in 1962. Wilson, sensing that the public wanted their prime minister to be a “player” rather than a “gentleman”, attacks the third Etonian in a row to occupy 10 Downing Street as representing an establishment counter-revolution.

[See also: Still fighting the history wars]

Since his “white heat of technology” speech in September 1963 the opposition leader has been making the political weather. With his pipe, mac and Yorkshire accent, Wilson seems part of the northern moment that gives this book its title. The Conservatives are spooked. Unemployment, while generally low, is dramatically higher in the north-east of England. The pugnacious Tory minister Lord Hailsham had been dispatched there in February 1963. In an echo of levelling-up, he described his mission as being to lift “the quality of life at all levels”. Hailsham, truly shocked by what he saw, spoilt it all by patronisingly wearing a cloth cap throughout the visit.

One of Kynaston’s heroes, Richard Hoggart, once said that “each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty”. This book demonstrates that the Sixties were no exception. In the NHS, 80 per cent of doctors were from the top two social classes while 80 per cent of their patients were from the bottom three. Not far off a million houses were still classified as slums and although council housing was becoming more widely available, the people who designed the estates did not live on them.

In education, Rab Butler’s great reforms were increasingly being seen as no longer fit for purpose. There was little early years provision and three quarters of pupils left school at the first opportunity. One commentator summarised the country’s education system pithily: “Nothing until the age of five, a class of about 40 until 11, either no thought of secondary education or rejection by the eleven-plus, a class of about 30 until 15 and nothing much thereafter.”

What’s striking is how active local authorities were in seeking change with or without the support of central government. By 1963 – well before Labour took office the following year – 92 out of 129 English local education authorities had initiated plans to end selection at age 11. Labour’s commitment to comprehensive education appeared to be pushing at an open door, except that parents in general were not as displeased with the status quo as were educationalists. Wilson was even contemplating bringing private schools into the state system, but asked close allies to recognise that he was “running a Bolshevik revolution with a Tsarist shadow cabinet”.

The widespread assumption was that Wilson would win the 1964 election, but as the campaign began a national poll put the Conservatives ahead for the first time in three years. In the event Labour scraped home by four seats and there was a 7.2 per cent swing to elect the openly racist Tory candidate in Smethwick.

Of the 1,258 candidates fielded by the two main parties, only 56 were women. At the same time, the educationalist John Newsom wrote in the Observer that girls should be educated in their main social function, “which is to make for themselves… and their husbands a secure and suitable home, and to be mothers”.

[See also: The world ended in 1973]

Thankfully, the 65-year-old economist Lionel Robbins didn’t agree. His seminal report on higher education declared that it should be open to all who qualified. The result was (eventually) a huge surge in the number of women at Britain’s universities, although perversely the social class gap in elite higher education didn’t narrow, it widened. As Kynaston observes, while “social class does not quite trump everything, more often than not it trumps most things”.

A collage of fragments interlaced with penetrating analysis, this book is always humane, often hilarious, devoid of dogma and never condescending. There are some lovely ironies. The Beatles are at the forefront of the cultural revolution – Philip Larkin famously identified 1963 as the year “sexual intercourse began”, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP” – but we learn they escape hysterical fans by ensuring the national anthem is played at the end of a concert, and slipping out while their teenage audience stands motionless for the Queen.

Churchill’s state funeral undoubtedly marks the end of an era (and the halfway stage in Kynaston’s history from Attlee to Thatcher). It takes place on a Saturday and, incredibly, the football fixtures go ahead as normal. Stanley Matthews plays his final game at the age of 50. As Kynaston observes, “the passing of two mid-century icons” but, thankfully, not the end of this wonderful series of books.

A Northern Wind: Britain 1962-65
David Kynaston
Bloomsbury, 704pp, £30

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts