The Politics of the Permissive Society: Britain, 1957-74

Tutor: Mark Roodhouse

Module type:  Special Subject

Module code: HIS00036H

It is widely believed that a revolution in British social attitudes and behaviour took place during the 1960s. In popular accounts of the period this revolution amounted to the discovery of ‘sex, drugs n rock n roll’ by the young. Unlike a political revolution there was no single event that marked the beginning of these changes which many felt reached their apogee in Summer 1967 (the so-called Summer of Love), although many contemporary commentators pointed to the 1960 trial of Penguin Books for publishing an unexpurgated version of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Many would agree with the poet Philip Larkin that ‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)? / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP’. Commentators believed that such changes in social attitudes and behaviours marked the end of Christian Britain and its replacement by a secular society. Unsurprisingly, there were fervent debates about the merits and demerits of permissiveness which heralded the start of what have been dubbed the culture wars of the late twentieth century.

Over the past ten years historians have begun to study the supposed cultural revolution of the Sixties which gave birth to the permissive society. Through studying the developing secondary literature and a variety of primary source materials that will include film, television, novels and oral testimony as well as official papers, memoirs and autobiographies, we will ask whether social attitudes and practices changed during this period and whether these changes amounted to a social revolution. We will also try to understand the historical forces driving these changes, focusing in particular on the transformative role of ideas and politics and considering whether these changes are best understood as a revolution from above.  Did that much discussed entity ‘the establishment’ give British youth permission to challenge the tenets of public morality? And if they did, why did they?

The provisional outline of titles for the seminars is as follows:

  1. Interpreting change
  2. Contemporary views
  3. Swinging London, swinging Sixties?
  4. Sex, drugs n rock n roll
  5. A new morality?
  6. Affluence and permissiveness
  7. Youthquake
  8. Loosed women?
  9. Culture for the masses
  10. The death of Christian Britain
  11. Law and morality
  12. Trusting the people
  13. Civilizing society
  14. Dismembering the Christian state
  15. Policing morals
  16. The new puritans
  17. Conclusions

Procedural work for the thematic seminars will be assigned throughout the term. Every student, working in groups of three, will be expected to run one of the seminars. Students will be required to write one procedural essay and two source commentaries for which they will receive written feedback with an opportunity to discuss the essay during student hours.