How Britain misses the spirit of 1967

New York Times, Thursday 10 August 2017

LONDON — Countries, like the people who live in them, go through periods of anxiety and depression. Right now, Britain is pessimistic and demoralized, so much so that 2017 promises to be an “annus horribilis” more profound than the one famously described by Queen Elizabeth II nearly a quarter-century ago. She was referring to events in her own family, principally the separation of her eldest son, Prince Charles, from his wife, Diana. But the Windsors’ marital woes in 1992 are as nothing compared with the country’s current low spirits.

The sense of a nation mired and stalled is only more acute because Britain celebrates the 50th anniversary this year of the passage of what was arguably the most socially progressive legislation in its history: the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in July 1967 and the legalization of abortion in October. Both acts, brought to Parliament by a Labour government led by Harold Wilson, had their flaws, but they marked the moment when our elected representatives decisively redrew the boundaries between the individual and the state in a series of remarkable legislative reforms. A half-century on, 1967 looks like an annus mirabilis when Britain became, briefly at least, a world leader in liberal values.

Compare and contrast, as they say, with the state of Britain in 2017. Two general elections and a bruising referendum have left the country exhausted, angry and unsure of itself. A Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, is clinging to her position with the support of a small religious party, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, who spent years denouncing the liberalizing legislation of 1967. Thanks largely to the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where same-sex marriage remains banned.

Fifty years ago, the new laws were shepherded through Parliament by Roy Jenkins, one of the most liberal home secretaries in British political history. Jenkins, the son of a coal miner from the Welsh valleys, was relentlessly mocked for his love of fine food and wine (Britain’s right-wing press is always looking for an excuse to denounce someone as a champagne socialist). What newspaper editors really hated, of course, was Jenkins’s staunch support for progressive causes and his passionate belief that Britain’s destiny lay in Europe.

Jenkins belonged to a remarkable group of Labour cabinet ministers, many of them from working-class backgrounds, who got to know one another and started exchanging ideas at Oxford University. They had a clear vision of what Britain at its best could be, but the nation they inherited when they came of political age, as Wilson led Labour to victory in 1964, was creaking, class-ridden and strangled by anachronistic legislation.

The state retained far-reaching powers over every aspect of its citizens’ lives. As well as banning homosexuality and abortion, it could put them to death, prevent unhappy couples from divorcing and even decide what the public could see on the stage.

The lord chamberlain, a Ruritanian-sounding officer in the royal household, had no qualms about banning work by the country’s leading playwrights. In 1965, the lord chamberlain refused to license a stage production of John Osborne’s play “A Patriot for Me,” which told the true story of a homosexual officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1890s.

Jenkins and his Labour colleagues believed that the British government interfered too much in the lives of its citizens and at the same time failed to protect vulnerable groups from discrimination. Many of the reforms they set about putting into law had been outlined by Anthony Crosland, an Oxford don who became education secretary in Wilson’s government. In his influential 1956 book “The Future of Socialism, Crosland had argued that breaking down class barriers and promoting equality should be the goal of Labour governments. Crosland and Jenkins were friends long before they found themselves seated around the cabinet table, but few people knew that they had had a short but intense affair after meeting at Oxford in 1938, when male homosexuality was still punishable by a prison sentence (there was no law against lesbianism).

The scale and speed with which the Wilson government set about modernizing Britain was breathtaking. Ministers abolished capital punishment in 1965 and passed the Race Relations Act, which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of color, race or ethnic origin, in the same year. Abortion and homosexual law reform made 1967 the standout year but ministers also ended theater censorship in 1968, liberalized divorce law in 1969 and passed the Equal Pay Act in 1970. Labour lost a general election that year and had to wait until 1975 — when Jenkins was back at the Home Office — to pass the first Sex Discrimination Act and set up the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Unlike their Conservative opponents, Labour’s leading thinkers understood that postwar society was changing fast, driven by the expansion of higher education, a decline in religious observance — the Vatican had damaged its moral authority by giving its blessing to fascist regimes like Franco’s Spain — and a horror of authoritarianism in the wake of World War II. Emboldened by the ’60s atmosphere of intellectual freedom and excitement, this reform movement improved the lives of millions of people.

The contrast with public life in Britain today is stark. Amid the divisive campaigning before last year’s Brexit referendum, the assassination of a Labour member of Parliament, Jo Cox, by a right-wing extremist still casts a long shadow. Personal abuse and death threats were so common in the run-up to this year’s general election that Mrs. May has ordered an inquiry into intimidation of candidates.

The specter of Brexit hovers over everything, sucking the energy out of political debate while Conservative ministers and the parliamentary opposition feud over questions that should have been answered before the referendum. Few people seriously believe that all the problems caused by Brexit will be resolved by Mrs. May’s self-imposed deadline of March 2019, but ministers and civil servants are nonetheless preoccupied with them at a time when the country faces deep-seated social problems.

One event after another confirms that the government is drifting, divided and unsure of itself. Only days after the election, the horrific spectacle of at least 80 people burned to death in a government tower block in one of the most affluent areas of West London became an unforgettable symbol of inequality. Yet Mrs. May couldn’t bring herself to talk to residents when she made her first visit to the scene of the disaster.

A few weeks later, the prime minister made the surprise announcement that the National Health Service would fund abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland, where terminations are banned. This happened not because she suddenly rediscovered the spirit of Roy Jenkins, but simply because she feared losing a crucial vote in the House of Commons.

No wonder we’re depressed. The public is angry and distrustful of politicians, a situation reflected in the outcome of the June election, when Mrs. May lost her parliamentary majority, yet the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was more than 60 seats short of being able to form a government. This summer’s marches and documentaries celebrating the decriminalization of homosexuality are inspiring, at one level, but they are also a painful reminder that 1967 was a very long time ago. The days when British governments embraced the future with confidence are receding into the past. Who can say when it will be glad, confident morning again?

Joan Smith (@polblonde) is a novelist and the author of “Misogynies’ and “The Public Woman.”

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