This was the decade that the death penalty was abolished. Harold Wilson became Labour prime minister. The Race Relations Act was introduced. Colour televisions transformed the living rooms of those fortunate enough to own one. The nationís first motorways, introduced in the late fifties with the Preston by-pass, were all given the national speed limit of 70-miles-per-hour. But Britain was speeding up not slowing down. The decade danced to The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones. British rock claimed the world in what was like a high volume homage to the days of the British Empire. In football, Britainís enjoyed a hegemony towards the end of the decade. England won the world cup in July 1966 . The years that followed saw Glasgow Celtic and Manchester United win the European Cup. Skirts got shorter. Boots got taller. Music got louder. A decade of awakening, of reinvention, but Britain was still Britain at heart, and that meant awkward moments in the company of our continental neighbours.
Politics were taking on an increasingly European dimension. The European Common Market sired a great number of economic opportunities. But Britain has always guarded her sovereignty with a degree of suspicion. Britain become known as the awkward partner, a name that has stuck to this day. The nationís effort to join the ECM, founded by the 1957 Treaty Of Rome, was vetoed by French President Charles De Gaulle on 14th January 1963, and once again in 1967. Britain, accused of lacking commitment, was forced to wait until 1st January 1973 before joining Italy and Denmark in a nine-state political community. While it wasnít until the seventies that Britain became explicitly involved with the European Community, UK politics had taken on an increasingly European dimension in the sixties. At home, the agenda was dominated by social reform, with education overhauled under successive Conservative and Labour governments, before the abolition of the death penalty, the legalisation of abortion and the Race Relations Act changed the face of Britainís political and legal landscape.
The death penalty was abolished for murder on 8th November 1965. It wasnít until December 1969 that MPs voted against death by hanging, and then in 1998 that the grim spectre of capital punishment altogether disappeared from the horizon of Britainís legal system. The campaign for abolition had been carried by Labour MP Sydney Silverman. His private memberís bill came too late for Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen who were hanged on 13th August 1964 for the murder of John Alan West. They would be the last people executed in Britain. After 1965, the only offences to be punishable by death in the United Kingdom were treason and piracy with violence.
The Abortion Act 1967 did not legalise abortion per se, but provided a set of conditions within which a woman could have an abortion up to 28 weeks (the act has now been amended to 24 weeks) into her pregnancy. The act stipulated that two doctors must agree on the termination of the pregnancy if the womanís physical or mental health would be at a a greater risk from continuing the pregnancy to its completion. The bill was brought to commons by MP David Steel , and still governs the UK, excepting Northern Ireland, where an abortion can only be performed if the womanís life is in explicit danger from continuing with the pregnancy.
In October 1963, under Conservative prime minister Alec-Douglas Home , Britainís higher education system was modernised, creating more university places and a grant scheme that would help fund students through their studies for decades until New Labour took Power in 1997. Students would be means tested to receive state funded education. Essex , Kent , Lancaster and Sussex were founded. Douglas-Homeís reign as prime minister ended on 15th October 1964 after Labour won a closely contested general election. The higher education reforms recommended by the 1963 Robbins Report did not end with Douglas-Homeís departure from government. The moves towards creating a more inclusive education model continued in the summer of 1965, when Labour education secretary Anthony Crosland issued Circular 10/65, seeking an end to the tripartite education system used in England and Wales. The new comprehensive schools system was to replace the secondary and grammar school model which selected pupils on the basis of a meritocracy. Britainís education system was placed directly on the faultline between Conservative and Labour ideology. Circular 10/65 was only a recommendation, but issued by the Department Of Education And Science, the documentís gravitas was enough to influence local authorities to endorse the comprehensive system.
While education was in the process of a minor revolution, Britainís attitudes to race relations were still woefully backwards. But at least there was a degree of legislative progress when the Race Relations Act came into force on 8th November 1965. The law made racial discrimination in public places illegal, but in employment and housing there was no legal censure for prejudice, doing little to discourage institutionalised prejudice in the workplace. Furthermore, those guilty of discrimination were charged only of a civil offence; discrimination was, crucially, not criminalised. The Race Relations Actís jurisdiction was increased to include housing and employment in 1968 but Britain had to wait until 1976 until the Commission For Racial Equality to be established, paving the way for more robust legislation on discrimination, the likes of which the Conservatives argued would only aggravate race relations, not mend them.
Crime and punishment was a hot topic in the sixties. For starters, it had The Great Train Robbery, a spectacular crime that created a celebrity out of criminals. Ronnie Biggs, Bruce Reynolds (mastermind behind the heist), joined a cultural tableau embroidered by the rising stars of an increasingly celebrity obsessed society. While George Best , The Beatles and The Rolling Stones surfed the crest of a pop culture phenomenon. Biggs was guilty of a heist, a robbery, during which driver Jack Mills was battered in the head, suffering injuries which he would never recover from. Clearly fit for a momentís condemnation and a lifetime of attention. The Great Train Robbers targeted the Glasgow to London mail train on 8th of August 1963, stealing £2.6 million. Biggs escaped from Wandsworth on 8th July 1965 , fleeing to Brazil. He wasnít the last criminal to enjoy celebrity status. Ronnie and Reggie Kray notoriety in Londonís East End caught the imagination of the public during their trial for the murder of Jack McVitie at the Old Bailey in March 1969 .
Thankfully there was more than just murderers and robbers arresting the publicís attention. This was the era of the rock and pop star. This was the decade dominated by Lennon / McCartney , The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The former were a lightning rod for the music and fashions of the decade. When the Liverpudlian quartet released their first single, ĎLove Me Doí, in 1962 , they embarked on a most singular career. One which nigh on entered the term Beatlemania into medical dictionaries Ė the symptoms included screaming and congregating in arrivals lounges of airports, more screaming, and largely affected more woman than men. Men suffering from Beatlemania usually hid their symptoms, with their haircut the only telltale sign. Working with visionary producer and kingmaker, George Martin , The Beatles expanded on the rock Ďní roll template, siring modern pop music in the process. Before the decade was out they had left their three minute/three chord safety net in favour of string sections and psychedelia, experimentalism and, most shockingly of all to a British public who had grown to love them as the wholesome face of British pop; hedonism. With The Beatles and their tacit chart war with the rock strut of The Rolling Stones, pop culture was deflowered under the watchful eye of the public, played out through political statements, anti-war rhetoric and the rebellion of youth culture liberated by new social ideals.
Broadcasting this zeitgeist of cultural awakening for the very first time was a then youthful Tony Blackburn , whose radio show staked BBC Radio One ís claim for hegemony of the airwaves. Though his salary was not as newsworthy as Jonathan Ross , or indeed his conduct, Blackburn and Radio Oneís contribution to popular culture was worth a lot more profound at a time when record buying became a pastime. This was 1967, however and Radio Oneís cutting edge was occasionally blunted as it sired a pop culture station that would see its contemporary reputation guarded by the likes of Fearne Cotton and Chris Moyles . Looking back, perhaps Jimmy Young , a somewhat anachronistic DJ for a youth audience, wasnít so bad after all.
Neither was the football. The sixties were a high water mark for Britainís national game. In 1966, England, as hosts, won the FIFA World Cup, defeating West Germany 4-2 at Wembley, with a hat-trick from Geoff Hurst and a goal from Martin Peters seeing off the Germans after extra time. It is a feat they have never managed since. Hurst was the only man to score three goals in a World Cup final. Captained by Bobby Moore and coached by Sir Alf Ramsey and roared on by over 93,000 fans, England were irresistible. The domestic game was in clover, both north and south of the border. The following year, in May 1967 , Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup, defeating the mighty Inter Milan 2-1 with a team born and raised within a stoneís throw from Celtic Park. A year later, Manchester United defeated Benfica at Wembley, with shadows of í66 as United triumphed 4-1 after extra time, complete with George Best running amok. The Fifth Beatle, as he became known, was arguably footballís first enduring superstar, typifying the dawn of celebrity.
Such was the incoming tide of cultural change, many historical vignettes got buried under sea. Winston Churchill , arguably Britainís greatest statesmen but certainly a redoubtable prime minister during her most urgent hour, died on 24th January 1965 . He was granted a state funeral at St Paulís Cathedral , watched by millions, before being buried at St Martin's Church , Oxfordshire . The Severn Bridge opened in 1966, replacing the Aust to Beachley ferry and bringing the M4 to Wales. Transport was getting so much faster; it was going supersonic. On 2nd March 1969 , Concorde, the worldís first supersonic passenger jet made its maiden voyage from Toulouse, landing after a 27 minutes. It made its first supersonic trip in October that year but it wasnít until the following decade that it would welcome its first passengers.
As the decade drew to a close, with the Vietnam War dominating social consciousness on both sides of the Atlantic and creating a large and growing peace movement, Britain entered a new turbulent phase. British soldiers had put boots down on the streets of Northern Ireland in what would become the longest operation undertaken by the army. The innocence of the sixties was lost by the time it was over. The seventies awaited, a decade bookended by the rise of the great British rock bands of Led Zeppelin and Cream, and the snotty anti-establishment rhetoric of the punk movement, decimalisation and the winter of discontent. As far as history remembers the sixties, the decade will always be preserved in rose-tinted aspic and swathed in a flower-print kaftan. If you were there, you will remember it.
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3 Responses to The Sixties
From cetmac on 19th April 2012
I liked your article and was wondering if you know the title of the music that used to be played on the radio presumably radio 1 as a sign off around 66 /67 i think it was a George Martin tune. i have tried to find this tune for a long time now !:) best wishes keep up the good info.
From kyle on 11th May 2011
It is ex
From kyle on 11th May 2011
It is cool
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