When were the Swinging Scottish Sixties?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, March 22nd 2017

The 1960s are referenced throughout the world as a period of immense change, hope, protest and turbulence.

There were ‘the winds of change’ of decolonisation, Latin American revolts and rebellions, the Chinese cultural revolution, upsurges in Paris and Prague, Biafra, the disastrous American military intervention in Vietnam and resultant protest movement in the US and worldwide.

What though did the sixties really represent? In the UK the sixties began with Philip Larkin and the trial of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’; in the US they were augmented by the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963. In both there was a shared moment – in early 1963 in the UK, and February 1964 in the US, with the arrival of the Beatles then morphing into a musical and cultural phenomenon the world had never seen before: Beatlemania.

In the UK this aided the overthrowing of the stuffy last remnants of Victoriania, the long shadow of the Second World War, and class-bound high culture. This was epitomised in John Lennon’s now seemingly innocent remark at the Royal Variety Performance in November 1963 in front of the Queen Mother that ‘the people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry’. This was a national moment, shown on TV and immortalised in the press.

In the US, the arrival of the Beatles allowed a society traumatised and deeply wounded by the assassination of JFK to find a distraction. And it helped in this that the Beatles were English, outsiders, and somehow, deemed classless.

Across the West, there were generational shifts, youth and student protest believing in their collective power, distrust of institutions and authority, and an impatience and cynicism about mainstream politics and the centre-left. Harold Wilson’s Labour government faced huge criticism over its failure to condemn US military action in Vietnam, whereas now it is favourably compared to Tony Blair’s hubris and misjudgement with George W. Bush in Iraq.

There were cultural shifts, changes in music, the arts, fashion, styles, and importantly, significant legislative advances in gay rights, divorce, abortion and the abolition of theatre censorship – all against a backdrop of widening education, opportunities and rising living standards.

But in Scotland, just as today, it felt like another country – the swinging sixties really didn’t happen in the way they did down south. There was no great obvious social revolution or transformation and opening up of society. There was no visible challenging and questioning of authority, whether it the Kirk or the Labour Party. And while the younger generations grew increasingly impatient and dissatisfied, and listened to the same records and drew some of the same cultural references, it was all much less challenging.

1960s Scotland was still a very respectable and restricted society. Things like feminism, gay rights and counseling were viewed as non-subjects in public, and in politics and institutions, dull men seemingly ran everything: there only being one woman Labour MP as late as 1979. This was the age of Willie Ross, Wilson’s Secretary of State for Scotland from 1964-70 and 1974-76, known as ‘the hammer of the nats’.

But while on the surface everything appeared normal even in Scotland, change was coming. Famously, Winnie Ewing won Hamilton in 1967, and the modern SNP and contemporary Scottish politics were born, which lead inexorably to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and the SNP entering office in 2007.

Society was changing in dramatic, far-reaching ways, often not understood at the time. The old industries were on the wane, with the male manufacturing jobs of shipbuilding, steel and mining entering irreversible decline. There was the slow breaking down of employment practices based on religious discrimination and the weakening of sectarian attitudes. And connected to this, the secularisation of the country began, as the Kirk began to lose its central place, power and moral authority.

There were places of alternative Scotland in the sixties: the Art Schools were as much a place of dissent and imagination as elsewhere in the UK, and produced an impressive array of talent which has dazzled since. And in the early 1960s, provoked by the decision of the UK Government to place Polaris in Scotland the advent of CND and the new left emerged north of the border – which when Labour under Hugh Gaitskell turned its back on unilateral nuclear disarmament – gave an important shot in the arm to the SNP with an influx of younger, idealistic activists.

All of this amounts to seismic change, but with the exception of Winnie Ewing winning Hamilton, most of it can be more easily understood in retrospect. At the time the power of authority, the Kirk and Labour Party, seemed powerful and foreboding, as well as here to stay for a long time. Part of the explanation must also lie with how the media covered the country at the time. Its tone would be disapproving of too much change, aided by the most popular daily newspaper in the country being the staunch unionist ‘Scottish Daily Express’ – which was only overtaken by the then more upbeat ‘Daily Record’ in the early 1970s.

Scotland in the sixties didn’t feel like the turbulence, protest and vibrancy of elsewhere. There was something not being expressed and felt in the body of the nation: and that was visible social revolution, transformation and upheaval. It leads to the question: when did Scotland’s equivalence of the swinging sixties happen? The period when we loosening up, became more open, expressive, questioning, and at ease with ourselves.

One pessimistic account is to say that it has never happened – that the age of social liberation just washed by Scotland, aided by the grip of the constitutional debate. I don’t buy that. Scotland now seems in a very different place, not just from 1967, but from even 1997 and the twentieth anniversary of New Labour’s landslide victory along with the empathic victory in the devolution referendum.

A critical moment in our social liberalism and liberation has to be the cultural war that was Section 28/Clause 2a in 1999-2000. This was a deeply unpleasant time, with a young, inexperienced Scottish Executive under Donald Dewar’s ambivalent leadership, nervously trying to find its voice and place, and meeting a hostile, almost paranoid press on a host of issues, most too small to remember (such as the Parliament making medallions for MSPs).

It brought a dark, repressive Scotland out of the shadows led by millionaire bus tycoon Brian Souter and PR hatchet man Jack Irvine who even organised an unofficial national referendum against it. Somehow the forces for change won – and the nasty, nervous and homophobic parts of the country, eventually went away. Attitudes changed and the country worried about more important things.

Reflecting on it at the time, I remember saying to the minister who had initiated the change, Wendy Alexander, that something seismic was happening. The Clause 28/Section 2a debate was the first public conversation about homosexuality in the country, and in so doing, it broke down all sorts of barriers and taboos, and was a near-revolutionary moment. I distinctly recall that Donald Dewar could barely say the word ‘homosexuality’, not because he was homophobic, but just because as a man of a certain age and type, he wasn’t comfortable talking about such a subject in public (or probably in private either).

The above cannot contain the kaleidoscope of the swinging sixties in one isolated debate, but it embodies a transformative change in attitudes and a moment where in some areas at least we began to loosen up. This was a distinct break from the society which in 1966-67 under the auspices of Willie Ross had made sure Scotland opted out of decriminalisation of male homosexuality (it taking until 1980). Post-Clause 28 we had a lot of catching up to do: civil partnerships, same sex marriage, with it taking to James Robertson’s ‘And the Land Lay Still’ published in 2010 to have in a mainstream novel gay male relationships and sex.

Wouldn’t it be good if we could spread this loosening up and feeling of being at ease into other areas of life? Scotland does seem less hung up on not talking about matters related to the body, sex and reproduction, but we still have lots of room for improvement. There are still across society a generation of men who seem permanently angry or discontented with their lot in life, and pinning for a past Scotland where real men made real things. And there is still our strange obsession and over-investment in football, which tells surely of things missing in other areas.

A looser, freer Scotland wouldn’t obsess about politics as much. It would recognise that going on about politics too much or investing too much hope in them is never a good or healthy sign of a society. It wouldn’t be too self-congratulatory or smug about the immense changes we have gone through, and would be aware that all nations are neverending stories which should never believe that the present or past represent some kind of ‘settled will’.

We still have a lot of growing to do: on tolerating diverse opinions, seeing Scotland in all its finery and warts represented back to us in the media, and in challenging the power of monoculturalism in so many aspects of life. Aiding all of that, wouldn’t it be uplifting if we could point to a single moment such as Clause 28 and say that was our tipping point? That this was the time from which we decided to be a bit more relaxed, honest and less bound by past repressions and could thus take inspiration in the present and for future change?

Gerry Hassan is author of Scotland the Bold: How Our Nation Changed and Why There is No Way Back published by Freight Books, £9.99..