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Professor John Gray
22 March 2017
Philosopher John Gray launches BRLSI's 1960s lecture season with a question - and an unexpected answer.
BRLSI’s main lecture series for 2017 is entitled ‘The 1960s – the Decade that changed the World’, so having its opening lecture pose the question ‘Did the 1960s change the world?’ shows either great confidence or an appetite for risk, especially when the speaker is the sometimes controversial political philosopher Professor John Gray of Oxford, Harvard and the LSE.
Addressing a capacity audience in BRLSI’s Elwin Room, Prof Gray stepped up to the plate. He identified five themes of the Sixties – the end of empire, the end of deference, liberal reform, youth culture and the ‘silver age’ of the post war settlement – and described their legacies, which were not always what was expected at the time. Most people, for example, assumed that the end of deference would herald a permanent shift towards left-wing politics, but within 10 years of the decade’s end Margaret Thatcher was in power. As Prof Gray put it, Hippie culture produced Thatcherism rather than communism.
Other developments included the beginnings of nationalism within the UK with the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1968, the reversal of secularisation since the 1960s and the corresponding rise of identity politics, and a society which became more individualistic but simultaneously less bourgeois in the sense of being structured around the family unit. All this was peppered with details such as the unlikely friendship that developed between Mandy Rice-Davis (she of the immortal ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he?” quote) and Mrs Thatcher, and the speaker’s own experience of 1960s innocence when he strayed onto the floor of the House of Commons and was gently guided out by a helpful policeman.
The answer to the question? Yes, the 1960s did change the world, but not in the ways everyone expected. As Prof Gray put it, “History obeys a law of irony”, and that is the lesson we need to keep in mind. In the meantime there are 20 more lectures in the 1960s series, running until November, to explain how the decade defined the world we live in today.