10 Key Cultural Changes in 1960s Britain

Katy Maydon

Twentieth Century
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The 1960s was a decade of change in Britain.

Shifts in law, politics and media reflected a new individualism and growing appetite to live in a more liberal ‘permissive society’. People began to stand up for their rights, both civil and at work, and express themselves in new ways. 

Here are 10 ways Britain changed in the 1960s.

1. Affluence

In 1957 British Prime Minister Harold Macmillen remarked in a speech:

Indeed let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good.

Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country.

This idea of having “never had it so good” earmarked an age of affluence that many historians feel drove social change in the next decade. After the economic hardship of the 1930s and the massive strain caused by World War Two, Britain and many other large industrial economies were having a resurgence.

With this resurgence came important consumer products that changed lifestyles; while we might take refrigerators, washing machines and telephones for granted, their introduction into the home on a mass scale from the late 1950s onwards had an important impact on people’s everyday lives.

In terms of income and expenditure, in general, British people earned and spent more.

Between 1959 and 1967 the number of incomes below £600 (around £13,500 today) per year dropped 40%. On average people were spending more on cars, entertainment and holidays.

2. Law changes and the ‘Permissive Society’

The 1960s was an important decade in liberalisation of the law, particularly in relation to sexual behaviour.

In 1960, Penguin won a ‘not guilty’ verdict against the Crown, which had brought an obscenity prosecution against D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The passport photograph of D.H. Lawrenece, the author of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'.
The passport photograph of D.H. Lawrenece, the author of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

It was seen as a watershed moment in the liberalisation of publishing, with the book going on to sell 3 million copies.

The decade saw two major milestones for women’s sexual liberation. In 1961, the contraceptive pill was made available on the NHS, and the Abortion Act of 1967 legalised termination for pregnancies under 28 weeks.

Another significant change was the Sexual Offences Act (1967), which decriminalised homosexual activity between two men over 21 years old.

There was also liberalisation of laws affecting prostitution (Sexual Offences Act, 1956) and divorce (Divorce Reform Act, 1956), while capital punishment was abolished in 1969.

3. Increasing secularisation

With a rise affluence, leisure time and media viewing habits, populations in Western society began to lose their religion.  This could be felt in the drop in the number of people engaging in religious customs and practices.

For example, between 1963-69, Anglican confirmations per head dropped by 32%, while ordinations fell by 25%. Methodist membership also dropped by 24%.

Some historians have seen 1963 as a cultural turning point, pointing towards a ‘sexual revolution’ encouraged by the introduction of the pill and the Profumo scandal (see number 6 on this list).

4. The growth of mass media

Immediate post-war Britain saw only 25,000 houses with television. By 1961 this number had risen to 75% of all homes and by 1971 it was 91%.

In 1964 the BBC launched its second channel, the same year Top of the Pops began broadcasting and in 1966 over 32 million people watched England win the football World Cup. In 1967 BBC2 broadcast the first colour broadcast – the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

England’s victory at the 1966 Football World Cup was watched on televisions all over Britain.

During the decade the number of colour television licences grew from 275,000 to 12 million.

In addition to mass television viewing, the 1960s saw big changes in radio. In 1964 an unlicensed radio station called Radio Caroline began broadcasting in Britain.

By the end of the year the airwaves were filled with other unlicensed stations – mainly broadcasting from offshore. The public were drawn to the young and free-spirited disc jockeys who played “Top 40” hits. Unfortunately for listeners, these stations were outlawed in 1967.

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However, on 30 September of the same year, BBC Radio made some major changes. BBC Radio 1 was launched as a ‘pop’ music station. BBC Radio 2 (renamed from BBC Light Programme) began broadcasting easy listening entertainment. BBC Third Programme and BBC Music Programme merged to create BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Home Service became BBC Radio 4.

Almost every household in Britain owned a radio during the 1960s and with that came the spread of both news and music.

5. Music and the British invasion

British music changed significantly, with widespread introduction of rock and roll music and creation of the pop market.

The Beatles defined British music in the 1960s. Both Britain and the United States were swept up in “Beatlemania”. With their formation in 1960 and break up in 1970 the Beatles bookend the 1960s musical revolution.

By August 1964, the Beatles had sold around 80 million records globally.

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 1964.

The Beatles were just one part of the “British Invasion” – bands such as the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and The Animals were becoming popular in the United States.

These bands topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and appeared on popular talk shows such as the Ed Sullivan Show. It was one of the first times British music had made its mark on America.

The Kinks in 1966.
The Kinks in 1966.

5. The waning of ‘the Establishment’

In 1963 the Minister for War, John Profumo, denied having an affair with Christine Keeler, a young aspiring model. Although Profumo later admitted he had lied to the House of Commons about the affair and resigned his post, the damage was done.

Christine Keeler going to court in September 1963.

As a result, the public lost a degree of trust in the establishment and by extension, the government. Harold Macmillan, the Conservative Prime Minister, resigned his post in October 1964.

With the rise of mass media and television, people began to hold the establishment to a higher standard. The personal lives of politicians were under scrutiny like they never had been before.

Profumo and Keeler embarked on their illicit affair after their meeting at Cliveden House, which belonged to Lord Astor.

It is was later revealed that Harold Macmillan’s wife was having an affair with Lord Robert Boothby.

The satirical news magazine Private Eye was first published in 1961, while comedian Peter Cook opened The Establishment comedy club the same year. Both took to lampooning politicians and people of apparent authority.

6. Labour’s general election win

In 1964, Harold Wilson became the youngest Prime Minister in 150 years – winning a narrow victory over the Conservatives. This was the first Labour government in 13 years, and with it came a wave of social change. 

Home Secretary Roy Jenkins introduced a number of liberalising legal changes that decreased the states role in people’s lives. Extra university places were created along with polytechnics and technical colleges. More people had access to further education than ever before. 

The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was brought in by Harold Wilson's government.
Although Harold Wilson brought in a wave of social change, the economy suffered and his government was voted out in 1970.

Wilson’s government also built over a million new houses and introduced subsidies for people on low-income, helping them to buy houses. However, the economy suffered under Wilson’s spending and Labour were voted out in 1970. 

7. Counterculture and protest

With a growing distrust of the establishment came a new movement. The term counterculture – coined by Theodore Roszak in 1969 – refers to the world-wide movement which gained momentum as issues of civil and women’s rights took centre stage.

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Protests swept the globe during the 1960s and counterculture was a driving force behind these. Student protests against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons were especially popular. 

In London, the UK underground originated in Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill.

Often connected with the “hippie” and “bohemian” lifestyles, the underground was influenced by beatnik writers such as William Burroughs and held benefit gigs where bands like Pink Floyd performed.

Carnaby Street towards the end of the decade. It was a fashionable centre of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.

The underground also produced its own newspapers – notably International Times. The counterculture movement is often connected with more open drug use – particularly cannabis and LSD. This in turn lead to a rise of psychedelic music and fashion.

8. Fashion

Throughout the decade people were finding new ways to express themselves.

Designers such as Mary Quant popularised new styles. Quant is famous for “inventing” the mini-skirt and bringing mass production of affordable fashion to the public.

Mary Quant in 1966. Image source: Jac. de Nijs / CC0.
Mary Quant in 1966. (Image source: Jac. de Nijs / CC0).

Quant’s simpler designs from the ‘Ginger Group’ were available in 75 outlets in the UK to those on a more modest wage. On 4 February 1962, her designs graced the cover of the first ever colour Sunday Times Magazine cover.

As well as the rise of the mini-skirt, the 1960s saw women wearing trousers for the first time.

Carnaby Street was a fashionable hub in the 1960s.

Styles such as drainpipe jeans and capri pants were popularised by influential figures like Audrey Hepburn and Twiggy. Women became increasingly comfortable asserting their equality with men. 

10. Increase in immigration

On 20 April 1968 British MP Enoch Powell gave a speech to a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham. The speech criticised the mass immigration Britain had seen in recent years.

Enoch Powell made his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. Image source: Allan warren / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Powell said:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. 

Powell’s speech reflects how both politicians and the public considered race in the 1960s.

The 1961 census found that 5% of the population were born outside of the UK. About 75,000 immigrants a year were arriving in Britain in the mid-1960s and overcrowding became a problem in many areas. Racist incidents were part of everyday life – shops would put up signs denying entry to immigrants.

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However, partly due to the introduction of the Race Relations Act of 1968, post-war immigrants had more rights than before. The act made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race or ethnic origins.

Immigration steadily increased over the coming decades and boomed in the 1990s – creating the multicultural society we live in today. 

Katy Maydon