Remaking Liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s: Race, Capitalism, and Civil Liberties

Session Abstract : This panel speaks to MBS 2017’s concern with the breaking and remaking of ideological norms and frameworks during turbulent times. Together the three papers explore how the 1960s and 1970s recast liberalism, both as a thing to think with and as a thing to think about. We examine contests over civil liberties, minority rights, and the scope and legitimacy of state action in a society transformed by postwar immigration and ‘permissiveness’; we examine the fortunes of critical and reformist ideas in a time of intellectual ferment. We do so through studies of (1) the anti-discrimination legislation of 1965 and 1968 and its basis in sociological theory; (2) changes in thinking about the function of free speech; and (3) the eclipse of E. P. Thompson’s answers—while his questions persisted—in debates about the nature of capitalism. The 1960s entailed a reformulation of notions of choice and personal autonomy and conceptions of the relationship between law, beliefs, and conduct. They also eroded the assumptions that had made a moral critique of capitalism so compelling in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Working within intellectual history as well as modes of legal and political history that trace processes by which ideas are shaped into practices, the three papers address different aspects of what one of Schofield’s subjects called ‘the moral history of this country’.

Session Chair: Guy Ortolano, New York University

Paper 1 Abstract : ‘Reach down to the depths in all of us’: Anti-Discrimination Legislation, Welfare Capitalism and the Remaking of Liberalism in 1960s Britain

Camilla Schofield, University of East Anglia

This paper seeks to situate anti-discrimination legislation in the long history of British liberalism. In 1968, legal theorists O. Kahn-Freund and KW Wedderburn described the newly passed Race Relations Act as follows:

The real question [the 1968 Race Relations Act] raises is what do we mean when we speak about law as an instrument of social control? What can, what does the law control? Can it be used as a means of transforming social habits? Can it reform social mores?…Here the law is used, and used consciously and deliberately, to raise the standard of the life of a nation; not the standard of its technical equipment; not the standard of its wealth or of its welfare, but the standard of its civilization….How far can legally induced habits reach down to the depths in all of us from which racist emotion springs?….If [the 1968 Race Relations Act] succeeds, it will have been a milestone in the legal, the social, and the moral history of this country.’

This quotation offers an optimistic vision of the moral transformation of British society. Through law, conventional habits within market relations could be transformed; the spring of racist emotion could be stopped. Legal theorists at this time relied heavily on new sociological theories about the causes of racism; sociological understandings were written into the law itself. This paper will discuss the legal debates around the introduction and application of British anti-discrimination legislation. These debates reveal, in new ways, the key ideological tensions and uncertainties within the social democratic project, particularly concerning the limits of state power, the delivery of ‘equality of opportunity’ and the expansion of liberal rights-based approaches to labour relations. Even more, this paper will dig into some of the thousands of cases of discrimination during this period to consider how these tensions and uncertainties played out in practice.

Paper 2 Abstract : Liberalism, Pluralism, and Free Speech in 1970s Britain

Chris Hilliard, University of Sydney

In this paper I argue for the emergence of a new discourse about freedom of expression in Britain after the 1960s. By examining the work of the Williams Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship and submissions that members of the public and activist groups made to it, we can trace a shift from anti-censorship arguments based on the idea of a marketplace of ideas to an understanding of freedom of expression as substantive rather than just procedural: the freedom to read and write as aspects of self-fashioning and self-expression as well as means of testing ideas and opinions. This shift was, of course, part of a more general breakdown of deference and conformity, or, as Bernard Williams himself put it, the development of a society capable of supporting pluralism rather than consensus. Some Christian groups told the Williams Committee that social order depended on a high level of moral consensus. Other submissions disputed the existence, or at the very least the legitimacy, of social orthodoxies. These submissions emphasized the relation between ‘identity’ and access to different perspectives; many of them used the terms of classical liberalism (such as minority rights) and invoked John Stuart Mill and H. L. A. Hart. In a way that bears comparison with what David Feldman has identified as ‘conservative pluralist’ responses to a multi-ethnic Britain, gay rights activists and other critics of Britain’s censorship regime worked with older ways of thinking about potentially disruptive cultural diversity.

Paper 3 Abstract : E. P. Thompson’s Liberalism

Tim Rogan, St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge

If the 1970s was a ‘marketplace for ideas’, one specific intellectual commodity was in short supply: unifying concepts of the human person, abundant at midcentury, had become nigh impossible to procure. These components had been integral to midcentury critiques of capitalism, and especially to the critical tradition pioneered by R. H. Tawney. E. P. Thompson – foremost legatee of that critical tradition – was hit particularly hard. Marx’s offering (upon which Thompson had relied) was now deemed defective. Beyond Marx, Thompson saw two alternatives: to become ‘a certain kind of Christian radical’ (like Tawney had been) or to become a certain kind of liberal. Thompson did not relish this choice, but not did he believe that he could abstain. To leave a ‘de-structured vacancy’ where previously there had been strong, prescriptive conceptions of the person was not an option – as an historian and as a citizen, Thompson believed that he needed a concept of the person.

One effect of the wider breakdown of deference and conformity in 1960s and 1970s Britain was then to make a certain kind of critique of capitalism more difficult to sustain. Politics becoming less consensual and more pluralistic was liberating in some ways, but inhibiting in others. By following E. P. Thompson through this declension, this paper helps to bring some associated dilemmas into sharper focus. It uses Thompson’s progress as a means of clarifying what standpoints were available to a person of his anti-utilitarian predilections – and, in particular, whether a *liberal* critique of utilitarian political economy was conceivable. Thompson’s own labour to break this impasse was in vain. Thompson’s answers will not bear scrutiny, but the questions he asked at this juncture remain important and unresolved.

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