Few subjects can be so elusive as a national culture. The term lends itself to any number of meanings, each presenting its own difficulties of definition or application. Towards the end of the sixties, I tried to explore what seemed one significant structure to fall under such a heading in Britain—the dominant pattern of social thought, as displayed in a range of intellectual disciplines.footnote1 The product of this attempt had many failings. Written at a time of rebellion, in a spirit of outrance, it mounted a peremptory broadside on its chosen target. The price of this general excoriation was paid in a variety of local simplifications or misjudgements. Overstatement in critique was also accompanied by over-confidence of cure—a theoretical triumphalism that was no service to the radical alternatives advocated. These short-comings aside, however, there was also a broader problem of method. For the procedure of the essay was open to two opposite, yet in some ways equally cogent, objections. From one standpoint, how could such a wide diversity of learned pursuits—roughly, the different humanities and social sciences—be responsibly brought into a single focus? From another, why give such attention anyway to a set of narrow academic specialisms, rather than to major popular manifestations of the national culture? The moment of 1968 explains why it was possible to be at once so selective and so sweeping. The choice of ground was a natural expression of campus ferment; as was the coup de main that could scoop its land-marks together into a systematically interrelated set of obstructions.

The exemplary antidote to any too intellectualist approach to our national culture—a work that probes the first as much as the second of these terms—is now to be found in Tom Nairn’s tremendous study of the place of the British monarchy in official and popular sensibility.footnote2 No more compelling portrait of the construction of a certain profane Volksgeist has ever been written. But as this enquiry into an English Ideology itself makes clear, an effective hegemony is exercised in a variety of modes (whose relationship is often one of compensation rather than congruence), and at many different levels. Hence even a crude sketch of its arcaner reaches could serve a common end. Today, as it happens, there is good reason to look again at the intellectual region scanned twenty years ago, from something like the same vantage-point. For a large change has come over it. Then, the academic institutions of the country were the objects of a student revolt, from below. Now they are the targets of government hostility and intimidation, from above—a campaign of harassment described (in private) by a Ministerial spokesman with brutal candour as ‘a Kulturkampf against British universities’. Once pilloried from the Left, the world of higher education has become a bugbear of the Right. What has happened in the intervening decades to bring about this change of fronts?

The predominant outlook of the English intelligentsia in the post-war settlement, once the Cold War set in, was parochial and quietist: adhering to the established political consensus without exercising itself greatly to construct or defend it. ‘Cultivated but distrustful of ideas, socially responsible but suspicious of politics’, Francis Mulhern has noted, its members were ‘decidedly Anglican in temper: aware of higher things but careful not to become tedious on that account, and not really in much doubt of the basic good sense of the nation and those who governed it.’footnote3 Such peaceable conformism lasted down to the first Wilson years, supplying much of the sere backcloth against which campus revolt finally exploded in the late sixties. This was the cultural formation on which rebellious sights were trained in the movement of 1968.

The active unrest of those years was suppressed, or subsided, fairly quickly. But it altered the intellectual climate in the country durably. For the first time there emerged in Britain a stratum of radicalized graduates of a certain numerical mass—one which did not peter out, but was reinforced under the impact of the industrial battles of the early seventies. This provided the ambience in which a militant culture well to the left of the previous spectrum could take wider shape. The strength of the new area derived not merely from those marked by the break itself, but even more from the accumulation of ideas and forces which the space it created henceforward made possible. A super-imposition of generations now combined to create a public sphere unlike any other since the Second World War—one whose dominant temper was pervasively, if never rigidly or exclusively, Marxist; and whose influence stretched from slowly increasing positions in colleges and universities and an intermittent presence in the national media, through a numerous undergrowth of its own periodicals and associaions, across to allied strands in the performing arts and metropolitan counter-culture. The growth in size and significance of this sphere reflected in part the transformation of higher education itself. A student population of about 100,000 in 1960 had doubled to 200,000 by 1967–68, and had nearly trebled again by 1988, to some 580,000—half of them by now in polytechnics. This sociological expansion of the basis for a British intelligentsia coincided with institutional changes that gave more outlets for radical intervention: among them the advent of the Open University, and the relocation of the Guardian; the rise of listings journalism, and the success of Channel Four. But the real foundation of the new sector lay in the interplay between three or four generations of socialist intellectuals, in such conditions.

The most important of these was, of course, the remarkable levy of the late 30’s—nearly all active when young in the Communist Party, and most of them members of its Historians’ Group after the war. Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, John Saville, Victor Kiernan, Gwyn Williams, Rodney Hilton, Raymond Williams were each leading figures in their own fields by the mid sixties. Their collective influence, however, acquired a different weight over the next two decades—one due not simply to their intellectual gifts, outstandingly endowed though this generation was, but also to the blend of political steadfastness and moral independence that made them distinctive among their European counterparts. The productivity of this cohort continued unabated, yielding such major new oeuvres in the eighties as that of Geoffrey de Ste. Croix. It was followed by those whose formative experience lay in the late 50’s—another period of establishment torpor and burgeoning protest against it. The New Left was the home of most of this generation, which lacked the organizational tradition of its predecessors, but was linked to the principal mass movement of the time, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. When cnd peaked, much of it suffered dispersal and withdrawal. But after the upheaval of the late 60’s, it recovered a strong presence in the subsequent political climate. The careers of Stuart Hall or Raphael Samuel have been emblematic in this regard; somewhat apart in origin and evolution, the work of Tom Nairn rejoined company with them here. The linkage provided by this intermediate cluster of socialists, in their different ways, was vital for the consolidation of a mutually communicating Left.