Consumers against Communism


This post is a review of the second part of Dominic Sandbrook’s Strange Days: Cold War Britain (BBC2, 2013).

This second part of Strange Days is entitled The Looking Glass War after the John Le Carré novel where the name implied both that the Cold War was merely a way in which the security service could indulge their vanity by reliving the WW2 glory days, and in part Alice Through the Looking Glass world where rules are reversed.  The implication here is different, that the Cold War is a mirror in which we can see the development of modern Britain.  We are told: ‘It was a war that shaped our society’.  This instalment falls far short of achieving that aim, indeed it turns into a rather structureless meandering hour of disjointed film clips.  Most importantly, it entirely loses sight of the Cold War itself.

In order to make sense of this programme I have tried to break it down into chunks.  I have tried to identify what each section of the film has attempted to say and offered some assessment of that segment.  Much of this is quite ‘first draft’ on my part, I have not dug into the secondary sources in many places.  I may return to some of these sections with more expansive considerations of the issues involved.  This has nonetheless created a very long post, but I hope you will bear with it.


1. The Cold War can be seen as one between Western consumer choice and Soviet communism.

This is a strange assertion, but one that is repeated several time through this film.  There are a number of problems with it.  First, as John Benson shows in his The Rise of Consumer Society in Britain, 1880-1980, consumerism predated the Cold War, and it has continued after it.  It is certainly not distinctive to it.

Second, it is not the case that the USSR were uninterested in the production of consumer goods.  As Francis Spufford puts it: ‘the late 1960s and all that the Soviet regime aspired to do was to provide a pacifying minimum of consumer goods to the inhabitant of the vast shoddy apartment buildings ringing every Soviet city.  But once upon a time the story of red plenty had been serious: and attempts to beat capitalism on its terms, and to make Soviet citizens the richest in the world.’[1]  The Ninth Five Year Plan (1971-75) showed the Soviet leadership were aiming to increase production for consumers, but the stagnation that the Soviet economy was increasingly suffering from was unable to deliver on this promise.  If the Cold War was about ideological difference, it was not based on consumerism versus communism.


2. Yuri Gagarin visits Britain in 1962.

I am unsure what the point of this section is, perhaps to show that there was a real soviet threat to Western technological dominance.  The USSR had launched the first Sputnik in 1957, and Gagarin had gone into space in April 1961.  The first American satellite was launched in 1958 and after several delays, the US put a man in space three weeks after the Soviets.  Whether this gave the Soviets a huge ‘lead’ in the technology is unclear, but as JFK announced that the US would send a man to the moon and bring him back in May 1961, a huge gap between the US and USSR space programmes opened up.

Of course, this early space programme was a by-product of the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of delivering nuclear warheads.  These were of much greater strategic importance to the USSR since the USA was able to target the USSR from European bases with aircraft and short range missiles.  Thus, having Sputnik and then Gagarin orbiting above the USA could be considered an aggressive act.

Thus, any implication that space flight created a public sense in Britain that Soviet technology was superior to that of the USA and the USSR was winning the arms race needs to be carefully established.  It would appear that here, the photogenic Gagarin is a substitute for a discussion of the state of the arms race in the late 1950s and early 1960s.


3.  At this point CND is introduced into the narrative.

(On the whole, I try to ignore Dominic’s sneering tone, but he constantly descends into some of the worst linguistic bias I have come across since the last time I read Richard Littlejohn’s column in The Sun.  CND are “hand-wringing idealists”, unlike the “hard headed realists” who defended nuclear, etc. etc.)

Here the narrative jumps back from 1962 to 1958 with the formation of CND (although it should be noted that that grew out of a National Association for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons Tests dating back to 1955).  CND did not organise the 1958 Aldermaston march, this was the work of the Direct Action Committee formed earlier in 1957.  What Dominic is silent on is why CND was formed.  The implication of placing this after Gagarin is that it was a response to the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, and this is certainly in the mix.  It is certainly no coincidence that the day before the launch the Labour politician Aneurin Bevan dropped this opposition to nuclear weapons in a speech to the Labour Party conference.[2]  This led to one of the best known examples of the Cold War being played out in Britain.  When the anti-nuclear campaigners achieved one of their goals of winning the Labour Party to a position of unilateral nuclear disarmament in 1960, the CIA funded the operation through the Campaign for Democratic Socialism to overturn the decision, which was achieved the following year.

Such attempts of the American state to influence culture and politics are well known.  The CIA created the Congress for Cultural Freedom which funded the British based magazine Encounter from 1953.  One must assume that this history is not unknown to Dominic since Hugh Wilford, author of The CIA, The British Left and the Cold War was director of American Studies in the History Department at Sheffield University and thus may well have been Dominic’s boss when he worked there.

It is telling, however, of the one sided nature of Dominic’s view of the Cold War that he does not give any time to the USA’s covert activities aimed at influencing British politics and culture.

One trivial point.  I will have to check this, but I think that Dominic is wrong on Gerald Holtom and the CND sign.  As far as I recall, Holtom’s design was based on the Christian cross adapted with semaphore signing for N and D.  The Goya element was suggested by late Eric Austen (who I knew quite well) who adapted the symbol into its now familiar form (particularly adding the rounding where the cross connect with the circle, suggesting Goya’s outstretched fingers, and its hand-drawn feel).  This is based on some fairly distant conversations, whether I can back it up with any text is another matter.


4.  There was a tension between the comfort of consumerism and the anxiety of annihilation and this was reflected in James Bond. 

There is quite a bit to unpick here.  First, the books and the films are conflated.  Ian Fleming’s books, from his first, Casino Royale (1953), have a clear Cold War setting.  The enemy is a fictionalised KGB, SMERSH.  The early films downplay the Soviets as the bad guys (there is a story that this was because the makers thought the Cold War might be over soon and the films would date quickly, I don’t know how accurate that is, but it is very significant if it is true).  The first Bond film was Dr. No (1962), which may have been chosen because the eponymous villain is part of the criminal conspiracy SPECTRE, and in Fleming’s book he is in cohorts with the Russians while in the film the Soviet element is missing.

This is perhaps why Dominic chooses to concentrate on the second Bond film From Russia with Love (1963), but here the title is misleading and Dominic is disingenuous in allowing it stay so.  The bad guys in From Russia with Love are again the criminal conspiracy SPECTRE, and although SMERSH are in the film, SPECTRE are playing the two sides off against each other.  Rosa Klebb (the woman with poison daggers in her shows) is ex-SMERSH, but has defected to SPECTRE.  The attractive blonde seen in the clip (the one whose mouth is “the right size” – what a dirty line that is and who saves Bond by shooting Klebb) is actually a Soviet functionary (although a minor embassy official, not a spy).

It would of course be wrong to divorce Bond from the Cold War, but the linkages are far from as straight forward as implied by Dominic.


5. John Le Carré highlighted the moral void at the heart of the cold war, giving up the individual in the battle to save individualism.

This is an increasing theme of spy films from the mid-1960s.  One might add that halfway between Le Carré’s shabby and futile spies and Bond is Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer, particularly it realisation in three films (The Ipcress File (1965), Death in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967)) starring Michael Caine.  It is notable, that unlike the triviality of the Bond films, both Le Carré and the Palmer films question the role of the British establishment and view the British state as, at best, morally ambiguous.  Thus, the Soviets are at least not the only enemy, and perhaps not the main or only threat to our freedom.  But this reaction to the Cold War, at least in British film, goes unexplored.


6. Dominic jumps back to the Vassall affair of 1962, suggesting it is the key scandal that demonstrates the Cold War was a murky and morally ambiguous place.

I am not at all sure why the Vassall case shows this.  In his account here, Dominic plays up the blackmail element to the story (which dated back to the mid-1950s), rather than Vassall also being paid for his services.  It is interesting the Dominic claims here that Vassall’s trial in 1962 was more important in undermining Macmillan than the Profumo affair of 1963.  In his 2005 book Never Had it so Good, Dominic gives Vassall 3 pages.  Profumo gets 40.  This could all bear some more scrutiny.


7. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.  

Throughout this series, Dominic make exaggerated claims of the type: ‘It is easy to forget that for nearly 50 years Britain stood on the brink of Armageddon … The nuclear stand-off between east and west took us all to the edge of destruction.’  This was by no means true for all of the forty-two years of the Cold War, but there was a palpable sense of increased danger in October 1963.  The cultural consequences of this shock could bear a little more unpacking than offered here.  


8. In the face of heightened anxiety, the authorities wanted to maintain public confidence through Civil Defence propaganda, not tell the truth.

This seems fair enough.  Matthew Grant in his After the bomb has shown that the Civil Defence preparations were in large part an ideological policy of making people accept that these nuclear bomb were all quite normal.

This is not an area where I have any great knowledge, but there is an interesting point about the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction, that no-one would start a nuclear war since everyone would lose.  When did this idea become popular, and what effect did it have?  Did the Cuban Missile Crisis make people think differently on this?  What about the tactical/limited use of nukes as battlefield weapons?  Again, there are simply too many unanswered questions here.


9. The BBC banned The War Game due to an understanding of the national interest they shared with the government.

Dominic is, I think, absolutely right to make something of the BBC’s War Game here.  The film attempted to show the impact of a nuclear strike on Britain, exposing the falsity of the amateurish Civil Defence preparations being made.  Although the film was much loved by CND types, it was studiously neutral on the politics of the bomb.  It was just as easy to argue that the film showed why deterrents had to be kept in place and any disarmament had to be multilateral.

It is also true that BBC’s banning of it (with, as Dominic refers to, considerable government involvement) showed that the BBC shared the government’s understanding of the national interest.

Again, what goes undeveloped here is the degree to which there was a sense of foreboding that this reflected and the cultural consequences that this had.  Did it actually feed into a more hedonistic and materialistic culture?  Did it lead to a less deferential view of our leaders, perhaps that reflected in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963)?  The promise of looking at this impact goes unfulfilled.


10. Britain maintained a large Warsaw Pact facing army in Rhineland.

I simply do not know why this material is here, what does it have to do with the impact of the Cold War on British society?  There is a comment that the families of the soldier were in the frontline too, but going shopping.  Really?

There is the interesting throwaway line that Britain was in 1970 spending around 10% of state budget on defence while Japan and West Germany and Japan were restrained from spending so much.  This is a creakingly old explanation for Britain’s relative economic decline, going back to Andrew Shonfield c.1958 , an unconvincing theory on a number of grounds.  First, West Germany did have a high defence budget, it was banned only from deploying troops overseas but (because of the Soviet threat) had maintained conscription (unlike Britain) and this was both expensive and potentially economically disruptive since it kept young male men out of the workforce.  Thus, in 1960 Germany was spending 5.0% of it GDP on its military, and in 1970 3.4% (compared to the UK 8.3% and 5.6%).  Thus defence spending cannot be used to explain why Germany had an average growth rate in its GDP of 4.5% compared to Britain’s 2.9%.  USA spent more on Britain on its military (8.8% in 1960 and 7.6% in 1970) but had an average growth rate in the 1960s of 3.8%.  The figures for France are of spending growing slightly over the period and becoming higher than Britain’s (6.4% in 1960 and 7.8% in 1970) but their growth rate in the 1960s was nearly twice that of Britain’s at 3.6%.[3]  This does not mean that British military spending was good for its economy in the 1960s, but it can hardly be an explanation by itself of why Britain’s growth rate was less than of France, West Germany or the USA.  Indeed, the view that military spending had a major impact on poor economic performance has been refuted at length in Till Geiger’s Britain and the Economic Problem of the Cold War: The Political Economy and the Economic Impact of the British Defence Effort, 1945-1955.


11. The Beatles won the cold war.

This is the oddest digression in the programme, and one of the worst post hoc fallacies imaginable.  In 1968 some of the people of the USSR heard records by the Beatles.  Twenty-two years later Communism collapsed.  The only mystery is that the people of East Germany, who had uninterrupted access to Western pop music on the radio, put up with Honecker for so long. (There is an interesting idea that Bruce Springsteen was the proximate cause of the fall of the Berlin Wall after the East German government misjudged how to placate young rock fans in the country with a concert by the boss in 1988.  Baywatch and Knight Rider star David Hasselhoff also claim responsibility.[4]


12. In the West by the late 1960s the moral compromises of the Cold War had turned people against the west and “the supposed failings of liberal democracy”, but this was not towards Soviet aligned Communism.

This is clearly true.  While the radical left was obvious in the student protests and some other areas of British society, it did not swell the ranks of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Indeed, most of this wave of activists did not join anything.  The International Socialists (forerunner of the SWP) and a number of smaller Trotskyist groups grew, but not enough to become a significant social force.  There was some moves towards Chinese communism, Maoism, and the some romanticism of Che Guevara.  Probably more important than this was the idea that there was a counter-culture, although the degree to which this was an alternative form of consumerism combined with a hedonistic youth culture is worthy of some debate.[5]

What goes unmentioned is that there has always been non-Soviet radicalism in British political culture.  Trotskyism was maybe a minor force in Britain, but present.  The ILP split off from the Labour Party in 1931.  There was the Guild Socialism of GDH Cole.  But probably the first socially important movement on the left was the emergence of the new left in 1956, in part as result of a final disillusionment with Stalinism after the invasion of Hungary.  The New Left Review founded in 1960 was explicit in its attempt to forge a path other than Western liberal democracy and Eastern Stalinist Communist.  It was to be a breeding ground for the women’s movement, the peace movement, anti-racism and other forms of radicalism that began to emerge later in the 1960s and 1970s.  Apart from a couple of passing insults, it goes unmentioned by Dominic.

Of course these are complex ideas not necessarily suited to one-hour popular history programme.  But surely it is the role of the popular historian to make these ideas and debates accessible for a wide audience.  So what does Dominic give us?  A clip from Rising Damp has the student radical Alan (Richard Beckinsale) being sneered at by Rigsby (Leonard Rositter), remind you of anyone?  This tells us nothing of what students were thinking, their impact on wider society or the underlying dynamics of social change.  It tells us what the writer Eric Chapel (who was coincidently born in Grantham) thought would get a laugh.  It tells us as much about the nature of student radicalism as Chapel’s other big comedy, Only When I Laugh, tells us about the NHS.

Of course the real purpose of the clip (like the use of the Beatles, Bond Films and the rest of it) is to play to the gallery with nostalgia.  This is the reverse of history in that it emotionalises our understanding of the past, rather than analysing it.  Dominic continues to elide fiction and fact by offering up the TV adaptation The History Man as an example of just how “the strident voice of the new left was now a potent force in British culture”.  (This reading of The History Man as a right wing attack on the left was one that its author, Malcolm Bradbury, explicitly rejected).[6]


13. The BBC found room for those who preferred “the certainties of the class war” over “the complexities of the cold war”.

It is common to hear that the BBC by the 1970s had become a hotbed of radicalism.  What Dominic offers here, certainly by implication, is an attack on the BBC’s left wing programming.  To my mind the BBC was, and remained, a highly conservative organisation.  It was still, at heart, the Auntie that would not let us stay up to watch The War Game.

Rather than becoming more left-wing, I would suggest that the BBC was ceasing to be so conservative and becoming more pluralistic.  It was not in the 1970s, but from the early 1960s that this shift occurred, particularly when Hugh Greene was the DG of the BBC in 1960.  This period saw from 1964 The Wednesday Play (as Play for Today was called before the BBC required more flexibility for its transmission day).  1962 saw the arrival of both social-realist Z-Cars and the satirical That Was the Week That Was.  This existed alongside many more programmes that were much more conservative in outlook.  The BBC’s news output, while clearly not the mouthpiece of the government, has been criticised for showing an establishment bias (see, for example, the work of the Glasgow University Media Group).

Thus, to attack the BBC because there were some left-wing or radical programmes in the 1970s, as Dominic appears to, is to attack not a bias but diversity.  This relies on selecting only those (few) programmes that support the hypothesis.  Thus some isolated examples of Play for Today are selected as left-wing propaganda, along with  Ken Loach’s Days of Hope.  Dominic admits that not all of Play for Today was left wing, but “quite a lot of them were”.  As I will show in a subsequent post, the correct answer is “a few of them”, along with a few other dramas.

Ultimately, Dominic is implying that there is something uniquely illegitimate about left-wing opinion.  That representations of class struggle, which clearly did exist in Britain in the 1970s, should not have been seen he implies, and that the sympathetic portrayal of such struggle was wrong.

What would a fair selection of TV programmes from the 1970s show?  If I were to speculate what this would show, without delving too far into the secondaries, is that most television in the 1960s and 1970s was conservative, sexist, homophobic, was in line with consumerism, was materialistic and more than a little racist both explicitly and implicitly by offering a limited number of representations of minorities in stereotypical roles.

To return to the point.  What has this to do with the Cold War?  The point that Dominic is making is that there was a lack of moral certainty emerging by the mid-1960s and this was reflected in the left-wing and radical programming of the BBC.  This is an interesting idea, but not one that is sufficiently supported with the evidence presented (Le Carré, John Lennon sending his MBE back and the BBC being more critical).  The BBC’s less deferential attitude might be pinpointed to the start of That Was the Week That Was in 1962, the same year of the first Bond film which Dominic uses as evidence of the height of Cold War glamour.  It does not quite hang together.


14. Most people were too busy shopping for a new colour TV to worry about Marxism, although the cold war was no longer an arena of moral certainly but of shades of grey.

But by this stage Dominic has quite lost sight of the Cold War.  No developments after the Cuban Missile Crisis are mentioned at all.  It is important to note that after the tension around the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and that even before the end of the Vietnam War (which receives curiously little attention here), there was a thawing between the West and both the USSR and Communist China.  Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) started in 1969 and the talk was of detente and a thawing of the Cold War.  Nixon visited China in 1972.  This thawing only ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 (but, we have to assume, more of this in part 3).

And so we return to the hypothesis.  It is shopping that the British people were interested in.  Forget the strikes, forget the demonstrations and forget movement of society from its Edwardian carapace.  It was the ability to go shopping that kept us free from the dangers of Communism.


[1] Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (London: faber and faber, 2010), p5.

[2] Labour Would Not Ban Bomb Alone, The Manchester Guardian , 4/10/1957.

[3] Figures adapted from Woolf, Charles et al   Long Term Economic and Military Trends 1950-2010 (Santa Monica CA: RAND, 1989)

[4] Erik Kirschbaum, Rocking The Wall: Bruce Springsteen: The Untold Story of a Concert in East Berlin That Changed the World (New York: Berlinica, 2010).

[5] Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell: How the Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture (Chichester: Capstone, 2006).

[6] David Lodge, ‘The Lord of Misrule’, The Guardian, 12/1/2008.


About Matthew Cooper

This blog is written by Matthew Cooper.
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3 Responses to Consumers against Communism

  1. wrinkled weasel says:

    Dear Matthew, again, a fascinating article, entertaining and informative.

    “both Le Carré and the Palmer films question the role of the British establishment and view the British state as, at best, morally ambiguous.” You forgot Callan!

    Ps are you the same Matthew Cooper who writes about WW2?

    • Glad you enjoyed it.
      And no, I don’t do war although it is one of the two topics that sells history books. Is he the guy who does Luftwaffe uniforms? I thought he was long enough ago to be forgotten. I have already had to stop being Matt Cooper because of a clash with an Irish journalist who writes about the Euro crisis.

  2. Having looked into it, it was Holtram who used the Goya imagery in relation to the CND symbol. See

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