Opening Negotiations: introductions and backgrounds to British Cold War Culture


‘The cold war, in Gaddis’s account, was both inevitable and necessary. The Soviet empire and its allies could not be rolled back, but they had to be contained […] In the end – thanks to greater resources, a vastly more attractive political and economic model, and the initiative of a few good men (and one good woman) – the right side won.’[1]

While many writers have questioned the hegemonic, J.L. Gaddis-formed ‘common sense’ about the Cold War, few conflicting views are sanctioned in popular discourse on the subject. In Britain, the Gaddis-inspired Niall Ferguson and Dominic Sandbrook have held sway. Sandbrook was given a BBC-2 platform; in Strange Days: Cold War Britain (2013), he argued that the Cold War was about a victory for libertarian ideology – representing ‘sex-choice-freedom’ – over a presumed conformist collectivism. In the posited binary, the individual defeats the faceless ‘mass’. Personal choice overwhelms social determinism.

‘Individual choice’ constitutes an attractive, open model which displaces social organisation and – most importantly for Sandbrook and Ferguson – makes ‘us’ more economically prosperous in GNP terms. This is how they judge various ideologies – and they give too little focus to the distinctions between welfare-capitalism, social-democracy and neo-liberalism. Democratic socialism is viewed as an insignificant adjunct to official communism, rather than a crucial player in the Cold War “victory” in the West. What Sandbrook is good at is identifying striking historical moments – Stamford Bridge, 13th November 1945 and Manchester, 12th July 1961 – and he admittedly doesn’t ignore certain important film and television texts like The War Game (1965) and High Treason (1951).

In contrast to Sandbrook’s awed worship of our progression towards shopping mall Britain, Selina Todd has recently written about the downsides of neo-liberal thinking: working-class people internalising competitive ideology and seeing themselves as failures, with incidences of depression and despair taking the place of organised fightback or the ability to see themselves in the context of wider social forces.

In her 2014 lecture at Newcastle University, Todd told the story of her ex-classmate, Jackie, from Heaton Manor Comprehensive: “She left school at 18 and set out to ‘show what hard work and a big smile can do’. She got on in a labour market where personality counts for more than qualifications and where you’ve got to be flexible and adaptable. She worked her way up to a very important, senior customer service […] position. And then she was sacked – because her boss found her dispensable, for whatever reason. And Jackie had a breakdown as a result of that at age 30, he blamed her personality for it; she blamed her body for it. Not for her the picket line, with a load of others, to demand more control over work […] In a liberal world, she blamed number one.”[2]

Todd spoke of Jackie as embodying a lot of others’ experiences in neo-liberal Britain. Hope was to be held out in how these same ‘individuals’ refused to see their partners or kids in the same way: ‘They were not prepared to believe that those they loved were too lazy or stupid to ‘make it’ in the modern world. In seeking an explanation for why a hard-working husband or healthy children lacked financial security, they began to frame their experiences in class terms.’[3]

Sandbrook does not address such problematic issues – which are intrinsic to the consideration of Cold War ideologies; he gives no quarter to the discontents of ‘freedom’. He ambles smugly around shopping centres or public squares in an ushanka.


The Cold War era has a vast context but it can be broadly delineated into these periods:

1: The Pre-Cold War (1917-47)

2: The First Cold War (1947-69)

3: Détente (1969-79)

4: The Second Cold War (1979-85)

5: Glasnost, perestroika and endgame (1986-91)

Orwell coined the term ‘cold war’ in his essay for Tribune, ‘You and the Atom Bomb’, published 19th October 1945, four years before he hypocritically gave the IRD his infamous list of suspected Stalinist ‘fellow travellers’. In this essay, he discusses the bomb in terms of its costs and impact on power relations; he sets up a binary: fears of annihilation and barbarism vs. hopes for benevolent, liberal world government. ‘If, as seems to be the case, it [the bomb] is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a peace that is no peace’.[4]

Orwell states that the bomb will lead to ‘horribly stable’ states, akin to the slave empires of old, and is fearful of ‘the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbours.’ He made a very prescient point about the bomb leading to power being ‘concentrated in still fewer hands and that the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more hopeless.’ This was dreadfully prescient for the peoples of Vietnam and Czechoslovakia – among many other examples of proxy interventions by the big powers. Martin Shaw – not the reluctant player of that ludicrous bubble-permed masculine ideal Bodie – argued in 1984 that too much Cold War study has focused on the long peace between the major powers since 1945. Certainly, the liberal idealist Steven Pinker makes a persuasive case in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) for humanity having ‘civilized’ and become tangibly less violent, based on statistical data across epochs. That doesn’t invalidate concern for the people of third-world countries that became distant pawns in a damnable global contest.

An overview of the field; what is this blog’s remit?

What has been written; what might be written?

And what does the Cold War mean personally? Well, watching When the Wind Blows (1986) on a battered VHS cassette – recorded off-air by my parents – at fifteen years of age left a mark. It contributed to the sort of dark humorous outlook and melancholy that is part of my mental landscape, my way of seeing. I was too young to have seen Threads first hand, and my parents didn’t encourage me to watch it or read Raymond Briggs’ original, but I was always going to come to it eventually. I’d been getting into Pink Floyd at the time, and had read Nineteen Eighty Four around the same time – typical enough for any fairly bookish teenage lad, but I have taken the conscious decision to go further and explore why British people felt such artifacts as When the Wind Blows had to be made… I was also asked by Joe Brooker in 2013 to contribute a paper on ‘John le le Carré in TV History’ to a symposium which marked the 50th anniversary of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’s first publication. This thought-provoking event was a springboard for me to read and think about many wider areas of the Cold War.

This blog will look at: television, film, theatre, poetry, prose, music and art. Boundaries and canons are to be analysed themselves, not obeyed. Culture also is to include ‘the way of life’, so advertising and varied everyday practices should be considered; the human spirit may be perceived in a t-shirt, providing that cultural product is placed in wider contexts. A guiding spirit is Raymond Williams: everything can matter; nothing can be entirely divorced from the society it originates within.

Analysis of domestic political history may be matched by a focus on doctrines of International Relations. As well as considering debates concerning idealism/realism and NATO/non alignment. How did the British perceive themselves, Western and Eastern European nations and alliances and people outside of Europe? As well, of course, as how ‘we’ perceived the Soviet Union and the United States – and some attention should be paid to how ‘we’ ourselves were perceived.

As Joseph Oldham has argued, spy fiction is ‘perhaps uniquely effective as a popular genre for providing an alternative lens onto the broader cultural and geopolitical shifts over the last hundred years or so.’[5] James Chapman has incisively analysed how the James Bond film series mirrors such shifts; for example, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) as emblematic of détente, reflecting the thawed relations between the USA and the USSR.[6] Popular music will be examined; it has been a contested subject: in 2013, Sandbrook tried to claim the Beatles for the dominant Western consumerism, while in 1969 Richard Gott said of the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park: ‘this was a free concert, an event that seemed to be taking place in a Socialist society in the distant future. The participants, almost all born since the Second World War, had a classless air, and they were less disciplined, less puritanical than the middle-class protestors of earlier days.’[7] Sandbrook pays necessary attention to ‘Two Tribes’, but to little else. He wrongly stereotypes Play for Today as a predominantly “very left-wing” series. He is hagiographical towards Thatcher, a 1970s development not predicted by Gott – inflating her Cold War significance in the third episode of his series, gushing: “The Iron Lady was Britain’s ultimate Cold War weapon!”[8]

Alan Sinfield and Robert Hewison have conducted valuable studies of the broader cultural and developments, giving attention to fringe, underground activities, from Wesker’s Centre 42 to CND. Tony Judt may have been correct that there was ‘no McCarthyism’ in Western Europe – Britain included – however, vast expenses were spent by this country’s government on an ever-larger ‘secret state’ that spied on citizens with even the slightest connection to ‘subversive’ ideologies.[9] Bernard Porter and Peter Hennessy have written entertainingly and polemically on the secret state – their writings respectively represent a useful dichotomy of anti-establishment and mandarin outlooks. Their brief detours into textual study will be worth following up: The Sixth Column, The Chilian Club and a PG Wodehouse “Bingo” Little short-story featuring the bomb!

Durham University’s James Smith has provided the most up-to-date analysis of secret service surveillance of writers and artists from the Thirties Generation to the Theatre Workshop, adding to Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor’s important Blacklist: Inside Story of Political Vetting (1985). Tony Shaw has written several important books and articles on British cinema, ideology and propaganda, and usefully focuses on the end of Empire alongside discussions of containment and apocalyptic fictions. I have been informed by his analysis of neglected films like The Demi-Paradise (1943) and His Excellency (1952).

While there’ve been crucial passages in Raymond Durgnat’s A Mirror for England (1970) and Alice Ferrebe’s Literature of the 1950s: Good, Brave Causes, my favourite single work of Cold War cultural analysis is Andrew Hammond’s British Fiction and the Cold War (2013), focusing on literature in cultural context. This work of vast scholarship, forensic detail and contextual sweep, highlights key areas for future research – I hope to work on such areas, and not just with literary texts.

More reading is to be done, to gather “what has been said” on this vast subject. There are books and ideas to engage with and respond to – from, seemingly, an all too male field that includes: Wright, Webb, Elsom, Hebdige, Caute, Spufford, Beckett, Vinen, Edgerton, Judt and Lynskey.

I will tackle some of these significant themes I have often encountered in my research: deterrence, the various bombs, civil defence, containment, espionage and foreign policy. There is also the seemingly distinct but intimately Cold War-connected area of national service. Due attention will be paid to tellingly neglected areas, such as British involvement in the affairs of Greece, Australia and Indonesia. Despite the avowedly British scope, I hope in this blog to discuss areas such as neutrality, euro-communism and Eastern Europe more than the feted, but America-centric Gaddis: ‘In a work of 333 pages, Tito’s break with Stalin gets just one paragraph; the Hungarian revolution of 1956 merits a mere twenty-seven lines (whereas page after page is devoted to Watergate).’[10]

This blog may appraise any new television or radio programmes that come under the umbrella of ‘British culture in the Cold War’. Obvious but crucial texts (Threads, Nineteen Eighty Four, Darkness at Noon) may be discussed, alongside obscurer works that communicate less familiar viewpoints, myths and representations.

Key figures will be analysed: what do these people mean in the context of the Cold War and British identity: Winston Churchill, Ernest Bevin, Doris Lessing, Patrick Allen, John Le Mesurier, John Berger…?


There are significant national myths to be dissected; it will be my contention that tickets to top tables, world roles, ‘Blitz spirit’ rediscovery and colossal defence spending represented delusional folly. The myth of national decline post-WW2 maintains its power – but this really depends what aspect of Britain you examine, and whose perspective one takes: the median working person or those with wealth and power. Lawrence Black and Andy Beckett have rightly challenged the ‘1970s as utterly bleak and hopeless’ myth, one originally fostered by Levins, Larkins, Bookers and so on. Similar to injudicious ‘Island Story’ tellers – as old and unfamiliar as Henrietta Marshall and sadly at all too familiar as Michael Gove – the likes of Sandbrook present too simple and triumphalist a story of the Cold War: ‘It was shopping wot won it’.[11]

The history has not ended: Thatcher-inspired neo-liberalism has not delivered a glorious present; vainglorious states still attempt to meddle in the others of smaller ones. Bond and Smiley are still appearing on cinema screens. British culture in the Cold War was as richly complex in its multiplicity: parochial, internationalist; left-wing, right-wing; communalist, individualist.

In contrast to complacent or dogmatic Cold Warrior poets of ‘The Movement’, Ted Hughes spoke about “opening negotiations”, with “whatever is out there”. This blog is an attempt to do just that.

[1] Judt, T. (2009) Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. London: Vintage Books, pp.368-9

[2] Todd, S. (2014) ‘The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010’, INSIGHTS public lecture, Newcastle University, 18th November

[3] Todd, S. (2015) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. London: John Murray, p.402

[4] Orwell, G. (1970) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume 4 – In Front of Your Nose. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p.26

[5] Oldham, J. (2015) ‘Interview with Joseph Oldham’, Literary 007 [accessed: 22/08/15]

[6] Chapman, J. (1999) Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films. London: I.B. Tauris, pp.178-200.

[7] Gott, R. (1969) ‘A glimpse in Hyde Park of Britain in 10 years’, The Guardian, 7th July, p.16

[8] Sandbrook, D. (2013) ‘3. Two Tribes’, Strange Days: Cold War Britain, BBC-2, 27th November

[9] Judt, T. (2009) p.375

[10] Judt, T. (2009) p.374

[11] Colley, L. (2014) ‘2. Islands’, Acts of Union and Disunion, BBC Radio 4, 7th January