"'Many Thousand Pass a Levels' Makes Such a Hopeless Headline": the Lord Privy Seal’s Youth Enquiry (1967-70)

Catherine Ellis, Department of History, Toronto Metropolitan University

In 1967, the British government headed by Prime Minister Harold Wilson established their first Youth Enquiry. This “enquiry,” chaired by the Lord Privy Seal, Lord Longford, was unusual. While it aligned with the Labour government’s forward-looking image and efforts to connect with young people, the inquiry was never publicly announced and its report was to be private, circulated only to the Prime Minister and relevant ministers. Its remit was less clear than other contemporary government inquiries. No formal hearings were held and the Youth Enquiry relied entirely on written evidence submitted by a variety of organizations across Britain. Much of the evidence was statistical and focused on young offenders, juvenile delinquency, and numbers of youth in education, in social care, and on probation. When asked why the focus of research on youth was so often concentrated on problems, crime and perceived failures, one respondent explained it in journalistic terms: ‘“Many thousand pass A levels” makes such a hopeless headline.’ There was, however, much more to the Youth Enquiry than sensationalized reluctance to view young people in a positive light. This paper will locate the Wilson government’s Youth Enquiry in the context of the tensions young people and youth culture caused within the British Labour Party in the 1960s, and consider how the inquiry’s life and findings reflect the climate within which political decisions about youth were made in this period – a climate in which politicians and policy-makers held simultaneous contradictory views of young people as both passive and active, and where both their passivity and their activity heralded the demise of democratic engagement and civil society.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 54. Questions of Silence and Children’s (In)visibility in the Archives