Thursday 21 October 2010
A tale unfolds
I’ve entered into a room in the middle of a conversation. I missed the opening, so it has taken a little time for things to assemble in proper order. This is a conversation that’s far from finished, one that’s destined to go on, one that I intend not to miss. What’s being talked about, what’s the subject? Why, we are the subject, the British are the subject, a large part of our post-war political, social and cultural history is the subject. You see I’ve been reading State of Emergency-the Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook!
This is the first of his books I’ve ever tackled though it is the third part in what is clearly shaping up to be a classic of narrative history, a story told in a simple, discursive style, scholarly without being weighed down by scholarship, accessible in the best sense of the term. I missed the early parts of the ‘conversation’, his account of the Macmillan years – Never Had it so Good, and the first ministry of Harold Wilson- White Heat. I intend to catch up with these just as soon as I am able, just as I intend to follow the author’s future meanderings through the mid and late seventies.
The four years he describes in State of Emergency, so called because Edward Heath, then prime minister, called no less than five states of emergency, are full of incident, high politics and low drama. Drama, yes, that’s the word, in politics certainly, though tragedy might serve better. It’s the tragedy of Edward Heath, conceivably the unluckiest prime minster in all of British history, a man overwhelmed by events.
As I said previously, I acquired a greater understanding of the Heath years in a few pages of Sandbrook than I did from several hundred of Edward Heath, the official biography by Philip Ziegler. Heath had the reputation of being a new kind of Conservative, so his friends thought, so his enemies assumed, one who was believed to have embraced a free-market oriented policy, adopted at a conference held at Selsdon, allowing Harold Wilson to dub him Selsdon Man, after Piltdown Man, the famous anthropological fraud.
It was a myth: Heath was not a monetarist, not a prototype for Margaret Thatcher. No, he was the last of the ‘one nation’ Tories, the last of a pre-war generation who believed that unemployment was the greatest evil. Rather than cutting back on public expenditure, his government presided over a major expansion in the welfare state. The simple fact is that this philosophy was untenable, that the economic progress that had upheld the political consensus pursued since 1945 was over never to return. Inflation and stagflation, its new cousin, were set to replace unemployment as the great evil.
The storms that beset Heath, this elusive, cold, slightly ridiculous man with his overblown ‘upper class’ accent, would have destroyed even the strongest, and he was far from that. I alluded previously to George Dangerfield’s classic The Strange Death of Liberal England, a study of the four years leading up to the First World War when England was in danger of being torn apart by union militancy, by the Irish problem, by feminist radicals. Between 1970 and 1974 the spectres returned: England was once again being torn apart by union militancy, the Irish problem and all sorts of radicals! It seems to me that these are the key years, a bridge between the past of Macmillan and the future of Thatcher. Heath was not the wave of the future; he was the last surge of the past.
There is so much more in this book than politics. Sandbrook has an incredible mastery of his brief, with wonderful attention to detail. It’s almost as if he had lived through the period himself, although he was only born in 1974. There are dark passages, the account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the IRA atrocities are particularly grim. But there is much on the details of ordinary life, of a time which actually saw an increase in living standards and expectations.
Some snippets caused me to laugh out loud, including a comment by one Dave Hill of a band called Slade, dressed outrageously in silks and satins favoured by performers at the time, a dreadful gay caricature, saying that he could not be camp if he tried “coz I’m working-class.” This was a time, up until 1971, that Wimpey burger restaurants did not allow unaccompanied women in after midnight because they were assumed to be prostitutes; a time when the wholly naff avocado with prawns emerged as the sophisticated and favoured starter at pretentious middle-class dinner parties!
The details go on and on in a hugely entertaining way. Sandbrook quotes an article by a certain firebrand Labour Member of Parliament, something that might very well have been penned by Karl Marx, on improving the condition of the working class – “…few people could have imagined that Robert Kilroy-Silk would end up smothering himself with cockroaches to amuse the viewers of ITV.”
Some enthusiasms were rendered absurd by future developments, including The Ecologist magazine’s welcome to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, a movement which “deserves our best wishes, our sympathy and our attention. We might learn something”. The Daily Telegraph fared no better, predicting that a certain new African leader would be a contrast to all the others and a “staunch friend to Britain.” What was his name, you ask? He was Major General Idi Amin.
This is a splendid book, a conversation that really is worth listening to, a drama worth watching, by far the best account I have come across of our passage from one state of social and political evolution to another.