I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood and make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres. Actually, I couldn’t but Dominic Sandbrook can; he has in Seasons in the Sun: the
Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, the sequel to State of Emergency - the Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, which I reviewed here in October, 2010.
I’m not quite sure how to describe this book, hovering as it does between history and black comedy. I found myself laughing out loud at points at the sheer awfulness of our national life in the not so distant past, a past my parents lived through, a history they experienced. I simply had to ask them if it really was that bad.
Yes and no, they replied: politically, economically and socially times were bad - a time of IRA terror, a time rampant inflation, a time of irresponsible trade union barons, a time of Marxist militants, a time of drift and decay; but they were young, they were both undergraduates at the same
Cambridge college; they were in love; they had their season in the sun. Perhaps the day will come when I look back at our present troubled times through a soft-focused lens!
Sandbrook’s title, taken from a whimsical song popular at the time, is deliberately ironic. The period between the surprise victory of Harold Wilson and the Labour Party in the election of March, 1974 and the defeat of his successor James Callaghan in the election in May, 1979 comes as close as any to marking the nadir of modern British history. It was a period that ended not in a Summer of Satisfaction but in the so-called Winter of Discontent, when the country, overwhelmed by a great wave of trade union militancy, saw rubbish pilling up in the streets and the dead queuing for burial.
I knew that Labour governments were dysfunctional but, my goodness, I had no idea of just how dysfunctional. Harold Wilson, who won two elections in the 1960s, came back to power a sad ghost of his former self, increasingly beset by paranoia and quite possibly showing the signs of early mental decay. He was completely dominated by his long-standing political secretary and confidante, one Marcia Williams, a truly ghastly individual. At one point she even addressed
Wilson in the hearing of others as “You little cunt!” By the summer of 1974 her influence was so baleful that his inner circle even contemplated having her murdered. Instead the next best thing served: she was sent upstairs to the House of Lords as Lady Falkender. This Lady was no lady. Even the Queen obliquely queried her elevation.
Sandbrook rightly suggests that the mid to late seventies were not just important as prelude to Thatcherism, surely the most necessary antidote ever devised, but as a “decisive moment in our recent history.” It was a time of transition, a time that saw the strange death of social democratic
England, a time that saw the death of the consensus that had dominated British politics since 1945. It was the time that saw the end of Old Labour, killed off, ironically, by its trade union allies. I would say that if one wanted to understand Tony Blair and the modern Labour Party one could do no better than pay close attention to this period.
It was a time when illusions went hand-in-hand with delusions. In March 1974, when it was clear even to the economically illiterate that it was no longer possible to spend one’s way out of a crisis, Denis Healey, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, proceeded to spend his way out of a crisis. More and more people began to wonder if
Britain was on the road to Weimar, with hyperinflation an ever present threat.
Actually the country had the worst of both worlds, inflation and economic stagnation, allowing a new term – stagflation – to enter the vocabulary. The historian A. J. P. Taylor, who prided himself on his left wing credentials, wrote to his Hungarian mistress urging her to “Pray for the recovery of capitalism. You can’t realise how near we are to catastrophe: all our banks may close their doors in a few months’ time…You are lucky to be living in a Communist country and safe from such things.” Even Callaghan, Foreign Secretary at the time, said, in a mood of black humour, that if he had been a younger man he would emigrate. Many did.
The author does an excellent job in identifying some of the key cultural icons. There is surely none more iconic than the inexpressibly vulgar Beverly Moss from Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party. She is a monster of social one-upmanship. She is also a harbinger of things to come. Most of all she is a representative of a new aspirational
Britain, wholly material in concern, and this includes the trade unionists who, in their devil take the rearmost attitude, killed all hope of a bright new socialist future.
There is surely no more pathetic case than that of the political fantasist Tony Benn, the Secretary of State for Industry, propping up one dying industry after another, full of socialist sentimentalism, when all the working classes really wanted was new fridges and package holidays. Workers of the world unite; you have trips to Torremolinos to gain. The trade unions are often seen as Margaret Thatcher’s greatest enemies. In fact they were her best allies. “The cowardice and irresponsibility of some union leaders”, Denis Healy later reflected, “guaranteed her election; it left them with no grounds for complaining about her subsequent action against them.”
I’ve emphasised the politics of the period in this review by there is so much more in Sandbrook’s door stopper of a book, weighing in at a hefty eight hundred plus pages. He covers so much ground, including the cultural and sporting highs and lows. The highs and lows, depending on your point of view, might be best represented by the Sex Pistols, a dysfunctional punk band for dysfunctional punk times. Yes, it was true: there were no more heroes anymore.
There is also a very good chapter on schooling and the negative effects of fashionable, 'child-centred' educational theories, absurd beyond absurd, particularly in the example of
in Islington. This school might very well serve as a microcosm of William Tyndale Junior School England, an undisciplined free for all.
Drawing on a huge range of sources, Sandbrook weaves an effective tale, though perhaps a little less effective than that told in State of
Emergency. To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best of books and the worst of books. It is strong in narrative and anecdote, weak in depth and analysis. The author’s industry is impressive though, given the quick turnaround between this and his previous book, perhaps a little too Stakhanovite. I would suggest less labour and more reflection. No matter; Sandbrook’s limpid prose carries one along quite nicely through an epic comic tragedy. He has the ability to make one laugh and cry by turns. This is the way we were. This is the way we never want to be again.