The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979
Seasons In The Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979
Allen Lane 992pp £30
Fans of Dominic Sandbrook will love this latest volume of his panoramic social history of Britain since the 1950s. The book opens with a brilliant snapshot of the Americans filming Star Wars in a Hertfordshire studio. Away from the futuristic set George Lucas and his team found a seemingly backward nation, with its measly three TV channels and restrictive practices. From there Sandbrook charts the aspirations that Mrs Thatcher later exploited; and he does so in a compendious narrative that in substance cleverly matches his description of 1970s culture as ‘an exercise in cannibalism, a collage of references and allusions’.
Sandbrook’s work reminds me of the historian G.M. Trevelyan, whose English Social History, from Chaucer to Victoria, cut a dash in the 1950s by applying a Victorian narrative of progress to what was then the new study of social history. It is as if Trevelyan has been exhumed, forced to watch a box set of The Good Life and then plonked in front of a laptop in Oxfordshire with David Cameron nudging his elbow. Like Cameron, the tone is elegantly chummy, the judgements are plausibly moderate, but the bigger picture is deeply and deliberately conservative.
For this is Big Society history written for Middle England at a time when the idea of ‘Britain’ is being widely contested as a common identity and, in Scotland, as a polity. By the author’s own admission the book concentrates on English life and, although he covers the Devolution debate and Scotland’s disastrous 1978 World Cup performance, there is little feel for the historic national differences within the UK that, combined with relative economic decline, steadily eroded British national identity in the postwar period.
Sandbrook’s tale of organic social development reflects a certain reality: most people do inhabit routine working lives made bearable, and often enjoyable, by family relationships, material consumption, mass entertainment and charitable voluntary work. Like other historians he notes the significance of changing patterns of consumption: for example, as millions began to afford foreign holidays wine lost some of its inhibiting class connotations. He also acknowledges that ‘far from dissolving at the touch of affluence’, British class consciousness remained intact as the gap between rich and poor grew wider.
Yet what is presented in these books is a Britain where few people want to think, feel or act beyond their domestic or neighbourhood parameters; it is a strangely two-dimensional, passionless world where pesky ideas are best left to foreigners, extremists and – bah! – ‘left-wing intellectuals’ and ‘well-meaning Guardian readers’, who routinely pop up in Sandbrook’s cavalcade as bogeymen to remind us how out of touch they are with the ‘decent common sense’ of the British people.
That is an academic point as well as a political one because his endless search for ‘common sense’ means that historic change is downplayed and with it the optimism, discontent, conflict and fear that together produce change. In place of strife he offers a conservative consensus, which has the same intellectual limitations as the liberal one that faltered in this period. By persistently occluding awkward facts and contradictory meanings the ultimate result is a distortion of the past that may be comforting but doesn’t serve the pursuit of history.
One example of that tendency is Sandbrook’s rather bald view of youth culture. He rightly points out that disco was a popular genre that transcended ‘barriers of gender, class and even generation’. But then we are told that only a few ‘youngsters’ were ‘skinheads, football hooligans and punks’, a minority who just wanted to shock parents and ‘alienate Middle England’. Aside from being numerically untrue, that verdict grants disco lovers meaning while punks and others who don’t fit his picture of British life are robbed of theirs. The many reasons why ‘youngsters’ chose certain styles over others in order to express themselves is replaced with a twin caricature of teenage life: ‘Far from being delinquent debauchees’, Sandbrook concludes, ‘many led quiet lives and held strikingly conservative attitudes,’ when evidence suggests that most young people consciously inhabited a world somewhere in between.
A clue to this simplistic analysis of youth culture lies in the author’s peculiar view of sex. He cites a 1975 survey of sixth form girls that showed most ‘dreamed of getting married and having children’ as evidence that the sexual revolution was chimeric. Did anyone think that women stopped wanting a husband and kids because they had gained more control over their bodies, or access to education and careers? The revolution in women’s lives that began in the 1960s (of which Mrs Thatcher was as much a beneficiary as Germaine Greer) led to the world of Blind Date and Skins as well as that of Mothercare; but how we got there is obfuscated by the cataracts of conservatism through which Sandbrook views modern Britain.
The horizon of Seasons In The Sun is captured by a letter the author cites, written to the Daily Express in the spring of 1974. Amid the tumult of British life, Mrs Massey of Middlesex reminded readers of ‘What a blessing a garden is in such troubled times … I’m watching goldfish in a small pond … my husband has even been mowing the lawn.’ The history of gardening is a fascinating one but, like many of the people with walk-on parts in Sandbrook’s story, Mrs Massey is left by her pond as a cipher of British decency.
With that in mind these books also remind me of Carl Giles’ cartoons for the Daily Express. From the 1950s to the 1980s Giles (who claimed to be to the left of his employers) presented an archetypal suburban lower middle-class family as the microcosm of a nation muddling through change. The grumpy, rotund grandma was on hand to bash people with her umbrella but most of the family, especially mum and dad, commented on the state of the nation from their crumpled living room sofa and rickety garden chairs with wry good humour that suggested the world outside Acacia Avenue was a little mad. Giles’ view of British life was brilliantly sketched and utterly compelling. But in the end it was a cartoon. I’ve always loved Giles cartoons and can’t wait to read Sandbrook’s account of the Thatcher years. She liked a spot of gardening too.
Richard Weight is author of the forthcoming MOD: The Rise and Reign of British Youth Culture
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