Drought in a decade of drizzle

Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-79, by Dominic Sandbrook, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 992 pages

During the mid-1970s a poster began to appear on hoardings across Britain. It comprised a four-word message, white on black, stark but baffling: “Now for Britain itself.”

What could it mean? Was this the announcement that the militaristic rightwingers who had been murmuring about rescuing Britain from the grip of the trade unions were now ready to stage their coup? Or was it, conversely, news that the Kremlin was finally about to take over?

A couple of weeks later, the ads were replaced. This time the background was bright white and illustrated by a petrol pump. The message now read: “Now for Britain it’s Elf.” In other words, the French oil company previously known as Fina was rebranding itself in the UK. Phew!

Dominic Sandbrook’s latest work, Seasons in the Sun, does not mention the Elf advert, which is not surprising since he was born in October 1974, 10 days before Harold Wilson’s election victory that ensured Labour would be in office, if not necessarily in power, until May 1979, when Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, was ousted by Margaret Thatcher. But it is full of delights, and captures the febrile, fearful, sometimes apocalyptic mood that gripped Britain during those years of Labour government.

“In literary fiction ... the same themes – death, decline, desolation, disillusionment – recurred in book after book,” he notes. Margaret Drabble used the words “dirty” and “dangerous”; “dying”, said John Fowles. And he quotes Kenneth Tynan, famous for F-words but obviously running out of D’s: “Distaste, disdain, revulsion ... they are the nouns of England”. English literature has been built on responses like this, though the sense that the country was going to the dogs probably did hit an all-time high in the late 1970s.

This volume is the fourth instalment of Sandbrook’s imperiously sweeping history of Britain, from Suez onwards. His reputation has been built on a lively style, a grip on popular culture, as well as politics – and also on not being old enough to remember. He was thus able to grasp the underlying conservatism of the 1960s that had eluded academics who had come through the counter-culture and too readily assumed everyone else had been tripping along with them.

The old joke – “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there” – has turned out to contain a lot of truth.

Of all the 20th-century decades, however, the 1970s is the fuzziest, the hardest to sum up in a glib phrase or sentence. And I am not convinced that even in almost 1,000 pages (reading it sometimes felt like reliving the era in real time), Sandbrook gets it quite right.

Much of the detail is glorious, sometimes hilarious, especially on the Gormenghast-like decay inside Downing Street, with Wilson, frequently drunk and maundering, in thrall to Marcia Williams, his domineering assistant. And there are lovely touches.

Roy Mason, the defence secretary, rushes to the office at the weekend after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus to discover he can’t use his secure phone because the chap in the private office with the master key “does not like coming to work on Saturdays”.

A policeman, trying to arrest a female picket, nicked a nearby woman as an alternative with the words: “Never mind, love, you’ll do instead.” He was thwarted – she happened to be Audrey Wise MP. And Willie Whitelaw, reluctantly standing for the Conservative leadership, was told by a colleague that he had to stop just going along with whatever the last person had said. Whitelaw replied: “I agree. I agree.”

Sandbrook the debunker picks up right at the start on the reality behind the sense of failure: the British were better off in 1979 than in 1970; though the perception of high unemployment helped Thatcher to her victory, there were fewer people out of work than in nearly all the years that have followed; and there were fewer strikes than in Canada, Australia or the US.

But there are limits to what you can do when you have learnt the 1970s as a foreign language, just as any historian of Tudor England, however skilled, cannot quite recreate the mood of Henry VIII’s court. All Sandbrook’s listed sources are written and visual: no hint of all the living memory still available.

Some of the gaps in this book are the byproducts of the author’s own industriousness: he rules out mentioning environmentalism and feminism because he dealt with those in a previous volume. But what I missed above all was a sense of international context: the US is hardly mentioned, although that is not ignorance – Sandbrook’s last book, Mad as Hell, was a well-received history of the US in the 1970s.

Yet Britain cannot be considered in isolation. Miserabilism and a sense of governmental hopelessness was a pandemic of the time: it was epitomised by Jimmy Carter’s presidency; heaven knows, it pervaded Brezhnev’s Soviet Union; and the French writer Jean Fourastié coined the phrase les trente glorieuses to cover the 30 postwar years of rapid growth, but which ended in 1975, after the global oil crisis.

One might also now divide the postwar years, in Britain and elsewhere, into two almost equal parts: the social democratic consensus that dominated political thinking from 1945 to 1979; and the capitalist kickback that began with Thatcher’s election and may perhaps be beginning its retreat.

Amid Sandbrook’s rich tapestry of detail about trade union excesses of the era, he seems to lose the undertow of despair at the old remedies – among politicians, liberal intellectuals and union members alike – that made Thatcherism, and Reaganism, possible. A mood that is being replicated now in the other direction.

And curiously, having nicked his title from a number one hit (by Terry Jacks) from April 1974, he somehow underplays the significance of the weather: especially the almost frighteningly hot summer of 1976. Drought, dog days, downpours, drizzle, dismal, deathly. These are the D-words that always underpin the mood of Britain. Do we need to send for an older historian?

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist

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