State of Emergency

State of Emergency: The Way We Were, Britain 1970-74, by Dominic Sandbrook, Allen Lane RRP£30, 768 pages

It must have been such a jolly evening. In 1969, Edward Heath, the future Conservative prime minister, invited five leading trade unionists to dinner in his Albany flat, in London’s West End. It went swimmingly and Heath was persuaded to show off his skills on his new piano. “Play ‘The Red Flag’ for Jack [Jones],” said Vic Feather, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress – which Heath cheerfully did.

As Dominic Sandbrook remarks in this entertaining history of the early 1970s, it is remarkable how well Heath got on with union bosses, given the extent to which industrial strife later blighted his premiership. He declared a record five states of emergency. Even after calling the “who governs?” election that was his downfall, Heath – a moderate, one-nation Tory deeply affected by the Depression years – preferred to appeal to national unity rather than demonise the striking coal miners.

There are parallels with today. David Cameron, facing potential strikes over spending cuts, also wants a dialogue with the unions but, unlike Heath, the current prime minister is not trying to negotiate. Ed Miliband, elected leader of the opposition Labour party this week, thanks to the unions’ support, needs to be careful not to seem their stooge.

Books on the 1970s often seek to revise the era’s reputation as an unrelieved dystopia of bombs, strikes, glam rock and men in donkey jackets. Sandbrook – born in 1974 in Shropshire nine months after the start of the Heath government’s three-day working week – does not break a lot of new ground but provides a subtle portrait.

This book has the strengths and weaknesses of his previous works, Never Had It So Good and White Heat, on the 1950s and 1960s. Mixing political, social and cultural history, it is vivid but also long. The short timescale, though, gives it an intensity, book-ended by Heath’s surprise election and surprise defeat. This was the most tumultuous period in Britain’s postwar history, ending in a frightening economic crisis. Sandbrook does not really dispel the gloom and decline that enveloped Britain at the time, though he points out that for most people the bombs and disasters happened offstage.

It was, after all, a period of unprecedented affluence, with colour televisions and foreign holidays. The nuclear family was at its zenith, even if pressures were starting to cause it to fracture. A survey in 1972 found that nine out of 10 were satisfied with their jobs and eight out of 10 satisfied with their living conditions. There was a panic about unemployment but it was lower than it has been since.

Sandbrook is at his best describing a society caught between past and present, yet often more stable than it looked. The stereotype that saw young people as more selfish, for example, evolving “from hairy hippies into spittle-flecked punks”, is belied by the fact that more teenagers than ever gave time to charity and membership of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides reached peak levels.

Comic dramas such as Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and the TV series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, which picked apart the insecurities of middle-class life, gave a misleading impression, Sandbrook argues. “The fact is that most people found life in Metro-land warm, sociable and thoroughly enjoyable.”

Atop this society sat the uncomfortable figure of Heath, one of the grumpiest men to have occupied 10 Downing Street. His failures are well known: inflation reached double figures and money supply ran out of control; he promised free enterprise but did U-turns to bail out “lame duck” companies; he pledged to let the market set wages and prices yet ended up creating a gargantuan apparatus of controls; he pledged to reform industrial relations but was destroyed by conflicts.

Sandbrook acknowledges Heath’s flaws: he was a terrible speaker, preposterously rude, impatient and insensitive to what drove other people. Yet he was also unlucky to face the oil shock, escalating violence in Northern Ireland, rising street crime and controversies over moral permissiveness, immigration and delinquency.

If his administration was a failure, says Sandbrook, “it was not an ignoble one”. Heath was right, he says, to see that Britain’s future as a trading nation lay in the European Community, right in his power-sharing formula for Northern Ireland that anticipated the 1990s peace process, and right to see industrial relations needed reform and industry needed modernising, even if he went about it the wrong way. Thatcherites came to revile this period in Conservative history, yet their leaders, Margaret Thatcher herself and Sir Keith Joseph, sat in Heath’s cabinets throughout, quiescent or agreeing with his actions. They watched and learnt from his mistakes.

Brian Groom is the FT’s UK business and employment editor

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