“State of Emergency. The Way We Were: Britain 1970 – 1974”
You know you’re getting old when your childhood starts turning up in history books. “State of Emergency” is the third volume in Dominic Sandbrook’s superlative history of post war Britain. His first two volumes took in the illusions and delusions of victory and grandeur in the years leading up to Suez, and then explored the “swinging” between aggressive optimism and seven flavours of squalor in the Sixties. Now he turns to the years of Edward Heath’s surprise 1970 electoral victory, Britain’s entry into the EEC, power cuts and miners’ strikes, Bloody Sunday and Slade. In terms of headlines, these were not the sunniest of days.
The Seventies have never enjoyed an especially glamorous image. In a beauty parade of the 20th century’s decades, they might be lucky to shuffle on quietly at the back, hiding out of the way behind even the Thirties. For one thing, there’s that persistent sense – evident at the time, as Sandbrook demonstrates – that they were a bleary and regretful hangover after the wild party of the Sixties. Britain, supposedly, got it on with History after slipping off its glasses and unpinning its tightly wound up hair. By 1972 it was obvious that History wasn’t going to phone, as it had seemed to promise when Bobby Charlton handed the Jules Rimet Trophy to John Lennon, in order that Mary Quant could drive him out of Wembley in a souped-up Mini borrowed from Michael Caine. This may not have actually happened but it feels like that. For people my age, born just as this self-appointed most-legendary-of-eras ended, there has always been the feeling that we turned up just a little too late and if we wouldn’t mind cleaning out the ashtrays and righting the furniture that would be lovely, thank you.
In retrospect, there is the additional feeling that the Seventies are a fairly grubby bunch of wilderness years, a mixture of camp and crisis, before the Eighties sleek up and the country becomes, if nothing else, edgy and eventful, full of real drama, danger and derring-do. And computers and stuff.
Sandbrook’s painstaking reconstruction of the early years of the decade is a welcome corrective to these views. Yes, there was an element of a hangover – but what comes across very strongly from this book is the sense that the supposed radicalism of the Sixties was highly limited and indeed superficial. For women, for gay people, for Irish Catholics, for arrivals in Britain from the crumbling edges of the Empire, for those pursuing some alternative ideals of self-sufficiency (whether of the grow-your-own-food-in-Suburbia or the make-a-ridiculous-and-insulating-amount-of-money kind) it’s the early Seventies that are the fertile ground. He presents a roiling, noisy Britain of competing voices all asserting different versions of modernity and freedom. There’s a mass-enough media based on television in particular, but it’s an era when active involvement in causes means more than hitting a Facebook “Like” icon. Britain may never have been a more truly democratic society than it was in these years. Without romanticising, he reports the reactions at the time that many felt to the imposition of the Three Day Week in 1973. There was the privation of power cuts – but, equally, there was a widespread sense of pleasure at rediscovering a slower pace of life…leading to a spike in the birth rate within a year. It was a time of apocalyptic prophecy – that a right-wing military junta would be “needed” to take control of a society tearing itself apart, that ecological doom was just about to be unleashed – but the prophecies were genuinely fearful, not just cosy indulgences.
Sandbrook is brilliant in drawing through-lines from the popular culture of the time across the wider political themes. He sees the apocalyptic edge reflected not just in the obvious (and almost gleeful) dystopian fantasies of a TV series like “Survivors”, but also in something like “The Good Life”, with its twee subversiveness seeming greater in retrospect. This is no “I Heart 70s” style set of nostalgic check-points, though. It’s thorough, critical and inspired in its weaving of complex lines of thought. For example, take the subject of British negotiations for entry into the EEC. This might – hard to believe I know – prove a little dry. In Sandbrook’s hands, it provides a fascinating chapter which roams widely to take in the question of how we, as a society, saw Johnny Foreigner in his many guises, and our ambivalent (if not downright contradictory) responses to sensing we might well just be one medium-sized nation in a larger continent and even larger world. Eric Idle’s deathless Monty Python monologue on the Watney’s Red Barrel guzzling Brit abroad of this era provides a jumping off point and Sandbrook deftly gets from the economic implications of the Common Market (remember that?) to the slow changes in the British diet.
He presents the early Seventies as a time when widely different versions of how Britain should be not only competed – nothing strange in that – but in which there was no clear sense of which versions would come out on top. What we think of as the hallmarks of the Eighties – the ‘greed is good’ culture of unregulated money-making – is shown to have its roots very clearly and deeply in the Heath years. The banks start to redesign their roles and responsibilities as consumer booms become a shoulder-shrugging response by government to an economy that no longer supports itself. It’s a time when – for all we don’t picture this when looking back – the majority of people started to become much better off in terms of material goods and in which expectations of material comfort grew and grew. It’s in the early Seventies that our celebrity culture really beds in (Sandbrook makes great use of changing perceptions of footballers, in particular, during these years) and the various fronts in the wars of political correctness are established. Sandbrook’s approach is only broadly chronological – the chapters proceed by theme and, thankfully, he isn’t too hung up on sticking to his 1974 end date. He’s also great company on the page, with intelligent and often amusing asides; during a grim, utterly sobering chapter on the descent of Northern Ireland into Heart of Darkness levels of anarchy, he finds a moment to point out that Bloody Sunday later became the subject of songs by John Lennon and U2 – “neither of them any good”. Yet he doesn’t allow waspishness and retrospective judgement to obstruct a clear-eyed presentation of how appalling it was at the time, reminding us of so many stories, forgotten by most, such as the terrifying incident in July 1972 when Protestant loyalists broke into a Catholic home, raped a woman, and shot her handicapped son through the head. The barrister at the ensuing trial comments “You may well think that in this case we have reached the lowest level of human depravity.” Other stories, from both sides of the sectarian divide, make it clear that worse was always possible. The description of what actually happened when senior IRA figures (including those Well Respected Men de nos jours, a young Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness) were secretly brought to London for talks takes you to a place beyond the darkest of comedies.
Key personalities of these years are offered in detail and the cast of characters covers everyone from union leaders like Jack Jones (one of many Proustian touchstones for readers of my age) to the sadly ubiquitous Robin Askwith, on the receiving end of a bullish J’Accuse for his part in the decline of British cinema during these years. One of the most interesting portraits to emerge is that of Edward Heath – no, really. There’s no hagiography or attempt at rehabilitating his achievement as Prime Minister; I doubt there’s any kind of hallucinatory drug treatment which could ever result in anyone seeing Heath as other than a largely failed national leader. What does come across, gradually, is a broadly sympathetic portrait of a lonely but fundamentally decent man, one without friends or family, or much in the way of critical self-awareness, but shouldering a stiff, outdated sense of personal honour. His face to face relationships with many of the union leaders were sincerely cordial and mutually respectful; indeed, they come across as massively better and more productive than the relationships between these men and the Labour hierarchy of the time; Tony Benn, especially, emerges from this book as a self-important clown of the unfunniest kind. Heath’s guiding star of a European future for Britain came from profound convictions about the need to avoid the tyrannies which had taken Europe almost to destruction in the war years. As a student at Oxford in the Thirties, Heath had visited Berlin and seen Hitler speak at a rally (they had much better Gap Years back then). He served towards the end of the war and remained convinced that only formal cooperation and understanding between Europe’s nations could secure peace and avoid a return to totalitarianism. What he couldn’t do was articulate this in a way that could compel widespread belief in such a future. Heath was sincere but charisma-free. In fact, he was anti-charisma. If he offered you a suitcase full of money you’d end up walking away thinking “What’s this guy’s problem?”
Sandbrook’s writing never feels laboured and he has done a Chilean-miners rescuing job on this somewhat unloved period, wrenching it from both the “Hey, remember spacehoppers?” soundbite brigade and from the temptation to see it only as brown, directionless and spasmodically violent. I found myself reading it almost as a novel, desperate to reach the end of the next chapter and know where this was all heading, for all that I thought I knew something about my childhood years. But I know the myths, not the history. Now I know It’s heading to a subsequent volume exploring how the Seventies ended. As I remember, it was Ice Pops, an endless summer in Platt Fields Park, and Star Wars. I’m guessing Dominic Sandbrook might well show me otherwise.