Very Short Reviews: Dominic Sandbrook’s _Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979_

Over the course of a decade, Dominic Sandbrook has written a series of works detailing the history of contemporary Britain: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2007), State of Emergency: The Way We Were—Britain, 1970-1974, and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (2013). Sandbrook is apparently at work on the next book in the series which will cover the period from 1979 to 1984 and is provisionally entitled Who Dares Wins.

But back to Seasons in the Sun. Why read an 811-page book that covers only five years of British history? First and most important, the years between 1974 and 1979 (which included Harold Wilson’s second ministry and Jim Callaghan’s stint as prime minister) are widely perceived as a major tipping point in contemporary British history. Second, it was an eventful period, not just in politics, but socially, economically, and culturally. Third, Sandbrook is a wonderful narrator with an eye for symbolic anecdotes.

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (London: Penguin Books, 2013).

  1. Although historians have generally represented this period as one of wrenching change, from politics to punk rock (to name just two examples), Sandbrook stresses the continuities in British life during this period; Callaghan’s government anticipated some of Margaret Thatcher’s moves (e.g. making a priority of fighting inflation rather than unemployment) while art colleges, which had long influenced British popular music, continued to play a vitally important role in in the punk movement.
  2. If the period was not characterized by wrenching change, it was no doubt wrenched: high inflation, rising unemployment, a falling pound sterling, anemic rises in productivity, declining competitiveness, a mortifying IMF bailout, massive strikes, and the drop in real wages created a profound sense among almost all Britons that their country had entered an irreversible decline—something that was reflected in literature and music throughout this period.
  3. Yet Wilson’s Labour administration was paralyzed largely because the Cabinet was terrified of crossing the unions, while Wilson himself was exhausted, bankrupt of ideas, involved in petty quarrels, and consumed by conspiracy theories.
  4. After Wilson retired in 1976, however, Jim Callaghan, the new Labour prime minister, along with Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought inflation below 10% by explicitly abandoning Keynesian economics (see below), cutting government spending, and limiting wage hikes.
  5. This achievement was fragile because Labour did not command a majority in the Commons (it relied on support from Liberals), and wages could only be held down for so long when inflation was still above 8%.
  6. Sandbrook argues that the problem with keeping wages down was not that the unions were leftist and wanted to continue building a “New Jerusalem;” rather, years of affluence under the welfare state had eroded class solidarity, contributed to greater individualism among blue collar workers, raised expectations, and led to competition between unions to obtain ever greater pay hikes.
  7. At the same time, the great union bosses who oversaw the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was the backbone of the Labour Party, belonged to an older generation that had lost touch with the shop stewards on the factory floor; in other words, the connection between the Labour Party and the union rank and file had begun to dissolve in such a way that the party could not control union members or appeal to their loyalty.
  8. When Callaghan sought to keep wage from climbing higher than 5%, the result was the infamous “Winter of Discontent” (1978-1979), when a massive series of strikes (coupled with terribly cold weather) practically paralyzed the country before the Labour government had to climb down in humiliating fashion; the stage was now set for the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1979—although Sandbrook emphasizes Thatcher’s weaknesses and the extent to which her positions on the issues in that particular contest were not all that different from those of Callaghan.
  9. The Labour government’s vain attempt to stay in power and fix Britain’s economic problems is at the heart of Sandbrook’s story, but this book is about so much more: the Troubles in Northern Ireland (which spread to England), the public debate on the emergence of comprehensive schools (and new, experimental pedagogy), the rise and fall of punk rock (according to Sandbrook, Elton John was the real soundtrack of the 1970s), the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the Notting Hill riots of 1976, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), Scotland’s improbable (and disastrous) run at World Cup glory in 1978, the 1979 devolution referenda in Scotland and Wale, the rise of leftist student organizations, strikes too innumerable to mention, the Yorkshire Ripper’s rampage around Leeds, attempts at police reform, the terrible sex-attempted murder scandal that brought down Jeremy Thorpe (the Liberal Party leader), the varying fortunes of the National Front, the discovery of North Sea oil, and more!
  10. The stress on continuities, the marginalization of certain movements (e.g. Sandbrook claims student radicals were not particularly representative of students as a whole), and the evident respect for leaders of the Labour Party’s moderate wing (Sandbrook obviously appreciates the work of Callaghan and Healey while Tony Benn comes off as a worm) marks this out as conservative history, but a fine history it is.

Ironic Fact: The EEC referendum of 1975 was curiously the reverse of the EU referendum of 2016. In the former, Labour’s Harold Wilson, who was prime minister, sought to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s entry before the vote. He himself was very lukewarm on the EEC, and his party was divided on the issue. The Conservatives—both the parliamentary party and the voters–led by Margaret Thatcher no less, wholeheartedly supported entry into the EEC. But in 2016, it was David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, who renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership before the referendum. And this time, it was the Conservative Party that was divided on the issue, but Labour was generally pro-Europe.

And Finally: What makes this book so fascinating is that many key moments that Sandbrook describes appear on YouTube. Here’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan not being so sunny, as he drops some truth on the Labour Party Conference of 1976 and abandons Keynesian economics.

Or how about Scotland’s run at the World Cup in 1978? Many thought the Scots had a shot at the title. However, they lost 3-1 against Peru and tied Iran 1-1. According to the rules as they then stood, Scotland needed a three-goal victory over the Netherlands to advance. The Dutch had come in second in 1974 and would finish as runners-up in 1978, so Scotland had a tall order. The Scots did not get their three-goal victory, but look at what they managed against the second-best team in the world.

Hugh Dubrulle

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