The Daily Mail history of the recent past

James Callaghan Prime Minister of the United K...

James Callaghan Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and President of the United States Jimmy Carter. Arrival Ceremony for The Right Honorable The Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Mrs. James Callaghan — The South Grounds, 03/10/1977 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979

I have read all four volumes of Dominic Sandbrook‘s history of Britain from the Suez Crisis to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory and while it is not so simple as to say they get progressively worse there is no doubt that Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles – the first volume – is superior to all that followed.

As the series winds on Sandbrook’s politics come ever more to the fore. Harold Wilson, a man who surely had a more profound and positive impact on Britain’s history than Sandbrook’s heroic Harold Macmillan, is repeatedly and viciously attacked (though plainly not all the attacks are without foundation), while the social progress and progressive ideas of the 1960s are dismissed in White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties as of little impact on the majority of the population and then simply ignored in State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 and this volume – presumably because the revolution in social attitudes and the advance of feminism and anti-racism are just too troubling for the original thesis.

In sum the series adds up to an exercise in the sort of cynicism we would expect from a regular columnist in the Daily Mail.

Huge societal changes are ignored – across the four volumes there is little discussion of education beyond a repeated and ritual dismissal of graduates as trendy lefties out of touch with the salt-of-the-earth reactionary masses and a lengthy examination in this volume of the events in one North London primary school and its impact on galvanising Rhodes Boyson and other “new right” educational theorists. It’s all faintly ridiculous.

That said, in the end, I have to recommend the books. Especially, of course, the first volume, but even the last one. Especially at the start of the series they chronicle the changes in everyday life in some fascinating detail and Sandbrook does have a real talent for writing about high politics, even if one disagrees with much of his perspective. The books are also better than the silly, “I love the 1970s” type TV series he fronted for the BBC to coincide with this volume’s publication in 2012: at least in the book the attempt to claim Arthur Scargill as a proto-Thatcherite is one sentence amongst many thousands, not the thing a whole 45 minutes of TV are hung on.

Reading this volume I came away with two big political conclusions – what a foul woman Margaret Thatcher really was and how deep the parallels between Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown’s premiership ran.

Of course I was no fan of Thatcher to begin with but the story of the Ilford North byelection caps them all. I was aware, of course, of Thatcher saying that people felt they were being “swamped” by immigrants – I even have a vague recollection of it. But I had never realised it was such a cynical statement – made deliberately to connect to racist sentiment and to secure victory in a single byelection. (Papers released in recent years show beyond doubt that Thatcher sought to implement racist policies in government too – complaining that not enough council houses went to white residents – but even that seems less shocking that this.)

As for Callaghan and Brown – well Sandbrook lionises Callaghan, especially in contrast to Wilson, but I can only think of Gordon Brown. Here we are told Callaghan’s premiership was destroyed by the combination of the unions’ approach to pay in the winter of 1978 and Callaghan’s misjudgement of the public mood in response. But surely the roots go deeper – Callaghan secured the premiership by being the unions’ chief steward in government and resisting Barbara Castle’s “In Place of Strife” – like Gordon he played to the gallery to undermine a Labour Prime Minister and to win plaudits from the auld alliance of Labour’s conservatives on left and right. And in government he could never deliver because no Labour Prime Minister can ever be a conservative and hope to be a success.

One man does emerge as a great hero of that Labour government – Michael Foot. Even down to the end he is scoring points – his caustic attack on David Steel in the wind up to the fateful censure vote of March 1979 – “the boy David” – “passed from rising hope to elder statesman without any intervening period whatsoever” – were the words that finished Steel off, even if it took another decade: for the “Spitting Image” caricature that he hated so much was essentially those words made rubber.

So, by all means read these books. Indeed I would recommend you did. But please also read No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s and remember just what the consequences of cynical conservatism really are.