State of Emergency: the Way We Were - Britain, 1970-1974

"With higher wages for the working classes, access to affordable housing, free health care, free higher education and low levels of crime, all in a much less unequal society, life then was superior to life as experienced by most of us today. In 1976, I was a fully funded sociology undergraduate on a new parkland campus, I had a lovely girlfriend, a motorbike, hair down to my armpits, Neil Young on the stereo. And it was a glorious summer. Bleak? It was bloody marvellous!"

Appearing in a letter to the New Statesman in April 2009, this assessment of the Seventies could hardly be further removed from media images of the decade. Unburied corpses, garbage-strewn and rat-infested streets, candle­lit parliamentary debates, terrorist bombs and near civil war in Ulster - these are the pictures that commonly define the Seventies.

But personal memory is something else, and for many it was a halcyon period. The Seventies were the silver age of British collectivism. The life nostalgically recalled in that letter was the creation of the postwar Labour settlement, which was collapsing. If affordable housing
and free access to higher education were real, so were the oil shock and the continuing rapid decline of core industries. The superior life
enjoyed by many people was an inheritance, something from the past.

In many ways it was also highly conservative. The social movements of the time, such as gay liberation, feminism and anti-racism, were reactions against a society that valued collective provision and at the same time excluded a great many people. Though most of those involved would have denied it, arguing that what they wanted was a better form of collective life, the protest movements of the Seventies were among the forces that shaped the more individualist culture that exists today - one that may be less cohesive, but is also a lot more open.

In Never Had It So Good (2005) and White Heat (2006), Dominic Sandbrook rewrote the history of the Fifties and Sixties, uncovering layers of continuity beneath the economic and cultural upheavals of postwar Britain. His revisionism attracted some flak, not least from the left, but no one could deny the verve with which he re-envisioned the past.

Reading Sandbrook is always an enjoyable experience, partly because of the unforgettable vignettes that are to be found on practically every page. There is something wonderfully telling in the fact, recorded in Never Had It So Good, that when Enoch Powell joined the Conservative cabinet in 1960, Harold Macmillan rearranged the chairs so that he could avoid Powell's "mad eyes". In State of Emergency, the latest volume in what promises to be an ongoing series, Sandbrook moves on to the early Seventies. Ranging across popular culture, literature and social mores, he re-creates that lost world with a flair all the more impressive when you realise he was born in 1974. Sandbrook's narrative is not the only way of retelling the Seventies - Andy Beckett's When the Lights Went Out (2009) presents a compelling alternative - but no one who reads State of Emergency will think of the decade in quite the same way again.

While society may have been more civilised in some ways, life in the Seventies had a shabbiness that is almost unimaginable today. The food in an "authentic old-fashioned hotel" described in Kingsley Amis's novel Jake's Thing (1978) - "packet soup with added flour, roast chicken so overcooked that each chunk immediately absorbed every drop of saliva, soggy tinned gooseberry flan and coffee tasting of old coffee-pots" - is vintage Seventies. It is amusing to learn that Edward Heath once confided in a speech that he had "always had a hidden wish, a frustrated desire, to run a hotel".

There are some on the Tory right who view Britain during the Heath years (1970-74) as not much more than a larger version of Fawlty Towers. As usual, the truth is much more complicated. Like every prime minister after him, Heath wanted a modernised Britain. For a time he seems to have thought that this meant freeing the markets from government control, but he backed off when it became clear that rolling back the state would have entailed letting Rolls-Royce go under. He was forced to renationalise the company and went on to preside over a highly inflationary "dash for growth" and unworkable schemes for controlling prices and incomes.

None of this makes him the corporatist portrayed by the proto-Thatcherite Selsdon Group, formed in 1973 by dissident Tories who thought that Heath's U-turn amounted to a betrayal. Nor was he the confrontational reactionary portrayed by the left. In fact, as Sandbrook suggests, the politician Heath most resembled was Sir Robert Peel. Like the pragmatic Tory reformer, Heath "believed that every problem had a rational solution". Unfortunately for him, that was not the case in Seventies Britain. A "state of emergency" continued throughout the decade. Floundering in half-hearted attempts to forge a replacement for the postwar settlement, Labour opened the way for Margaret Thatcher. Whatever his failings, Heath never had a chance.

The hostile press that surrounds Heath tends to pass over the flaws of his greatest enemy. Powell's brooding presence helped shape the early Seventies, and Sandbrook presents a finely balanced assessment of the man and his career - rather too balanced, in fact. Noting that he was an early advocate of homosexual law reform and an opponent of the death penalty, Sandbrook argues that Powell was "widely misunderstood".

If so, the responsibility lies squarely with the man himself. A gambler who played the race card and lost, Powell was both ruthless and inept. A low point was reached when he let it be known that he could not help but "entertain fears for Heath's mental and emotional stability". This was not only spiteful, but also unwittingly comic, as anyone who knew Powell could not help having the same fears about him. It would have been hard for anyone encountering him in the Eighties, when he talked repeatedly of wanting to have been killed in the Second World War and expressed bitter regret at not having been selected as an A-class assassination target by the IRA, to avoid the impression that Powell had not been wholly sane for some time. Probably Macmillan was right all along. In any event, when Heath banished this strange schemer to the political fringe, he did Britain a service.

Over the past 30 years, life in Britain has improved in many ways (not least culinary). But has politics? Certainly it is more professional, and more subject to middle-class standards of respectability. No senior politician now could make their living by playing bridge, in the way of Heath's shadow chancellor Iain Macleod, who died after a heart attack in 1970. And yet it was Macleod who took an early stand against the rise of neoliberalism in his party, declaring: "The free market is an excellent policy for the strong, but we are also concerned with the weak." It is hard to imagine any Conservative politician saying anything like that today and meaning it, as Macleod - an authentic One-Nation Tory of a kind that no longer exists - so plainly did.

State of Emergency: the Way We Were - Britain, 1970-1974
Dominic Sandbrook
Allen Lane, 768pp, £30

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His latest book is "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings" (Penguin, £10.99)