Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974-79
Allen Lane, 992pp, £30
Dominic Sandbrook bids fair to put other historians out of business. He is one of the profession’s Stakhanovites. Seasons in the Sun is the fourth doorstopper he has produced in just seven years in his series on British history from 1956, none of them less than 700 pages and all based on voracious reading. Inevitably, perhaps, quality has been sacrificed in the search for speed, and there are many topics treated here that one feels would have benefited from further reflection. Still, it is a remarkable achievement.
Sandbrook’s method is by now familiar. He has read and selected from a vast supply of secondary literature, covering not only politics, but also popular culture and social reportage. Most historians would need a horde of research assistants to complete such a task. Sandbrook has done it alone. The result of his prodigious industry is an immense assemblage of information, most of it relevant and nearly all of it entertaining. Perhaps few will have the stamina to read Seasons in the Sun right through but there is something worth reading on nearly every page.
Sandbrook rightly insists that the years between 1974 and 1979 were important: as well as a prelude to Thatcherism, the period was “a decisive moment in our recent history”. For it saw the crisis not only of a Labour government, but of a whole philosophy – the philosophy of social democracy as it had been understood by the founding fathers of the Labour Party and by men such as the trade union leader and later politician Ernest Bevin.
Reacting against the treatment of workers as mere “hands” during the interwar years, Bevin had insisted that governments consult with organised labour before making major policy decisions. When he joined the cabinet in 1940, Bevin said that, just as William Gladstone had wanted to remain at the Treasury for 40 years, he wanted to remain minister of labour and national service for 40 years – and so he did, in a way, his philosophy being
accepted as much by the Conservative Party under Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan as by Labour under Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson.
But Bevin’s philosophy broke down utterly in 1978-79 during the “winter of discontent”, with its strikes of public-sector workers that left rubbish in the streets of London and saw cancer patients being sent home from hospital and a stoppage in the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children, of which the prime minister James Callaghan’s wife, Audrey, was a governor. All of this made a mockery of the ideals of collective solidarity and community spirit on which the Labour Party had been founded.
Of the American Democrats, David Frum, a former speech-writer to President George W Bush, said after 2000, “When a political party offers the voters ham and eggs and the voters say, ‘No thanks’, its first instinct is to say, ‘OK, then – how about double ham and double eggs?’” That was exactly what Labour offered in 1983 when it suffered an even worse defeat than in 1979.
Indeed, it took 18 years for the party to stop offering the voters ham and eggs. In 2012, the Labour Party can perhaps derive some comfort from how, by contrast with 1979, it did not suffer a left/right split and is not offering the voters double ham and double eggs. That is
a largely unnoticed consequence of Ed Miliband’s emollient handling of the party he leads. The left is in a stronger position now than it was in 1979, when Sandbrook’s narrative ends.
The collapse of Bevinism paved the way for Thatcherism. Sandbrook takes what has become the conventional view that the real turning point in British politics came not in 1979 but in 1976, when James Callaghan and Denis Healey refused to reflate their way out of trouble and used the IMF to instil a spirit of economic realism into the Labour Party. Sandbrook believes that: “There was rather more continuity between Margaret Thatcher and her avuncular predecessor, ‘Sunny Jim’, than we often think – even though it would pain both left and right to admit it.”
This perhaps overstates the case. It is true that Callaghan wanted to make many of the changes that Thatcher was to make. But he hoped to be able to make them in a non-divisive way, so as to maintain a spirit of social solidarity. He was, oddly enough, far less class-conscious than Thatcher was.
In his memoirs, They Say the Lion, Anthony Parsons, who worked in No 10 as Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, complained that all she cared about were “her people” – the self-employed and the petit bourgeoisie. She was their trade union leader, equating the national interest with their class interest.
Seasons in the Sun shows convincingly how contingent Thatcher’s triumph actually was. Indeed, she would not even have competed for the Conservative Party leadership had her ally, Sir Keith Joseph, not insisted, in a speech in Birmingham in 1974, that many of Britain’s problems arose from how too many children were being born to young women in social classes four and five, and that “our human stock is threatened”.
This phrase, Sandbrook suggests, “sounded like something from the Third Reich”. The furore that it aroused led to Joseph being characterised as a “saloon-bar Malthus” and persuaded him to withdraw from challenging Heath for the party leadership. It used to be thought that the phrase came from Sir Keith’s ex-communist adviser, Alfred Sherman, but, in 2010, another adviser, Jonathan Sumption, bravely confessed that it was his handiwork. Sumption is now a judge of the Supreme Court and so must appear politically neutral. Nevertheless, he ought not to be deprived of the credit for creating Thatcher.
Sir Keith had the pretensions of an intellectual but not the substance. He had misinterpreted a study by the Child Poverty Action Group, whose conclusion was that the birth rate for mothers in classes four and five was falling, not rising. The study had in any case concluded that birth control offered “no cheap solution to all the problems of child poverty”.
As secretary of state for social services in the Heath government, Sir Keith had rejected proposals for free access to contraception – “sex on the rates” – and it was left to Barbara Castle, his Labour successor, to provide it. But perhaps the best comment on the Birmingham speech was made on the cover of Private Eye, which pictured Joseph as “Sir Sheath”, spouting the phrase, “If the cap fits, wear it”.
The narrative in Seasons in the Sun is, for the most part, excellent. But it contains little that is new. Rather than revising accepted accounts, Sandbrook embellishes the views that have been defined by other historians. But it is highly enjoyable to read and the BBC television series that is based on it, The 70s, deserves to be successful.
Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute of Contemporary British History, King's College, London. His books include 'The Coalition and the Constitution' (Hart, £20)