Review: Seasons in the Sun by Dominic Sandbrook

Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974-79

Dominic Sandbrook

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)

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide