Swinging on solid ground

Despite the hippies and the happenings, the Sixties were less radical than we think. Christopher Bra

White Heat: a history of Britain in the Swinging Sixties

Dominic Sandbrook Little, Brown, 878pp, £22.50

ISBN 0316724521

Seventies: the sights, sounds and ideas of a brilliant decade

Howard Sounes Simon & Schuster, 472pp, £18.99

ISBN 0743268598

"Good luck, old cock," Reginald Maudling chirruped as he left 11 Downing Street for the last time, in October 1964. "Sorry to leave it in such a mess." The old cock in question was Jim Callaghan, and Maudling wasn't apologising about the wallpaper. A year and a half earlier, fearful for the Tories' prospects at the next election, Maudling had cut taxes by £260m and made what became known as his "dash for growth". Alas, far from bringing an end to the postwar cycle of stop-go economics, Maudling succeeded only in speeding it up. The average Brit chose to spend his new-found wealth on foreign imports. Forget the dash for growth - this was cash for sloth, and the balance of payments deficit was reddening by the hour. Not so Maudling's face. Four months before his feared election loss came to pass, he told his Labour shadow that there was no need to panic. None the less, he counselled Callaghan, if you should become the next chancellor, you might like to think about organising a loan from the European central banks.

The financial crises that the Labour administrations of the 1960s stumbled and reeled their way through are the backbone of Dominic Sandbrook's wondrously all-encompassing account of the decade in Britain. If you want to know why it took Harold Wilson three long years to accede to the inevitable and devalue the pound, White Heat serves up that sorry saga in grim, gripping detail. The grip derives from Sandbrook's sense of drama, the sense of drama from his ability to see both sides of an argument. The only way Wilson and Callaghan could have conclusively headed off devaluation, he argues, would have been to instigate a new age of austerity immediately upon taking office. But no Labour MP of the day could have countenanced such deflationary brutality - and nor, Sandbrook reminds us, could the majority of MPs in the Tory party. Britain's standing on the world stage was too important to politicians of either hue for them to envisage cuts on such a savage scale. Whoever held power in the mid-Sixties would have had to devalue.

Not that Wilson comes out of the book well. John Freeman, sometime before becoming the editor of this paper in 1961, said he was "like an unusually able motor-car salesman - very bright and very superficial". You won't find that judgement in Sandbrook, but nor does he fail to let you know he thinks Wilson wasn't up to much. For Sandbrook, Wilson was a man whose redoubtable tactical talents were forever being let down by his strategic shortcomings. He could think on his feet, but he could never sit down and think anything through. Short-term gimmicks mattered far more to him than long-term goals, largely because the only long-term goal he had was to remain PM.

Hence his policy of divide and rule, a policy he so ruthlessly put into practice that he made Machiavelli look like Milquetoast. Page after page of Sandbrook's book is taken up with accounts of the internecine struggles Wilson engendered between Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, Jenkins and Anthony Crosland, Richard Crossman and Callaghan, George Brown and, well, everyone really. At one point, backstage at an ITV talk show, Brown came close to having a punch-up with Eli Wallach over the fact that the Hollywood star hadn't heard of Dixon of Dock Green and its screenwriter, Ted Willis. With enemies like that, Wilson needed to do little to hold on to the high ground.

That high ground, White Heat contends, was built on, and remained surrounded by, solid ground. Sandbrook's thesis is that the Sixties, like most decades, were more evolutionary than revolutionary. Despite hippies and happenings, despite cannabis, coke and cash-happy cockneys, despite all the snap and crackle of the newly esteemed pop culture, the decade saw rather less radical change than we are apt to remember. John Lennon once said that all that happened in the Sixties was everyone dressed up. In fact, very few people put on their glad rags. If the decade was a party, it was one to which most Britons were not invited. As their official visual scribe, David Bailey, was subsequently to note, the Sixties were "a very elitist thing for 2,000 people living in London".

The period's only genuine change, Sandbrook argues, centred on the socio-economic status of women: "A girl of 16 in 1970 was far more likely to remain in education than a similar 16-year-old in 1956. She was more likely to pursue her own intellectual and cultural interests as long as she liked, to marry when and whom she wanted, to have children when and if she wanted, and above all, to choose whether she remained at home as a housewife or pursued her own career."

Nor was such change a function of feminism, a movement that throughout the 1960s was regarded by most people as "extremist nonsense" and a "minority obsession". What actually happened was that business, alarmed by the strength of the unions, set about weakening the workforce by pitting women against men. Margaret Thatcher would later blame the huge post-Sixties rise in broken marriages on the "permissive" decade, but it was capitalism that did most to further embattle the sexes.

Though she has a couple of walk-ons in White Heat, Thatcher will have to wait for Sandbrook's next book, a history of the Seventies, for a lead role. Since it has taken little more than a year for Sandbrook to follow his 824-page history of the Fifties, Never Had It So Good, with his 878-page history of the Sixties, we might not be long waiting for his (1,000-page plus?) story of the decade that took us into Europe, decimalised our currency and brought us the cod war, Bloody Friday, the three-day week, the nationalisation of British Leyland, the Lib-Lab pact and the "winter of discontent". In the meantime, we have Howard Sounes's Seventies, a book that, unlike White Heat, relies on original sources.

Sounes's thesis is that there was more to the Seventies than heels the height of bungalows and lapels the size of hang-gliders. Impossible to argue with that - which is why nobody but a few airheads on late-night TV has ever done so. That the Seventies were the golden age of pop music has been generally agreed ever since the decade was no more. That the Seventies were the golden age of the movies was generally agreed even as the decade was still going. And if you had somehow missed out on the fact, the likes of Peter Biskind and David Thomson ought subsequently to have put you right.

In defending other cultural spheres, however, Sounes is on shakier ground. Thrillers aside, the English novel was in a mess throughout the decade. (When you have to press Iris Murdoch's cack-handed and cumbersome The Sea, The Sea into service as "enjoyable and thought-provoking" literature, you ought perhaps to know the game is up.) Nor do Richard Rogers's Paris-wrecking Pompidou Centre - a building whose inside-out design makes it by some measure the worst gallery space in Europe - and the belated opening of Jørn Utzon's Sydney Opera House convince me all was dandy in the architectural arena. No decade knocked up more jerry-built prefab tat.

What really cripples Sounes's book, though, is its lack of context. You don't have to be an unreconstructed Marxist to believe that events in the aesthetic superstructure might just reflect events in the economic base, particularly when the said aesthetic events are of the kind - pop, movies, buildings - that rely on change to get them going. Yet the rhetorical crunching together of disparate phenomena - "the decade of the blockbuster novel was also the age of feminism" - is as historical as Sounes gets. While Sandbrook deftly interweaves his story of Britain's economic woes with the increasingly ambitious career trajectories of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the freedom-worshipping films of Julie Christie and the hall-of-mirrors fictions of John Fowles, Sounes's artists all work in a vacuum. Hence his inability to grasp that the reason a lot of people are down on the Seventies is that, for most people, the decade was a downer.

For one thing, the country almost went broke. That doesn't validate the knockers' point of view, but it does help explain it. What we now need is an explanation for why the Seventies were such a washout. Come on, Sandbrook: the age of flares awaits your flair for ages.

Christopher Bray's "Michael Caine: a class act" is out now from Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 14 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Burma Special: A nation in waiting