Never Had It So Good 1956-1963 (published 2005) White Heat 1964-1970 (published 2006) State of Emergency 1970-1974 (published 2010)
Interviewed elsewhere in this edition of Albion, Dominic Sandbrook, a former history lecturer at the University of Sheffield and now a writer and broadcaster, has written an epic history of the late twentieth century in Britain over the course of four books (his latest, Seasons in the Sun, was published this summer).
Taking 1956 as his starting point for Never Had It So Good --the year of Suez and Rock Around the Clock, the end of Eden and the start of the Macmillan premiership-- Sandbrook defends this choice on the ground that the seeds of changes which defined the 1960s were all sown from that year onwards. The period covered by this book is one of the most pivotal in our history, and includes four different Prime Ministers: the spent political force Eden; the Machiavellian, manipulative and canny Harold Macmillan, who went from Super-Mac to Mac the Knife in seven short years; Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, a nineteenth-century gentleman Prime Minister in the era of Swinging London; and the first Labour Prime Minister since Clement Attlee in 1951, self-made Grammar School boy Harold Wilson, who wrote the book on Labour plotting, spin and U-turns. Covering eight turbulent years in one book, Sandbrook has a superb eye for detail and the ability to weave hard facts into a readable and absorbing style, integrating observations from the period, contemporary news reports, and citations to other works into one interesting and revealing social history. His skill lies in getting beneath the events, pulling us deeper into a story or scandal as it unfolded, and then zooming out to show how the ripples from one episode impacted later on. The era ends with the fall of a jaded Tory Party which had been in power for too long and was seen as out of touch with the nation, replaced by a bright young Labour leader promising better things. The book demonstrates how much a nation can change in eight years, while neatly suggesting parallels with Britain in 1997.
If Never Had It So Good is the story of change and four different Prime Ministers, White Heat focusses on one premier, Harold Wilson--elected on the promise of a technological revolution-- and one leader of the Conservative Opposition, the dour, uncompromising, pro-European Ted Heath. They were as different as chalk and cheese, an antagonistic political double act that would dominate British political life until 1975. This had consequences for the nation that, as you get deeper into the book, you realise are nothing to laugh about.
From 1964 to 1970, Harold Wilson clung to power in the face of attempted Cabinet coups and the self-sabotaging tendencies of George Brown, a notorious alcoholic and brilliant Labour politician who seemed intent on undermining his own party. Put bluntly, whilst the country was adjusting to a more permissive era with Roy Jenkins' reforms (legalisation of abortion, liberalisation of divorce, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality), Harold Wilson seemed to lack a vision for the country--a point that Sandbrook also makes in our interview. The economy was governed by a stop-and-start mentality, the Treasury lurched from disaster to crisis and back to calamity, there was no coherent economic policy since the Treasury was fighting the Department of Industry and the PM was playing his ministers off one another, and labour-industry relations actually worsened. Sandbrook's meticulous research takes us to the warring heart of Wilson's Labour governments and out the other side with Ted Heath's unexpected 1970 General Election win. Again, he does justice to this period's social history, including the rise of pop culture and the Angry Young Men, and methodically and logically deconstructing the myth of Swinging London. He argues that for everyday people in the shires and suburbs, pit villages and provinces, the benefits and changes associated with this era did not happen until the early seventies.
State of Emergency picks up the story in 1970, as the new Tory PM lets the Wilsons stay at Chequers (because they did not expect to lose and have therefore not found alternative accomadation). Whilst the book itself is the same length as its predecessors, it covers four short, chaotic years. The subtext of this period was Heath vs. the Miners, leading to his infamous question at the 1974 Election, "who governs Britain? Me or the miners?" to which the British public replied, "Not you, mate!" With his rictus grin and anodynely accentless speech, Heath could never play the chummy PM like Wilson. All his grand schemes (curbing strikes, changing industry, modernising the economy) collapsed around him, much like the economy itself, and even his only triumph, joining the Common Market, has now come to be regarded with mixed emotions. Sandbrook documents how Heath was brought down by events that spiralled out of his control, paving the way for a junior Education Minister by the name of Mrs Thatcher. On the social and cultural scenes, some of the lifestyle choices that we still make today were introduced: colour television, home ownership, better credit facilities, cheaper overseas holidays, wine drinking and eating out. Even though the economy was disintegrating, standards of living rose, since things that had not been attainable ten years previously (such as fridges, indoor toilets and central heating) became cheaper and available on hire purchase. This contrast between a turbulent political spectrum and a more settled social and domestic life is a major theme.
The series is heavily UK-centric, touching on world events only if they impacted domestically. However, as cultural histories the books are invaluable, covering the recent past in great depth without being dry or patronising. Sandbrook is a gifted writer and a painstaking researcher, ably demonstrating how fascinating contemporary history can be. After all, the men and women in this series are our parents and grandparents. These are the stories of how we came to be, and how our modern society was formed.--James R. Turner