Allen Lane, £30, 920pp. £25 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979, By Dominic Sandbrook

 

If the 1960s were the decade in which the British public fell in love with the consumer society, then the 1970s were the decade in which they discovered that this relationship had to be paid for. "Butskellism", the cross-party economic orthodoxy that dominated fiscal policy for the best part of a quarter of a century, now looks more like an exercise in wool-pulling, deluding yourself into thinking that you could sustain an economy on borrowing, not caring that your manufacturing sector was going down the pan and conciliating the demands of organised labour at any cost. As Dominic Sandbrook shows in the fourth segment of his entertaining history of post-war Britain, the later 1970s were the age in which most of these economic chickens came calamitously home to roost.

Sandbrook's last volume ended on the cusp of the February 1974 General Election, which Edward Heath's Tory government – overwhelmed by an oil crisis, striking miners and a three-day week – had opted to fight on the question of "Who governs Britain?" The Harold Wilson who tottered unexpectedly into 10 Downing Street early in March, after Heath's negotiations with the Liberals had broken down, was a much less attractive figure than the self-styled techno-visionary who had arrived there ten years before: tired, ground-down, dominated by his erratic private secretary, Marcia Williams, less exercised by the national interest than in the problem of keeping his party in one piece.

That these two policy areas were intimately connected is Sandbrook's principal theme. One of the most regular sights in his sharply-written pages is the spectacle of some grand Labour eminence sacrificing economic necessity on the altar of that ever more fanciful abstraction "working-class solidarity". The crisis was not merely economic –Britain's manufacturing exports had fallen by two-thirds in 25 years – or even statist (at one point the proportion of GDP assigned to welfare ran at 60 per cent); it was also spiritual. The books, films and television of the period offer evidence of a deep malaise, a suspicion that too much moral capital had been spent, that insurrection might lurk just around the corner.

The Conservatives, swapping Heath for the largely unheralded Mrs Thatcher after their second election defeat in October 1974, were grateful to be in opposition: they had only to wait. As the pay settlements headed towards 30 per cent, with inflation rates not far behind, even the TUC general secretary thought that "something ought to be done". Downing Street was drowning in what Sandbrook calls "sheer passivity".

Though of a transparently right-wing turn of mind (and phrase), Sandbrook's previous volumes were more or less even-handed. This one has no hesitation in marking down Wilson as the villain of the piece: a paranoid buck-passer on this evidence, whose thraldom at the hands of the sinister Marcia became so great that his doctor seriously suggested to other members of the prime ministerial entourage that she should be quietly done away with. To the villain can be added the pantomime clown, played by Tony Benn, of whose hapless tenancy of the Department of Industry his Cabinet colleague Barbara Castle remarked: "the constant flaw is that Wedgie has never faced up to... the problem of where the money would come from, and the sacrifices we would have to make while we were taking over and reconstructing all these unviable companies".

If Seasons in the Sun has a hero, it is Wilson's successor James Callaghan – tough-minded, conservative, an ex-union man convinced that the TUC barons had to be resisted, and overheard to remark on the day of his accession "There are many cleverer people than me in the Labour Party, but they're there and I'm here". But by this time, for all his Chancellor Denis Healey's proto-monetarism, it was too late. Labour gradualism could never be revived. Should any modern politician want an explanation of why free-market Conservatism whether practised by Mrs Thatcher, or in a slightly less strident form, by Tony Blair, became the dominant ideology of the past 30 years, it lies here in Benn's subsidising of industrial concerns that were doomed to failure and his sentimentalising of workers who were less interested in the Socialist dawn than preserving their differentials.

As in his previous volumes, Sandbrook has roved widely in his quest for sources. I particularly liked his referencing of a 1977 episode of Doctor Who, which features a trip to a futurist Pluto. The planet is now divided into a series of "Megalopolises", each controlled by a rapacious "Gatherer", one of whom, "Gatherer-Hade", bears a distinct resemblance to Callaghan's bushy-browed lieutenant at the Treasury.

Some of the most melancholy chapters chart the mess made of education and the decision – an altogether outlandish one to be taken by a Labour government bent on social mobility - to cancel the Direct Grant, by which certain private-sector schools offered a proportion of their places to bright children from poor homes. Putting the book down, I was eerily reminded of the time I gave my RAF veteran father a copy of John Keegan's history of the Second World War. Dad wrote his name on the flyleaf and then added the words "Who lived through it". The temptation to write something similar on Sandbrook's title page was every bit as strong.

DJ Taylor's new novel is 'Secondhand Daylight' (Constable & Robinson)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral