Do decades matter? They do to writers and TV producers, but it's a moot point whether the rest of us conceive of our lives in calendrically organised 10-year parcels – or did, before the question of what you got up to in May 1968 came to matter so much. Nobody asked anyone what they'd done in the 1950s until the idea of the 1960s was invented.
Dominic Sandbrook anatomised those two decades in his previous books, Never Had it So Good and White Heat, so has turned to the 1970s for his latest (755-page) doorstopper. Actually, State of Emergency isn't a catch-all history of the era. Culturally encompassing as it is, it covers a period of less than four years: the 45 months from June 1970 to February 1974 during which Edward Heath was prime minister – a somewhat less than prime prime minister, Sandbrook makes plain. (The book is named after the five occasions on which Heath had to declare that the solids had hit the air-conditioning.) Though scrupulously fair – more than once he argues that what really did for Ted was an astonishing run of bad luck – Sandbrook's forensic accounts of Heath's cackhanded reorganisation of local government, his hurried restructuring of the NHS, not to mention his 1971 Industrial Relations Act, offer more than enough evidence for a hanging. Like another, more recently departed PM, Ted just wasn't up to the job.
Not that this is straightforward parliamentary history. As he proved in his earlier works, Sandbrook is a masterly magpie. Nothing escapes his gaze, from the "silk lavender dressing-gowns" sported by Peter Wyngarde's Jason King, through the sexual politics of Doctor Who, to John "never one to miss a bandwagon" Lennon sending a cheque to support the striking Clyde shipworkers. Throw in deft précis of the rise in football hooliganism and birth of the mugger, the introduction of the Pill and boom in pornography, and the depressing side-effects of brutalist council blocks, and you have as eclectic a historical grab-bag as you could wish for.
Yet, for all that, State of Emergency never really feels like it has the goods on the early 1970s. Partly this is because Sandbrook has a habit of refusing to accept that anything ever changes. The book opens with a colourful account of the wedding of Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips in 1973, with Sandbrook arguing that "only in a society that still valued marriage as the supreme sacrament would almost 28 million people have gathered round their televisions to watch" it. Well, that's one way of seeing things. Given, though, that the British divorce rate more than tripled in the 10 years from 1965, might it not be the case that at least some of the people who watched the royal wedding did so mockingly?
The book's bigger problem is that its focus is too narrow. It is nice to be reminded of how acute Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' scripts for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? were, or how Leonard Rossiter made even dull gags shine in Rising Damp, but I am not sure such stuff gets us very far in understanding what was happening to Britain at the time.
All history is abstraction, but it may be that the years 1970-1974 are not best inspected through a national lens. As Sandbrook himself admits, the years he is discussing were years in which Britain at least momentarily woke up to the fact that it "was now part of a globalized economic system, and not even the most powerful Pay Board or Price Commission problems could hold back the tide of world inflation". So how can a purely domestic history hope to do justice to even as brief a period as that covered here?
Accordingly, one turns eagerly to Gerard DeGroot's The Seventies Unplugged and its subtitular claim to be a "kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade". In 50 brief, discrete essays, DeGroot flits from Manila to Madrid, from Steve Biko to the Baader-Meinhof gang, in a bid to pin down what he calls this "weird" period. And though no man who writes that Abba "embodied every tired 1970s cliché" is entirely to be trusted, his episodic sketches accrete into a rather more detailed vision of the decade than Sandbrook's. Better still, unlike Sandbrook, DeGroot never grants himself the comforting condescension of 20:20 hindsight. Far from poking fun at the 1970s, he concludes that they were "depressingly like the present – and probably the future".
In between times, of course, we had the 1980s, the decade that claimed to have seen off the demons of the 1970s – and indeed, the horrors of history itself – by dint of the twin fantasies of the free market and finance capitalism. Enter Andy McSmith, who in No Such Thing as Society has written a fine account of the decade that, shudder though it would at the comparison, was little more than a democratised retread of the 1960s – a time in which everyone was so bombed they couldn't see the damage they were causing.
McSmith accords rather too much import to the politics of the Specials, and I should have liked a chapter-and-verse footnote appended to the sentence that suggests Enoch Powell was gay, but otherwise his post-mortem on the putatively post-ideological decade strikes me as spot-on. Like Sandbrook's and DeGroot's, it will be essential reading for the author of the book we really need – a history of the West that takes us from the greatness of Keynes to the great crash of 2008.Reuse content