Book review: Seasons In The Sun – The Battle for Britain 1974-1979

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Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.

Dominic Sandbrook.

Penguin, 2011.

£10.99.

There is probably a great play to be written about the filming of the first Star Wars film.

Admittedly, there would probably be legal issues, perhaps insurmountable ones. But imagine! The tensions between the rising young American stars: ex-carpenter Harrison Ford and the highly intelligent but vulnerable Carrie Fisher. And the older, distinguished English co-star Sir Alec Guinness, a man with an Oscar and years of experience but little understanding of the script.

This might sound like an odd place to begin a review of a book about Britain in the late Seventies. But this is exactly where the book itself begins. The film was after all, mostly filmed in Britain with much of the cast drawn from the likes of those previously best known for appearances on Poldark or later to appear in Brookside. A key point is that Guinness had managed to secure a generous two percent of the entire profits for a film that was to become one of the most commercially successful of all time. Another is that under the tax regime of the time, Inland Revenue trucks were soon pulling up to claim 83 pence out of every pound Guinness had made.

This was, of course, not a happy spell in British modern history. Sandbrook suggests the 1974-76 Wilson Government was the worst in British history. “Wilson was one of the cleverest and kindest men ever to occupy Number 10 but also one of the weakest,” he writes. In fairness, he inherited a mess (the Three-Day-Week and an economic crisis from Heath) and left the situation little better. This is odd because the government which included Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland amongst its members was far from extreme (for the most part) and certainly not lacking in talent. Probably the main problem was Wilson himself, who had not expected to return to power in 1974 and thanks to alcoholism and probable early Alzheimer’s, was a shadow of his sharp-witted, wily mid-1960s self. Jim Callaghan, at any rate, though close to being a watered down Thatcherite himself, did better. At least until the Winter of Discontent.

It was a strange time in many ways. There was intense paranoia on all sides as if the neuroses of Wilson and US President Richard Nixon had infected the general population. The right-wing host of TV’s Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green appealed live on air: “For God’s sake Britain, wake up!” in 1975. Many worried about a coup from the Left  perhaps led by Tony Benn while others began preparing for a coup from the Right, perhaps led by Lord Mountbatten. Right-wing journalist Peregrine Worsthorne hoped the United States would come to the aid of a socialist Britain just as they had “helped” Allende’s Chile by replacing him with the murderous General Pinochet in 1973. This scenario later inspired Chris Mullin’s 1982 thriller A Very British Coup in which a democratically elected Labour Prime Minister is overthrown by a combination of the CIA, British security services and the Establishment.

This is the fourth of Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series of four books which thus far have chronicled Britain’s progress (or decline) from the era of Suez to the coming of Thatcher (the others are Never Had It So Good, White Heat and State of Emergency). As before, Sandbrook does a superb job of describing not just the political and economic scene but the minutiae of seemingly almost every aspect of British life, for example, the details of the Sex Pistols’ notorious TV appearance with Bill Grundy. “Who knows what Grundy thought he was s doing?” Sandbrook rightly asks after Grundy goaded his guests into swearing on live TV and thus ensuring his own downfall.

Mike Yarwood. Malcolm Bradbury. Butterflies. The Good Life. Quadrophenia. John Stonehouse. Lord Lucan. The Bee Gees. All are here. It is a fascinating read. Along with Alwyn W. Turner and David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook remains at the forefront among chroniclers of our nation’s recent history.

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Book review: Crisis ? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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Crisis What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £9.99

“Crisis, what crisis?” The words were famously spoken by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979 as he returned tanned and complacent from a tropical summit to learn that Britain had shuddered to a wintry strike bound halt in his absence.

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Except of course, Callaghan never actually said these words. Like Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” and  George W. Bush’s “Yo Blair!” the phrase actually came from somewhere else, in this case The Sun’s headline from the following day. In fact, as Alwyn W. Turner points out in this updated version of his well-researched 2008 book, the phrase predates The Sun’s usage and indeed even Callaghan’s premiership and was first used during the similarly troubled tenure of Tory Edward Heath a few years before. Turner even reveals its usage in the 1973 film version of the thriller, The Day of the Jackal.

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How different things could have been! For The Sun, in fairness, captured the essence of Callaghan’s reaction. “I don’t believe that people around the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” It was not his finest hour. For this was what would become known as the “Winter Of Discontent”, the series of strikes which would haunt Labour for decades. In the short run, the piles of uncollected rubbish and occasional disgraceful scenes of bodies being lefty unburied by striking gravediggers wrecked Labour’s chances in the 1979 election and propelled Mrs Thatcher to power.

As Turner reminds us, victory might easily have been Callaghan’s. Labour had actually been ahead in the opinion polls in late 1978 but Callaghan hesitated at the last minute, reasoning (not unreasonably): “Why run the risk of a very doubtful victory in October 1978, if we could convert it into a more convincing majority in 1979?”

But like Gordon Brown in 2007, Callaghan made a colossal error in postponing the election. He was always a more popular leader than Thatcher, who would doubtless have been ditched by the Tories had she lost in 1979, perhaps being replaced by Peter Walker or William Whitelaw. It is worth remembering that there were very few ardent Thatcher enthusiasts before 1979. Even Enoch Powell proclaimed voters “wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent.”  The hats went and the accent changed. But Callaghan blew his chance to lead Britain into the Eighties. Had he had the chance, he might perhaps, have led the nation through a much less brutal version of Thatcherism in her place.

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Perhaps he was right to be wary of the opinion polls. The Seventies were an unpredictable and unstable decade. The keys to Downing Street changed hands four times between 1970 and 1979. They have only changed hands four times again in the thirty-five years since. The 1970 election saw Labour brutally and unexpectedly ejected in an electoral upset. Labour’s Harold Wilson buoyed by good opinion polls, had called the election a year earlier than he had to. But the polls were wrong. Edward Heath won a majority of thirty for the Tories instead. But Heath too fell foul of the polls three and a half years later when his crisis “Who Governs Britain?” election unexpectedly ended with a Labour led Hung Parliament in March 1974. Labour went onto under-perform electorally again, winning only a small majority of three in October of that year. By the time James Callaghan took over in the spring of 1976, Labour’s majority had almost vanished and a pact with the Liberals (ultimately a disaster for the smaller party, as it so often is) was just around the corner.

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Turner reminds us though that the decade was defined less by the politics of Wilson, Heath and Callaghan than by those of mavericks Enoch Powell and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. He is brilliant on the intense paranoia on both sides of the political spectrum about both men (Powell, particularly, was portrayed in fictional form in books and on TV several times).

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But this is not purely a political account, far from it. As in his later books Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s and A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s, Turner is brilliantly thorough on all aspects of high and low culture as he is on affairs of state. Sometimes these are linked (as he does cleverly with the TV series I, Claudius and the machinations of the 1976 Labour leadership contest), sometimes they are not (football, music and sitcom are all covered thorough. The chapter on “Violence,” for example, covers The Troubles as well as A Clockwork Orange).

But this is another excellent history from Turner. As strong on Tom and Barbara as it is on Maggie and Jim. As thorough on Doctor Who as it is on Dr David Owen. Or as insightful on Mr. Benn as it is on the career of Mr. Tony Benn. It is well worth a read.

Prime Minister James Callaghan with Harold Wilson

Book review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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The Seventies were a very long time ago. It was a time of Cold War, industrial unrest, power cuts, states of emergency and economic decline. The Right were alarmed at the possibility of a coup from the Marxist Left, perhaps led by Anthony Wedgewood Benn. The Left were, in turn (perhaps with more reason) worried about the prospect of a military takeover by the Right, perhaps with Lord Louis Mountbatten being appointed as its symbolic head.

None of this news. The Seventies have been well covered in recent years, in non-fiction (such as Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent State of Emergency) and in fiction (Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club is just one example).

The era, specifically the Heath years (1970-74), do, however, provide an excellent backdrop for Ian McEwan’s latest spy novel Sweet Tooth.

Perhaps “spy novel” is a misleading term (although it definitely is one) as this has a more literary flavour than most books in the genre. The young pretty heroine Serena Frome (perhaps Hayley Atwell could play her if there’s ever a TV or film version?) is groomed for MI5 after leaving Cambridge once an affair with one of her lecturers turns sour. But Serena’s suitability for espionage is as based as much on her reading habits as any other talents she might have. For Serena is soon used as a tool to bring an emerging star of the literary world “on side” and like George Orwell before, become ensconced in the MI5 Cold War camp.

Ian McEwan is a rarity in British fiction in that he manages to attract both popular appeal with literary acclaim. Here, he does so again, exploring a world of intrigue as well as a vanished literary scene (Anthony Powell, Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis) in reality poised to give way to a new generation of writing talent, namely Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, William Boyd and Ian McEwan himself.