State of Emergency: Britain 1970-74 Dominic Sandbrook

Allen Lane, pp.768, 30

Ferdinand Mount recalls the crisis years of the early 1970s, when Britain was pronounced ‘ungovernable’

The residents of Flitwick, Bedfordshire, were enjoying a wine-and-cheese party in the village hall when the invasion happened. Five hundred Tottenham Hotspur fans had run amok on the special train bringing them back from Derby, where they had been beaten 5–0. They had smashed everything smashable on the train, pulled the communication cord again and again, forcing the train to a juddering halt, and the driver had had enough. He stopped the engine and summoned the police to force the fans off. They then ran down the street throwing stones and breaking windows and driving the terrified citizens to take refuge in their homes where they cowered, no doubt still swallowing the last mouthfuls of Brie and Rioja.

The Battle of Flitwick in September 1969 has not gone down in the history of civil disorder in Britain like the later Battle of Grunwick in 1977 or the Battle of Saltley Gates in February 1972, where the young Arthur Scargill won his spurs. Yet this clash between the startled inhabitants of leafy Beds and the hooligans from the Smoke was in its way even more emblematic of the terrors of the times. The middle classes were seized by panic that the gentle nation they knew had been overcome by an epidemic of coarseness and violence to which no answer was in sight.

The early 1970s, Dominic Sandbrook tells us in this compelling, amusing and exact history, was perhaps the most maligned moment in our recent experience, a period marked not just by outlandish fashions, cosy sit-coms, long-haired footballers and women in dungarees, but by a pervasive sense of crisis and discontent with few parallels in our modern history.

Lord Radcliffe said that the British had become ‘ungovernable’. The nation seemed simultaneously confused, sapless and infantilised. On the eve of Princess Anne’s wedding in March 1973, the government declared the fifth state of emergency in three years. Auberon Waugh told Time magazine that Britain had become ‘somewhere between Nkrumah’s Ghana and Anthony Hope’s Ruritania’.

In his two earlier contemporary histories, Never Had It So Good and White Heat, Sandbrook covered most of the Fifties and Sixties. Now, like a motorist slowing down to take in all the gory details of a car crash, he needs over 600 pages to cover a period of less than four years. Among the most redolent quotations he naturally includes Reggie Maudling’s cri de coeur on the plane back from his first visit to Northern Ireland as Home Secretary: ‘For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch, what a bloody awful country.’ One could say much the same of the period as a whole.

How utterly flummoxed and myopic they all seem: not just the politicians but the press, the pundits, in fact pretty well everyone. In the general election of June 1970, the press all thought that Heath would lose, and the Tory high command — loyal as ever — had sent Lord Carrington round to Heath’s flat with the equivalent of a loaded revolver (Sir Alec was already primed to return as interim leader). In February 1974, the Express and Mail, like the rest of the press, predicted a handsome win for Ted; the infallible David Butler foresaw a Tory landslide and worried whether the Labour party would survive. Nor was the press any more reliable on overseas events; the Ecologist said that ‘the Khmer Rouge deserve our best wishes, our sympathy and our attention. We might learn something’ — from their forcing Cambodia’s entire population to march into the countryside, millions dying in the process. As Major General Amin took over in Uganda, the Telegraph predicted that he would be ‘a welcome contrast to other African leaders and a staunch friend to Britain. Good luck to General Amin.’

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As for forecasting the future of mankind, the famous ‘Blueprint for Survival’, first published as a special issue of the Ecologist magazine in January 1972, predicted that much of the world would run out of food within the next 30 years, and of all but a few metals within 50 years. The Times predicted that out-of-town superstores would never catch on, because people would balk at having to travel three or four miles to do their shopping. In July 1974, Christopher Booker returned from a visit to the nascent Milton Keynes and predicted that over the next decade Milton Keynes will simply become a pathetic national joke, falling ever further behind its ambitious schedule, and finally grinding to a stop in a sea of mud and rusting contractors’ equipment, unsold houses and half-finished factories.

MK, as its devoted inhabitants called it, went on to become the most popular of all new towns.

Judgments about the economy were scarcely more impressive. Having applauded the free-market policies on which Heath had been elected, by the summer of 1972 most of the establishment newspapers were urging him to resort to statutory restraint of wages to fight off inflation. ‘We Would Be Mad Not To Do It’ was the headline of a Times editorial; Heath’s plan was ‘vital to the future of the British economy and conceivably even to the survival of democracy in Britain’. And the House of Commons agreed, approving Heath’s U-turn with scarcely a dissenting voice except that of Enoch. Even as we lurched into the worst period of hyper- inflation in our history, the Economist remained convinced that Britain was ‘two-thirds of the way to an economic miracle’. And under a headline ‘No Time to Moan and Weep’, a Times leader urged the government to stick to the policy of economic expansion.

Well, we all get things wrong. Sandbrook, like Philip Ziegler in his excellent new life of Heath, also reminds us again and again that no prime minister ever had worse luck than Ted Heath. Even when you have made the most of his rudeness, self-centredness and pigheadedness, you have to make allowance for his coming to power at a moment when all the boils were about to burst: wage inflation, the decline of British manufacturing, the violence in Northern Ireland, trade union militancy.

What Sandbrook’s wider focus shows better than a biography can was how little strategic or principled thinking there was to be found anywhere in the British governing elite. If at first they didn’t succeed, they tried something completely different and forgot the number they first thought of. Perhaps if Iain Macleod had not died of a heart attack a month after becoming Chancellor we might have had a steadier and more sustained policy. But it was Macleod, not Heath or Maudling, who said, going into the 1970 election:

We should say that we were not going to have an incomes policy and if in a few years we changed our minds we would have to explain there were special circumstances.

The tragic cost of this unhappy mixture of cynicism and dither was to be seen, above all, in the wavering line followed on Northern Ireland. To take one detailed but momentous instance, as incoming commander of British land forces, Major- General Robert Ford had advised against going into Derry to root out the IRA gunmen, although it was ‘the correct military solution’, because ‘so-called unarmed rioters, possibly teenagers, are certain to be shot in the initial phases. Much will be made of the invasion of Derry and the slaughter of the innocent.’ This was almost exactly what happened when Ford’s policy was reversed six weeks later, on Bloody Sunday. That malign legacy lasted 40 years and has only just been laid to rest.

Towards the end it was difficult to get a firm decision out of Heath, who was exhausted and suffering from an undiagnosed thyroid condition. Whitelaw, himself knackered, was summoned back from Northern Ireland to take charge of the miners’ dispute. ‘Do you want me to settle, or do you want war?’ he asked the Prime Mi
nister, but answer came there none. Ditto to Heath’s exasperated aides who were imploring him to make up his mind about going for an early election — though why any of them thought they would romp home with prices going up at an annual rate of 20 per cent baffles me. Among the other things they all seemed clueless about was shopping.

But none of the others would have done much better. Not Maudling, already sozzled before lunch, and deeply lazy before he became deeply corrupt, not the scarcely less sozzled Whitelaw, nor the devious though dazzling Macleod — and certainly not Harold Wilson who was the most exhausted of the lot.

And it won’t do to place all the blame on the trade union leaders either. Heath himself loved them much better than he loved the employers, especially Jack Jones of the Transport Workers whom he had met years before on the Ebro when Jones was fighting for the Spanish Republic. In fact the union leaders were constantly devising helpful ways to extricate Heath from messes of his own making. We learn from Sandbrook that it was Jones who ingeniously invoked the mysterious figure of the Official Solicitor to secure the release from jail of the Pentonville Five dockers, much to the disgust of these would-be martyrs. And it was Joe Gormley who suggested a cunning stratagem to make the miners a special case because of their ‘unsocial hours’, only for Heath to botch this get-out by offering the same exemption to all groups of workers. Meanwhile Gormley was secretly reporting to Special Branch on the activities of the militants in his own union.

Nor can the oil sheikhs be blamed for the final collapse of the Heath government. The oil shock shouldn’t have been a shock at all, because it had been so long predicted, and other nations survived it with far less damage than we did. The truth is that almost from the start Heath was attempting two contradictory things at once: trying to restrain prices and wages while pouring money into the system in the hope of breaking out of the dreary stop-go cycle that Britain had been going through since the war. This was a replay of the ‘dash for growth’ attempted by Macmillan and Maudling in 1962–63, and it was an even more catastrophic failure the second time around.

Yet it is not the least virtue of State of Emergency that it reminds us how, away from the world of telegrams and anger, the British were taking their pleasures rather less sadly than they had in the past. Fashionable novelists and intellectuals continued to sneer at the lower orders for being glued to the TV and treating their domestic white goods as gods, but the caricatures of the new suburbs as selfish, lonely places were more a reflection of their inventors’ snobbery than of reality. Even in the forbidding concrete blocks of Cumbernauld New Town the new arrivals were pleased to have escaped from Glasgow and nine out of ten said they liked their neighbours. The much derided Milton Keynes had 500 voluntary associations — sporting, dancing, social, educational; Birmingham had more than 4,000. In 1977 a survey found 82 per cent of people satisfied with life in Britain as against 68 per cent in France and 59 per cent in Italy.

Society was far less unequal than it had been in the past — perhaps less unequal than it has ever been since. Students were fully paid for by the state, holidays in the sun were cheap and sex had arrived in 1963. As a matter of fact, Britain had rather fewer strikes than other countries. True, we might work rather less hard than other nations —which was why the three-day week made so little difference to national output. And those disgusting football hooligans? Well, Dominic Sandbrook points out that their away-game rampages were a by-product of affluence too. In the old days, Tottenham fans could not afford to travel much further than West Ham. If you can forget the politics, the Seventies had their uses.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: 1970s, 20th Century, Heath, Non-fiction, Society