A.N. Wilson recalls the worst decade of recent history and the death throes of Old England
There was a distressing news story the other day about a man who did not declare his father’s death because he wanted, like a character in Gogol, to go on claiming his late parent’s benefits. The smell eventually alerted neighbours to what was going on. The person I pitied was the pathologist who performed the autopsy, eventually declaring that the man had died of natural causes. Presumably this verdict could only be reached after hours of prodding putrescent limbs and organs with a scalpel.
A similar feeling of pity arises when contemplating Dominic Sandbrook’s close scrutiny of Britain in the last five years of that terrible decade the 1970s. In the first chapter alone, one weeps for the young man, himself born in 1974 (ten days before the second General Election of the year which re-elected Harold Wilson) who has patiently watched so many episodes of The Likely Lads and Terry and June, read so many novels by Margaret Drabble, and waded through so many sociological texts informing him that ‘as late as 1973 a staggering 16 per cent of homes in the north of England still had outside toilets.’
It is not surprising that he needs to share the experience with us, but there are moments where the reader will, in the manner of Elizabeth David, implore him to ‘reduce’ his stock by boiling it down. Then, as the narrative continues, the reader’s mood changes. Sandbrook’s method — comparable to another immensely prolix but brilliant historian of the recent British experience, David Kynaston — grows upon you.
This book is not emotion recollected in tranquillity. It is an enforced reliving of those years. Each preposterous industrial strike, each episode of Dr Who, Weekend World and News at Ten is replayed. Jim Callaghan, Norman Scott and Rinka, Laura Ashley and Tony Benn, Malcolm Bradbury, Keith Joseph, and Sid Vicious, Marcia Falkender and Vivienne Westwood weave old England’s winding sheet before our horrified eyes. Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher let out howls, deploring the unravelling — Thatcher bemoaning the ‘swamping’ of English towns by immigrants, Whitehouse pursuing the gay blasphemers. We see them for what they were — like the Norns in Wagner, themselves part of the destructive tale.
Sandbrook’s comic Götterdämmerung is primarily a political text. He believes that Britain reached its nadir with the premiership of Harold Wilson. (‘Wilson was one of the cleverest and kindest men ever to inhabit Number 10; sadly he was also one of the weakest’). His condemnation of the economic waste of those years is total. And his central contention is that the Thatcher revolution was in fact begun by the Labour Party: that the budgets brought in under Callaghan’s premiership, and Healey’s chancellorship, under compulsion from the IMF, began to undo the wreckage of the Heath-Wilson years. Or to try to do so.
The things which changed Britain forever — the decline of manufacturing industry, the turning of the industrial north into a wasteland, the growth of immigration and the coming of multi-ethnic food — were all well under way and unstoppable as was the sexual revolution, which Sandbrook deftly picks up with examples both familiar and obscure.
Sandbrook is the age of my second child. I spent these years, I now realise, in an apolitical daze, teaching medieval literature and occasionally surfacing to write a comic novel. The first time I recollect reading a newspaper with real attention was when my wife and I started buying the Daily Telegraph to follow, agog, the day-by-day transcripts of the trial of Jeremy Thorpe. (Still extant, though ‘alive’ would be stretching a point).
I had never fully appreciated what a truly horrible period it was until reading Sandbrook. The extent of the carnage in Northern Ireland, the terrible casualties of the bombings in Guildford and Birmingham, the shaming miscarriages of justice after both outrages, the levels of industrial unrest, the political extremism of the Labour Party, the sheer opportunism of Tony Benn, the bloodshed at the Notting Hill carnival in 1976 — the extraordinary heat of that summer, and the awful violence at the Grunwick Processing Laboratory in Willesden — a demo eagerly supported by Harriet Harman and Shirley Williams — all these things are deeply shocking. Sandbrook quotes Time magazine on the Silver Jubilee in 1977:
Elizabeth II has not presided over a new Elizabethan age — for which her subjects, perhaps unrealistically, hoped when she ascended the throne. Indeed, the past quarter-century has witnessed enfeeblement and decline — the end of an empire, the shrinking value of the pound sterling, near stagnation of a formerly innovative economy. It is this grim reality that the Jubilee briefly banished. But it will still be there to challenge Britons when their party is over.
It is hardly surprising that throughout the short period under discussion, wildly pessimistic and ‘extreme’ prophecies were being made. We hear Cecil King’s cry for a military putsch to stop the rot. Stephen Haseler, one of the brave republicans still in our midst, who is presumably having a truly awful time during this Diamond Jubilee of royalist frenzy, predicted in 1976 that Britain would withdraw from the European Economic Community and become a Marxist state.
It was this dire situation which Mrs Thatcher set out to overturn in 1979 — and Sandbrook’s narrative ends with her entering Number 10 for the first time. It will be fascinating to see how he deals, in future volumes, with the reasons for her catastrophic failure; and whether he will simply take the view that under any other premier the failure might have been even more catastrophic.
While telling the story of economic and political decline, some of his most entertaining passages relate to the culture of the times. I liked the chapter on punk and on pub rock. With hindsight, the Sex Pistols seem the quintessential product of the 1970s, their apparent attempts to defy all the inherited moral traditions echoing, in a strange way, the despondent elegies of the ‘extreme right’. Old General Walker, darling of the Monday Club and other far-right organisations of the time, with his horror of ‘blacks, yellows and slant-eyes’, his wish for a military coup to cure ‘this awful sleeping sickness’ of the country, his horror at homosexuals (‘who use the main sewer of the human body as a playground’) is not so very different from John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, with his ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Both articulated feelings of outrage which decent radio channels and newspapers would not carry. Punk, too, was at times quasi-fascist (‘I think Hitler was very good actually’ — Siouxsie Sioux) but also fundamentally wistful about what had been destroyed and lost. Sandbrook shrewdly quotes a view that there was a puritan streak in Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood’s demonisation of SEX (the name they gave their shop). Johnny Rotten’s cry to his audience: ‘I bet you don’t hate us as much as WE hate YOU’ is exactly mirrored by the arch-reactionary Philip Larkin’s attitude to his readers. Even Mrs Thatcher, though not a Nazi sympathiser, had something of the Siouxsie Sioux about her, and her perception of herself as someone who said the unsayable and did the undoable was surely the reason for her success, first in her own party and then with the electorate.
Even at this short distance, however, you can see all these strange individuals—Thatcher, Rotten, Larkin, Benn — less as free agents expressing their own thoughts, than as the inevitable consequence of the economic and political decline which Sandbrook so skilfully depicts. To that degree, though his attitude is far from Marxist, there is a feeling of inescapability, of a dialectal ineluctability about Britain’s doom. The armies who clash by night and day throughout his pages are indeed ignorant, like those in the Victorian poem. None of the actors in Sandbrook’s drama are agents; they are all patients. The sad old corpse died of natural causes.