State of Emergency: The Way We Were, Britain 1970–1974

  Adrian Bingham applauds the latest volume in a mammoth history of postwar Britain, this time focusing on the turbulent early 1970s 

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Reviewed by: Adrian Bingham
Author: Dominic Sandbrook
Publisher: Penguin
Price (RRP): £30

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The seventies have rarely been far from the headlines in recent months. The hung parliament formed after the general election in May prompted numerous recollections of the last time that the winning party failed to secure an overall majority – in February 1974, when Harold Wilson’s Labour party nosed ahead of Edward Heath’s Conservatives by a mere four seats.

The publication of the long-awaited Saville Report in June brought the tragic events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in January 1972 back to the front pages. The coalition government’s budget cuts, meanwhile, have brought warnings of union militancy reminiscent of the early 1970s.

Readers wanting to learn more about these events have been well-served by a flurry of popular histories by writers such as Alwyn Turner, Andy Beckett and Francis Wheen. Now Sandbrook’s weighty book offers the most detailed and authoritative account of all.

The third volume in his ongoing history of Britain since 1956, it covers the period of Heath’s ill-fated premiership, from his surprise election victory in June 1970 to his humiliating defeat four years later.

This was one of the most turbulent and dramatic periods of modern British history, featuring no fewer than five states of emergency, bitter strikes and the three-day week, escalating violence in Northern Ireland, a financial crisis brought by spiralling oil prices, and political controversy over relations with Europe. The text runs to over 700 pages, but there is plenty here to fill it.

Readers of Sandbrook’s earlier works will be familiar with the format. The backbone of the book is provided by a detailed narrative of key political events – which in this case includes Heath’s doomed attempts to revive the British economy and modernise its industrial relations, his forlorn efforts to find a solution to the increasingly bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, and his great success, negotiating entry to the European Community after the failure of Britain’s two previous applications.

At the same time, Sandbrook ranges far beyond Westminster, Stormont and Brussels to discuss the major social, economic and cultural trends of the period. He sheds light on the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people, exploring the development of the consumer society, changes to housing patterns and living standards, and evolving attitudes to sex, gender, class and race.

He writes at length about popular culture, from television and cinema to football and music, as well as about groups campaigning to shift public opinion, such as feminists and environmentalists. In all these areas Sandbrook is both knowledgeable and entertaining – although he arguably understates the impact of the women’s liberation movement – and he has a good eye for the amusing anecdote.

State of Emergency does not seek to offer a radical reinterpretation of the period, and the nature of the book means that a fair proportion of the material will be familiar to many. Some readers might also be frustrated at the author’s reluctance to offer an overarching analysis of the political and social changes he documents.

The book’s virtues, instead, are breadth of scope, scholarly precision, and even-handedness of judgement. Sandbrook has conducted an impressive amount of research and he quotes extensively from government papers and the contemporary press as well as printed diaries and memoirs.

The result is a sophisticated and nuanced overview. The author outlines all Heath’s well-known personal and political flaws, for example, but concludes that “on many of the big questions he was absolutely right”.

Heath was correct, Sandbrook argues, to push Britain into a closer relationship with Europe; he demonstrated considerable vision in searching for a solution to Northern Ireland’s troubles; and he was more flexible in his handling of the unions than he is usually given credit for. A combination of bad luck, impatience, poor timing, and an inability to read the mood of the public scuppered his ambitious plans.

And while the book is dominated by political conflict and social unrest, Sandbrook reminds us that for most people these things happened ‘offstage’, and there was “much to enjoy in the everyday experience of 1970s life”.

This is a fine addition to what is becoming a monumental series on the history of modern Britain, and – for readers with the necessary stamina – is the place to turn to put all the recent headlines into their proper context. 

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Adrian Bingham is a lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield