Common sense is here again
By Joe Kennedy.
Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun – The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, Allen Lane, 2012.
The vamp figures in various forms of popular music. A phrase repeated to generate expectation before the introduction of a vocal or an arrangement’s intensification, it is particularly effective in live performance, where it often prefigures a charismatic frontperson’s emergence onstage. It’s rather surprising that narratology hasn’t adopted this concept in its discussions of prolepsis: fiction is full of great vamps. Aptly, there are the anticipation-building sections of Jonathan Harker’s diary which precede his introduction to the eponymous Count in Dracula; other examples include the opening section of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ and Sal Paradise’s pre-Dean travels in On the Road.
The first third of Seasons in the Sun, Dominic Sandbrook’s gargantuan new history of Britain between 1974 and 1979, works like a vamp. Perhaps there’s an element of projection in this claim. Regardless of how the information is presented, it’s hard to read about the end of the UK’s postwar political consensus without thinking about who and what was waiting in the wings to replace it. Reading Sandbrook, though, one gradually becomes aware of a narrative strategy which calculatingly makes Margaret Thatcher into the latent content of what seems like every second sentence.
In pop-ontological terms, the vamp works by destabilising the limit between presence and absence. It plays around the edge of a space to emphasise the inevitability of that emptiness being filled; in fact, it premises itself entirely on such an act of filling. It’s the withholding of that completion which makes, say, Waiting for Godot or The Castle or Aminadab such profoundly unsettling reading experiences. Fans of cocksure narrative history shouldn’t worry, though. Sandbrook isn’t interested in modernistic angst and, after a number of teasing nods to Thatcher in the context of Denis Healey and Tony Benn’s Vladimir and Estragon, his true protagonist enters with considerable élan in Chapter Eleven. Here, her decision to ‘throw her hat into the ring’ in the Conservative party leadership contest comes as a ‘complete shock’ to her family, even as she inspires ‘delight’ amongst her Tory colleagues by embarrassing Healey in a parliamentary debate on Capital Transfer Tax. A few pages later, Edward Heath and the One Nation mandarins are finding ‘the idea that a suburban housewife could become leader of the Conservative Party’ shocking; slightly further on, Labour’s Barbara Castle is found opining on Thatcher’s sexy drivenness.
All this is to say that Sandbrook plays to the gallery. Thatcher is not only a radical shock to an ailing social democracy’s system, she’s overcoming overwhelming odds, juggling the private and the political and winning friends in unlikely places while doing so. Irresistible stuff. What’s really interesting, though, is that all this Thatcher-as-deliverance-from-something-terrible imagery is framed as ideologically neutral. The story Sandbrook claims to be telling is an ‘even-handed’ one about how global political narratives collided with the everyday life – spacehoppers, the Bay City Rollers, Brian Clough and Don Revie – of the era. It’s not supposed to be a eulogisation of Thatcher, but an objective account in which she turns out to be the only possible arbitrator of social and economic tensions which might well have seen Britain turn towards ‘extremism’.
All things considered, Sandbrook is really quite late on the scene as far as ‘reasonable’ apologies for monetarism, deregulation and general economic Randianism go. Even sixth-formers are starting to question the theoretical underpinnings of the End of History nowadays; neoliberalism’s foundation myth is no longer treated as a given to the extent it was ten or fifteen years ago. What’s more, Seasons in the Sun can’t even build a consistent case for why Thatcher’s rise deserves to be perceived as a Hegelian inevitability. The reader is told repeatedly that the unions found themselves at odds with the rest of the country because their leaders were (almost) all unreconstructed Marxists whose demands of the government were designed to place it in an untenable position, producing a pre-revolutionary situation. That’s one way of looking at it. However, Sandbrook also claims – rather insistently at times – that the unions’ attitude towards pay and conditions was motivated not by ideology but by the increasingly consumerised attitudes of their members:
What drove the Winter of Discontent was not socialism but something often regarded as the core of Thatcherism: the pursuit of material security. The strikers outside ports, school and hospitals were not campaigning for a New Jerusalem; as they saw it, they were fighting to protect their living standards.
The generously-minded might seek to solve this contradiction on the author’s behalf. Perhaps the ‘union barons’ (Sandbrook’s insouciantly provocative term) were taking advantage of the material interests of rank-and-file members to push their own political agendas. This argument is never made, but one might reasonably assume that it could be used in the event of an accusation of inconsistency. At that point, it would make sense to ask what the ‘union barons’ thought would happen once they achieved power and unveiled their plans for a radical communist society to miners and tube drivers who dreamed of nothing more revolutionary than holidays on the Costas and colour televisions. To say that Seasons in the Sun is logically odd doesn’t entirely do justice to Sandbrook’s bantering.
This book invites compulsive reading, but in very much the same way as Sandbrook’s counterfactual histories for the Daily Mail and the New Statesman do. In a recent ‘what if’, he chirpily imagined a second Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands facilitated by ‘the decision to lift the ban on women serving beneath the waves’, causing an expensive refit of Royal Navy submarines to ‘make them “female friendly”’. There’s a good deal of this hell-in-a-handcart jibbing in Seasons in the Sun. Seventies educational changes offer an opportunity for a tutting analysis of trendy teaching, and the venerable right-wing trope about the disconnect between left-wing intellectuals and working-class exigencies appears in a multitude of permutations. Predictably, Benn is treated alternately with amusement and scorn; meanwhile, Paul Foot is repeatedly introduced with the epithets ‘left-wing journalist’ and ‘Trotskyist journalist’. Once again, it’s that campaign for Good Old Common Sense, which began as a murmur in the seventies and has gradually acquired status as the pet historiography of negative solidarity.
To me, aspects of Sandbrook’s work are suspiciously reminiscent of those passive-aggressive attacks on ‘Cultural Marxism’ which are all the rage at the moment. One needs to remember, though, that this grumbling occasionally dispels its passivity. Seasons in the Sun is, even if you disagree vehemently with its self-appointedly ‘even-handed’ politics, a very good read: it’s energetic and slickly-written. However, in the context of the Europe of Marine Le Pen and Anders Breivik, it’s also somewhat disquieting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Kennedy writes criticism and poetry, and has taught literature and journalism at various levels. His articles and reviews have appeared in 3AM, The Quietus, and the Times Literary Supplement, amongst others, and he blogs at A Drawing Sympathy.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 21st, 2012.