Big books can be intimidating, and this is truly a behemoth. The fourth volume in Dominic Sandbrook's acclaimed history of the UK from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, Seasons in the Sun contains more than 800 pages of text, 91 pages of notes, 24 pages of photographs and an index that runs to practically 60 pages. Its aim, Sandbrook explains scrupulously, is to tell "the story of the British experience" between 4 March 1974, when Harold Wilson returned to power, and 4 May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became the country's first female prime minister. And tell the story he does, allocating himself not far short of half a page for each day of his chosen period.
Whatever one thinks of the narrative approach to history, Sandbrook's methodology is not beyond criticism. He relies heavily on published sources and he writes, he concedes, more about England, and about London, than even their pre-eminence warrants. He turns regularly to the views of Labour insiders such as Joe Haines and Bernard Donoughue, and he is unnecessarily dependent upon the writings of such metropolitan figures as the National Theatre's Peter Hall, the comedians Michael Palin and Kenneth Williams, and Roy Strong, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Exhausting though it must have been to write, Seasons in the Sun is exceptionally easy to read. Ranging widely across politics, economics, society and culture (both high and low), and displaying a wonderful eye for detail, Sandbrook drives the narrative along with enviable pace, power and authority. Despite his avowed attempt at even-handedness, his cast of heroes and (particularly) villains adds enormously to the book's verve and readability. Never afraid to speak his mind, he describes Wilson, for example, as "a pudgy, shabby Little Englander locked away with his fears and his fantasies", and Reginald Maudling as "a clever, gregarious and permissive man who liked nothing better than a large glass of whisky and a great wad of cash". But it is Anthony Wedgwood Benn who comes in for the most sustained criticism. "As usual," we are told, "Benn had worked out a rationale for keeping his ministerial car...As usual, though, he preferred to polish his principles in a nice ministerial office rather than in the cramped conditions of the back benches."
Sandbrook's broader judgements can be similarly bracing. He stresses, for instance, that most people were not particularly interested in politics, and claims that early Thatcherism was much less radical than we remember it. He believes that history "ought to write well of Jim Callaghan", and he disputes what he describes as "the most celebrated counterfactual in modern political history", that if Callaghan had gone to the country before, rather than after, the Winter of Discontent, "Thatcher would have been no more than a historical curiosity". Most of all, he is at pains to challenge the view that Thatcher's defeat of Callaghan in 1979 marked "the death rattle of a post-war consensus based on full employment and Keynesian management". Even before Callaghan became prime minister, he concludes, "the cosy world of the post-war consensus had collapsed, a victim of surging world prices, rising unemployment, industrial decline, the death of deference and the emergence of a new generation who took affluence for granted and were no longer content to be told what to do".
Nobody, presumably, will ever read Seasons in the Sun in one sitting. But read it you should.
Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979
By Dominic Sandbrook Allen Lane, 992pp, £30.00 and £17.99. ISBN 97818461403 and 465 (e-book). Published 19 April 2012