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

January 27, 2011

When Edward Heath became prime minister in 1970, he declared that his aim was to lead a revolution - a quiet revolution - in the way Britain was governed. Less than four years later that revolution was in tatters.

Far from regenerating the economy, the government had simultaneously failed to achieve any of its four main economic policy objectives. Unemployment and inflation were rising, the balance of payments was in deficit and growth was stagnant. Heath's only legacy was the European Communities Act, although even in the 1970s it was regarded by many as a distinctly mixed blessing.

But the Heath government will be remembered less for any legislative achievement than for its defeat in the "Who governs?" election of February 1974, held in the midst of a miners' strike, when Heath sought and failed to secure popular support for a statutory incomes policy. Forty years later, the Heath government appears an embarrassing aberration, repudiated by the voters in 1974 and by Heath's own party shortly afterwards.

Heath, it has been said, was the last loyal signatory of the post-war settlement by which governments would secure full employment and stable prices so long as unions exercised restraint in their wage demands. By 1974, however, any pretence at restraint had been cast aside and society seemed to be falling apart. The question posed by Heath in 1974 was "Who governs?", but it seemed that Britain was faced with an even more awkward question - "Is Britain governable?" - and that question was not to be answered until Margaret Thatcher succeeded in defeating Arthur Scargill's miners in 1985.

A number of historians have raked over the ashes of the Heath government, most notably Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon in a collective volume they edited in 1996, The Heath Government 1970-74: A Reappraisal, and Douglas Hurd, Heath's political secretary, who in 1979 published a perceptive volume, based on his diaries, entitled An End to Promises: Sketch of a Government, 1970-74. Hurd, however, could not quite believe that the post-war settlement was coming to an end, and thought that Heath had offered a dress rehearsal for the future rather than a funeral oration for the past. There are in addition two fine biographies of Heath, one by John Campbell published in 1993, the other, by Philip Ziegler, commissioned by Heath's executors and published in 2010.

Does Dominic Sandbrook have anything to add? State of Emergency is the third volume of a series on the post-war era from 1957. It is based on assiduous research in the National Archives and voluminous reading in secondary sources. But it fails to provide much that is new, and fails to provide it at some considerable length.

Its strength lies not in its discoveries, but, as with the previous volumes, in the attempt to link political history with the history of culture and society. There is as much in State of Emergency about the English suburbs known as Metroland - John Betjeman's iconic documentary appeared in 1973 - as there is on the European Community. But perhaps the atmosphere of the period is best conveyed by Piers Paul Read's 1979 novel A Married Man, whose hero, a prosperous barrister, decides to stand as a Labour candidate in the February 1974 election and finds that cataclysmic events in his personal life mirror the turmoil in the country.

For Sandbrook, politics is very much an epiphenomenon. What matters, he believes, takes place at a level beyond the reach of politicians. Margaret Thatcher, of all people, echoed this thought when she ruminated that politicians could not, in the last resort, change things very much.

As Sandbrook implies, the contraceptive pill did more to alter Britain than anything the politicians did, making way for the permissive society, which began, he believes, during the Heath regime rather than in the 1960s. That is ironic, for no figure could have been less representative of the permissive society than the buttoned-up, emotionally constipated and remote figure who presided over its inauguration.

Sandbrook's approach to social history is impressionistic rather than analytical. He does not consider the profound social and generational changes of the 1970s, changes that were to culminate in Thatcherism, the attempt to solve Britain's problems by moving outside the constraints of the post-war consensus.

Indeed, Heath was defeated not by militant collectivism but by rampant individualism. "Think nationally", he exhorted the miners in 1973. "Think of the nation as a whole, think of these proposals as members of a society which can only beat rising prices if it acts together as one nation." It was an appeal that would have been greeted with respect in the era of Attlee or Churchill, but was met with derision in a society where solidarity had been undermined by affluence.

State of Emergency will disappoint the social scientist, although, unlike much that passes for modern social science, it is both lucid and entertaining. It is a rich plum pudding of a book and makes enjoyable reading. But it is all very much on the surface.

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

By Dominic Sandbrook. Allen Lane, 768pp, £30.00. ISBN 9781846140310. Published 30 September 2010

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