After Never Had It So Good I was, at first, a little disappointed by the second part of Dominic Sandbrook’s diptych, White Heat. The coverage of the fifties in the first volume had tended to be thematic, sometimes wandering quite widely in time. It was only towards the end, and primarily in the political chapters, that the work actually assumed a chronological structure. But the new volume, which takes the story on from 1964 to 1970 (it begins, as the first volume ended, with Harold Wilson’s first election victory, and ends with Edward Heath moving into 10 Downing Street) is all chronology. It is divided into sections, each of which covers roughly two years, and within each section there are, usually, two chapters on politics, one on popular culture (generally focussing on either the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or sometimes both) and then one or more thematic and wider-ranging chapters that might be on fashion, on religion, on the I’m Backing Britain campaign, on Swinging London, on race relations. Initially this rather mechanistic structure seemed less immediately accessible and involving than the first volume, but by the end I was enjoying the second book every bit as much as the first.
The interesting thing is that this is a thoroughly iconoclastic history, that considers the various myths about the Swinging Sixties, and then puts them in context. Greg Pickersgill always used to say that the Sixties happed to half a dozen people in Ladbrook Grove. This is the history of everybody else during that decade. But at the same time as he points out that the vast majority of the people of Britain did not spend the decade being groovy, wild or psychedelic, Sandbrook is equally careful to dismiss some of the other myths that have grown up since then. For instance, the notion that seems to be popular among a number of political historians that the Wilson Government was an unmitigated disaster. In fact, once the book gets into its stride, the chapters on government are about the most interesting in the book. Perhaps because an inordinate number of Wilson’s ministers kept diaries that have been published (Castle, Benn, Crossman, etc) there is an awful lot of inside information on how the government worked or, just as often, failed to work. We get George Brown’s drunkenness and tantrums, we get the petty rivalry between Callaghan and Jenkins, we get details on how Callaghan sabotaged Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ (a set of union reforms whose failure was directly responsible for the disputes that brought down Callaghan’s own government a decade later, as well as paving the way for Thatcher’s attacks on the miners). We also see Wilson as, by turns, duplicitous, humane, brilliant, self-serving, weak, clever, a superb political tactician and a dire political strategist. And we get insights into the financial crises that plagued the Wilson Government, mostly brought on by the stupid way Macmillan’s Tory Government had handled the economy, but often caused by Wilson’s own dilatoriness. Nevertheless, for all of these weaknesses, Sandbrook also points out that the Wilson Government brought about some of the most important social reforms of the century (ending censorship, making abortion legal, making divorce easier, decriminalising homosexuality, ending the death penalty) even though every one of these was strongly opposed by the vast majority of the electorate. One of the things Sandbrook makes clear is that, for all the liberal achievements of that age, Britain was not, by and large, a liberal country during the sixties; that the liberal reforms went against the mood of the country.
And around this riveting political story we get an equally riveting social context. The fashion, the op art clothes, the mini skirts, the Carnaby Street boutiques that mostly lasted only a brief period before failing, all of this was something that actually affected a very small percentage of the population. For most people fashion didn’t revolve around Mary Quant but Emma Peel (and in that case, what did the Edwardian fashions of John Steed imply?). And on television, the gentle nostalgia of Dad’s Army was a bigger draw than the unsettling social comedy of Til Death Us Do Part (and an unnerving proportion of the population agreed with the excesses of Alf Garnett).
There are problems with the book. There is less on literature than in its predecessor, and the coverage of pop music spent rather too much time repeating familiar stories about the Beatles and the Stones and not enough time looking at what else was happening musically (though it is nice to see the Kinks afforded almost as much attention as the big two). But as a picture of the Sixties as it was rather than as we like to imagine it, this is a fascinating book.
First published at LiveJournal, 20 August 2008.