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Never Had It So Good and White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook

27 October 2009

I’ve had these books for quite a while now, and finally have had a chance to pull my thoughts on them together into a single combined review. For those who might be interested in another set of opinions, David Edgar also reviewed these two books in the 7 June 2007 issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required to view the full article).

Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles by Dominic Sandbrook

When Historian Dominic Sandbrook wanted to write a history of Britain in the 1960s, he soon realised that merely covering the years 1960-1969 wouldn’t do justice to a period that refused to be confined by something as arbitrary as a set of dates. As a result, he split his work into two parts: the first volume covering 1956 to 1963 (from the Suez Crisis to Harold Macmillan’s resignation), and the second volume covering 1964 to 1970 (the span of Harold Wilson’s first Labour Government). The title of the first volume comes from a comment made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan — not the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’, as it is often misquoted. The actual comment comes from a speech made in mid-1957, in which Macmillan attempted to reassure the public on the state of Britain under his new Conservative Government:

Let’s be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime — nor indeed ever in the history of this country. What is worrying some of us is ‘Is it too good to be true?’ or perhaps I should say ‘Is it too good to last?’

Macmillan’s assessment did indeed reflect the real improvement in the general standard of living. By 1956, the last official remnants of the years of austerity following World War II were finally fading. Rationing had ended, National Service was on the way out, and with unemployment figures at markedly low levels a new sense of consumer confidence translated into increased spending. And yet as Never Had It So Good presents it, Macmillan’s statement reflected the very real concerns that many people had about the changes taking place in British society in the late 1950s, in a world where many of the old political, social, and economic standards no longer seemed to apply.

For the political highlights, Sandbrook’s chapter on the events of Suez crisis is fascinating and tightly written, illustrating Anthony Eden’s sudden and steep decline from one of the more capable and experienced British politicians of his time to an ‘enraged elephant’ utterly obsessed with engineering Nasser’s downfall. Sandbrook also provides concise assessments of the 1962 Cabinet reshuffle known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and the various upheavals within the long-suffering Labour Party. Never Had It So Good‘s chapters on social history cover the big developments very well, examining broad trends in drama and art and literature, the growth of teenage culture — and, of course, the rise of the Beatles and other popular music groups that profited from the new affluence. Throughout the book, though, Sandbrook constantly emphasises that the trend-setting youngsters flocking to London and Liverpool around this time were by no means the majority of the population. If anything, he attempts to push the pendulum in the other direction, suggesting that most people were far likely to go home and listen to the cozy dramas of The Archers than to any of the more esoteric productions aired by the Third Programme. Though it’s an admirable attempt at balancing out the narrative, Sandbrook seems so determined to protect his silent majority that he seems to dismiss off-hand many of the real changes that were affecting the United Kingdom at the time. The shifts in public attitudes on immigration, women’s rights, abortion and divorce, and other social issues would receive greater prominence in 1960s, but the groundwork for their changes was laid in the Macmillan years.

Never Had It So Good concludes with the various scandals that plagued the end of Harold Macmillan’s time in office, followed soon after by his resignation due to ill health and the Conservative Party’s leadership fracas from which Lord Home (shortly to renounce his hereditary peerage and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home) emerged as Prime Minister. Yet Sandbrook does not end on the sour note of the resignation — he is already looking ahead to 1964, with the Beatles at the top of the charts and the new television programme Doctor Who sending thousands of children racing to hide behind the sofa as the terrifying Daleks advanced across the screen. After almost 13 years of Tory rule, a country whose people had never had it so good were looking for the new, the fresh, and the exciting, and were preparing to vote in (by a very narrow margin) a Government whose leader promised all of those things and more, with a buoyant optimism that he hoped would be contagious. Never Had It So Good does not invite the reader to linger on the Macmillan years. Everyone, including Sandbrook, seems to be on the way to somewhere else — in this case, on to the next book.

White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties by Dominic Sandbrook

White Heat takes its title from a quotation from the Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson, given during a speech at the 1963 Labour Party Conference. Wilson urged his fellow party members to equate Labour’s socialism with the seemingly boundless capacity of scientific progress, ready to revolutionise how Britain saw itself at home and abroad:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry….In the Cabinet room and the boardroom alike, those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and to speak in the language of our scientific age.

Wilson’s words reflected the themes of science, progress, and revolution that were a constant background of the early 1960s. The pressure to be ‘new’ and ‘modern’ produced visible changes, as glass-and-concrete tower blocks replaced Victorian terraced housing and designers embraced synthetic materials and sleekly futuristic lines in fashion and furniture. The Labour Government, despite the slim majority with which it entered power in 1964, intended to push Britain forward to meet the challenges of the Space Age, and the public seemed quite happy to go along — for a time, at least.

Sandbrook writes a crisp political history of the 1960s, drawing heavily on published diaries and memoirs of politicians and other celebrities for good gossip and anecdotes. But when it comes to social history, Sandbrook warns readers against taking a romantic view of the period. He is of the opinion that most of the fashionable movements and trendy ideas of the 1960s lacked real permanence: the protesting students go home at the end of term, the daringly avant-garde play closes within a month, the popular new boutique shuts its doors when the losses from shoplifting and poor business management become too great. To remain popular in the music world, he suggests, even the Beatles had to move away from their cheerful clean-cut image and experiment with mysticism and drugs. Meanwhile, many people distrusted the changes taking place, fearing that immigration and the always-scare-quoted ‘permissive society’ were eroding traditional values and doing irreparable damage to the British way of life. Sandbrook chips away at the myths of a carefree Swinging Britain, focusing more on the fracture points (such as Northern Ireland and growing labour unrest) that would lead to the greater trouble and strife of the 1970s.

Though the concluding chapter of Never Had It So Good looks ahead with interest to the Wilson years, White Heat closes with a wistful look at the popularity of the World War II sitcom Dad’s Army, a symbol of the growing cult of nostalgia that Sandbrook claims is the real legacy of the 1960s. Poets like Philip Larkin and John Betjeman wrote paens to a simpler Britain of sleepy country churches and soot-covered northern towns, and the Kinks and the Beatles popularised openly nostalgic songs like ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Penny Lane’. Even miniskirts, one of the most iconic symbols of the Swinging Sixties, warred with ankle-length Victorian-inspired dresses in fashionable circles towards the end of the decade. Sandbrook’s melancholy message is really that Britain in the 1960s was not all that keen on change; at least, not at the speed with which it seemed to be happening. And in spite of the real advancements that was made during the decade in the women’s movement and in other broader campaigns for social progress, White Heat suggests that the decade burned itself out long before it actually came to an end.

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