The purpose of this new blog is to examine the work of the historian Dominic Sandbrook. Critically. Very critically. I have, to be honest, a problem with Dominic. He is at 37 a relatively young historian, yet he has just published his sixth book. And these are not small books, this latest is just shy of 1,000 pages. Nor are they specialist books, but sweeping cover all histories.
In the last 3 years Dominic has produced three of these door stoppers. 2010 saw State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974. 2011 brought the publication of Mad As Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right. And out this week is Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979. These are part of his series of histories of post-war Britain that started 2005’s Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and 2006’s White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties.
Now of course this could all be envy on my part for Dominic’s prestigious work rate. He has not only written these books, but has a Daily Mail column, has been a regular on Radio 4 and now has a BBC2 series tying in with his new book. He is a very successful historian.
But I have some real problems. It is 19 months since State of Emergency, and only 14 months since Mad as Hell hit the bookshops. Compare this with Harry Potter – 7 books in 11 years. If Dominic worked 5 days a week for each of 14 months he is producing about 2 and half pages a day. That is not 1,000 pages of fiction, Graham Greene used do that before breakfast every day leaving the rest of his time sipping gin with Charlie Chaplin. It is 1,000 words of scholarly history that is meant to emerge from a through examination of the broadest possible range of sources. And even though I am sure Dominic has a loyal band of research assistants, producing this quantity of work has an impact on the level of scholarship.
To be precise.
First, there is a problem he relies on other people’s scholarship. Reading through his previous work, there is a tendency for him to draw on a limited range of secondary sources, often repeatedly. He is, to be it bluntly, coining it based on other people’s hard work.
Second, this gives his work a “cut and paste” quality. One reviewer of Mad as Hell more or less accused Dominic of plagiarism, that he barely rewrote the sources that he was using (Michael C. Moynihan in The Wall Street Journal, see it at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704132204576136184280902022.html). Sandbrook’s defence that it was all footnoted is not a defence, his work is derivative (I would use this word, rather than plagiarism) of the sources that he uses.
Three, his work is fall of errors. The rate at which he works means that there are a lot of assumptions, unchecked received wisdoms and so on in this work. To talk as example from an earlier book. In White Heat (London: Abacus, 2006) we have that prior to the 1967 Abortion Act abortions were “technically illegal” (p698). They were not. At least since a court case in 1938, the Bourne Case, abortions had been legal on the grounds of protecting a women’s mental and physical health. The debate around Steele’s bill was the degree to which this should be extended to included social grounds for abortion. Understanding this is central to assessing the importance of the 1967 reform. I could list such errors ad nauseum.
Four. If Dominic were simply producing a digest history – and there are plenty around – his methods might be acceptable. But he considers himself a revisionist, to be changing the parameters of our understanding of post-war British history. But he is doing so on the basis of evidence gathered by people who reach different conclusions to him. He fails to engage in any debate with those whose work he is revising. Thus, in White Heat Dominic puts up the view that there was no real social revolution in the sixties, that swinging London affected only a small cosmopolitan elite. Despite using Arthur Marwick’s work extensively as a source, he fails to engage with Marwick’s idea that the ideas of small groups permeated the rest of society over time.
Last. Summing all of this up, what Dominic seems to be building up to is that Thatcher was good and inevitable, a result of the failures of the 50s, 60s and 70s. But this is not something that stems from careful analysis of the historical material, but an a priori belief supported by “facts” that are plucked from any source whatsoever and a narrative sustaining this assumption woven out of them.
Thus this blog.
What I will be doing here is going through Seasons the Sun a page at a time, chasing through the sources, unpicking the errors and most of all looking at the basis, or lack of grounds, for the conclusions and judgements that Dominic makes. Feel free to join in. I can only hope that it gets done before his next opus arrives.