We need to talk about Dominic Sandbrook.


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.

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74 Responses to We need to talk about Dominic Sandbrook.

  1. cantaffordtodoama says:

    Have you read Alwyn W. Turner’s surveys of the 1970s and 80s and if so how would you compare/contrast them with the D.Sandbrook opus(s)?

  2. I am afraid that Alwyn Turner’s book on the 70s is sitting on my bookshelf unread. My memory from the reviews was that it was a little light-weight and relied too much on a stroll down memory lane via sitcoms and Top of the Pops. It is, perhaps, a move away from serious, thoughtful analysis towards a “cracking good read”. But that is to prejudge a book I have not read.

    At some stage I intedend take a step back from Sandbrook and do and a compare and contrast with other books on the period. There is a comment under my “clueless” post that asks a similar question, and I will be putting up a longer reply there later that will take the issue of the historiography of the 1970s a little further.

    Have you read Crisis? If so, what’s your view, or indeed anyone else reading this blog?

    • Paul Thompson says:

      I’ve read all four of Sandbrook’s post-war histories, both of Turner’s 70s and 80s books, and two by Andy Beckett’s books, ‘When the Lights Went Out’ on the 1970s and ‘Promised you a Miracle’ (1980-1982). Turner’s are the least interesting, they are just brief surveys, and just make me want to reach again for Sandbrook’s far more in-depth and detailed analysis. I like Andy Beckett but his is a far more journalistic approach – nothing wrong with that, just a different style – and what is very interesting with his work is that he looks up key characters and players from the time and interviews them now, so that we get their perspective on things looking back.

      Is Sandbrook biased? I don’t think, I think he plays things very fairly. He is pretty hostile towards Benn, but hard not to be; the man was a complete and utter tool, totally deluded; he certainly doesn’t suggest that Thatcher was inevitable, in fact he makes it clear that it was Callaghan that started the break with Keynesian economics, not Thatcher. Looking forward to seeing Sandbrook’s take on the first Thatcher term…

  3. kenpat says:

    As I’m still in the middle of White Heat so I fear it may be some time before I reach this book. I am an ordinary punter who grew up during the 50s and 60’s so was interested in the idea of an historian not born then writing about them, It really was history to him, not memories playing tricks.
    I enjoyed your review on Amazon and thought the comments were unnecessarily rude. I enjoy populist history but agree with you that some degree of accuracy and rigour is needed so shall approach his work with a more critical eye then before.
    No doubt following your blog will prepare me for this.
    Please don’t tell me the Andrew Marrs 2 books on the 20th century are full of mistakes as well.

  4. bruce says:

    I was puzzled by a seeming lack of critical comment on Sandbrook’s television series (I haven’t read any of his books).I’ve been getting irked (a lot) by it.However,I’ve been too lazy or preoccupied to work out why this was so. I’m delighted to find your blog and look forward to reading more.Hopefully it might help me to rediscover my own critical faculties.Thank you.

  5. Dr Simon Walker. says:

    I too have problems with Sandbrook – namely he’s so damn Conservative & not with a small c. Let me be frank – the 1970’s were not as DS seems to think about ‘aspiration’. That momentous decade is best understood as being characteried by the class struggle & the break up of the post war concensus. The year 1977 was not the most socially equal year in the UK on record for nothing, the workers had to go out and fight for that relative equality.
    Do read Alwyn Turners ‘Crisis?, What Crisis?’ & I think you’ll be suprised just how many similar themes & quotes reoccur in Sandbrooks ‘State of Emergency’ both in the book and the tv series. Turners book was published three years before DS’s ‘State of Emergency’. A strange title to choose also when he does not take the class struggle seriously, witness his jokey attitude towards Civil Assistance and Major Walter Walker both in print and on the box. Andy Beckett’s ‘When the lights went out’ by a journalist rather than an historian is far superior on the 1970’s in every dept esp those sections on why so many state of emergency’s were called by Heath and why the workers turned the lights off!
    I can’t really question his engagement with sources but what gets my goat is the lack of intellectual seriousness on issues like housing – sometimes he seems to be guffawing at the very notion of any alternative to the free market. The tv series like the book, I’ve not yet read ‘Seasons in the Sun’ yet, was an exercise in historical lobotomy – the section in one of the later shows on the supposed failure of inner city public housing was laughable. One incident, an attack on an elderly lady, was supposedly enough to condemn the whole project of modernism in public housing. Such incidents, according to DS, echoing the Tories in the 1980’s, reflected the failure of state intervention – by this logic not a great deal of our inner city housing would be standing if entire neighbourhoods had to be pulled every time someone was assaulted in their vercinity. Not much of the suburbs either come to think of it.
    I was very interested by the remarks you made about DS’s remarkable productivity. I agree it simply is not possible to write serious history in such a short space of time. If you are not aware of the rubbishing of Robert Service’s biography of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand Paternaud and David North then you might be interested to know that North calculated how long Service spent on each chapter. Chapters that are also remarkably similar in length. Suffice to say Paternaud and North denouce Services history as that of a hack unable or unwilling to adhere to basic academic discipline.
    Sorry for going on a bit but I’m not a historian.
    Simon Walker

  6. ian darling says:

    I agree with jazz606 in that Seasons is not really a serious history but highly readable and rsometimes does bring the 70s back to life. I also read recently the Andy Beckett book and agree that is is a rather more thoughtful book (Sandbrooke acknowledges that it contains some useful material about Grunwick). So reservations about Sandbrooke entirely in order but I have enjoyed both White Heat and Seasons In the Sun and will get round to the other volumes and look forward to following your detailed reading.

  7. Ralph says:

    The problem people here have with DS is he’s a Conservative. Oh, and that he’s successful. Well, there ain’t nothing wrong with being a Tory academic. And sour grapes are funny to witness.

    • Oh, how childish. The point here is to have a serious debate and not fall into name calling and unsupported pointscoring. The issue here is to assess the quality of his history (and I found that quality lacking in his previous books). There are specific issues raised with his some of the material in Seasons in the Sun here (and I hope to return to dismantle some more of his book, some of which is inaccurate). If you wish to repudiate those concrete criticisms feel free. Being successful or Conservative is not an issue (I have no idea whether DS is Conservative, conservative, liberal, Liberal or even new Labour, or even a Callaghan-style old Labour; all of these are compatible with his general outlook). Being wrong is a problem. I am taking a great deal of care to back up everything I say here with clear evidence. So, Ralph, I suggest that you do the same.

      • buddyhell says:

        Indeed, “Ralph’s” response is fairly characteristic of a right-winger whose airbrushed edition of history has been found out. The right can’t construct a coherent counterargument and thus resort to abuse and ad hominems, which demonstrates severe intellectual deficit on their part.

  8. Pingback: That Ralph Miliband hatchet-job looks suspiciously familiar | Guy Debord's Cat

  9. More power to your elbow. Having never come across him before, I was enjoying the nostalgia of his 70s TV – the music and the haircuts – but I lived through those years and his interpretation of the politics shocked me rigid. This is the BBC?

  10. Ben says:

    I am inclined to agree on most of these points. However, I think similar things could be said about most historians who attempt to cover so much material. Sandbrook’s work seems to be useful as a means to discovering what is actually important about Britain during the periods he discusses, more than as a definitive guide to these periods. I am not really sure whether Sandbrook himself sees his work as anything more than that. Fundamentally they’re well-written and engaging works of popular history, and perhaps don’t necessitate the stern assessment of in-depth academic discourse.

    Nevertheless as someone currently writing a dissertation on 70s Britain I look forward to reading what you have to say on this blog!

  11. Glenn says:

    Sandbrook has the verbal delivery of a cement mixer when he is on television . He gets a few things right about the sixties and seventies but an awful lot of his ” facts ” are simply theories . I note that like a lot of ” well respected modern social commentators and historians ” ie the BBC and Telegraph like him , he is too young to remember the periods he claims to be so knowledgeable about. There seems to be a smell of revisionist pro Thatcher about the man which I find quite unwholesome.

  12. Alan says:

    Watching Sandbrook’s putative ‘history’ of the Cold War is a bizarre spectacle indeed. Displaying all the subtleties of a tabloid hack, Sandbrook aims his sneers, asides and innuendoes not only at the Soviet Union but at everything and anything remotely left. His deeply tendentious account of the cold war is a kind of recursion, like a Matryoshka doll, dishonestly delivered by a fully paid-up Cold-warrior. You want to slap him over the back of his bald pate and tell him to behave.

  13. Now aged 66 I have been looking back at my archive of photographs, many taken in the 60s and 70s. They are social documentary photographs commissioned by an outfit called Task Force who sought to encourage young people to volunteer to help in their community. Whilst in no way being representative of the history of the time they are accurate keyhole observations of certain places around Britain and as such, some might say, put history in its place.

    They are my contribution to this debate. A selection of the 4000 images that I took can be seen on
    Tony Othen

    • Fantastic pictures. Where were they taken? I think some might be south Wales, but my reading of vernacular architecture is not that good. They very much cuts across the Dominic’s cant of everyone being a happy consumer in Britain in the post-war period.

      • They were taken all over England and Wales and yes some were taken in Cardiff and Newport. I do have references for all of them. I am ploughing through them now and have a small exhibition of them next week in The Greenwich Gallery. http://www.thegreenwichgallery.com
        The issue of whether these photos are representative fascinates me and makes me wonder how historians use the evidence that they find. It does seem to me that knowing why a photograph was taken is essential in discovering its usefulness.

      • Being a straight down the line text kind of guy I have never used photos as a source,. Ultimately, photographs should be a powerful tool in social history, particularly people’s private snaps. Naturally, there are are issues of class and gender here (more middle class snaps, more men behind the camera, issues of selection are an issue with any source). Professional photos are sources, they are no more selected than journalism, and although it is going too far to say the camera never lies, they lie much less than the written word.

        I live pretty close to Greenwich, and will certainly be going to see your exhibition. I am currently developing a more general history website, and will certainly put a review up there.

  14. Peter Kennedy says:

    Has anyone seen the the new series? It’s the Daily Mail view of recent history. He’s a right wing ideologue and needs a good kicking. He’s also not a serious historian and so he gets a series on the BCC, what a surprise. The problem is that he’s allowed a platform to present not history but a political view, he’s a Thatcherite. The only questions is how do we stop him

  15. I welcome this blog, and think it’s timely. I’m not an academic historian but do have a degree in the subject and follow it closely – particularly modern British history. As such I was concerned with Sandbrook’s recent television documentary on the 1970s which was simply a personal essay, with no interviews or allowance for a plurality of views. I thought this rather extraordinary given that Sandbrook is such a junior historian, without any great academic or professional respect. For instance, it would be nice if the BBC had given a similar opportunity to someone like Andy Beckett, who in his “When the Lights Went Out” produced a far more comprehensive and thoughtful work on the same period.

  16. Today is the last day of my ’70s Britain’ exhibition as such. During the rest of December it will form the backdrop to a charity event of the sale of wood turning products.

  17. Mike says:

    Wish I had seen this blog before asking for (and getting) Never Had it So Good and White Heat for Christmas! Was keen to read a factual view of an era I was too young to really appreciate – born in 64, but it looks like I chose badly. Just a quick note – you are attacking Sandbrook for his errors – a quick check of your own blog will show the use of prestigious for prodigious and fall of errors instead of full of errors – glasshouses and all that! Off now to find some more accurate writing of that period.

  18. JohnB says:

    It’s not so much the errors, or the Toryism (many good historians are Tories) but the opportunism. The reason DS can write so quickly is that he has already decided on his line before he sets out, and he’s adept at picking up the factoids and anecdotes to prop it up. His talent is for gathering and arranging his material in an appetizing form; the analysis comes prefabricated, basically a post-Thatcher rightist view of recent history which appeals to Daily Mail readers – he isn’t a Mail columnist for nothing: he knows how many Mail readers there are who might buy his books. His other line is the history hack’s old standby – fake revisionism: make yourself look radical and original by reciting a commonplace platitude and announcing that it blows apart the received wisdom – and, by implication, challenges the power of an imaginary leftist elite. (This is the game Gove was at in his crass comments about the Great War.) If I hear once more that ‘nothing really changed in the sixties, it’s all just a romantic lefty myth’ my head will probably explode, but DS can pull this one out of the hat with that smug expression on his face as if he’s demolished half a century of historical falsehood, when as he knows perfectly well he’s merely parroted a dreary cliche. Let some TV producer commission a series arguing that the 60s were a time of revolution that changed things for ever – that would really challenge the received wisdom of the age. Some hope.

  19. Godfrey says:

    Why take him seriously? Just watch his series on The Cold War and you can tell he’s laughable. Look at his hands and the way he rounds off every little to-camera sequence (eyes widening, arms flailing, trying hard to deliver conviction). He’s utterly self-conscious and self-impressed. He comes across as a wide boy. In terrible nick for a man his age too. He’s 40 but he looks 50. Quite why the BBC saw fit to have him present a documentary series is anyone’s guess, when so many more competent presenters could have done so. But I expect it is simply wheels within journalistic wheels. It may be that he has a lot of readers but that is not going to make him very influential where it matters, in professional history. He’s negligible. He doesn’t even deserve a critical blog, if you ask me. I stumbled on this blog because I did an internet search to find out who this deeply unimpressive geezer was and why he had a BBC series. That was the first time I had seen him. I watched one episode of the documentary and couldn’t watch any more as his presentation skills were so awful. I imagine most people with any sense of how a good documentary is presented would think that. I certainly wouldn’t read any of his books after that and would switch him off if he ever appeared on my TV again.

  20. christopher barnett says:

    he is not a historian. he is a scribbler. a gossip. a bastard child of bernard ingram

    john erickson was a historian, chris bellamy is a historian, geoffrey roberts is a historian

    gossips do not require rigor

  21. Wade says:

    Perhaps DS’s throw away line in his review of Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins in the Sunday Times of 23 March, 2014 says everything about his politics, his ‘scholarship’ and his banality? I quote – ‘And although Jenkins often flirted with self-parody, he was at heart far too intelligent to fall for the pseudo-proletarian claptrap spouted by the likes of Tony Benn’. Ho hum.

    • Yep, that reads the kind of substitute for thinking that Dominic is pedaling at the moment (last week’s ST review was Franco – not that bad, just in case you thought he was too intelligent to fall for pseudo-fascist claptrap).

  22. Steve Ronson says:

    A minor point, but ‘Seasons’, p. 559 refers to Jean-Jacques Burnel as ‘the Stranglers’ guitarist’, he was (and still is) the BASS PLAYER.

    • Mike says:

      As a bass player, that is NOT a minor point! On a more serious note, this is another validation of Matthew’s reasoning behind the blog.

  23. Papko says:

    Just stumbled on this blog , looking for info on DS and his 70’s series (which i enjoyed )

    I take it this is an academics criticism of his work

    I did enjoy his weaving together of key events in the 70’s , and the choice of music set the tone .

    That he’s a “Thatcherite ” and his conclusion that the necessary finale to the decade , was the arrival of Maggie , does rather sit snugly with my own view .

    Rather begs the question , aren’t all historians seeking to support their viewpoints , by selecting key events in their chosen period ?

    I am thinking AJP Taylor , and his view of the 1st WW , being started because of the “railway Timetables ” , did strike me as shocking at the time , don’t know if has been trundled out by the BBC , when they have been celebrating the start of the WW1

  24. Charles Polak says:

    Disgusted by Sandbrook’s review in yesterday’s Sunday Times, where he describes the idea that England is “just another European country” as “once modish” and obviously exploded, as in the book by Tombs under review; and reiterates what’s obviously an obsession, that there was no social/cultural revolution in Britain in the 1960s, when nothing could have been clearer to me, who witnessed it as a schoolboy of Continental parents.

    Keep documenting Sandbrook’s smug Anglo-chauvinist right-wing conservatism (has he expressed support for UKIP?), as well as his idiosyncratic and contrafactual historical revisionisms. He shouldn’t get away with them so easily.

  25. Al says:

    Just watched the first episode of Dominic Sandbrook’s new science fiction documentary and realised I’d seen him before, in a TV programme he’d presented about the Cold War and back then as just now, there was something that really irritated me about him. Partly it could be I disagreed with him on pretty much almost everything or it could be his presenting style. Every time he twitched his head round for another sideways glance, I felt considerably uneasy and aggravated. It was almost as if rather than bleating on with some half baked simplistic (probably cribbed) blah, he was saying to my subconscious “punch me on this side of the face, and after another line of guff, this side of the face”. His body language seemed to suggest this was a man who, after a freshly completed defecation of his own, would point at it, giggle and shout proudly up the stairs “I did a poo! I did a poo! look mummy! I did a poo!”

    Not being much of a reader of the Daily Mail or having much enthusiasm after the Cold War TV programme he presented to know any more about him, I didn’t really know who he was and actually only discovered his role at the Daily Mail from this page (my fundamental irritation with DS compelled me to Google the phrase “Can Dominic Sandbrook look straight at the camera for once” and this page came up as one of the results).

    Now it kind of all makes sense. His self satisfaction, his banality and simplification, his weird recollections of a universe alternate to ours, his face twitching from side to side, all can’t beat the single thing that gets my goat. He doesn’t seem to care about making anything that approaches any kind of depth or rigour. He wants to stroll about boasting a Historian’s Scarf proclaiming “I’m a historian” but doesn’t actually want to do whatever (he thinks) historians do. This might be more forgiveable (well, kind of) if he actually gave the impression he gave two about his chosen topics of discussion but he clearly couldn’t care less. It is this considerable act of condescension that betrays his lack of respect for his audience. It makes me not only have to count to 10 after exposure to this particularly smug egg but also leaves me concerned for the BBC.

    For God’s sake, please BBC, stop trying to placate that contingent of the media. At best you will only delay their vicious gnashing and biting and give them time to digest the latest pound of BBC flesh. As a relatively successful state organisation, the BBC, like the NHS, will always remain a top bounty target to those that share the Daily Mail’s outlook and mission statement. Giving Sandbrook time on TV to give his ego repeated rhythmical rubs won’t change a thing, and neither will Top Gear.

  26. David says:

    Judging simply from his apparent burgeoning media presence, he requires & portrays, a popularised approach to just about every facet of his wares. His depth on BBC alone is wearying, his shallow generalised vocabulary speaks not so much volumes, as curving downwardly like a spent bullet. The same trajectory of a lot of modern media, to put us all at the level of a relatively competent 8 year old. Thanks for that. Where is my kevlar? We need to talk about Kevlar.

  27. Simon Cartlidge says:

    I am by no means a Tory but I do read a lot of history and I’m always open to reading any history, even if it is written by a Daily mail columnist. If I only read books written by left-wing academics with their own political agenda, then I would only get a jaundiced view of the subject matter.
    Dominic writes very interesting books, covering a most contentious time in our political and social history. I find him pretty even handed on the whole and this blog seems to be a sour grapes mouthpiece.
    I am sure I will read other view points over the course of time and I will try to form my own opinion.

    • My point is that his history is very poor. If you think that I have written something that is wrong, then point that out on the basis of evidence. Suggesting that this is “sour grapes” is a pretty second rate ad hominen argument.

      • Simon Cartlidge says:

        Hi Matthew
        My ‘sour grapes’ comment referred to the fact you were compelled to start a Blog dedicated to undermining Dominic’s work. He does seem to be most prolific but I, and I’m sure many other readers find his books both entertaining and accessible . I’m sure he’s being well paid by his publishers, the BBC and the Daily Mail as he’s obviously commercially viable. I have read ‘Never Had It So Good’, ‘White Heat’ and I’m now ploughing through ‘State of Emergency’.
        I’m really pleased I discovered your Blog though as a few other books on the period mentioned have been referenced. I will look forward to reading them in the near future in order to have a better idea of Dominic’s standing as a serious historian.
        Again, I will point out that I have found him to be pretty even handed in his conclusions as to the state of the nation and who was responsible for the various crises Britain found itself in.
        If his books are indeed an apology for inevitability of Thatcherism then I will still enjoy reading his point of view. I will also look forward to alternative works disputing that theory.
        Do you have any plans to write a book on any of the periods mentioned?
        I will happily by a copy if you decide to publish.

      • Alan McMahon says:

        Simon, I’ve read what you say, and suggest you tuck yourself away with a pile of Dominic’s historical enlighteners, you evidently ike them so much. And I do agree with your final point – what a wonderful thing it to be able to write a book. I think this blog, by enlarge, has got your message.

  28. Simon Cartlidge says:

    @Alan McMahon: I’m open to reading anything historical if it’s a period or subject matter i’m interested in. I’m more than happy to be persuaded otherwise re Dominic and I will look forward to reading any of the books you care to suggest. Have you read many of DS’s books?

  29. Simon Cartlidge says:

    @Alan: I fail to see how this is being a troll? I respect other people’s opinions whether I agree with them or not. I’m interested to read more and yes, become more enlightened.

  30. Laura Marcus says:

    Ignore Sandbrook. He’s a useless historian in fact, he’s barely worthy of the name. He’s just a Tory propagandist and it’s done much better by Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and Max Hastings.
    Read When The LIghts Went Out by Andy Beckett. It’s a belter. Brilliantly researched and he tracks down key players from the 70s including Ted Heath whom I believe gave his last ever interview to Beckett.

    • That is a fair enough point. But Dominic increasing appears to be the BBC’s go-t0 historian, and one only needs to look at his Amazon reviews to see how popular he is. It is important that his views receive serious critical comment.

  31. will says:

    ‘Three, his work is fall of errors’

  32. His earlier books less so, but you you are (of course) right. His TV work is becoming really slapdash and cliche ridden.

  33. Nick Crosby says:

    I have enjoyed DS’ books and TV series, without necessarily agreeing with his arguments. There are some subtleties hidden away that struck me, some changes that cumulatively and unintentionally had deep consequences. For example, relaxing exchange controls in the early 70’s actually allowed people to take foreign holidays, which was more a nice idea than a practical reality before. That many of the so-called Thatcher changes were happening earlier– that there was a pent up demand for a better life, more freedom and choice in one’s life. In many ways the 60’s cultural revolutions- which looked to be a ‘left- inspired’ movement, ironically promoted many ‘right’ agendas in coming decades. That only in the 70’s did the changes heralded in the 60’s take root in people’s lives.
    He also reminded me just how screwed we were in ’79. The level of industrial unrest was by modern standards boggling. The surprise to me was not that Thatcher won in ’79 (Note: I am a not nor never was a supporter of Mrs T.) but that the reaction to the chaos had not set in sooner…

  34. Mark Hampson says:

    I think his stuff would be great for a young person say up to 21 who doesn’t know much about eg British Industrial decline, but for us older people who have studied History and also remember the 70’s well, a lot of his programmes I can predict what he is going to say next, plus some detail is odd or missing, eg he mentioned BL strikes but didn’t mention The European Car Of The Year Award won by them in 1975 for a Rover model he had been typifying as a strike victim.Also the thing about admiring The Germans for their Industry failed to mention how much help they got after the war and how much debt we were in with outdated plant etc.Other things galore eg Slade were the big band in the early 70’s, he said T Rex! Also his delivery is a bit smug young fogey.TV Historians like Neil Oliver are far better than Oxford Dom!

  35. I have just had the “fall of errors” pointed out. I am leaving it for it Serendipitous beauty.

  36. Simon Cartlidge says:

    I’ve just finished reading Seasons in the Sun and to be quite honest, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know there are other books – When The Lights Went Out – (I have read btw) which offer a slightly different picture of the turbulent 70’s but to dismiss Sandbrook as just a ‘Tory propagandist’ is totally unfair.
    He is quite rightly damning of Wilson’s premiership post ’74 but he is more than fair in his dealing with Callaghan and Healey after Wilson had resigned. Callaghan and Healey tried to bring inflation down and made a good job on the whole of getting the economy back on track. It was the greedy self-interest of the Unions that finally put paid to the Labour government and paved the way for years of Tory leadership.
    Sandbrook is very generous in his praise of Callaghan and quite rightly rates him highly as a prime minister.

    • I think that you have missed the point. What Seasons in the Sun consists of is not a critical understanding of the period, but a reading of history backwards from the present. You say that Callaghan “made a good job on the whole of getting the economy back on track” but this assumes that where the British economy has gone since (under Mrs. T and then new Labour) was the right track.

      It could be persuasively argued that many of the free-market, tax-restricting and non-interventionist policies of the new right were present, in more hesitant and restrained form, in the actions of the Labour government 1976-1979, and that these continued under new Labour after 1997 (albeit with a different concept of welfare and the role of the state in society in general on top of it). Callaghan started many of the policies that became known as Thatcherism, and these are now embedded in British economic and social structures.

      There are consequences of this: rising inequality, declining social solidarity, the decline of manufacturing, the rise of the City of London as a centre of global finance, the decline of the north of the UK both economically and culturally – the list could go on.
      Dominic sometimes recognises that some of these are negative consequences: sometimes he dismisses them (the worst example of this is his brushing aside of the data that people in Britain were at their happiest in the 1970s). But he when he does recognise a negative consequence, it is usually in a schoolchild’s essay fashion of having balance by saying “on the other hand”, but then never integrating this contrary evidence into the analysis.

      The result is that what Dominic produces is a very one sided account, one where Mrs. T becomes inevitable and the changes associated with her premiership good, even heroic. It is an analysis that stems from its conclusions (Mrs. T was the solution, the seventies demonstrated many of the problems), not from a critical understanding of that was going on.

      You too have chosen only to attack my conclusion. I have by no means analysed the whole of Dominic’s work, but I have written in this blog some tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of words as to why, in detail, he is wrong and the errors in analysis he has made. My suggestion is that truth is arrived at by counter-argument based on evidence, although I am aware that such Platonic dialogue is ill-aligned with our post-truth times where opinion is god.

      And, btw, I do not call Dominic a Tory propagandist, that was someone’s comment, not mine. I made the point back that many people – yourself included – share his analysis and traducing in such crude terms is not helpful. There is very little to be gained by insulting people other than self-satisfaction, and I try (not always successfully) to avoid doing so. Dominic’s view is, I think, very much a reflection of popular views of the period (and so my mind reflects that Thatcher won the ideological battle). My point is that it necessary to put some critical distance between oneself and that ideological soup.

  37. Pingback: Review – White Heat: A history of Britain in the swinging sixties by Dominic Sandbrook |

  38. Gary Walters says:

    If you had any real talent perhaps you could write a good book that is unbiased and 100% accurate. As someone like me, who I think is a normal person, I found the books interesting, funny and informative. If there is a leaning towards one particular part of politics or the odd error or exaggeration who am I to care. Like the thousands who brought his books it was for interest and a want of understanding of an era. Well done Dominic Sandbrook please don’t let petty jealousies stop you writing.

    • In reply to Gary Walters.

      I do not usually respond to comments like this, they are meaningless. Everything in it is an assertion without any evidence. What I have tried to do on this site is to show that the history that Dominic produces is poor, it ignores many of the sources and those sources that it does use it often abuses by (for example) selecting evidence while ignoring the overall conclusion with no attempt to who why that conclusion might be wrong. I think that, and this is most notable with Dominic’s BBC programme on science fiction, that he seems totally unaware that there is an existing historiography. He simply ignores the existing scholarship.

      More generally, Dominic appears to be assume his conclusions (that Britain was gripped by economic and cultural decline, reversed only by the free market reforms of Mrs. T, although he is less keen on her social conservatism), and then selects evidence that supports this narrative. This is not writing history, it a process of selectively using evidence in creating a political narrative. It is not a question of the odd error (we all make factual errors) but of a systematic problem of approach.

      What I have attempted to do on this blog is to look at the evidence to show the above is the case. I have been careful at each stage to show how the sources and evidence support my case. This comment does not look at any of the detail of the argument (or that argument at all), it just offers weak speculation about my motivation (envy etc.), but cannot stir up enough energy to actually look at the detailed argument.

      Thus, this is just a statement that the commenter agree with Dominic’s conclusions. This is hardly surprising, Dominic’s conclusions are very much in the mainstream consensus of what has happened in Britain in the last fifty years. He is very much working with the grain of the way that people understand the recent past and, on the whole, does not challenge such popular understandings. For sure, he writes entertainingly and one of his strengths is his skill at working aspects of shared experience and collective memory into his work – but none of this makes it right.

      Should I write my own book? No. Understanding works not by us all hunkering down in our silos writing for an audience that already agrees with us. We should examine and engage with arguments of those we disagree with, test their arguments and our own, show how they are wrong or otherwise change our conclusions. Don’t you think that is right?

  39. Greenaum says:

    For what it’s worth I’m watching the chubby little slaphead’s thing about scifi (from a historical perspective, of course). He’s apparently never read any Philip K Dick, despite just dedicating 10 minutes to him. His theory is largely that the San Francisco counter-culture of the 60s was a big influence on Dick.

    It really wasn’t. Dick started writing in the 1950s, and wrote a large chunk of his stuff before 1965 or 66 or whenever somebody young and working-class had the idea to try some LSD. Dick’s main influence was his huge intake of amphetamines. When you’re paid by the word to write for pulp magazines, and the rate per word isn’t much, you need to write a LOT. So he did, reams of it flying out the top of his typewriter as fast as he could load the paper in. More or less.

    Anyway, without picking each nit at a time, as a big Dick fan (heh!), having read perhaps a dozen of his books and many short stories, Sandbrook’s “analysis” doesn’t fit in with the writer I know, or indeed with anything I’ve read by other Dick fans.

    It just seems like he thought “Dick wrote in the 60s! They had hippies in the 60s! And LSD! Therefore Philip K Dick was influenced by hippies and LSD”, which he completely wasn’t. Dick did take LSD, but long after he was an established writer, and in a later time when his mind had really started to unravel (or else aliens from the future really DID transmit compressed information into his eye with a pink laser beam).

    It seems like Dominic thinks up the way he thinks things went, or should have gone, picks up a couple of “facts” third-hand from popular culture, then arranges them to make thin connections that “prove” his “point”. I dunno why he’d bother going to Cambridge and becoming a historian, just to churn out this load of rubbish.

    I confess I haven’t read any of Dom’s books, but then why would I?

  40. annoymous says:

    More like we need to talk about your terrible background colour and your horrible, hard to read colour of text. I can’t even begin to try to read this horrible colour scheme, what the heck is wrong with you?

  41. Paul Thompson says:

    I was interested to read a critical appraisal of Sandbrook’s work (although I am a big fan of his books) but it’s hard to take seriously comments like “Three, his work is fall of errors” (unless this is meant to be satire) followed by “To talk as example from an earlier book”; don’t you proof read what you’ve written.

    On a minor point, what I have noticed is that when he discusses films (rarely) he clearly hasn’t seen the film, and has just relied hearsay, so for example he gets the identity of the killer in ‘Sapphire’ wrong (just to give a small example). I pointed out some of these mistakes to him via his website, but he didn’t have the courtesy to reply.

    • So I am a bit dyslexic, and the accuracy of history is not about typos. So when you have a serious point to make, make it.

    • … and if I were to reply in kind, where is the question mark at the end of “don’t you proof read what you’ve written”? I have there have already been too comments about this fall/full in this thread, but you clearly have little interest in the detail. I rather like the idea of errors leading to a descent from grace, and have let the error stand. It is telling that someone should want to focus on typing errors rather than the many substantive points that I and others have made on this blog. It does make you appear to be a small-minded pedant. Your point about Sapphire is valid, Dominic is very slapdash in his cut-and-paste approach. The purpose of history is not, however, to supply spoliers to the classics of post-war British cinema, but to use these to build up a fuller understanding. Dominic’s main problem is that he has (I would argue) selected his conclusion and then cherry-picks (and indeed, bends) the evidence to fit those conclusions.

  42. Wombling Wurzel says:

    You have another advocate who is wary of DS. In the book Cultural Dementia by David Andress he raises some points about him and a couple of other and says…”who form history into desirably unchallenging packages for certain kind of audience”.

    I myself have a love/hate relationship with DS. I don’t personally have many issues with the books as a general look at some cultural aspects but if I wanted something with more meat on the bones and a hard look at both sides of an argument I would almost certainly look elsewhere for info.

  43. Interesting … I will look out for it. I agree with you that the Dominic’s cultural reach is his strong suit, but he tends not to follow through. For example, his argument that the sixties really did not happen because more people were active gardeners than bought 7 inch singles should be the start of an interesting discussion, but having made his point against “the Sixties” being a thing he moves on. His book on culture, the Great British Dream Factory, is sadly Dominic at his cut-and-paste worst.

  44. Peter says:

    I googled Dominic Sandbrook’s name because I had never heard of him, but found an article by him about the last EU summit on the Daily Mail, todat 22/07. It read like comedy gold.

    Everything you say about his books, is true about that article. He is biased and then supports examples to support his narrative.

    And he doesn’t do facts. Best example is where he compares Rishi Sunak’s decisiveness in taking action when Corona came about to the perceived slowness of the EU. He of course ignores that the individual member states have taken actions too, just like the UK, often even earlier. And that the EU’s measures come on top of that.

    This is the article I’m talking about: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8546311/DOMINIC-SANDBROOK-1-6-TRILLION-EU-splurge-Remain-relief-out.html#readerCommentsCommand-message-field

    It’s embarrassing that this man teaches at uni. He’d fit in at Trump uni.

    • He hasn’t taught for years. By all accounts he didn’t like his views being questioned by students. Good to see that people still stumble on this blog, I don’t think I have added anything to it in three or four years now. I am intending to archive it on a new blog I am setting up.

  45. Louise says:

    I also looked up Dominic Sandbrook, having caught his BBC2 show on the 1980s and (speaking as someone who actually alive and adult at the time) being somewhat surprised by some of his conclusions, particularly in relation to Thatcherism, which he discusses briefly and without any reference to her ideology of individualism (he calls it ‘aspiration’ instead) and pretty much overlooking unemployment and the decline of industry (for example, the miners strike not even mentioned, but plenty of time spent talking about Brookside).
    No surprise to learn that he writes for The Daily Mail. Glad to have found this blog. Someone needs to take this chance to task.

    • Simon Geddes Cartlidge says:

      Hi Louise
      It’s well worth reading his books as they tend to give an overview of society and the politics of the day. One may, or may not agree with the conclusions drawn by Mr Sandbrook but this could possibly more to do with the reader’s political persuasion than any true academic research.
      I lived through the sixties, seventies and much of the eighties in a large northern steel town. I remember how Thatcher’s policies contributed to the industrial decline of much of the region.
      Was she proved right in the end though?
      I would argue that the country needed to change and modernise. The unions brought down Jim Callahan’s government despite the PM and chancellor Denis Healy fighting a superb rearguard action to save the economy. In the end, the militant Left were partly to blame for the following years of Thatcherism.
      Dominic’s books are certainly worth a read, even if they are a gateway to further study of the eras in question.

  46. So I’d stumbled on Sandbrook recently and picked up his Never Had it So Good and found the level of detail impressive but by halfway I was really concerned about how the author’s political leanings burned through the pages. His continual criticism of Labour and the left in general through to his obvious despisal of Tony Benn every time his name cropped up. This lead me to do some researching on the net and my arrival at this page, Thanks to all who have contributed, particularly those who have suggested more even-handed resources.

  47. Charles Bostock says:

    One should also make the point (Matthew does, but perhaps somewhat indirectly) that Seasons in the Sun relies – I believe lazily – far too much on Bernard Donoughue’s diaries. And one is permitted to enter some pretty heavy reservations about the thrust and content of the latter (to be noted that publication of the latter came after the death of many of the actors in the 1970s who might have disputed a lot of what Donoughue had to say had they still been alive when the diaries were published).

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