In his preface Dominic tells us “Partisan books are boring, and I have done my best to be even handed” (Seasons, pxvii). I know what he means, diatribes that pay no attention to the facts are terrible and people who only quote the evidence that suits them do not write good history (see my post “Tired and emotional” for Dominic doing exactly this). I am not quite sure that the concept of “even handedness” is quite the right one. I have been a teacher for years, and I am forever telling students to avoid “on the one hand, on the other hand” writing that reaches no conclusion. To put it too simplistically: good writing demonstrates a clear understanding that is based on the evidence, all of the evidence, not just the evidence that suits the point of the view that the writer is pursuing. But it reaches a clear conclusion based on that evidence.
The problem here is the kind of “even handedness” that Dominic gives us. This very often means building up an overwhelming picture that says one thing. So we have “bleak reports of Britain’s decline in the mi-1970s” (Season pxiv), the “national humiliation” of the IMF loan (pxv), 1976 is singled out a “dreadful year” (pxix) and by the late 1970s Britain was “in poor shape” with Britain buffeted by strikes, inflation and Wilson’s “frankly rather shabby government” (pxx). Just to slip in a quote from Peter Jenkins in the midst of this that the “general quality of life in Britain remains probably as high as anywhere in Europe” (pxix) is not balance, it is just chucking an undigested bit of someone else’s analysis in. (I will return in a later post to Dominic’s habit of slipping in a quote, and he does it a lot, with no indication as to whether he thinks the opinion stated in it is true or not).
Despite this magnanimity, there are some issues where even-handed seems to be inappropriate. This is particularly the case with the trade unions. So we are told that the actors’ union Equity, attempted to stop the three US stars of Star Wars entering the UK, that the unionised crew had tea and lunch breaks, and that the cinematographer refused to shoot in soft focus. I would love to dig down a little deeper particularly into the Equity story, but the references are to two mass-market books (RW Rinzler’s The Making of Star of Wars and Dale Pollock’s Skywalking). I can’t easily put my hands on these books to check where the information is sourced, but they strike me as the kind of books that might be, well, not entirely factually accurate and it might be wrong to use them in a reputable work of history. Maybe the next time I am in the British Library, I will check them out and report back what I find. There is a long standing conflict between British and US equity about actors working on the other’s turf, with the Americans often complaining that the exchange is unfair, so I would like to know more of the context here (see http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/03/theater/british-group-urges-freer-exchange-of-actors-with-us.html).
The list of the sins of unions carries on, Britain was bad because two prime ministers were “broken by the unions” (pxx) (I am sure I will return to this point in more detail latter, but it is kind of true of Heath who called an election on “who rules” which he did not win, but it is not true of Callaghan, the Winter of Discontent was over by the time his government fell because the Liberals withdrew their support, the immediate cause of which was the failure of the 1979 devolution referendums). The unions are seen as a problem.
Now, I’m on the side of the unions, that’s my political stance. There is class struggle and I take the side of the working class. But as far as the history is concerned, the first thing to do is to explain the conflict, to understand its origins, course and consequences. My interest is only in attempting to show why trade union members acted as they did, what drove them, the course of their struggle, and not to assume them to be pantomime villains. The historian taking sides, passing judgement, does not help in that process (the reader can do that) but with the unions Dominic immediately does.
It is in this book’s favour that struggle is not absent, although it is deeply rooted in the judgement that 1974-1979 is a terrible period and the unions are in part of blame. There are glimpses of some important understandings that come through the text, as if there is a real historian struggling to get out from amongst the press cuttings. There is recognition that “from Tony Benn on the left to Keith Joseph on the right” that was a recognition that something had to change, what was up for debate was the nature of that change.
There is also the recognition that this is what made the 70s a “turbulent and colourful” period. That is what makes the 70s so interesting, there was a clash. I’d argue that this made the 1970s a wonderful decade of a flux of ideas, of artistic experimentation, the rise of the second wave of feminism, of class struggle, of radical black politics. Not all of these ideas thrown up were right or even pleasant, but the ferment is fascinating. It was Bowie, it was punk, it was simulated sex on stage, it was Straw Dogs brutality in the cinema, it was tradition being plundered by the new and radical. Oh, it was good. And it was conflicted too, there was the rise of the NF, Mary Whitehouse prosecuting Gay News for blasphemy. I wouldn’t go the whole way with Howard Sounes in his Seventies: The sights, sounds and ideas of a brilliant decade (London: Pocket Books, 2007), but these were interesting times, not a dull grey decade.