Movements@Manchester

State of Emergency, by Dominic SandbrookThis post is about Dominic Sandbrook, the historian who last year presented the BBC series The 70s1 and writes a column for the Daily Mail2. Specifically, it is about his 2010 book State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, part of his quadrilogy on contemporary British history spanning from 1956 to 1979.3  Even more precisely, it is about his account of early 1970s feminism in that book. When I read the book while researching something else a few weeks ago, it jumped out and made me smile.

Compared with many historians of contemporary Britain, Sandbrook’s hinterland as a writer is admirably broad. As his reviewers have said, in just a few pages he can descend from the highest of high political history (a telephone call made by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath to his father on the night of the 1970 election, and the time he went to bed and woke up) to the social history of domestic appliances in deprived districts of Nottingham, throwing in a reference from a contemporary novel along the way (pp. 16-19).

Sandbrook’s work also pushes a definite post-Thatcherite line, and this outlook gives perspective to the way he treats the material. He regards the early 1970s favourably because, in his view, it heralds the death of the folksy, grotty working class culture ‘which had given life to the Labour Party’ (p. 364) and the arrival of striving aspirational Britain.

This thesis is striking when it comes to feminism, given that many feminists in the early 1970s were also socialists, but that, obviously, Sandbrook doesn’t want to come across as being at all negative about feminism’s achievements. What he therefore does is divide feminism into two movements not one. While he approves of the initial feminist demands being ‘extremely practical’ (pay, education, careers, childcare, sexual health), he spends a few lines detailing the newspapers’ sexist claims about their ‘Socialist-oriented frenzy’ (p. 377) carefully saying how wrong those claims were but also highlighting how wrong such a ‘frenzy’ would have been. Then he begins the next paragraph with:

‘Of course it was easy to laugh at the real-life Sarah Janes in their flared jeans and dungarees, with their earnest lectures on patriarchal oppression and their need to rename history “herstory”, or their peculiar mania for taking intimate photographs of their genitals and blowing them up as wall posters. Yet not all feminist efforts were so extravagant […]’ . (p. 377, italics in original.)

That last sentence, and the subsequent approving passage about the practical side of feminism, is indicative of Sandbrook’s rhetorical strategy. There is good feminism and bad feminism: real, nuts-and-bolts feminism on one hand, versus extravagant, laughable feminism on the other. This gives Sandbrook the wriggle room to be sympathetic about serious issues such as rape, and admire the populist Germaine Greer (despite her ‘weird taste in exhibitionism’), but still give the elbow to lefty intellectuals such as Sheila Rowbotham and their ‘frankly turgid blend of Marxism and radical feminism’ (p. 384).

The point of this post is not to bash Sandbrook; far from it. His work is all the better for having an ideological verve. All history can, should and does reflect the personal views of its authors, and a plurality of competing versions of the past (a free market, indeed) is better than the dominance of a particular view. However, what is interesting is how a historian’s rhetorical strategy may be stretched when a historical phenomenon (here, a feminist movement that was partly socialist) necessitates a complex reaction. I do think that Sandbrook’s account of early 1970s feminism is problematic from a political point of view. Effectively he tries to turn feminism against itself, knocking down part of the movement. Perhaps the unsettling side of feminism was valuable to constructive social change, as the other side of the same coin?

If anything is objectionable about Sandbrook’s approach, it is its narrow-mindedness. There is a place for the spice of hostility in history-writing, but Sandbrook’s reaction to strangeness is not aggression; more of a refusal to engage. Dismissive humour takes the place of the careful readings he reserves for the cultural forms of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies (especially TV shows) that were more mainstream. Of course, writers have personae to go with their rhetorical strategies. However, there is something oppressive in the air when a lack of empathy is shown, as it is by Sandbrook, towards the freakier side of radical history.

References

  1. BBC (2013); http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ghscj
  2. Mail Online; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/columnist-1057369/Dominic-Sandbrook.html
  3. These include: Never had it so Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (London: Little, Brown, 2005); White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London: Little, Brown, 2006); State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 (London: Allen Lane, 2010); Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (London: Allen Lane, 2012).

books, feminism, history, ideology