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on 30 April 2013
I have read all four of Domininic Sanbrooks books on Britain 1956-1979 and in my view this one was by far the best!I am mainly interested in political history and in the earlier volumes one found the narrative flow being interrupted by chapters about football and pop music.In this book the politics are so exciting and engrossing that such diversions are kept to a minimum.The narrative flows smoothly from Harold Wilson returning to Downing Street in March 1974 and Mrs. Thatcher arriving there in May 1979.The villains of the story are Tony Benn ,with his limpet -like clinging to office long after he had ceased to agree with anything the government did and the incompetent but arrogant Trade Union barons ,who destroyed the most union-friendly government there had ever been and ensured it would be replaced by a virulently anti-Trade Union government ever!
Harold Wilson emerges as a broken, pathetic figure ,unable to take hard decisions and having his energy sapped by pointless, trivial rows started by the now forgotten Marcia Falkender.However the heroine is not really Margaret Thatcher -she emerges ,before she became puffed up by success and the flattery of her pals in the media, as a curiosly tentative and unsure figure -often bested in the House of Commons by Callaghan and even the much- diminished Wilson.In fact it is revealing to get a look ,thanks to Sandbrook, at the pre-"Iron Lady" ,pre-Falklands Thatcher.
No!- the real hero of the book is the flawed hero- Jim Callaghan.He struggles manfully with economic crisis , no parliamentary majority and a a Labour Party that was bitterly divided and often unhelpful.Eventually ,by January 1979-betrayed by his union allies -he virtually gives up and drifts to disaster but after what he had been through -who could really blame him?Who in the Labour government would have done better?- Nobody.!Callaghan could have been a really great PM but he never got the chance!
Sanbrook has relied heavily on the diaries of Bernard Donoghue(who worked in the No.10 Policy Unit from 1974-1979 ) and of Tony Benn.However, he puts his own spin and interpretation on them.He is a VG writer as well as historian. If you want to re-live the seventies (or learn about them for the first time)-read this gripping book -it is a non-fiction thriller.Like other reviewers I hope Sandbrook does not stop here but gives us further volumes on the Thatcher era and beyond!
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If witnessing some political events is like `watching a car crash', then reading this brilliant, compelling account of the 1970s is like reliving something similar but on a far grander scale. Perhaps an unstoppable volcanic lava flow or the meteor strike that's supposed to have wiped out the dinosaurs?

This is a combined review of Dominic Sandbrook's spectacularly good two-volume history of the 1970s. State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974 covers the Heath years; Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 picks up the story at Wilson's return in 1974 and journeys through the Callaghan years until Thatcher steps through the door of Number 10. Both volumes are excellent, five-star books; fascinating, highly entertaining and extremely readable. My only complaint might be that they caused me too many late nights; even though we now know the ending, the story is a political thriller of the highest order and `the next page' has an irresistible draw. `Seasons in the Sun', the second volume, is even better than the first.

At a combined 1450 pages of quite small typeface, plus notes and index, this is a wonderfully comprehensive account. The author has captured the spirit and detail of the time perfectly, which is all the more remarkable for someone not born until 1974. If you're old enough to remember all or part of the decade you'll experience nostalgia, regret or relief at its passing, mixed according to political taste.

You will be left in no doubt that the 1970s was a very political decade, not only for professional politicians but also in the workplace, in higher education, some schools and even in television drama and light entertainment. Perhaps two-thirds of the two volumes are directly concerned with politics; the rest gives us an insightful tour of changing social attitudes, environmentalism, feminism, immigration, education, football hooliganism, music from prog rock to punk rock and popular television.

`Jaw-dropping' is an over-used term, but there were some times when for me that was literally true. The account of Harold Wilson's second, brief spell in office is almost incredible; hilarious and at the same time deeply worrying that this was how our country's government `functioned'. Similarly, the Heath government's legendary policy `U-turn' contains its own surprises, in how little of a `U-turn' in Heath's own beliefs it actually represented and that most of those politicians who would later be the leading free-market radicals went along seemingly without complaint.

The review title is from chapter 15 in `State of Emergency', describing the final collapse of the Heath government's hapless attempts to control pay and inflation, but it could have been equally well applied to the crumbling of Callaghan's efforts five years later. Whatever your politics, you'll find many surprises and probably pause to reassess your lists of political heroes and villains as the crises grind on through inflation, strikes, power blackouts and wage controls towards a funding crisis, the IMF bailout and ultimately the Winter of Discontent, which is covered in all its bitter, freezing details, and the election of 1979.

Both books are highly recommended, I hope the author continues into the 1980s in a future volume.
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on 25 April 2013
Fascinating history of the late seventies - a period I lived in but am too young to have first-hand memory of (rather like Dominic Sanbrook himself, only 6 months older than me). Sandbrook is stronger on the politics than on the pop-culture but the book does remind us that today's economic problems are nothing new under the sun, only now we don't have such interesting personalities running the show. A very interesting read overall and I will in due course be looking up the other entries in the series... White Heat next perhaps!
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on 23 April 2013
I bought this after state of emergency and haven't been disappointed. The author writes in a flowing easy to read style and really encapsulates the events of the 70s. I was a young child in the era he describes and it's been fascinating to gain a deeper insight into what was going on on Britain at that time. Thoroughly recommend it!
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on 1 September 2013
This is a BIG book. I first ordered it from the local library but it was almost too big to handle and I couldn't see myself getting through it in the required time. I've now bought it for my Kindle and what a splendid and illuminating read it is of a period of recent history which I remember so well but which, on reading this, I realise I knew so little. Dominic Sandbrook is an excellent historian but, thankfully, he's a good story-teller too and this journey through the turbulent years of the Wilson and Callaghan years with the looming presence of Thatcher on the horizon. A cracking good read.
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on 9 April 2013
Very enjoyable mix of politics and culture taking you back to this fascinating time. Read it in a few days, a real page turner.
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on 24 April 2012
It is, they say, much easier to write a long book that a short one. And this book is very long indeed. It is only 14 months since Dominic's last, 500 page book (Mad as Hell) and 18 months since the 700 pages of his book on the first half of the 1970s (State of Emergency). Unsurprisingly, the whole book a rather rushed, cut and paste feel. For example, he has about 8 references to Harold Wilson's drinking when PM, all repeated without any added value from Bernard Donoughue's Downing Street Diaries. What would be more useful is one section of this, with an appraisal with other evidence of whether it was a problem and affected his performance as prime minister. There are many more examples of similar poor structure and repetitious and derivative use of sources. Elsewhere the book lapses into listing.

This is a shame, since in many ways Sandbrook's approach is right. Unlike many previous histories, he does not simply concentrate on what the political elite were doing but takes a broader look at culture, political movements and tries to dig down into people's everyday lives. However, this is too rushed and too underwritten (it is very well written, I mean analytically underwritten) to pull it off.

Less important is that I disagree with the general narrative of decline and the attempt to pin this on the trade unions, that is a matter for debate.

I was so frustrated by Sandbrook books that I set up a blog to critically assess this one ([...]). I am not sure if I can publicise it on Amazon, but the address is [...]
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on 30 October 2015
As ever, never less than entertaining. A great mix of the political and the social. I was around aged eight to eleven in this period, yet remember it well. It was the best and worst of times. Politics (and economics) have never been as interesting since the late '70s but it was a tough ride at the time. Big decisions (or indecision) and big personalities.

Sandbrook captures the times excellently. Seasons...errs towards politics, focusing less on life in Britain than State of Emergency; the balance is better in my view. Includes some revision of accepted wisdom, especially debunking the notion that the Callaghan government was a disaster from start to finish. He and Dennis Healy, eventually, took the brave decisions that had been ducked and avoided for years by the weary yet still evasive Harold Wilson. And Sandbrook has very little time for Tony Benn, a refreshing approach given Benn's undeserved status as a political deity in his later years.

Overall an excellent and enthralling read with enough new thinking to elevate it beyond accessible compendium to important history text.
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on 2 December 2014
A brilliant and evocative look at a time I vaguely remember from my childhood without the maturity to really understand what an amazing and indeed paradigm changing time it was. While in "State of Emergency" the previous history I ended up feeling rather sorry for Edward Heath, a man I barely acknowledged existed as a child; this time I ended up feeling sorry for Jim Callaghan. That the timing was so bad, that he had to put up with the pressures and troubles that he did. But being honorable about it and not resorting to trickery to beat that last vote of no confidence that brought the nation to the polls and as a consequence Margaret Thatcher to power.

Compared to today this was the politics of giants:
Harold Wilson, cunning and duplicitous, already succumbing to paranoia.
Jim Callaghan himself, noble but blinded by what the Labour movement had been so that he no longer truly saw it for what it was.
Margaret Thatcher, more pragmatic than we remember, but more nervous and shrill too.
Tony Benn, the "tribune of the people" disloyal but afraid to resign. Blinded by his own vision of what the future would be.

The cast goes on, men and women of conviction all. Compare that to the poor lot that are their successors today. Yet the late '70's were not that long ago, certainly events form them stick out in my memory. Including asking my classmates in our North East Middle School who they would have voted for in 1979 and everyone saying Labour except one kid. I couldn't understand how the Tories won in 1979.

After reading this book I certainly can.
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on 3 June 2013
It reads like the best sort of page-turner - a barely believable plot, a fine eye for grim detail and an array of bizarre and sometimes grotesque characters (Marcia Falkender and Jeremy Thorpe to name but two). The chapters devoted to the events in Downing Street, whether under Wilson or Callaghan, are jaw-dropping and Sandbrook's ability to mix high and low culture is, as always, highly revealing, all making for a compelling and very enjoyable read.
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