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Sandbrook's Neoliberal disguise is off...
on 21 July 2013
Any sneaking suspicion that Sandbrook has an agenda against socialist ideas has finally been confirmed by Seasons In The Sun.
Sandbrook is surely correct to assert that most industrial workers were more interested in the consumer society rather than Marxist philosophy but, like all slavishly neoliberal writers, he largely reduces everything to the balance sheet without acknowledging the brilliant sense of solidarity that workers from different backgrounds must have had in these times (e.g., Grunwick?). Does Sandbrook know how difficult it is to convince low-level employees to down tools against workplace exploitation, particularly when they will probably suffer financially in the short term? I have such experience but does he?
In fact, far from being in touch with the real lives of British people, Sandbrook's analysis of life in post-war Britain often feels like a take on Britain from on high, and in places pales very badly in comparison with the excellent social histories of David Kynaston (which are largely based on mass observation studies, diaries and letters of ordinary members of the public). In contrast, Sandbrook's efforts are largely restricted to newspaper reports and government statistics.
Sure, the nature of strikes in the 1970s reached absurd proportions and the sheer dogmatism of unions' pay claims got completely out of hand. But while there is no doubt that stories uf strikers impeding the essential health care of cancer patients is horrific, I do wonder if Sandbrook's next volume will be so condescending of the long term social impact and hardships caused by powerful MNCs, the `Big Bang' in The City, and right wing newspaper editors (whose work Sandbrook bases most of his research on)?
In fact he appears dismissive of any real challenge to such institutions. For example, he completely dismisses sociological teaching concepts such as `hegemony' and `inequality' as childlike, faddish and conspiratorial. To have even read Marx, it seems, is equal to Holocaust denial, and the real villains of this story are the left, led of course by the unions, but also `left-wing' teachers and social workers. The silent majority seem to be the guide to morality and wisdom in Dominic's world.
His portrayal of Tony Benn (the ultimate `left-wing' icon of these times) as a one-dimensional idiot is ultimately unfair. Sandbrook is surely correct regarding the 'unworkability' in the modern western world of Benn's Alternative Economic Strategy. Sandbrook is viciously off the mark to call Benn "a Little Englander to the last" because the latter objected to Callaghan "abandoning his role as British Prime Minister" in ordering cheap coal imports from Australia. Can Sandbrook not grasp the simple idea that paying a little more for locally produced products which we already have in abundance can help keep locals in employment? (To be fair, the author calls Thatcher the same thing shortly afterwards). Besides all this, would a `Little Englander' renounce his hereditary title, or try removing the Queen's head from postage stamps, or visit Saddam Hussein in a bid to stop the Iraq Wars, or be a very public defender of Palestine? I think not.
Unforgivably also for an author who has clearly read all of Benn's diaries, he doesn't acknowledge that Benn's objections over the EEC were NOT based on narrow minded nationalism or poor economic foresight (he was after all an advocate of the EC in the 1960s for largely economic reasons), but on the issue of democratic legitimacy, a concept that most of us - even pro-Europeans - now routinely agree with. Benn never felt comfortable alongside Nationalist right-wingers (who are, of course, the real 'Little Englanders'.
Sandbrook does not take the opportunity either to state that Benn wanted unions to put members onto company boardrooms to enable improved workplace relations and management structures. Benn felt that continued agitation and strikes from the outside over wages alone would play into the hands of a future right wing government, and obviously time again proved him right.
Sandbrook is also guilty at times of downright shoddy journalism to meet his obvious political ends. For example, he quotes a famous Basil Fawlty rant about lazy car workers and four-hour tea breaks in the Fawlty Towers episode `The Kipper and the Corpse'. Immediately after the quote, Sandbrook writes "John Cleese was not alone in his contempt for the British car industry". Now I had previously thought Basil was Cleese's representation of, yes indeed, a `Little Englander'. Clearly Sandbrook knows better (if he does, he gives no adequate explanation here)!! Presumably the author also thinks Cleese likes making Nazi jokes at Germans, despises sex in hotels, and believes in treating `riff-riff' with contempt...
In conclusion, Sandbrook IS an excellent writer, although his books ARE written far too quickly to avoid suspicion of inaccuracy and even plagiarism. His previous work, despite lacking Kynaston's `real world' emotional depth, have been fine works. He has consistently succeeded in putting a human face to the most famous politicians of their respective eras (e.g., Macmillan, Wilson, George Brown, Heath and Supporting Cast members like Marcia Williams). I would like to see him write accounts of John Major, David Cameron and Nick Clegg in future years to get a glimpse into the real views and lives of these men. So with this in mind, I am prepared to give him another go with his next volume, which will probably cover the years 1979-85 (up to the conclusion of the miners' strike). In fairness to Sandbrook, he has been critical of all governments - Labour and Tory - in his series of books, so it remains to be seen if he will be equally critical of the Thatcher regime for its long term economic and social legacy (e.g., Big Bang, growing inequality, deluded `middle class' aspersions, selfishness, Yuppies, New Labour). He does suggest near the end that if the left had had a more measured approach in the 1970s, the shock therapy of the 1980s might have been less extreme. Time will tell therefore if his next effort will mark his final Homage to Neoliberalism.