Is culture really what makes Britain great? And does Dominic Sandbrook understand it?

Sandbrook's new book takes a narrow version of British culture which fetishises Tory England and ignores all else.

Gerry Hassan
29 January 2016

David Bowie, who barely features in the book/Wikimedia

Everything is culture these days.

It is what supposedly brings about real, lasting change, shifts attitudes, is everywhere and yet often intangible, and has spawned a plethora of ‘cultural studies’ from academics and writers eager for research grants and public attention. 

Dominic Sandbrook’s ‘The Great British Dream Factory’ – and the related BBC TV series ‘Let Us Entertain You’ – demands that it should be taken seriously, whilst not as definitive or scholarly, but as an important book and series.

Sandbrook has written a series of impressive guides to late post-war Britain. He started not in 1945, but in Britain post-Suez, and has so far got up to the arrival of Thatcher in No. 10. While not of the breadth and depth of David Kynaston, these are detailed, well written and researched works.

The historian who has written these books is the same person who now writes regularly for the ‘Daily Mail’, turning out increasingly right-wing, caricatured pieces railing against the modern world. In recent times he has turned his hand to the spectre of the left, what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn came to power, and ‘the coming apocalypse’ of the world in 2030.

Although ‘The Great British Dream Factory’ does not sit in this ‘Daily Mail’ territory, it is uncomfortably closer to it than to his post-war Britain series. This is a book about one version of the ‘Great’ in Britain: ‘Whether British culture is the world’s best is an unanswerable and ultimately pointless question’, Sandbrook writes ‘but it has a very good claim, pound for pound, to be its most successful’, marking out Britain as ‘a cultural superpower.’

Sandbrook’s thesis, if it can be called that, is the following. First, what matters in culture is what is popular, not what critics say. Second, intellectual elites have had a condescending attitude towards popular taste and the masses. Third, popular culture has promoted itself as ‘the great leveling force’, but is nothing of the kind and has typically not challenged old elites but rather reinforced them. Finally, a significant segment of popular culture is motivated by aping power and privilege – from aspiring to country homes, landed estates and private education – ultimately drawing on the legacy of empire – in what Sandbrook calls a cultural ‘empire of the mind’.

None of this is original or shocking, but Sandbrook’s intent and tone is sneering and belittling in best (or worst) ‘Daily Mail’ style. Of course popular culture has nurtured a language and mindset of liberation and emancipation superficially, while being one of consumption, incorporation and control. Sometimes it has been both at the same time as Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s rather dull ‘Monopoly Capital’ published in the height of the 1960s set out, where it dismissed popular culture as sapping mental process and faculties, and being about no more than mass manipulation.

Sandbrook celebrates Catherine Cookson because she is the most widely read 20th century British novelist and has had 123 million sales. But what is he trying to tell us? It is not really clear, beyond some attempt at reclaiming what he sees as ‘low-brow culture’, oblivious to a whole industry who have already done this, and done so more convincingly.

Even more pronounced is his taste in popular music. Elton John gets the approval, less for his music and more for his numerous benign works, philanthropy and latter-day respectability. In a fifteen-page study of Elton his music gets scant reference, and the point seems to be that Elton has gone from outsider and cultural rebel, to part of the new landed class of popular culture, showing that at least in this area, Britain is still a meritocracy.

The book has a special place in its heart for John Lennon. While nowhere near Albert Goldman’s hate, Sandbrook despises all things John Lennon. The other three Beatles get off lightly, because Sandbrook can imagine Paul, George and Ringo in dead-end jobs – but not Lennon.

Lennon’s ‘crimes’ include wanting fame and money, to live in a big house, and embracing left-wing chic politics in the 1970s. He is crucified for growing up ‘posh’ as a child, in a house with a name (Mendips), and then pretending otherwise, in the hypocrisy of ‘Working Class Hero’. Sandbrook also shows that he doesn’t understand the Beatles, commenting that if they hadn’t happened, ‘some other band would have carried the Union Jack across the Atlantic.’

This is just wrong, understating the chemistry in the Beatles and creative electricity between Lennon and McCartney (comparable to any of the great Broadway composer duos). It is belittling in a manner similar to bloviator Malcolm Gladwell’s contention in ‘Outliers’ that practice makes perfect and Hamburg made the Beatles, which doesn’t explain why the Beatles remade the world, and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas didn’t.

Sandbrook’s prejudices stand out sharply. He doesn’t like left-wing radicals or campaigners who critique the family, patriarchy or elites (R.D. Laing hitting all the wrong notes). They, along with intellectuals and those with pretensions (a special place of contempt reserved for Yoko Ono), are dismissed curtly as utopians, delusional or worse, making art which is unpopular. The context of the times he writes about – the openings of the 1950s, ferment of the 60s, or chaos of the 70s, is left unaccounted for.

Similarly, anti-establishment satire is frowned upon from ‘Beyond the Fringe’ to ‘That Was The Week That Was’, while ‘Monty Python’ is inexplicably passed over. The charge against satire is that it led an assault on authority, contributing to a cataclysmic 1960s collapse in trust in politicians and elites, from which Britain has never recovered.

To this reader, one of the worst prejudices of the many on display is the author’s attitude towards punk, new wave and post-punk music. The Sex Pistols are seen as a creation of Malcolm McLaren and an embarrassment. Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, first about Marilyn Monroe, then rewritten about Diana, is viewed as more in keeping with British sentiment towards royalty than the Pistols ‘God Save the Queen’.

As for post-punk and the indie alternative world of the 1980s – the rich legacy and influence of Joy Division and the Fall, and the genius of New Order, the Smiths, the Cocteau Twins, ‘Madchester’ and ‘Trainspotting’, pass with no more than a fleeting mention of the latter and Morrissey.

The biggest omission is the absence of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In a book about ‘British culture’ and the ‘national imagination’ this is posed in the singular, and about mass appeal and aggregates; not about different, fragmented or even contradictory cultures and aesthetics. It isn’t surprising on this form that the impact of David Bowie is passed over – with the only substantive mention concerning his music for the film ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, an arbitrary footnote in a long and illustrious career.

There is no examination of how British culture, even in the era of peak homogeneity, wasn’t actually uniform and standardised. There isn’t an account of how Britain began to diverge, dissolve and break apart, and in the gaps and spaces, all sorts of interesting and creative identities began to emerge, from old and new national identities to regional, racial and sexual ones, along with numerous hybrids and fusions.

The Scotland of the last 40 years is absent: not surprising when Scotland per se is missing. The demise of British Scotland and unionist-nationalist Scotland are beyond Sandbrook’s understanding. The independence referendum warrants not one single mention – a huge cultural as well as political moment. There is no awareness that all of this has fundamentally changed Britain forever. The ‘idea’ of Britain to Sandbrook is some kind of English constant, and Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, and indeed, most of England, is of marginal concern. 

This is a Britain without the Edinburgh Festival, without any major Scottish authors of the last two generations (J.K. Rowling apart), where James Kelman winning the Booker Prize in 1994 wasn’t a major culture shock for the English literary establishment. The Welsh, Gaelic and Irish (along with Urdu) languages do not feature, and nor does the impact of the thirty-year ‘dirty war’ that was the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ or the subsequent peace process that had major impacts on British culture, broadcasting and politics.

None of this is an accidental oversight. Sandbrook’s account is a conscious exercise to present an uncritical, unreflective take on Britain and one version of part of its culture. This is a world where difficult questions, art, imagination, creativity and provocation do not exist, or are pushed to the margins and seen as invisible and pointless.

Sandbrook’s Britain is one of hollow triumphalism about culture as exports, and conservative philistinism with little to no time for ideas, novelty, shaking things up and standing out from the crowd. In summary, he has no real feel or even interest in the myriad ecology and motivations that make up culture. It is revealing that in his recommended further reading the most fulsome praise is offered to John Carey’s two books savaging intellectual literary criticism.

Sandbrook’s Britain is about the invented past and present, and it is little surprising that in this arcadia of Albion he puts centre-stage the continuity of the Royal Family. They have endured crisis, war, the arrival and taming of the Labour party, and even the occasional supposed radical. Counterposed to these is the longevity and triumph of Queen Elizabeth and despite her own anni horribiles of 1992 and 1997, the popular celebrations of her reign in 1977, 2002 and 2012.

There is no understanding of this invented past as continually being remade, renewed and contested, and of Britain as a mix of Ruritania, ‘Billy Liar’s’ Ambrosia and Disneyland for all the references to ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘Downtown Abbey’ and the changing face of James Bond. Lenny Henry recently said of the glaring non-diversity of Britain racially that, ‘The past hangs on Britain like a big, hairy, old duvet’, the sort of insight and playful anger well beyond this account. 

Similarly, with all Sandbrook’s evoking of country life, there is no room for any take on the rise of the heritage industry. The growing critique of this from Robert Hewison, or from a more radical take, Patrick Wright’s ‘On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain’, remains a closed door. The burgeoning cultural studies of post-war Britain also gets short shift: there is a passing mention for Raymond Williams, but none for E.P. Thompson, Stuart Hall or Tom Nairn. Feminism is reduced to a couple of pages mentioning the National Women’s Liberation Conference of 1970, ‘Top of the Pops’ and Kate Bush. Not one feminist writer or thinker is cited.

This is a book presented in a bright chocolate biscuit box cover: all bright colours, alluring and inviting, and promising a good time for all within. It is a false premise and a deliberate deceit, for instead this is a book about not just England, but the modern Burkean incantation of conservative England. This is of course just one very partisan, partial version of England, but here its dominance and its assertion of its lead position and power is taken as a given, to the exclusion of other variants.

This is a book where from the outset the words Britain and England are used interchangeably, and without any qualification. The skill and wisdom of Tory England at its peak from Stanley Baldwin to Harold Macmillan, was that it knew how to balance this combination, and present it in a way which didn’t incite some of the population to rise up and be restless natives. Sandbrook has no such insight.

This all makes for a revealing book. This is a self-reverential, self-interested elite account of Britain which has been on display these last few decades, and found spectacularly wanting. But the audience keep coming back would be Sandbrook’s retort, which is the thinnest defence of an order and creaking in every way imaginable. It is a confused book, unable to decide whether the Britain of today and tomorrow is one of ‘you’ve never had it so good’, or whether everything is going to do the dogs. This leaves him in the cultural quicksand of offering pop culture as the ultimate proof of Britain as a thriving meritocracy, but one on the old elite’s terms, and where everywhere else, social mobility has seized up. Not exactly an attractive picture of Britain in 2016.

Sandbrook should have had the power of his convictions to write his defence of political, economic, social and cultural elites, to give full vent to his inner ‘Daily Mail’ voice of rage at modern times, but instead sought the kudos and serialisation rights of a mainstream project. Thus, he has embarked on a project which is at its core, disingenuous, filled with dripping condescension and omissions. It is revealing to have written such a brazen defence of the cultures of Tory England, and to have said in effect, this is all that matters, bugger the rest of you. At the very least, we have been warned.

Dominic Sandbrook, The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination, Allen Lane £25.

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