- On Living in an Old Country by Patrick Wright
Verso, 262 pp, £5.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 86091 833 5
- Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Vol. II: Assaults by Maurice Cowling
Cambridge, 375 pp, £30.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 521 25959 2
Here are two books about the relationship of the English to their past. According to Patrick Wright, England is a reactionary society burdened by a false mystique of national identity. To dissolve that mystique must be one of the first priorities of democratic socialists in establishing an alternative society with a renewed faith in its capacity for progress. At the opposite pole of politics, Maurice Cowling abhors the secular modernity of contemporary England and the apostasy of its people from the Anglican faith of Charles I and Archbishop Laud. Given the chance, he would restore in modern dress the divine right of kings and the doctrinal authority of a state church preaching supernatural Christianity.
Wright and Cowling have much in common in their alienation from society as it stands, and their conviction that the forces opposed to them are almost overwhelming. Among these forces is history itself: both the past as academics interpret it, and the past in popular consciousness. If England is in the wrong hands, this is partly because its history has been taken over by the wrong people and falsified. Granted the undoubted truth that history is indeed subjective, this is very plausible as far as it goes. But though we cannot reconstruct it with certainty, England has a real past and everyone living in England today is in a sense its prisoner. It might well be that the most formidable obstacle in the path of Wright and Cowling is not, as they would like to believe, a false consciousness of the past, but the past as it actually was.
When Patrick Wright left England for Canada in 1974, he said goodbye to a country where campus radicalism was still flourishing, and Tony Benn was preparing to hoist the red flag over the ruins of capitalism. When he returned, in 1979, Mrs Thatcher was in power and social reaction in the air. As he looked around he realised, for the first time, that he was living in an old country. ‘I felt,’ he writes, ‘as though I had stumbled inadvertently into some sort of anthropological museum.’
What most fascinated and disturbed Wright was the mounting passion of the English for conservation. The material remains of the past, which had previously been of interest mainly to scholars, were fast becoming the objects of a new popular cult. This was partly due to the influence of television, where historical drama presented mouth-watering images of an aristocratic or upper-middle-class past. But although Wright kept an eye on such things, his curiosity ranged far beyond the media. Having set off on a quest into the origins of the conservationist mentality, he traced it to a variety of sources both high and low, famous and obscure. He inquired into the history of the National Trust and the National Heritage Memorial Fund. He researched the history of the Shell oil company’s remarkable campaign, begun in the Twenties, to popularise the countryside. He cast a beady eye around the streets of Stoke Newington, where he was living at the time, and observed the activities of the incoming middle class as they ‘restored’ Victorian terraces and expropriated the working class who used to live in them. He recognised and responded to the plight of old people who felt stranded in the modern world and threatened even in their own homes. He listened attentively to the views of Mary Alice Salvidge, an old lady who moved her house piece by piece from one county to another rather than see it demolished to make way for a road.
A collection of essays on these and similar topics makes for an interesting pot-pourri. Intermittently Wright displays many of the qualities of a first-class journalist. He has an eye for the exact detail that tells all, and his graphic tour of the streets of Stoke Newington, where the clapped-out old Jag cohabits with the expensively renovated Morris Minor, and a bit of Daniel Defoe’s back-garden wall is still to be seen next to the refuse depot, exhibits a marvellous sense of place. But his larger ambition, a favourite project of New Left sociology, is highly theoretical: to ground political analysis in popular culture, and popular culture in the hegemony of dominant classes. Wright’s curious collection of data is the flotsam and jetsam on an ocean of abstract discussion.
Vol. 8 No. 19 · 6 November 1986
SIR: There is little point in arguing with Dr Addison (LRB, 9 October) about the merits of Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, which does not ‘shudder to a stop’ at the end of Volume Two as he supposes but leads naturally into Volume Three and, when supplemented by three further projected volumes, each with its own standpoint, method and content, will have made converging approaches to what I have evidently persuaded him is ‘one of the most important tasks an English historian could undertake’.
Dr Addison displays a manifest distaste for my political opinions and allows them to affect his judgment. But he totally misunderstands them. I am not ‘out of step’ with the Conservative Party, for which I shall vote at the next election and which I hope will win the next election handsomely. I do believe in some economists and, though I regard the ‘national interest’ as the best guide to foreign policy, am not an ‘authoritarian’, am not really a reactionary, and combine a Biffenite scepticism with a Thatcherite conviction. These were displayed best in Conservative Essays in 1978.
It is true that in writing about religion I have adopted Laudian, Tractarian and Anglican postures and analyses and have pointed them accusingly at the postures and analyses of modern secularism. I have done this, however, not as a method of self-disclosure (except about the distant past), but as a form of heuristic satire in order to remind historians and others of the exact nature of the far-reaching and fundamental conflict of religions which has been going on in England for the past century and a half. Only a naive reviewer could suppose that this juggling with public symbols and beliefs has done anything but conceal my present religious opinions.
Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England is not written in the manner of a conventional history and Dr Addison is right to suppose that I prefer the role of dogmatist to that of historian. But I know perfectly well what I am doing; I affirm the compatibility of the one role with the other, and I do not believe in these days that any serious historian will disagree.
Dr Addison concludes with the pronouncement that ‘all beliefs are myths,’ that ‘secular myths are necessary to secular societies,’ and that ‘liberalism and socialism are the most appropriate myths to us in the late 20th century.’ This is a deflationary pronouncement for which conservatives should be grateful. And if, as Dr Addison claims, it has been ‘brought home to him’ by ‘Cowling’s books’ then I am very pleased. Nothing is more conducive to a conservative disposition, with its twin poles of scepticism and conviction, than the disconcerting belief that beliefs have to be understood to be myths at the same time as they are believed in.
Vol. 8 No. 22 · 18 December 1986
SIR: Maurice Cowling protests (Letters, 6 November) that I ‘totally misunderstand’ his political opinions. He is not, he claims, ‘out of step’ with the Conservative Party, but on the contrary blends Biffenite scepticism with Thatcherite conviction. He also claims that I have attributed to him religious beliefs that he does not hold. Although, he explains, he has adopted certain Tractarian or Anglican postures, he has done so for purposes of ‘heuristic satire’ that conceal his current religious opinions. My principal criticisms of Mr Cowling’s book had nothing to do with the character of his opinions. But let that pass. As a close student of Mr Cowling’s writings over the past twenty years or so, I am very familiar with the labyrinth of ambiguity and contradiction he constructs around his judgments. In writing of modern England, Mr Cowling holds three opinions simultaneously. As a reactionary, he measures the present by the standards of the past and finds the present corrupt. As a realist, he accepts that for the time being life must be lived according to the rules of a secularised liberal society he despises. As a relativist, he recognises that his own ideas have no more claim to objective truth than anyone else’s.
If I had wished to write an unfair review, I would have argued that these three opinions cancel one another out. But I believe Mr Cowling to be a coherent reactionary who admits with remarkable honesty the difficulties inherent in his position. I recognise the Biffenite scepticism in his writing and assume that, as in Biffen’s case, Mr Cowling is quietly amused by many of the enthusiasms that animate the Conservative Party. As for convictions, my reading of Mr Cowling leads me to suppose that his beliefs are closer to those of Enoch Powell, the anti-American heretic, than to those of Margaret Thatcher.
These were some of the considerations I took into account in describing Mr Cowling as out of step with the Conservative Party. But the main reason was the one I put forward in my review. Mr Cowling abhors the secular, materialist mind and calls up the Tractarians and others as witnesses for the prosecution. Fair enough. But which of our political parties today is the most aggressive champion of valueless, anti-intellectual materialism? Which party is dominated by a business school philosophy of converting England into a mid-Atlantic enterprise culture in which the bottom line is just that – the bottom line? Which party has the biggest financial stake in the expansion of multi-channel junk TV, video-nasties, tabloid yobbishness, and other such developments by no means conducive to the revival of a truly Christian Conservatism? Which has the least respect for Oxbridge dons devoted to useless learning and the swilling of port at the taxpayer’s expense?
In view of the state of England today, I can well understand someone who prefers the past to the present. But what I find incongruous is the attachment of English cultural reactionaries to the party of free market capitalism. Having for decades resented the condescension of the liberal intelligentsia, they naturally rejoice at the prospect of its overthrow. But immersed as they are in parochial disputes, our declining gentry seem to have little appreciation of the consequences of abandoning England to the unchallenged sovereignty of international market forces. They are reminiscent in a way of the Vichy French, who welcomed the German occupation as a means of turning the tables on the Popular Front. In writing my review, I was inclined to credit Mr Cowling with some awareness of this contradiction, and some anxiety about it. But it is present whether he is aware of it or not.
University of Edinburgh
Vol. 9 No. 1 · 8 January 1987
SIR: Dr Addison implies (Letters, 18 December 1986) that I ought to be embarrassed by my support for the Conservative Party, which he describes as the ‘aggressive champion of valueless, anti-intellectual materialism’, and as ‘dominated by a business-school philosophy of converting England into a mid-Atlantic enterprise culture’. Since these descriptions go to the heart of public perceptions not only of the Conservative Party but also of the present government, I will answer them bluntly.
The Conservative Party and the present government are not ‘aggressive champions of valueless, anti-intellectual materialism’, nor have they done anything which justifies the belief that they are ‘dominated by a business-school philosophy of converting England into a mid-Atlantic enterprise culture’. What they are doing, on the contrary, is to give a touch on the tiller, move English politics out of the channel into which they began to run between 1940 and 1960, and to do this in a way which mixes doctrine with prudence. There are, I know, Conservatives in whom doctrine has obliterated prudence and who express their opinions with an unhelpful mixture of naiveté and aggression, and there is, in addition, a tendency in all political parties to draw the lines sharply between the new course which Mrs Thatcher’s government has pursued since 1979 and the courses which were pursued before that. Certainly there are real differences of aim and purpose. But the first rule in political analysis is not to be deceived by public rhetoric. This government is doing what the Conservative Party has wished to do, however unable to do it, since it first became the party of opposition to Labour in the 1920s, and it is the happiest of contrivances which has now produced a programme and platform on which the conservatism of the next five years will be a direct continuation of the conservatism of the previous fifty.
Vol. 9 No. 4 · 19 February 1987
SIR: Mr Cowling (Letters, 8 January) argues that in analysing the record of the Conservative Party since 1979 we should not be deceived by rhetoric. There are, he writes, Conservatives ‘in whom doctrine has eliminated prudence’, or who express their opinions in a naive and aggressive fashion: but all that Conservatives have actually done is to give ‘a touch on the tiller’, deflecting English politics from the course they took between 1940 and 1960.
I appreciate the force of the distinction Mr Cowling draws. In many areas since 1979 the prophets of the radical Right have been thwarted, at least for the time being. Since the spring of last year, Mr Biffen and others have been preparing the ground for a more intelligent, stabilising regime, and if the Conservatives do indeed win the next election, there could be many fates worse than a Biffen premiership.
But while the influence of the rhetoricians has been limited, I believe they have succeeded in debasing the language of politics and poisoning the atmosphere in which the more sensible Conservative politicians have to work. Readers of the Daily Telegraph of 26 January may have noticed a hymn of praise by Paul Johnson to the thrusting young men of the City of London, whose pursuit of money for its own sake he praises as a sign of healthy ambition. Those who criticise the colossal salaries involved are accused by Mr Johnson of indolence and envy. University teachers, he remarks, are particularly envious of the salaries earned by their former pupils. But university teachers only work 24 weeks a year: what do they know of hard work?
Mr Johnson’s statement is, of course, tripe. The many university teachers of my acquaintance work at least 48 weeks of the year. Mr Johnson’s own tutor at Oxford was Mr A.J.P. Taylor, whose lifelong industry and productivity no City whizzkid is likely to surpass. But Mr Johnson’s casual abuse of university teachers is typical of right-wing claptrap on social issues. Over the years, this kind of rhetoric has contributed to a general underestimate by the Conservative Party of the value of higher education and a determination to run universities as though they were business enterprises rather than institutions of learning. Mr Cowling claims that nothing of the kind has taken place, but Mr Enoch Powell has identified the trend and protested against it. I hope that Mr Cowling will do the same, for otherwise there will be few universities in a position to purchase a five-volume work on an antediluvian subject like ‘Religion and Public Doctrine’, and even fewer with an interest in teaching it.
Department of History, University of Edinburgh