Institutions

Alan Ryan

  • Ruling Performance: British Governments from Attlee to Thatcher edited by Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon
    Blackwell, 344 pp, £25.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 631 15645 3
  • The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Institutions edited by Vernon Bogdanor
    Blackwell, 667 pp, £45.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 631 13841 2
  • Judges by David Pannick
    Oxford, 255 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 19 215956 9

The history of thinking about political institutions and political behaviour has for two millennia oscillated between two opposed poles. Realists have seen politics in defensive terms: human nature being what it is, the state is a shelter from violence and disorder. In good times, human ingenuity and effort will take advantage of that shelter to lead a prosperous existence, to create high culture, and to enjoy all the multifarious pleasures of private life. But the basis and the essence of politics is the need for protection against violence, either domestic or external. Domestic order is precarious; external relations are the terrain of force, not justice. The wonder is not that governments fall far short of their ambitions, but that they so often succeed in maintaining good order and allowing their citizens to look after themselves in peace. Idealists have retorted that human nature is what it is only because our institutions are corrupt; the state can play much more than a defensive role. In particular, a well-designed state can create a more amenable human nature, can organise prosperity rather than leaving it to the accident of individual initiative, can promote private and public virtue. Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War is one of the permanent achievements of the realist tradition, Plato’s Republic a permanent achievement of its rival. Marx, as so often, united opposed traditions by agreeing with the realists that politics has hitherto been little more than the substitution of class oppression for overt war, while announcing the imminent arrival of the freedom, justice and self-fulfilment preached by the idealists.

What do these ancient arguments have to do with the world of Ruling Performance, with David Pannick’s reflections on the English judiciary, or with Vernon Bogdanor’s Encyclopedia of Political Institutions? For one thing, they cast light on the hopes and fears most of us entertain in the face of government activity of all sorts. Realists who think it a considerable achievement to ‘keep the show on the road’ continue to jostle idealists who wonder why nobody has yet built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. Nowhere is this more obvious than when British commentators contemplate the successes and failures of the post-war British polity. To celebrate the launching of the Institute of Contemporary British History, Peter Hennessy and Anthony Sheldon have edited an engaging collection of essays on post-war British governments, starting with Paul Addison on the wartime background to Attlee’s success, and ending with some surprisingly detached reflections on Mrs Thatcher from the pen of John Vincent. As a final savoury, Tony Benn, Michael Fraser, David Marquand and David Butler sum up the entire era.

The argument starts with the first and by some way the best piece in the collection, Paul Addison’s essay on ‘The Road from 1945’. Addison takes issue with Corelli Barnett’s Audit of War, and its diagnosis of the causes of Britain’s post-war economic decline. Barnett argued, not only that British economic productivity had been languishing behind that of Germany since the late 19th century – which everyone agrees about – but that matters were made a great deal worse after 1945 by upper-middle-class intellectuals looking to build the New Jerusalem of the welfare state. Though this may sound like the traditional realist complaint that things have gone to the dogs because misguided and incompetent idealists have been in charge, it isn’t quite. For Barnett subscribes to an idealism of his own: the view that a thorough purge of the public schools and universities would have created both the technical élite and the skilled foreman stratum on which Germany and Japan have thrived. In fact, the old élite spent the nation’s resources on welfare rather than investment and training.

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