W.G. Runciman

I began this series of daries with some reflections prompted by a re-reading of Halévy’s volumes on England from 1895 to 1914, and I propose now to end it with some reflections prompted by a re-reading of Tawney’s Equality. If the conclusion which again suggests itself is plus ça change, that is not because there have not been changes in our society which neither Halévy, Tawney nor anybody else can be claimed to have foreseen. It is because the responses to these changes, whether by academics, journalists, politicians, or the electorate at large, have been articulated within a set of ideological assumptions and constraints which are not significantly different under Thatcher from what they were under Asquith and Lloyd George.

This may seem a curious observation to make in the aftermath of a Conservative Budget which has reduced the marginal rate of income tax for even the richest of the idle rich to 40 per cent while numbers of the poor are left in the trap of marginal rates of 85 per cent – to say nothing of a ‘reform’, if that is the right word, of the social security system which deliberately sets out to turn paupers into debtors. But these top tax rates are no lower than they were immediately before the Second World War, which is very much higher than they were immediately before the First; and the level of welfare benefits is still higher in real terms than it was in the Thirties, when exactly the same arguments were conducted between Left and Right over whether they were too generous or not generous enough. To be sure, there are some commentators, on both left and right, who see the Yuppie Culture of Eighties Britain as peculiarly offensive in its overt worship of wealth. But there is nothing new about this either: as Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary after dining with the South African financier Sir Julius Wernher, ‘there might just as well have been a Goddess of Gold erected for overt worship.’

How well, then, does Tawney’s plea for equality stand up after fifty years? It has not been overtaken in the sense that his arguments have been more effectively put by some latter-day successor. Indeed, the statement of a coherent intellectual case against the present government’s social policies seems for the moment to be largely left to the features writers of the Financial Times, which might have surprised Tawney a little. But he would recognise the issues at stake only too well. To reread him is, not unexpectedly, to find him on some issues dated, on some naive, and on some perhaps a little too rhetorically eloquent. But it is also to be reminded of the persuasive force of his repudiation of a system governed by unrestrained market forces and to wonder, therefore, whether the same arguments might not again have the same effect when the political pendulum starts to swing back, as it sooner or later will do, towards the left. Could it be that Tawneyism will re-emerge in the Nineties as the triumphant creed of humanistic socialism, British style?

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[*] Seeds of Bankruptcy: Sociological Bias against Business and Freedom, by David Marsland, was published by Claridge on 31 March (238 pp., £12.95 and £8.95, 1 870626 40 0).

[†] The British General Election of 1987 was published by Macmillan on 14 April (379 pp., £29.50 and £14.95,0 333 44612 7).