Here’s to the high-minded

Stefan Collini

  • After the Victorians: Private Conscience and Public Duty in Modern Britain edited by Susan Pedersen and Peter Mandler
    Routledge, 265 pp, £40.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 415 07056 2

In the Seventies and Eighties, right-wing think-tanks and their academic lapdogs put about the idea that the ills of contemporary Britain were fundamentally due to its genteel aversion to industrialism and its sentimental attachment to collectivism. The selective accounts of the past that were intended to support this diagnosis traced the aetiology of these ailments back to the late 19th century, and particularly to the influence on social and economic policy of that cultivated élite of the well-connected and well-intentioned who laid the foundations of the welfare state. Central to the would-be ‘cultural revolution’ of the Thatcher years was an aggressive populism which attempted to dislodge the descendants of this élite and the values they represented from their long-standing centrality in British culture. Characteristically feeble echoes of this assault were evident in John Major’s recent sneering at ‘progressive theorists’, but some years ago the real emotional dynamic was laid bare, indecently bare, by (as usual) Norman Tebbit, who extolled ‘the man in the pub’ against the upper-class ‘cocktail set’ on the grounds that the former is ‘far more attached to our traditional values’ than are ‘his social superiors, so called, and intellectual betters’.

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