Hegel in Green Wellies

Stefan Collini

  • England: An Elegy by Roger Scruton
    Chatto, 270 pp, £16.99, October 2000, ISBN 1 85619 251 2
  • The Faber Book of Landscape Poetry edited by Kenneth Baker
    Faber, 426 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 571 20071 0

Condition of England writing is the product of a perceived acceleration in the pace of social change. We owe the term to Carlyle, writing in the 1830s, when the ‘Condition of England Question’ largely turned on the nature of the link between a new form of economic activity (then just coming to be termed ‘industrialism’) which promised undreamed of material abundance, and a newly visible degradation in the living conditions of the urban poor. There had, of course, been forms of writing in previous centuries that had attempted to take the temperature of the body politic and in so doing to register novelty or bemoan loss. But the first half of the 19th century was confronted by what it experienced as a wholly new form of civilisation: writers such as Cobbett, Carlyle and Ruskin identified unprecedented change, which appeared to threaten a whole way of life.

Since then, a long line of writers has emulated them, creating a genre which has become increasingly self-conscious and prone to advertise its literary affiliations. It’s a style of writing that lays claim to a certain dignity: it aspires to rise above journalistic opportunism in order to delineate enduring characteristics. Where it once spoke of ‘national character’, it now, less psychologistically but no less prescriptively, speaks of ‘national identity’. And the very existence of this body of writing has latterly been adduced as an element of the national distinctiveness it seeks to describe: one consequence of being ‘the first industrial nation’, it’s said, is that England has the proudest tradition of social criticism.

We would do well, however, not to be too complacent about the merits of this kind of writing. After all, various interests, not all of them benign, can be served by portraying the present as a sad decline from a more agreeable past. If such – always selective – accounts are to rise above the level of dyspeptic grumbling, they must, first, work with an informed understanding of relevant conditions in earlier periods. Second, they need an analytical framework with sufficient explanatory power to latch onto real change. And, finally, they must appeal to an idea of well-being that will enable some kind of balance-sheet to be drawn up. Letters from ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ do not meet these requirements.

Nor do most of those book-length jeremiads which became increasingly common in the course of the last century. The supposed critical force of such tracts rested on a misty idea of ‘Old England’, ‘the real England’, or ‘essential Englishness’, an implicit standard of social health against which the pathology of the present could be measured. And ever since the origins of this tradition in the early 19th-century conjunction of Romanticism and industrialism, ‘England’ has largely been identified with the countryside. The rural is a privileged locus of value, and is always figured as under threat. It is never those building another estate of Barratt starter-homes on a ‘green-field site’ who are the champions of essential Englishness. In its attempts to arrest change, writing in this vein cannot altogether disguise its interested and partisan nature. It all too often turns out to be a cross between a polemic and a cry of pain. It expresses a powerful desire to stop things. At the extreme, it becomes farmers blocking motorways with tractors.

Mr and Mrs Scruton farm near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, we are told, and Mr Scruton, like other farmers, thinks England is going down the pan. Indeed, he thinks it’s dead (or says he does), and sees himself as giving its ‘memorial address’. He recognises that his is ‘not the first such oration’, but offers two excuses for producing another: ‘First, that it is a personal tribute; second, that it is an attempt to understand, from a philosophical perspective, what we are now losing as our form of life decays.’

The claim, which he makes more than once, that the book is not to be judged as a work of history, since it is merely ‘a personal tribute to the civilisation that made me’, is misleading. It is true that in this vein we are given a few tantalising glimpses of the young Scruton, cycling off to visit old churches or being treated with generosity (and whisky) by a sympathetic teacher. The book as a whole, however, is insistently ideological rather than autobiographical: we are time and again told not so much how certain things came to possess personal significance for Scruton, as how they really were, what the character of English society actually has been, and how that character is now being lost.

The one revealing, and disturbing, autobiographical element concerns Scruton’s treatment of his father, to whom he returns or alludes several times. Jack Scruton was born into the lower ranks of the Northern industrial working class: one of eight children, two of whom died in infancy, he grew up in the back streets of Ancoats, child of a Lawrentian marriage between a physical, drunken father and a mother with genteel aspirations. The support of his mother enabled Jack to win a scholarship to Manchester High School and eventually to qualify as a teacher, later moving to leafy Buckinghamshire, where young Roger grew up. But Jack Scruton nursed a vivid sense of the grievances of his class. He was not just Old Labour, he was Paleo-Labour: the country was in the grip of a ruling class whose comfortable way of life rested on the exploitation of the workers.

Scruton treats his father’s political views with smooth condescension: the fellow was simply consumed by resentment, a kind of rancour which his son, with the advantages of his ‘philosophical perspective’, can see no grounds for. We get an unpleasant instance of this loftiness in the course of his remarks about public schools. It would appear that these schools stood out, and produced so many of the leading figures in public life, simply because of their educational superiority. ‘Still, it cannot be denied that the public schools had an upper-class image’ – only an ‘image’, mind – ‘and for those who resent such things, this was sufficient to condemn them. My father was one of those who resent such things.’ Scruton’s father, we gather, detested such institutionalisation of privilege: he wanted to see the abolition of the public schools and grammar schools which helped to perpetuate social divisions. That was the view, Scruton tells us, ‘which I had imbibed, not with my mother’s milk, but with my father’s gall, which was distributed with equal abundance’. The conclusion is dismissive: ‘By and large, therefore, when it came to education my father was against it.’

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