Golden England

Martin Wiener

  • Condition of England by Lincoln Allison
    Junction, 221 pp, £12.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 86245 032 2

Lincoln Allison’s Condition of England should be prescribed as an antidote to seizures of collective despair. In this time of national gloom, Dr Allison, who teaches politics and environmental planning at the University of Warwick, has offered the testament of an optimist. He provides reasons for contentment with the national lot, reminding his fellow-countrymen that they possess certain ‘collective goods’ – a land and a unique way of life – of inestimable value. English culture, he argues, is ‘the richest and most resilient in the world’, and the English environment one of the most satisfying.

This book began, as is often the case with works of national introspection, in a sojourn abroad, in California, the land where American rainbows end. For all the pleasures of ‘the Golden State’, Allison found missing there certain precious qualities of life that he had taken for granted at home. Condition of England is his attempt to define these qualities, which he came to see at the core of the English way of life.

First among them is a feeling of continuity between past and present, between country and town, between public and private spheres of life; then a sense of belonging to a long-established, secure and thus tolerant community; an awareness of how important are non-material satisfactions; and a distrust of ‘progress’. Allison objects that the drawbacks of this way of life – institutional conservatism and economic lag – have been paid too much heed. He turns our attention instead to the happy other face of English life. The English, like himself before California, have not appreciated what they’ve had. The sense of malaise since World War Two, insofar as it has percolated beyond small circles of intellectuals, has come less from real failure than from the English forgetting who they are and who they are not. Dr Allison portrays the confused events of the later Seventies with positive enthusiasm, seeing the English beginning to come home to their modest but spiritually rich culture, giving up faith in ‘grand ideas’ unsuited to their real nature, like Empire, the classless society and indefinite affluence, and taking a new satisfaction in the common goods they possessed all along.

The villain of the piece is the negativism of fashionable thinking about the current state of England: healthy self-criticism, Allison objects, has become debilitating self-denigration. Chief offenders are those in the communications media for painting current affairs in the blackest colours. One industry whose decline Allison ardently calls for is the manufacture of crises. A steady diet of pessimism has planted a ‘false consciousness’ of failure. People who are quite happy in their everyday lives will yet, quite unnecessarily, adopt the abstractions of failure when thinking of the nation’s affairs, as if the two spheres had no connection.

Allison indicts two tendencies of thought – ‘economics’ and ‘puritanism’ – for contributing to this prevailing but mistaken gloom. First of all, the importance of economics (and economists) has been greatly exaggerated – money matters less in an already prosperous society than it used to. Even the ‘de-industrialisation’ of Britain would not be an irreparable loss: the country’s new self-sufficiency in energy and its ever more productive agriculture, together with the unappreciated strength of banking and other international services, mean that ‘if ever there has been a time when being good at manufacturing did not matter, this is it.’ Meanwhile the puritan spirit grimly insists that the English should buckle down to work, in order to increase the GNP – but Allison asks why they should do so. The ordinary Englishman is properly unpersuaded that he should abandon values and a pattern of living which are deeply satisfying, even if they work against the maximisation of economic growth.

Allison locates the sunnier reality of England’s true achievement in conservative adaptation, which he traces to the latter half of the 19th century. The greatest legacy of the Victorians, he argues, was neither radical nor imperialist but conservative: the adapting of an old society to new circumstances. England’s misnamed industrial ‘revolution’ was slow and local enough to allow much that was ancient and valuable in English culture to be retained in modern forms. The plant of traditional culture was never uprooted; the English people, spared the psychic disruption that most others have had to suffer in the last century, remained closer to their past.

Allison points to the environmental planning which has restricted development and, in Peter Hall’s phrase, ‘contained urban England’. Such restriction is in one sense costly – the price of land and population density have been raised – but it was a price well worth paying for the protection of a countryside unsurpassed in the world. Planners have not only averted much harmful new development but have also prevented the erosion of already-existing urban as well as rural communities. At its best, in places like Durham and Oxford, conservative planning has improved the environment. As a result, England today is ‘more beautiful and pleasanter than it was in 1939’.

Even more than environmental planning, the English ‘collective good’ of sports culture warms Allison’s heart. County Cricket and League Football are modern forms of ancient English activities which have, through conservative adaptation, become ‘part of the fabric of English life’. At Lord’s for a Test Match or at Turf Moor when Burnley play Blackburn Rovers, Allison portrays men brought together to share rich satisfactions, and to reaffirm ties of community and continuity.

Allison’s essays on English culture are followed by perceptive accounts of a series of walks through a variety of English landscapes, from picturesque Sussex and charming Leamington (where he lives) to the rougher Potteries and down-at-heel Liverpool. Everywhere he finds little-known aspects to gratify and encourage: ‘nicer than I imagined,’ he remarks about London away from the touristed areas, and the same holds for his other locales (although Liverpool is clearly a strain for an optimist).

The tone of all these short pieces, both essays and walkabouts, is refreshingly unacademic. Allison speaks in a personal and direct voice – what might be best called inspired conversation. In his arguments about England, his reading and his experience play back and forth upon each other. Speculations on the anthropology of football matches are illustrated by Allison’s own joys and sorrows with Burnley Football Club. The ‘Central Forest Park’ in Stoke-on-Trent, the teeming animal life of the Fens, the peculiarly derelict feel of a new industrial and warehouse district near Bristol, the affluence-with-a-human-face of middle-class suburbs in Bristol and London, even the (un-English?) excitement of the strange shapes and flames of Billingham refineries, all make us ponder about town and country, progress and tradition, and the distinctive qualities of English life.

It must, however, be said that the personal character of Dr Allison’s book, while it invigorates his argument, also weakens its authority. For Allison does – despite his informality – expect the book to be taken as reasoned argument as well as personal testimony, and the text shows the strain of trying to serve two different needs. This is most obvious in the inevitable disjunction between Part One’s essays and Part Two’s impressions, but even more disturbing in the strain within individual essays, as he moves, too easily, between personal impressions or experiences and general ‘sociological’ statements, forgetting that each level of discourse has its own rules. California becomes a ‘cultural void’ because many Stanford and Berkeley students exhibited the ‘Patty Hearst syndrome’ of restlessly taking up and dropping philosophies, religions and therapies. The culture of California, or the United States, is a subject too large for such offhand and familiar generalisations. One should not set out to correct stereotypes of England by repeating stereotypes of America.

Another difficulty is that Allison shifts the meaning of his terms as his context shifts. For example, ‘culture’ is introduced as an anthropological concept but then becomes an evaluative category which Allison opposes to the material ‘comfort’ produced by market forces. Moreover, everything, even matters of taste, becomes grist for the argumentative mill: supermarkets, fast food and drinking with friends at home instead of in a pub are declared inherently destructive of culture, social cohesion and the deeper satisfactions of life.

As this list shows, the attractively personal nature of Condition of England carries with it problems of partiality. The reader is always aware that he is seeing England through the eyes of a male, tenured academic. Ambition is much more easily disparaged when one is securely placed for life in a comfortable job and town. How would England appear to Allison if he had been born ten years later and looked for a job when they were already taken? Economic change and growth are more important for the young than for the middle-aged. Allison seems bewildered by the rise of football hooliganism, but he might understand it better if he, too, were to find the doors of opportunity closing.

It is also a one-sex vision of England. Allison’s archetypal English cultural institutions are male ones – pubs and soccer, rugby and cricket – and his cultural highlights depend on there being a woman to cook dinner and tend children while the typical Englishman is at the pub or on the playing field. What does his ‘matey’ image of England offer a woman?

Dr Allison is right to deprecate the guidance of economists, whose science has turned out to be very inexact indeed. His Oxford examiners in the late Sixties, seeking explanations for Britain’s low rate of growth, should have demanded fewer capital-labour formulas and listened instead to his description of ‘Albert Singleton who, when I worked with him, would never finish a job in the afternoon for fear there would be nothing to do in the morning’. Yet there is also such a thing (with a long English tradition) as a ‘cult’ of culture. As others before him in this tradition of anti-economism, Dr Allison fails to make a clear distinction between practical and moral criticism, criticism of economics as a science and criticism of the economic mode of thought.

Condition of England is, in fact, a very conservative book: an inspired defence of the cultural status quo of 1979, now under siege by radical Thatcherism. It can be seen as part of the same movement of opinion that has created Social Democracy – a rejection of extreme social gospels and a reassertion of the traditional English mainstream. England, this movement says, does not need a radical break with the past. Rather, it needs to ‘come home’ to itself, to moderation and continuity; perhaps things were not going so badly up to 1979. Brave New Worlds of either right or left are not wanted.

This is a conservative book in another sense also: the latest expression of a long and distinguished tradition of ‘Tory’ anti-capitalism going back at least to the early 19th century. This tradition, developing in counterpoint to the Industrial Revolution, has propagated a particular image of England and Englishness, defending it against various threats from outside – from America, the Continent, the Soviet Union or even Japan – and from full-blooded socialism or unrestrained capitalism within. It has been an image, held in large measure by many on the left and in the centre of politics, as well as on the right, of a stable and peaceful national community, agreed on the essential questions of common life, deeply rooted in its past and in its green and pleasant land. From E.M. Forster (‘in these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole’) to Stanley Baldwin (‘England is the country and the country is England’), this vision has helped shape 20th-century literature, politics and national life. It obviously captured a truth, and as national ideals go, it is attractive – tolerant, humane and unaggressive. It is worth celebrating. Few countries in the world are as pleasurable to walk through; not very many historic cities have been as well preserved as Durham or York without being turned into museum pieces; even public housing is rarely more humane in other countries than it is in England. The English should also appreciate the reluctance of their public officials (until recently) to inflict discomfort or outright pain upon their fellow-countrymen in pursuit of some perhaps illusory larger good.

Yet there are dangers in accepting too easily this comfortable collective self-portrait. If excessive self-criticism is harmful, as Dr Allison rightly insists, so, too, is self-appreciation carried to the point of self-satisfaction. When J.B. Priestley can pronounce the main trends of the modern world ‘alien to the English temperament’ and conclude from this so much the worse for the modern world, alarm bells should be ringing. ‘I like it here’ may be a valuable corrective to national self-denigration, but it is not a sufficient guide to the problems of national existence in the present or the future. Allison’s denunciation of media crisis-mongering is disturbingly reminiscent of Vice-President Agnew’s diatribes a decade ago against the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ – a form of hanging the messenger instead of addressing the message. There is danger in blithely declaring, as Allison does, that ‘England is a creaking gate; it always has fairly serious crises without them being terminal.’ He points to North Sea oil as the kind of unanticipated stroke of fortune that has again and again come to England’s aid. John Bull had his drawbacks as a national symbol, but surely Mr Micawber is no improvement.

‘We inhabit as golden an age as men have ever known,’ Allison writes, and argues that if the English present is better than the past, despite the strident objections of over-intellectual negativists, it is also better than the most plausible alternative futures, whether capitalist or socialist. Thus he counsels a policy of maintaining the ‘golden present’. But a rigid attachment to the status quo can be self-defeating. History is filled with instances of societies that had shaped admirable ways of life, but became so entranced by their own creations as to lose the capacity to adapt to new circumstances. Renaissance Venice, 17th-century Spain, the later dynasties of the Chinese Empire – in each case the preoccupation with preserving a ‘golden present’ led to an ever less satisfying future. A nation can be suspicious of ‘progress’: but it must recognise the inevitability of change. The real question is not whether change, but what kind of change, shaped by what purposes. The domestic economy is becoming more and more ‘internationalised’, regardless of government policy. As Britain falls further behind in the world economy, the English people lose more and more freedom to choose their circumstances. Allison notices some of the warning signs but misses their significance.

Similarly, Allison observes in passing that technological change has created unemployment, and will create more. Yet, whatever happens within England, rapid technological development will continue elsewhere and will exert its effects on England. Its consequences for those who have adapted to it, like the American ‘Sunbelt’ or Japan, have not been unemployment. In Britain, the secular trend of unemployment had been rising for many years before the Thatcher acceleration, as home industries became increasingly uncompetitive. Refusal to compete, rather than technology, creates long-term unemployment.

Yet economic change is more than an unpleasant necessity: it is very often a good in itself. Affluence in California has promoted many of the satisfying cultural activities Allison approves of and sees as threatened by progress – patronising ‘small specialist shops’, ‘visiting specialised and unusual restaurants’ and pubs, walking in the country. These are all ‘growth’ activities in the United States, for members of the middle class who have enough money to be able to choose ‘inefficient’ pastimes. Japan, with the highest rate of economic growth in the world for the past 30 years, should provide a cautionary warning of the evil consequences of selling one’s national soul to the GNP. Yet Japanese mean life expectancy – surely a ‘collective good’ – is now longer and infant mortality lower than in a Britain choosing ‘human’ values over wealth. Yes, much of modern Japan is unpretty, cluttered and, like much of America, leaving a lot to be desired environmentally. Vitality, however, is rarely tidy. Daniel Defoe’s London had grown ‘in a most straggling, confus’d manner, out of all shape’; so, too, did New York later, and Tokyo, Los Angeles and Houston in recent decades. Cities like these are creating cultural as well as material wealth for the entire world. Dr Allison’s celebration of England and the English way of life is engaging but the issue now is to find a middle way between change for change’s sake and an inward-turning self-satisfaction.