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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in