Into the sunset

Peter Clarke

  • Ideas and Politics in Modern Britain edited by J.C.D. Clark
    Macmillan, 271 pp, £40.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 333 51550 1
  • The Philosopher on Dover Beach by Roger Scruton
    Carcanet, 344 pp, £18.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 85635 857 6

It is odd how much decades matter. The Twenties evoke an unmistakable image of self-consciously post-war modernity and frivolity; the Thirties of ideological polarisation in the face of the twin challenge of depression and dictatorship; the Forties of plain living and high thinking about the world after Hitler; the Fifties of affluence and complacency and the end of ideology. Then there were the Sixties, swinging from the technocratic confidence of the Kennedy era – imported into Britain in the youthful Harold Wilson’s hand-baggage – through the unfolding of the permissive society, to the radical disillusion on the left associated with the Vietnam War. Quite a lot of this actually spilled over into the early Seventies, although they never became charged with the sort of visceral response memorably conveyed in Norman Tebbit’s dismissal of ‘the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of that third-rate decade, the 1960s’. And the Eighties? Already we seem to have turned a corner in the winter of 1989-90, which saw the virtually simultaneous collapse of two central, load-bearing pillars of Thatcherism: the Communist menace and the British economic miracle. In each case this was suddenly brought home in an impatient, insistent, irresistible, ultimately unanswerable manner.

The brute facts laid bare last winter have pulled the rug from under Thatcherism as decisively as the Winter of Discontent discredited its political opponents a decade earlier. For social democrats who remember experiencing a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach while the verisimilitude of their benign picture of the world was increasingly subverted – in a way which left them looking foolish in public and feeling sorry for themselves in private – the present moment will be tinged with many ironies. Liberals who have made a life-work out of putting themselves in the other chap’s shoes will no doubt evince an imaginative sympathy for Mr Tebbit’s friends, now that the Eighties, so manifestly their own domain, are turning into another sunset home. In this spirit one can commiserate with J.C.D. Clark, as editor of the volume of essays, Ideas and Politics in Modern Britain, which was clearly intended as a tract for the times and has ended up as a period piece. In the nature of things, the essays had to be written some time back – that by John Redwood has a note explaining that the proofs had been approved before he joined the Government a year ago – and here it really matters. Another minister, John Patten, sticks his neck out in the foreword by claiming that the volume ‘shows, above all else, both that conservatism flourishes in Oxford and that conservative thought continues to make the running as it has throughout the past two decades.’ Really?

Let us concede at once that there is more force in the first part of this statement than in the second. Here are 15 essays, of somewhat uneven standard, the best of which are well worth consideration by anyone interested in probing behind current political events. About half of the contributors are listed as fellows of Oxford colleges, chiefly All Souls, and their essays give the most consistent ideological tinge to the book. But there are other essays here, notably those in Part Three on Theology, which seem to have been conceived quite differently. Thus Raymond Plant, writing on ‘The Church and the Government’, shows why it was ‘frankly absurd’ for Norman Tebbit to apply a Marxist label to Faith in the City, which did not embody ‘much more than representative assumptions of post-war social democracy’. Plant’s argument is that the real dispute with the Church’s traditional teaching stems from the incoherence of the Government’s claims. When it talks about the market, it insists that there is no moral consensus capable of restraining market outcomes by reference to such values as social justice. Yet ‘when it comes to its own views about poverty and the role of character and independence’, the values of personal and private life, such a consensus is immediately discovered and invoked. The Church’s assertion ‘that morality is a seamless web’ is thus very inconvenient for the Government.

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