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.

It is, of course, pretty inconvenient for the editor to have this pointed out in the course of a volume which he has put together on a rather different orientation. So he uses his introduction for the unusual purpose of briskly reprimanding Plant for his critique – ‘as if it were a critique of all social justice’. But the thrust of Plant’s argument is supported by the authoritative analysis of recent theological developments by the Bishop of Ely (S.W. Sykes). His theme is that ‘the “myth” of Christianity is compatible with a range of detailed diagnoses of the human condition’; to claim strong doctrinal legitimation, therefore, for a ‘relatively pessimistic view of human nature’, as many anti-collectivists do, reveals them as ‘simply mistaken’. ‘They are doubly mistaken,’ the Bishop concludes, ‘if they hope thereby to blunt the edge of Christian moral criticism of institutionalised injustice to the unprotected.’ The fact that he is not also molested in the introduction may be a gratifying mark of the respect still shown towards the episcopate by Conservatives in Oxford. But both Plant and Sykes seem to have walked unwarily into the common room of All Souls from another sort of conclave or conventicle in which they would have felt more at home.

Where’s the beef? Jonathan Clark inevitably does most to set the tone – and a bold, confident tone it is. He begins by shrewdly identifying as for a long time common to both liberals and socialists ‘a deep sense that history was evolving in their direction’, with the implication that ‘when history took a contrary course, it seemed to follow that something illegitimate was taking place.’ Maybe. But his development of this appeal to recent history does not turn out very happily. He cites David Marquand as an influential exponent of the view that Britain’s cultural conservatism in the 20th century was the result of an ossification of the values of liberal capitalist individualism which had served their turn and had had their day. ‘Such a view explained why economic recovery built around radical individualism was impossible,’ writes Clark: ‘it was therefore wholly unable to explain what happened after 1979.’ How embarrassingly hubristic such comments already seem! David Marquand need not even take up his pen to set the record straight when official statements from the Treasury, week by week, are doing the job for him. This is indicative of the vulnerability of the volume as a whole, which puts between hard covers, duly stamped with Oxford academic pretensions and the dilatory schedule that goes therewith, the sort of crass Thatcherite triumphalism that now seems as dated as the yellow copies of the Sun which were always its proper home.

‘Economic Revival’ is the title of one important section of the book, containing essays by Patrick Minford, Martin Holmes and John Redwood. Minford recapitulates an already familiar analysis of the three parts of Thatcher’s economic programme, ‘the conquest of inflation, the promotion of efficiency, and the defeat of unemployment’, which were pursued in a ‘step-by-step’ manner. The trouble with this account, of course, is that it fails to acknowledge that, while there was undeniably progress at one time or another on all of these fronts, it was not sustained, and, above all, not cumulative. The conquest of inflation was painfully achieved and noisily celebrated in the early Eighties: but when the promotion of efficiency began to flower with the higher growth rates of the mid-Eighties, inflation refused to stay conquered, as we can see today; and since the slump was the Government’s most effective weapon against inflation, the defeat of unemployment – to the extent that this was achieved by the end of the Eighties – represented a defeat also for the Government’s anti-inflation strategy.

Only a true believer in the economic miracle would have implemented the tax cuts for high earners introduced in the 1988 Budget, which thus stands as an abiding monument to Nigel Lawson’s sincerity; and only a true believer would defend them now by appealing, as Minford does, to ‘remarkable evidence’ of their ability to stimulate the supply side. ‘For all the undoubted leftish bias among British academics,’ he writes (or, rather, wrote some time ago), ‘the emerging evidence has to their credit been recognised by them as well as by the Government.’ Now that the Government has recognised the frailty of its original judgment, in the face of emerging evidence which since 1988 has confounded optimistic forecasts, notably those put forward by Minford himself, it would be interesting to know how robustly his undoubted rightish bias is protecting his own academic credentials.

Minford at least shows an ironical awareness of the gap between intention and achievement in Government strategy, with a frank acknowledgment of the tacit switch from a Friedmanite monetary policy of gradualism to a Hayekian reliance on ‘sharp shock treatment’. The defence here is that they wrought better than they knew, not that they knew better all along, which is the case that Martin Holmes more straightforwardly pleads. His is an account of how, ‘instead of the inflationary explosion which had been predicted in the absence of incomes policy, inflation fell from 22 per cent to 4 per cent in the three years up to 1983.’ And in the absence of three million unemployed, what would have been predicted? And what would have happened? One clue is to look at our more recent experience, in a period when unemployment has fallen significantly below those levels. The Thatcher experiment is held by Holmes to have ‘reversed the process of comparative economic decline so familiar after 1945’, leading to the conclusion that ‘the economic success of the decade as a whole has put into perspective the difficult years of disinflation 1979-81 on which critics have disproportionately dwelled.’ Agreed, it is time the critics stopped all that dwelling on the experience of ten years ago; and in return, perhaps the apologists for Thatcherism will stop dwelling on what happened during a carefully delimited period of the mid-Eighties as though it represented much more than a welcome but temporary boom in the political business cycle. It would do us all good to start dwelling instead in the real world where we are now besieged with difficulties which even the beneficiaries of the tax cuts of 1988 must sometimes rue.

John Redwood offers by far the most formidable analysis, with an insider’s view of privatisation which makes a number of valid points. ‘In the early days it was seen as a way of raising money and of shedding the peripheral part of the public estate where there was no clear rationale for public ownership,’ he admits. But ‘the language of efficiency and to a lesser extent of freedom’ gave way, as the policy acquired its own momentum, to ‘the language of wider ownership’. Some of the drum-banging about the successful export of privatisation, marketing the product to an initially hesitant world, is justified. It is when Redwood extrapolates a broader theme that his logic appears fractured. ‘History tells people the same story,’ he proclaims – a story of how the Dutch and then the British and then the Americans successively thrived because of their open market and free trade policies. And the Japanese today? ‘Japan has been less willing than other great powers to abolish all the non-tariff barriers to its own market,’ Redmond concedes, ‘but there is now increasing pressure on it to do so as Japan, by virtue of its economic success, is forced to take on the leading role once enjoyed by the USA.’ Some virtue, that economic success, even though it was achieved without our kind of free market. Perhaps we could do a swap with them some time.

It would be quite misleading to give the impression that this is largely a book about economic policy or ideas. It is conceived by its editor as offering a Conservative account of the sort of cultural and historical context in which successful market-orientated policies can best thrive. When Clark, as a professional historian, invokes history, it is not to flourish an improbable but impressive pedigree for current ideologies of economic liberalism. Recent celebrations of the bicentenary of the death of Adam Smith may have prompted other enthusiasts for the free market to grave-robbing exploits of this kind, but Clark is emphatic that ‘chronology alone establishes that neither John Locke nor Adam Smith were preaching liberalism.’ In fact, he insists on the extent to which English history sees the persistence of an ancien régime, but one consistent with ‘features of dynamism and individualism’ which offer a conservative basis for growth. ‘Status and custom retained their hold in England,’ he argues, ‘because they were largely consistent with the imperatives of the market.’ Habit and tradition are thus wholly proper as conditioned reflexes of which the English should be proud, though ‘Labour’s Pavlovian electorate in Scotland and Wales’ is viewed less indulgently. This sort of nationalism is consistent with what Clark calls ‘authoritarian individualism’ (specifically, Thatcherism), presented by him as the alternative to a rival ideology which condones European integration. All of this is put in terms a good deal more sophisticated than those which Nicholas Ridley famously employed, but the drift is, I think, not so different.

Roger Scruton writes explicitly on this theme under the title, ‘In defence of the nation’, a piece also printed as the final essay in his own more diverse collection, The Philosopher on Dover Beach. As the editor of the Salisbury Review, he has exercised a major influence upon the emergence of a self-conscious school of intellectual Conservatism and deserves to be taken with appropriate seriousness. In defending an organic concept of the nation, Scruton crucially invokes Burke and Hegel. He identifies modernity in terms of moves towards a contractual rather than a customary basis to society. He writes eloquently of the way in which social bonds, if refashioned in contractual form, ‘become profane, a system of façades, a Disneyland version of what was formerly dignified and monumental’. Although he angles this against the Left, with its blueprints for a brave new world in place of the Gothic clutter to which we are irrationally attached, his critique could, of course, be turned against the callow doctrinaire project of Thatcherism, as it leads us towards the Barratt estates of the yuppies’ dream.

Scruton is defending his conception of the liberal state by insisting that it must depend upon ‘some other loyalty than loyalty to itself’. He then elides and conflates a series of terms for this loyalty. It all depends, it seems, on ‘the renewal of public spirit, and therefore on patriotism’. Therefore? Only if patriotism is taken as a necessarily implied civic virtue – which is a conceivable position, though its slightly archaic flavour would make it difficult to convey in tabloid language. It all depends then on how ‘patriotism’, as a term of art, is subsequently glossed, on which point we are quickly, not to say briskly, enlightened. It is immediately ‘the national interest’ which is asserted, and from this a pretty short jump to glossing this national interest in a way with which Norman Tebbit and the readers of the Sun would have no trouble: ‘The failure of the Left in Western elections is the consequence of their perceived disloyalty.’

To my mind, you can get the best out of Scruton without necessarily subscribing along these lines to ‘the cricket test’. There is surely insight about politics in general, and not just a species of wisdom uniquely accessible to Conservatives, in looking askance at a pursuit of abstract ends which ‘poisons our attachments to the realities through which we might, in our fallen condition, live and find fulfilment’. Scruton is aware, too, of the paradox implied in a Burkeian ‘defence of custom and prejudice’ since ‘what is defended is destroyed by its own defence’. Hence his own preference for Hegel as a philosopher who could ‘reconstitute the truths of prejudice at the level of reflection’. This comes in an essay on Hegel which commends his elevation of an innate obligation to the State as something higher than the merely instrumental attachment to civil society, on the grounds that such an optional relationship fatally loosens the tie of political obedience.

Such themes are further developed in a defence of Burke’s conservative reaction to the French Revolution, aptly entitled ‘Man’s Second Disobedience’. The point was that the Revolution ‘involved a formidable concentration of religious energy’ but mistakenly ‘placed its gods on earth, and described them “in the language of man”: liberty, equality, fraternity’. Here we come to the crux of Scruton’s case. It was the pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity which ‘was to destroy every imperfect human value – freedom, justice, and fellowship – which they might otherwise have sanctioned’. There follows again the lurch from a critique grounded in good sense (about the need to acknowledge real-world constraints) to an all-or-nothing swing into wild reaction, with the portentous conclusion: ‘The Revolution is, I believe, a supreme act of Christian disobedience.’ Why so? Why not just scale down the aspirations, on the lines suggested by Scruton himself, and settle for such increments of freedom, such advances towards justice, such approaches towards fellowship, as we can muster along the way – instead of commanding us always to hang onto Marie Antoinette’s hand for fear of something worse?

The Thatcherite mentality has always been happiest with the notion that there is no alternative. It must be a good thing that the slumbering genius of our native Conservatism has, as these essayists show, become more articulate than at any previous time in its history; but an alternative to the world seen through their eyes is not now lacking in either plausibility or attractiveness. Even the plums in these essays can readily be plucked and pilfered and purloined – ideas which can be put to work for better causes than those for which they are conscripted here. Actually there is not an awful lot that is worth stealing any more, and even less to inspire among the unconverted awe and respect, let alone conviction. Perhaps it is time for intellectuals on the left to find their voice again as they realise that the sort of Conservatism which enjoyed such a vogue in the Eighties has now run out of steam. In the long perspective of history, the Thatcher era, which was supposed to usher in a world where she succeeded in changing everything, may instead look nasty, British and short.