Here’s to the high-minded

Stefan Collini

  • After the Victorians: Private Conscience and Public Duty in Modern Britain edited by Susan Pedersen and Peter Mandler
    Routledge, 265 pp, £40.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 415 07056 2

In the Seventies and Eighties, right-wing think-tanks and their academic lapdogs put about the idea that the ills of contemporary Britain were fundamentally due to its genteel aversion to industrialism and its sentimental attachment to collectivism. The selective accounts of the past that were intended to support this diagnosis traced the aetiology of these ailments back to the late 19th century, and particularly to the influence on social and economic policy of that cultivated élite of the well-connected and well-intentioned who laid the foundations of the welfare state. Central to the would-be ‘cultural revolution’ of the Thatcher years was an aggressive populism which attempted to dislodge the descendants of this élite and the values they represented from their long-standing centrality in British culture. Characteristically feeble echoes of this assault were evident in John Major’s recent sneering at ‘progressive theorists’, but some years ago the real emotional dynamic was laid bare, indecently bare, by (as usual) Norman Tebbit, who extolled ‘the man in the pub’ against the upper-class ‘cocktail set’ on the grounds that the former is ‘far more attached to our traditional values’ than are ‘his social superiors, so called, and intellectual betters’.

There is always something quaint about seeing Tories complain of élitism, but it usually turns out to be one kind of élite which is being denounced: not the managers, bankers, directors and accountants who have so much political as well as economic power in modern Britain, but a cultural élite – stereotyped as paternalist, highbrow, mandarin and (confusingly) ‘progressive’. These were the people who for decades had allegedly thought it their business to prescribe what other people should have and what they should spend, what they should read and what they should watch. Latterday members of this élite may have been true to their Victorian forebears in exacting duty from themselves and deference from others, but both of these attitudes now stuck in the gullet of Essex Man. The policies of the Eighties were intended to strip them of their cultural authority, and put power in the pockets of the people, to enable them, through the market, to decide these things for themselves.

Interestingly, the Left, priding itself on being ‘democratic’ rather than ‘populist’, frequently attacked very similar targets in its denunciations of élitism (though these attacks were for the most part conducted in a more sophisticated theoretical idiom). Those who had inspired the welfare state were revealed to have had paternalist attitudes; those who shaped public broadcasting had transmitted mandarin tastes; those who instituted a national system of secondary education had inculcated class-bound values, and so on. Although some individuals among the Great and the Good may have played admirable parts in furthering particular radical causes, collectively they were condemned for their complicity with governing-class attitudes, their assumption of intellectual superiority, and their patronising treatment of working-class leaders who were speaking with the authentic voice of the victims of exploitation and injustice.

In the demonology of both sides, a very large part was played by a very small number: that thin layer of well-heeled, well-educated, upper-middle or professional-class men and, scarcely less prominently, women who continued to support the public provision of social and cultural goods and to exemplify the belief that those from cultivated and comfortable backgrounds have an obligation to try to improve the lot of the less fortunate. Their instincts were high-minded, high-handed and high-taxing. They had a vital hand in almost every measure which, until the Eighties, made 20th-century Britain a less horrible country to be poor in. They also supported things like public libraries, which taxed the ratepayer to provide the kind of improving literature that was not always a popular taste; highly selective universities, which taxed the entire working population to provide a high-quality, culturally conservative education for a meritocracy; the BBC, which taxed the licence-holder to provide programmes that upheld high, and again not always vastly popular, standards of instruction, information and entertainment. The combination of tireless philanthropy with unshakeable cultural self-assurance was not always endearing, but the members of this élite were, metaphorically and sometimes literally, the descendants of the Victorian ‘intellectual aristocracy’.

Much of the cultural history of 20th-century Britain (and some of its political history, too) can be told in terms of their long, slow retreat from the high places of political and intellectual authority. The fact that we may now be able to get some kind of historical perspective on this development suggests that this extended historical episode is essentially over. As Susan Pedersen and Peter Mandler emphasise in the introductory essay of After the Victorians, the volume is intended to challenge the once conventional assumption that the early decades of the 20th century saw a decisive break with the values of the Victorian era, the assumption expressed in Virginia Woolf’s celebrated hyperbole that ‘in or about December 1910, human character changed’. Those intellectuals whom we still find it convenient to refer to as ‘Bloomsbury’ may have paraded their revolt against Victorian parents and grandparents, and emphasised the need to cultivate personal relations rather than subscribe to the coercive morality of public life, but, against a historiographical tradition which has tended to take their self-description at face value, Pedersen and Mandler argue that most British intellectuals in the first half of the, century maintained ‘a quintessentially “Victorian” tendency to link private behaviour to public morality’, and that it is ‘the continuity of their activism ... that is striking’.

Although this claim is hardly original, the combination of richly-documented, detailed studies and a certain distance provided by the overwhelmingly North American perspective of the volume produces a particularly persuasive case. The book is a posthumous Festschrift for the Harvard historian John Clive (here fondly recalled by Simon Schama). Clive’s fascination with England and its history went back to the period in the late Thirties when, as a young German Jewish refugee (he arrived as Hans Kleyff), he was exposed to the rigours of a minor public school. For the rest of his life he remained drawn to, ambivalently admiring of, yet almost anthropologically distant from the mores of the English social and intellectual élite. As a historian, Clive distinguished himself above all as the biographer of Macaulay, and the trajectory described by the essays in this memorial volume could well be seen as that in which the Clapham Sect gives way to the Clapham omnibus.

The subjects of the essentially biographical essays are a fair selection from the ranks of the well-placed and high-minded. There is Henrietta Barnett, patron of the East End Settlement movement and founder of Hampstead Garden Suburb; Raymond Unwin, architect to both Letchworth, the first Garden City, and to the Hampstead project, a socialist who drew much of the inspiration for his democratic housing design from an idealisation of the cottages of medieval England (very perceptively treated by Standish Meacham); Eleanor Rathbone, member of Liverpool’s leading philanthropic dynasty, local councillor and MP, and the ultimately successful sponsor of family allowances; John Reith, sternly translating private conscience into public broadcasting, and then failing to find another pulpit of comparable reach; G.A. Lefroy, a bishop in search of a church whose missionary spirit took him to the East rather than the East End, and who became Bishop of Calcutta; John Summerson, ambivalent champion of architectural Modernism, disillusioned by the British public’s unwillingness to act as its patron.

If there was less obvious do-gooding about Leonard Woolf or J.M. Keynes (the latter dealt with in a characteristically cogent piece by Peter Clarke), it is nonetheless illuminating to consider them in this company, their high conceptions of public duty usefully complicating the easy stereotypes of Bloomsbury’s revolt against Victorianism. In some ways J.B. Priestley fits less well, partly because of a quite different class background and correspondingly less mandarin manner, but even so there are numerous links between his pipesmoking-and-good-fellowship vision of England and the social attitudes displayed by the other subjects. Only the essay (by Peter Stansky) on how, in 1910, E.M. Forster came to terms with both his homosexuality and the success of Howards End seems to have strayed from some other enterprise.

This last piece aside, the volume displays a greater coherence than the average Festschrift. The editors’ own interests seem to be centred on matters of policy, especially social and to a lesser extent cultural policy. This helps to provide the volume with its focus, though it risks producing an unduly narrow conception of ‘the British intelligentsia’ in this period, and may discourage wider exploration of the sources and forms of cultural authority. One might get a different sense of how the relation between private conscience and public duty had been negotiated by the intelligentsia if one concentrated on, say, Bertrand Russell, G.M. Trevelyan, R.H. Tawney, A.D. Lindsay, A.J. Ayer. The danger in a predominantly policy-centred approach is that it will perpetuate the familiar philistinism of political historians, for whom intellectuals only ‘matter’ when they directly affect political outcomes.

Most of the contributors to After the Victorians avoid this danger, although the emphasis in the introductory essay on the ‘effectiveness’ or otherwise of these intellectuals in a ‘democracy’ leaves it a little unclear by what standard success is being judged. Summnerson, for example, the most recent of the figures considered here (he died in 1992 aged 88), might be thought to have exercised a widespread influence on the understanding of architecture and its history in the middle decades of the century. But although Peter Mandler alludes to the general educative impact of Summerson’s writings, his essay dwells on the crucial part played in the ‘re-building of Britain’ in the Fifties and Sixties by government departments, local authorities and speculative developers, among whom there was precious little trace of Summerson’s ideal of an informed conversation between architects and public.

One benchmark invoked by the editors is that provided by those Mid and Late-Victorian public moralists whose cultural leadership rested on, among other things, an appeal to a widely shared set of moral values. Here, private conscience and public duty could coincide, and, in the socially restricted political and cultural life of the mid-19th century, be effective in shaping both policy and wider attitudes. This was partly because, although Victorian Liberalism hymned self-development, in practice only a rather narrow range of forms of self-development proved acceptable. This in turn meant that an invitation to join the political nation was only extended to those who had already demonstrated that they had the requisite virtues of sobriety, thrift and ‘character’. In other words, in the political, domestic and cultural spheres the authority of the educated Victorian élite rested on a good deal of deference from below.

One way to plot the fate of later generations of this élite is in terms of the slow, uneven crumbling of such deference. For one thing, the eventual arrival of full democracy and a powerful Labour Party changed the terms on which political effectiveness could be achieved. The spread of more egalitarian social attitudes, including towards relations between the sexes, further eroded the scope of the well-connected Victorian moralist. The licence derived from the old deference survived best, perhaps, in the cultural sphere, though even here there were signs by the time of the Festival of Britain (the book’s effective terminus) that the Reithian writ no longer ran.

As with all forms of cultural authority, there are interesting relationships between the confidence of the élite and the deference of their public. Clearly, the combination of personal privilege and moral certainty could produce a dauntingly robust self-assurance: a neighbour once remarked of Henrietta Barnett that ‘she was the only person I’ve ever known who could recite the Ten Commandments as if she had just made them up.’ Concerned to protect Indian women from Indian men, Eleanor Rathbone appealed to comfortably situated British women as ‘the natural custodians of that portion of the Imperial burden’. And Raymond Unwin spoke from a deep moral self-confidence when, in comparing the architect to the doctor, he referred to building such homes as would develop their occupants’ ‘higher natures’ and ‘better selves’.

This self-confidence was nourished by the attention the major cultural institutions of the country bestowed on these individuals: the Times reported Reith’s speeches, Keynes could place his articles where he wished, Summerson had almost unrestricted access to the airwaves. Such confidence can more easily co-exist with occasional bouts of self-doubt than with the acid of self-irony, and the terms of the contract between Privilege and Duty rarely seem to have been questioned. ‘The English system of government,’ Henrietta Barnett wrote, ‘is based on the belief that there is in every district a leisured and cultivated class able to give time and thought to municipal and other public duties, and when such a class is absent the whole suffers both financially and ethically.’

Nous avons changé tout cela! No doubt most of us would now bridle at being told what to do by the likes of the formidable Mrs Barnett or the no less formidable Miss Rathbone, and the tones in which Lord Reith or Sir John Summerson attempted to instruct their audiences might well grate on our touchily egalitarian sensibilities. But having been supplanted by the aggressive bottom-lining of the gutter-individualism currently in power, the figures discussed in this book are recovering a dignity which a couple of generations of post-Stracheyan debunking had deprived them of. They have proved easy to mock but difficult to replace. Recognising this, future historians may come to agree that ‘Victorian values’ of the kind discussed here persisted far deeper into the 20th century than has commonly been acknowledged. Who knows, perhaps they will even conclude that in or about May 1979, human character changed.