Hegel in Green Wellies

Stefan Collini

  • England: An Elegy by Roger Scruton
    Chatto, 270 pp, £16.99, October 2000, ISBN 1 85619 251 2
  • The Faber Book of Landscape Poetry edited by Kenneth Baker
    Faber, 426 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 571 20071 0

Condition of England writing is the product of a perceived acceleration in the pace of social change. We owe the term to Carlyle, writing in the 1830s, when the ‘Condition of England Question’ largely turned on the nature of the link between a new form of economic activity (then just coming to be termed ‘industrialism’) which promised undreamed of material abundance, and a newly visible degradation in the living conditions of the urban poor. There had, of course, been forms of writing in previous centuries that had attempted to take the temperature of the body politic and in so doing to register novelty or bemoan loss. But the first half of the 19th century was confronted by what it experienced as a wholly new form of civilisation: writers such as Cobbett, Carlyle and Ruskin identified unprecedented change, which appeared to threaten a whole way of life.

Since then, a long line of writers has emulated them, creating a genre which has become increasingly self-conscious and prone to advertise its literary affiliations. It’s a style of writing that lays claim to a certain dignity: it aspires to rise above journalistic opportunism in order to delineate enduring characteristics. Where it once spoke of ‘national character’, it now, less psychologistically but no less prescriptively, speaks of ‘national identity’. And the very existence of this body of writing has latterly been adduced as an element of the national distinctiveness it seeks to describe: one consequence of being ‘the first industrial nation’, it’s said, is that England has the proudest tradition of social criticism.

We would do well, however, not to be too complacent about the merits of this kind of writing. After all, various interests, not all of them benign, can be served by portraying the present as a sad decline from a more agreeable past. If such – always selective – accounts are to rise above the level of dyspeptic grumbling, they must, first, work with an informed understanding of relevant conditions in earlier periods. Second, they need an analytical framework with sufficient explanatory power to latch onto real change. And, finally, they must appeal to an idea of well-being that will enable some kind of balance-sheet to be drawn up. Letters from ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ do not meet these requirements.

Nor do most of those book-length jeremiads which became increasingly common in the course of the last century. The supposed critical force of such tracts rested on a misty idea of ‘Old England’, ‘the real England’, or ‘essential Englishness’, an implicit standard of social health against which the pathology of the present could be measured. And ever since the origins of this tradition in the early 19th-century conjunction of Romanticism and industrialism, ‘England’ has largely been identified with the countryside. The rural is a privileged locus of value, and is always figured as under threat. It is never those building another estate of Barratt starter-homes on a ‘green-field site’ who are the champions of essential Englishness. In its attempts to arrest change, writing in this vein cannot altogether disguise its interested and partisan nature. It all too often turns out to be a cross between a polemic and a cry of pain. It expresses a powerful desire to stop things. At the extreme, it becomes farmers blocking motorways with tractors.

Mr and Mrs Scruton farm near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, we are told, and Mr Scruton, like other farmers, thinks England is going down the pan. Indeed, he thinks it’s dead (or says he does), and sees himself as giving its ‘memorial address’. He recognises that his is ‘not the first such oration’, but offers two excuses for producing another: ‘First, that it is a personal tribute; second, that it is an attempt to understand, from a philosophical perspective, what we are now losing as our form of life decays.’

The claim, which he makes more than once, that the book is not to be judged as a work of history, since it is merely ‘a personal tribute to the civilisation that made me’, is misleading. It is true that in this vein we are given a few tantalising glimpses of the young Scruton, cycling off to visit old churches or being treated with generosity (and whisky) by a sympathetic teacher. The book as a whole, however, is insistently ideological rather than autobiographical: we are time and again told not so much how certain things came to possess personal significance for Scruton, as how they really were, what the character of English society actually has been, and how that character is now being lost.

The one revealing, and disturbing, autobiographical element concerns Scruton’s treatment of his father, to whom he returns or alludes several times. Jack Scruton was born into the lower ranks of the Northern industrial working class: one of eight children, two of whom died in infancy, he grew up in the back streets of Ancoats, child of a Lawrentian marriage between a physical, drunken father and a mother with genteel aspirations. The support of his mother enabled Jack to win a scholarship to Manchester High School and eventually to qualify as a teacher, later moving to leafy Buckinghamshire, where young Roger grew up. But Jack Scruton nursed a vivid sense of the grievances of his class. He was not just Old Labour, he was Paleo-Labour: the country was in the grip of a ruling class whose comfortable way of life rested on the exploitation of the workers.

Scruton treats his father’s political views with smooth condescension: the fellow was simply consumed by resentment, a kind of rancour which his son, with the advantages of his ‘philosophical perspective’, can see no grounds for. We get an unpleasant instance of this loftiness in the course of his remarks about public schools. It would appear that these schools stood out, and produced so many of the leading figures in public life, simply because of their educational superiority. ‘Still, it cannot be denied that the public schools had an upper-class image’ – only an ‘image’, mind – ‘and for those who resent such things, this was sufficient to condemn them. My father was one of those who resent such things.’ Scruton’s father, we gather, detested such institutionalisation of privilege: he wanted to see the abolition of the public schools and grammar schools which helped to perpetuate social divisions. That was the view, Scruton tells us, ‘which I had imbibed, not with my mother’s milk, but with my father’s gall, which was distributed with equal abundance’. The conclusion is dismissive: ‘By and large, therefore, when it came to education my father was against it.’

The casual cruelty of this does not diminish with rereading: we are told that as a child Jack Scruton showed an early hunger for things of the mind; a more educated neighbour played a crucial encouraging role; school opened doors onto a wider world, and he in turn spent his life as a teacher. It would not be surprising to learn that he was, in his rancorous way, deeply proud of his exceptionally clever, scholarship-winning son.

More generally, Scruton’s ‘philosophical perspective’ looks remarkably like a Daily Mail perspective. As a philosopher, Roger of Malmesbury might be expected to practise a more searching form of analysis than Squire Scruton and his fellow farmers, but readers hoping for some profound treatment of questions of national identity will be disappointed. Discussing the fundamental structure of English society, Scruton tells us that ‘class comes about because we divide people up.’ So if we could just stop that silly habit it wouldn’t matter that those who control great concentrations of wealth can systematically determine the life-chances of the many who don’t. It is characteristic of Scruton’s ‘philosophical perspective’ to regard talk of ‘class conflict’ as overdone – another expression of groundless ‘resentment’. English history has, thankfully, been pretty free of it. ‘Popular unrest was minimal in England’. ‘Class conflict’ only takes place if the ‘popular’ side starts it.

This view is undeterred even by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819: ‘The panic at St Peter’s Field, in which 11 people died, resulted more from clumsiness than malice.’ It is revealing of the impoverished scheme of historical analysis that Scruton brings to such matters that the episode could only be regarded as demonstrating ‘class conflict’ if the action of the authorities could be ascribed to ‘malice’. That might not be the only way to think about the decision to use mounted yeomanry and hussars to charge an unarmed crowd containing many women and children, especially if you take into account other evidence to do with social tension and state power in the years after Waterloo. In addition to the 11 dead, there were over four hundred injured, of whom 161 had to be treated for sabre wounds. ‘Clumsy’ indeed.

But happy is the land where people know their place, and ‘here we come to the essence of the English experience of class. It was not snobbery but a kind of decorum that motivated the English people to seek out their separate spheres of belonging.’ Scruton, it seems, would have us believe that families clubbing together in the back streets of Ancoats to prevent more of their children dying in infancy were on a par with landowners paying their subs at White’s or Brooks’s, and that the two groups chose to keep apart out of innate tact. At such moments, all this sub-Waugh attitudinising falls into place as part of a wider, less amiable cultural tendency that takes our attention away from the actual ‘experience of class’.

Consider Scruton’s discussion of the ‘ineffable charm’ of the public schools (an Old Wycombist himself, from the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, he seems rather to hanker after this ‘charm’). The ‘cool, objective’ social order of these schools, he tells us, ‘was the perfect apprenticeship for English society, and the real reason why people educated in public schools could advance so quickly in the world outside’. It would be merely rancorous, I suppose, to ask whether it didn’t have something to do with the fact that their fathers owned most of the sodding ‘world outside’.

This book is full of reminders that Roger of Malmesbury is also Roger of Salisbury, having been the editor of the right-wing Salisbury Review since it started in 1982. England: An Elegy is a compendium of Tory whingeing. Taxation is always ‘punitive’; sport, ‘once a rehearsal for imperial virtues, has become a battleground for hooligans’; and more generally, ‘the old courtesies and decencies are disappearing.’ These days, ‘the English have the highest divorce rate in Europe, regard marriage as a bore, are blatantly promiscuous, and litter the country with their illegitimate, uncared for and state-subsidised offspring.’ How is such sloppy prejudice the expression of ‘a philosophical perspective’? In what sense does it belong in a ‘personal tribute’?

The real villains of the piece turn out, inevitably, to be ‘intellectuals’, by which Scruton means that relatively small number of ‘seditious bigots’ who ‘make the most noise’, not ‘the far greater number of less prominent, more modest and more worthy intellectuals who have become priests, civil servants, dons and schoolmasters, humbly accepting their place in the status quo’. In fact, he is rather equivocal about the noise-makers and whether they are of any importance by comparison to the forelock-tuggers. At one point he says they ‘do most damage’, but he also says they don’t really matter: they are ‘no more part of the national culture than the background crackle is part of a radio programme’. The more one ponders what this simile tells us about Scruton’s conception of ‘the national culture’, the more alarming it becomes. There is no place for such critics: they are just not on the same wavelength.

Other areas of English life Scruton considers include the Constitution, which ought to be his home ground, a chance to combine Bagehotian shrewdness with Dimbleby-in-the-Abbey reverence. Instead, we get this sort of thing: ‘The monarch is in a real sense the voice of history, and the very accidental way in which the office is acquired emphasises the grounds of the monarch’s legitimacy.’ Got that? The phrase ‘accident of birth’ is clearly hovering in the wings of this sentence, though in the case of a hereditary monarchy one would have to say it’s an accident waiting to happen. What one might generously call the ‘argument’ here is Hegel’s in The Philosophy of Right, but there it does form part of ‘a philosophical perspective’. Scruton is Hegel in green wellies, a born-again Tory ideologue masquerading as a once-born countryman.

Just as there are hobby farmers so there are hobby historians, playing at understanding the past. There’s unsteadiness bordering on evasiveness in the way this book oscillates between offering interpretations of the English past and disclaiming any intention to be writing history. Statements such as ‘I speak of England as I knew it, not as the country might appear to the historian’ seem odd when so much of the book deals with centuries before Scruton was born. Moreover, his assertions about, say, the Middle Ages or the 17th century are bolstered by occasional, highly selective, footnotes referring to works by professional historians (although one of his main ‘authorities’ is G.M. Trevelyan’s English Social History, published in 1944).

Over and over again, Scruton insists that his account of English history is wie es eigentlich gewesen. Do you doubt that the English country house really did ‘dispense kindness and hospitality’ and ‘provide in wise measure for all its many dependants’? Well, ‘the papers of the Verney family are sufficient proof of the day-to-day reality.’ At other points he acknowledges that a constant repackaging of ‘the rural theme’ in English culture has helped to prevent ‘people from perceiving that the England of their dreams was no longer a reality’. But even if this ‘rural idyll’ is a myth, ‘it is a widely accepted one,’ and since myths that are accepted become as influential as truths, ‘it is a myth we ought to examine.’ Myths may become as influential as truths, but that does not make them truths.

As always with such narratives of ‘decline’, it is hard to pin down where exactly things went wrong. When was ‘England’ last fully alive, according to Scruton? At times it seems that the rot set in as long ago as the 16th and 17th centuries: ‘the great monuments of medieval England now’ – after the depredations of the two Cromwells – ‘lie ruined or mutilated in the landscape whose spirit they shared.’ But then he tells us the Fall happened in 1888, a date as symbolically important for this romantic Tory as 1688 was for his Jacobite predecessors: it was the year, should you have forgotten, of the Local Government Act, which abolished the ‘ancient’ system of county and parish administration, replacing the wise personal touch of local notables by the machinery of elected boards. The spirit of locality was further desecrated when ‘addresses too were bureaucratised,’ and what had been ‘a steady descent from shire to town to street to the plot of English earth so haloed’ was replaced by postcodes whose ‘impenetrable symbolism effectively wiped away the sense of place, and reinforced the common perception that the English are really living nowhere’.

There is a real question here about how far Scruton, a former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London and the author of several serious works in aesthetics and the history of philosophy, believes any of this. At one point, he descants on ‘the English tradition of nonsense’, which seems appropriate enough, and observes that much nonsense-writing (Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear) was ‘a way to spiritualise the world without believing anything’ – an insight that might be applied to Scruton himself. He speaks often and insistently of the loss of that ‘enchantment’ with which the English way of life used to be blessed, but a project of deliberate re-enchantment is bound to be artificial.

A genuinely personal memoir by Scruton would have been full of interest, but the will to ideology is just too strong. And as the heat rises within him and his denunciations become more sweeping, he forfeits what sympathy we might have been willing to extend to his anguish. ‘The global economy, the democratisation of taste, the sexual revolution, pop culture and television have worked to erase the sense of spiritual identity in every place where piety shored up the old forms of knowledge and local custom fortified the moral sense.’ How elegantly the lines of verbal drapery disguise a recipe for intolerance and persecution! What’s more, the relation of his own life to these changes is disingenuous: are we to assume that he wasn’t a beneficiary of ‘the democratisation of taste’ and ‘the sexual revolution’, even though they were among the main forces opening up opportunities to lower-middle-class grammar-school boys of the 1950s?

Many of these forces have been at work elsewhere, Scruton concedes, but the situation is worse in England because the English have wilfully inflicted the damage on themselves (hence the title of the last chapter, ‘The Forbidding of England’). The book at this point takes such a mad turn that one can only wonder whether those who have welcomed its tonic effect got to the end. ‘Venerable customs and wise institutions are under threat or already abolished’: ‘English weights and measures, English currency, local regiments, the Royal Tournament – every practice in which the spirit of England can still be discerned’. The Royal Tournament? We may leave aside the fact, not mentioned by Scruton, that it was only invented in the 1880s, but that still leaves the gobsmacking claim that ‘the spirit of England’ has been mortally wounded because we no longer cultivate the ‘wise’ and ‘venerable’ tradition of firing dummy rockets from bazookas in Earl’s Court.

Once he’s galloping across open country, there’s no stopping him. ‘Any activity connected with the hierarchy and squirearchy of Old England is now likely to be persecuted or even criminalised: not only hunting and gentlemen’s clubs, but uniforms, exclusive schools, old ceremonies, even the keeping of national customs and the display of the national flag.’ I seem to have missed the criminalisation of ‘exclusive schools’, and even the most casual observer of English society might feel that the ‘persecution’ of uniforms and old ceremonies still had a way to go. But there’s more: in the less ‘exclusive’ schools, they aren’t learning proper history any more – nothing about ‘the heroism of a Royal Navy devoted to its sovereign and able through its fortitude to “rule the waves”’. The BBC, too, is ‘now devoted to abolishing what remains of the national culture’.

Does any of this matter, or is it just the cod-philosophical equivalent of P.G. Wodehouse, an agreeable distraction from the unpleasing realities of contemporary life? I think it does, partly because it helps to prevent people gaining a proper understanding of the relation of their society to its past, and partly because it’s intellectually facile. Even those who recognise that Scruton is batty often say that his is nonetheless a refreshingly independent, unfashionable position, expressed with flair and with a philosophical grounding. That may, or may not, once have been true, but it’s certainly not true now. ‘Philosophical Toryism’ is the new chic – and ‘stylish’, ‘donnish’ conservatives are to the op-ed pages what celebrity chefs are to television. In many cases the claim to intellectual rigour is overdone: on the evidence here, one would have to conclude that Scruton has now come to rest in some lay-by of the mind.

England: An Elegy ends by returning to ‘my father’s early lessons in discontent’, if only to emphasise ‘a feature that is seldom mentioned by the historians of radical thought, and unnoticed by our modern reformers’. Jack Scruton told his son he only had to look out of the window at ‘the desecrated townscape of High Wycombe’ to see that it was the owners of capital who were ultimately responsible for despoiling the country. Scruton Junior’s rebellion against the values preached by his father has been long and public, and, as we have seen, he is still inclined to patronise him for his ‘unyielding resentment’. But at this point he betrays an unsteady response to his father’s lesson. The ostensible purpose of including this final vignette is to show that his father, too, was animated by love of place, and so was really ‘a patriot’. But in passing he reflects that perhaps his father was not ‘wholly wrong’ in identifying ‘big business’ as one of the ‘forces that were disenchanting England’. Jack Scruton, it seems to me, was talking about something more structural, but even this half-recognition of his case means that Scruton’s book ends on an incoherent note.

Any serious endorsement of his father’s view would be fatal to Scruton’s ‘elegy’. In his discussion of changes in the City of London, he gives the impression that capitalism was fine as long as the fund managers wore the old school tie and their word was their bond. But that England, too, has now disappeared and been replaced by ‘the world of fast bucks, informal manners and cheerful offers of unmeant friendship; the world of takeovers, asset-stripping, insider trading and multinational capital’. This is, yet again, an undiscriminating list: it might not require a rancorous, knee-jerk radical to suggest that ‘informal manners’ and ‘multinational capital’ are not quite on a par as forces shaping the world. However, when in his final chapter Scruton deplores the loss of those institutions which sustained local communities, such as ‘the village shop’, or when he cries out that ‘England is becoming a no man’s land, an “elsewhere”, managed by executives who visit the outposts only fleetingly, staying in multinational hotels on the edges of the floodlit wastelands,’ he seems to be hovering on the brink of recognising that this may have something to do with ‘the world of takeovers … and multinational capital’.

Were Scruton really to follow through on his father’s insight and analyse contemporary society in its light, he would be establishing a genuine, rather than a cosmetic, connection with his 19th-century predecessors. It would, of course, make him more a Cobbett than a Burke, more a William Morris than an Evelyn Waugh. The destructive energy of capital seeking to maximise its returns is not going to be tamed by a spot of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. It is not going to be tamed by a spot of Anglicanism either, or any other form of ‘re-enchantment’.

‘Land’ is, appropriately, the final word of Scruton’s book, and its dual meaning, both patria and plot, has been readily exploited by those who seek to identify ‘the country’ with ‘the countryside’. What is hymned here is not the blood-soaked soil in the French tradition of notre terre, nos morts, but more what one might call the National Trust model, a ‘shared’ past enshrined in places of beauty. (The National Trust itself, founded in 1895, still defines its purpose as being ‘to preserve places of historic interest or natural beauty permanently for the nation to enjoy’.) In this model the historical is beautiful and the beautiful is historical, and both are displayed pre-eminently in landscape. Sentiment, including patriotic sentiment, can safely be attached to something that promises to escape transience.

Such is the power of this cultural pattern that a sentence like ‘the spirit of a country is found in its history and its landscape’ seems innocuous. But why should ‘a country’, whatever that is (is Northern Ireland a country? Was Yugoslavia?), have a ‘spirit’? What kinds of continuity does this suppose: did Mercia have the same ‘spirit’ as the West Midlands? Has the ‘spirit’ of the domains of the Dukes of Burgundy been divided up between France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg? Is everything that happened in a country’s history an expression of its ‘spirit’? And why should one think that this elusive quality will be found in its ‘landscape’ rather than, say, its waste-disposal system?

The sentence in question comes from the introduction to Kenneth Baker’s anthology of ‘landscape poetry’; he does not pause to ponder its pitfalls. Indeed, there is much that Baker does not pause over, including the scope and title of his anthology. It is not, of course, an anthology of just any ‘landscape poetry’: it is a collection of poems (and extracts from poems) in English that can be said to have some connection with particular parts of – well, where? ‘Britain and Ireland’ seems the least misleading geographical expression, though in practice the concentration is heavily on England. Baker uses the first-person plural with a politician’s readiness and speaks blithely of ‘our country’ throughout. Perhaps someone should send him a copy of Seamus Heaney’s rebuke to earlier anthologists of ‘British poetry’.

Baker’s introduction is full of such cosy obiter dicta – literary Ovaltine to soothe away the cares of the day. Thus: ‘National pride has its roots deep in the soil and earth of one’s country.’ Deep in the soil and earth? Pride here appears to be figured as some kind of tree or plant, though in that case its ‘roots’ seem to be pretty much where roots usually are. And again: ‘A few generations back all our ancestors either worked on the land or serviced those who did.’ Even the poets, apparently, whose services seem to have included acting as unusually eloquent estate agents.

The selections themselves are loosely grouped under picture-book headings – ‘The Hours and the Seasons’, ‘Birds and Birdsong’ and such like. The arrangement is systematically ahistorical: no chronology is observed and an extract from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (in translation) rubs shoulders with a piece by Emily Brontë. In place of chronology and historical context we have the ‘eternal’ spirit of place, since the poetry is always ‘rooted’ in a particular spot. And since some of the poets included were themselves a bit coy about the exact grid references for their musings, the editor has added the name of a place or locality. Thus ‘Lake District’ now stands at the foot of some well-known bits of Wordsworth; ‘possibly Wiltshire’ has, more speculatively, been added to bits of Goldsmith; ‘Wessex’ has, idiotically, been appended to MacNeice’s ‘Wessex Guidebook’; and, disguising politics as geography, ‘middle England’ is the gloss on Christopher North’s ‘Battlefield’. The anthology includes a map of the British Isles with names of poets instead of placenames. This is poetry as coach-tour.

‘Landscape poetry’ embodies the Arcadian premise of the world we have lost or are in the process of losing, and this volume can be seen as the etiolated, genteel cousin of the once proud tradition of ‘condition of England’ writing. So, for example, Baker observes that ‘developers and industrialists’ have had ‘scant regard for the consequences of their actions’: ‘polluted rivers, slagheaps, pylons, urban villas taking the place of ancient forests, and concrete everywhere’. He ends on the authentically minatory note: ‘We are the losers now, but the greater losers are the generations yet to come.’

The sound of Kenneth Baker banging in fenceposts to keep out change is especially galling given that he was part of the Government throughout the Thatcher years, even occupying the post of Secretary of State for the Environment. Similarly, I don’t recall that those who share Scruton’s ‘philosophical perspective’ were in the forefront of opposition to the reforms of the 1980s that ushered in the latest phase of ‘liberalised’ markets. This, surely, is the disabling paradox of modern ‘conservatism’: that it wants simultaneously to liberate market forces and to lament their effects. Hence the deep structural dilemma of the modern Tory social critic: the forces that are destroying all that he loves are the forces he is committed to supporting. Unable to recognise let alone resolve the paradox, he is stymied: all he can do is pull on the wellies, stuff a copy of Wordsworth into the pocket of his Barbour, jump into the four-wheel drive, and thank God that there are some things that even intellectuals can’t spoil.