What’s the big idea?

Jonathan Parry

  • The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914 by Simon Heffer
    Random House, 912 pp, £30.00, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 84794 742 0

Simon Heffer has had an idea. He has had them before, but he has fattened this one up into a book of enormous proportions. Huge quantities of factual narrative have been injected into it, in the hope of beguiling reviewers into acknowledging its historical respectability. For all that, the underlying argument is simple – the title gives it away. Britain began to go to the dogs in the period between 1880 and 1914. That was because the ruling classes forgot how to rule and became corrupted by wealth and the attendant vices of materialism.

Like all good Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph journalists, Heffer finds a great deal to be indignant about. The social rot that – in his account – spread relentlessly through state and society in these years came from the very top. As prince of Wales and then king, Edward VII gambled, had mistresses and corrupted his protectors into indulging his whims, while his son was linked to the sordid allegations about aristocrats and male prostitutes in Cleveland Street. Edward was particularly obsessed with dress, which advertised wealth and disguised flabbiness of all kinds. He attacked his mother’s prime ministers for their sartorial shortcomings: Lord Rosebery was rebuked for dressing like an American and Lord Salisbury for attending the queen wearing the trousers of an Elder Brother of Trinity House (Salisbury had to apologise: he had been preoccupied by ‘some subject of less importance’). The monarchy started to celebrate vulgar swagger: the Mall became an avenue for pompous ceremony. By the time Buckingham Palace’s grand new façade was completed, George V, another stickler for dress, was on the throne. He even insisted on a strutting ornateness featuring Britannia and seahorses for the high-value stamps issued in his reign. Stamp-collecting was made fashionable by the pharmacist Edward Stanley Gibbons, who was also remarkable for his prolific sexual adventures and the fact that three of his wives succumbed to ailments that suggested poison. Joseph Boehm, who designed the commemorative coins for the 1887 Jubilee, may – but then again may not – have died in flagrante with Queen Victoria’s ‘bohemian’ daughter Princess Louise. Politicians used smart dress to cover poor morals: Joseph Chamberlain sported a monocle and an orchid but behaved badly to the future Beatrice Webb. The Liberal prime minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman ate so much that he ballooned to twenty stone.

The ruling class was free to behave in this appalling way, Heffer asserts, because of ‘the decline of the spiritual’, though he doesn’t have much to say about it. The middle classes were left free to ape materialist aristocratic values, typified by Mr Pooter, and schoolboys lapped up the snobbish school stories of Frank Richards. They also demanded new sporting heroes: many cricketers became celebrities, particularly if they cultivated swagger. W.G. Grace maintained his stardom because few knew he had a squeaky voice, but several other on-field heroes – A.E. Stoddart, William Scotton, Arthur Shrewsbury – killed themselves after their careers ended, unable to cope with the loss of fame and/or money. Audiences demanded swagger in music too, forcing that poor ambitious provincial Edward Elgar to respond with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. It was the relentless media coverage of imperial activities that made it necessary to boast of empire. The Boer War of 1899 was the fruit of a national thirst for money, jewels and glory but the failure to win it easily exposed the hypocrisy of upbeat imperial language: the reality was the concentration camps used to house captured Boers. Military difficulties also created alarm at the physical inadequacies of the race. The 1901 census revealed a disturbing rise in the number of imbeciles and lunatics, perhaps because the question seemed to tempt householders to classify their dependants as one or the other. Statistics also indicated a relentless increase in syphilis and an appalling amount of drunkenness. All this encouraged talk of eugenics and sterilising the feeble-minded. Baden-Powell set up the Boy Scouts because so much was wrong with society. Poor boys stole; middle-class ones knew no danger. A woman drowned in the Hampstead Ponds because the men nearby couldn’t swim. Boys’ teeth were so bad that they couldn’t eat hard biscuits on military campaigns. They also needed to learn to ‘breathe through the nose, not the mouth’.

After the Boer War, Chamberlain spruced up his orchid and declared that Britain faced economic and imperial decline and that the only answer was the reintroduction of tariffs. National failure preoccupied many, hence the obsession with Captain Scott’s heroic death in the Antarctic. Erskine Childers and William le Queux wrote invasion scare stories. Women were being violated – prompting alarms over prostitution and abortion – and were in need of ‘protection’ (the theme of one chapter). H.G. Wells’s dreadful treatment of them, and his other moral inadequacies, are a running theme of the book, along with his warnings about class conflict. Periodically from the 1880s, and especially after 1910, trade union militancy became impossible to ignore. Ramsay MacDonald blamed it on the loss of noblesse oblige, and Heffer agrees: the decadence of the ruling class ‘had provoked the often successful challenges of the Labour movement’. In 1909 the House of Lords displayed its unconstitutional and class-bound selfishness in resisting Lloyd George’s budget. The resulting struggle weakened both the aristocracy and the Liberal government, which was presided over by the heavy drinker and womaniser Asquith, who subsequently failed to solve the problem of Ireland and by 1914 had surrendered the rule of law there to the army.

Heffer sustains his argument by ignoring a great deal of contradictory material. He focuses relentlessly on parliamentary and governmental politics, but even here ignores the points that suggest a different perspective. The book has almost nothing to say about the Asquithian social reforms designed to provide health insurance, tackle seasonal unemployment and reduce poverty in old age. There is also puzzlingly little on the increases to the defence budget, which had the effect of wiping out the German naval threat in the First World War. By 1914 the Liberal government, which Heffer derides, had managed to fund both these initiatives while minimising tax increases on middle and working-class voters, and it would almost certainly have won a majority at the next election had it taken place as planned in 1915, since it had shot the foxes of both the Conservative and Labour oppositions by its vigorous defence of free trade and its limited concessions to trade unions. Heffer isn’t interested in Continental comparisons and so doesn’t reflect on the fact that in 1914 the British polity was much more stable than the French, German, Italian or Russian. And, contrary to his view, few voters were much concerned with either imperialism or Ulster per se, though both issues had sometimes been used as proxies for the patriotic defence of national strength – a subject which the German threat now allowed Asquith to address directly. Heffer has no grasp of the way the parties sought to appeal to voters: he claims, for example, that the Conservatives’ large electoral majorities between 1886 and 1906 were caused by the nascent Labour movement (which hardly existed for most of that period) ‘splitting the anti-Conservative vote’. And he has no insight into the demands of the organised working class, which were driven by the logic of trade unionists’ needs in different industrial regions, were hardly concerned at all with ruling-class decadence, and can’t be understood through the writings of Fabian intellectuals or the plays of John Galsworthy.

Heffer isn’t interested in new scholarship on the period unless it’s biographical. Hardly a page of this book is informed by developments in historical thinking since the 1970s; he makes his case using whatever materials come to hand most easily. A chapter on religion is overwhelmingly about the parliamentary debates in the 1880s on whether the atheist Charles Bradlaugh should be allowed to sit in Parliament without taking the Christian oath. A chapter on women is mostly about W.T. Stead’s publicity-seeking campaigns on prostitution. A chapter called ‘Ireland’ is limited to the politics of Gladstone and Home Rule. A chapter on art undermines his own case, showing that the religious middle classes so feared importing moral decadence from the Continent that they avoided anything experimental. Apart from biography, Heffer’s favourite source is the contemporary novel. Again and again he mines Arnold Bennett, Edward Thomas, E.M. Forster, Wells and Galsworthy for material, and takes their social criticism at face value.

Is it wise to rely so heavily on these novelists’ arguments in constructing a moral critique? In every era writers can be found condemning the money-worship, tawdriness and anti-intellectualism of their own day and in every era the common weaknesses of human nature supply enough examples to feed this moralism and to create a market for it. In every era the ambiguous position of some institutions – the royal family, for example – generates reliable material for those inclined to indignation about their privileges. In every era a small insular nation can be made to feel vulnerable about its physical and moral security.

*

The Age of Decadence is a sequel to Heffer’s equally massive work on the mid-Victorian period, High Minds, published in 2013, and it is striking that his argument then was the opposite: the period 1840-80 is presented as a period of ‘improvement’ led by writers and by intellectual politicians and clergymen. That book was a celebration of the civic high-mindedness of Prince Albert, Carlyle, Thomas Arnold, Dickens, Lord Shaftesbury and others. Were the argument of both books true, the big historical question would be how one era gave way to the other: what great forces explain the success of Mind in the first and its supersession by Money in the second? Sadly, Heffer doesn’t begin to tackle this conundrum, possibly because in both periods the interaction of mind and money was infinitely more complicated than he is willing to admit.

What the two books clearly show is that Heffer is more than anything a moralist. In his view, polities can be well or badly conducted: his role is to act as judge. At first sight this attitude is surprising. Tory newspaper columnists are usually thought of as sceptics about high-mindedness and pessimists about human nature, believers in the imperfectibility of man and the severe limits to the role of government in remedying the human condition. One would certainly get this view from reading Heffer’s equivalents of a few decades ago – Peregrine Worsthorne, Henry Fairlie, Frank Johnson. Perhaps Heffer once took this line too. But at some point in his life he discovered Carlyle, whose biography he wrote, and he now seems determined to write history in the Carlylean vein.[*] There should therefore be a virtuous ruling class; it should strive to fashion men for the better; in a rightly ordered world it will receive the obedience of the masses; but money-worship, corruption and sloth will see it rightly punished by the forces of history, behind which prowls the indistinct but terrible form of God.

Heffer is not alone among journalists of the right in rediscovering the moralism of mid-Victorian intellectuals and in making it politically influential. Carlyle and John Stuart Mill developed in different ways the Coleridgean idea of a clerisy, an intelligentsia that would steer the increasingly restless masses onto righteous paths and prevent them being seduced by selfish money-grabbing – the great enemy of the age. With Mill, the idea of a politically active clerisy came to be particularly associated with Liberal politics: it was his ambition to direct the electorate soon to be enlarged by the 1867 Reform Act. He was elected MP for Westminster in 1865, and a group of young dons, known to posterity as ‘the lights of liberalism’, attempted to follow him into Parliament in order to contribute a new high-minded leadership. They were Liberals not because they regarded the Conservatives as particularly materialist but because they saw them as stupid – uninterested in ideas and rational thought. Unfortunately, the tendencies to money-worship and class selfishness in public life that they set out to attack were no less strong in the Liberal Party, which is why they so spectacularly failed. The weight of money in Victorian politics prevented most of them from getting seats, and the unpopularity of their plans to unite ‘brains and numbers’ within their party blunted the impact of those who did. Gladstone astutely observed in 1877 that the emergence of a literary utopianism in political commentary was itself a product of the corruption of public life by excessive wealth rather than the solution to it: clever young men could no longer get into Parliament and train for leadership, so instead had to go off and make a living writing impractical philosophical columns in the newspapers.

Only rarely since then has the vision of a disinterested Millite clerisy directing national counsels gained political traction. Some have suggested that Asquith’s government was beholden to an ideology of ‘New Liberalism’, but this is dewy-eyed: like ‘New Labour’, it was a political triangulation strategy rather than an intellectual endeavour. For most of the 20th century, abstract ideas were kept in their place. Within parties, and particularly within the Labour Party, policy-making was delegated to committees, which were rarely temples of high-mindedness. Keith Middlemas described the politics of industrial society as a battle of economic interests – capital and labour – that became bureaucratised and accommodated within the processes and institutions of government. Parties appealed to voters mostly in straightforward terms – talk of jobs, wages, living standards and social services – and there was a continuing subsidiary role for ethical appeals to various kinds of loyalty, moral respectability and aspiration loosely based on traditional ideas of patriotism, religion or class solidarity. As Morgan Phillips observed, the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than to Marxism. Large swathes of the Conservative Party continued to deprecate ideas, and to prioritise pragmatism even when applying the ideas they recognised, such as free market economics. The party’s main claim on voters’ loyalties was its basic offer of economic competence and stability.

*

The process by which the Conservative Party has become addicted to ideas is one of the most significant and least studied political developments of the last quarter-century. It clearly owes something to the legacy of Thatcher and the appeal of free market ideology, bolstered by the process of globalisation. But the craving for an ideas-driven Conservatism can’t be explained simply in terms of the triumph of a particular economic worldview. On the contrary, it could be argued that at no time since 1914 has the Conservative Party demonstrated less concern with economic competence than it does now. This can be attributed to a range of pressures: the unattractive economic choices imposed by post-2008 austerity politics; the dependence on a particular unproductive vested interest, old age pensioners; and, above all, the allure of Brexit. The triumph of Brexit is the clearest example of the conquest of Conservatism by an idea which, whatever one thinks of it, is not primarily justified by a reasoned economic calculation. It is instead a moralist’s statement of how the world ought to be. Britain ought to be a sovereign country; it ought to have an independent weight in the world; its historic values equip it to thrive; they need to be liberated.

This is the language of newspaper columnists who in a thousand words must put the world to rights. It is the language of Heffer himself, when writing about Brexit, and it is the language of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who both spent their whole pre-political careers as journalists. Yet Brexit is merely the most striking example of the way in which the press – and some quasi-intellectual policy advisers in the mould of Oliver Letwin – have remoralised the Conservative offering. Gove’s attack as education secretary on ‘the blob’, his term for the forces in charge of school education, was shaped by years of indignant columns about the barriers to excellence and competitiveness imposed by school bureaucracy and political correctness. George Osborne’s abolition of the 50p tax rate in 2012, which in one month knocked six points off the Conservative share of the vote in the opinion polls, owed more to pro-Laffer-curve journalism than to conclusive Treasury data on the subject. This is now a world in which Osborne, for six years the second most powerful man in Britain, can think that the best means of resisting Brexit is the editorship of a London freesheet. And it is a world in which leading Conservative political columnists – Tim Montgomerie, Matthew d’Ancona, Iain Martin – respond to the party’s current parlous position by urging a turn to ‘new ideas’, as if the current ones hadn’t done damage enough.

Abandoning hard-headed economic realism allied to the sceptical rebuttal of utopian moralism, and replacing it with something approaching its opposite, is a course that seems at best electorally retrograde and in all likelihood completely suicidal. Yet the underlying point is that the political class as a whole, across all parties, is now infected with the same tendency. Politics has been hollowed out into a war of words, now that a parliamentary career has become less attractive to men and women from other walks of life. It currently attracts in disproportionate numbers what used to be called the lumpenintelligentsia: earnest types who enthuse about ideas, simplify them and believe fervently that their crude and wholesale application will solve complex social problems. Hence, among other consequences, the paradox that Brexit appeals to resurgent Corbynites on the grounds that it might one day bring about socialism in one country and to Conservative free marketeers for the opposite reason. Clearly both can’t be right, and almost certainly neither will get as far as they hope towards implementing their vision. But it is ironic that 150 years after Carlyle and Mill fretted about how best to secure the rule of the high-minded in an era awash with money, the ideas men – and it is perhaps telling that they are nearly all men – have finally taken over politics. Though Heffer may disagree, I have a feeling that neither of those venerable sages would think our new political class quite up to it.

[*] Michael Foot reviewed Heffer’s Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle in the LRB of 11 May 1995.