The Iron Lady

11/27/2011

 
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__When I was a boy, “Thatcher” was a curse word. My family loathed Mrs. T with a passion that burned hotter than the sun. They weren’t particularly political: my father was a lapsed trades-unionist and my mother was too well bred to vote. It was simply axiomatic that “she” was the enemy and “she” had to go. They drank a toast when she resigned from office.

I carried that burning faith well into my twenties, before I discovered history and retired from politics. Now it is with mixed feelings that I discover that a Hollywood movie has been made about Mrs. Thatcher’s life. For starters, it’s too early to make a film like this. Emotions are too raw for it to be watched objectively, and the lady is too advanced in years to offer a fair rebuttal. The kind of sordid details that make a biopic worth watching can only offend her family. The inevitable absence of the stories of ordinary people caught up in the Thatcher Revolution will equally offend the rest of us. Margaret Thatcher did not single handedly drag Britain into the postmodern era. We got there ourselves by putting pins through our noses and marrying the servants. (At least, that’s how mummy did it).

But the movie does offer those of us who are the “children of Thatcher” an opportunity to reflect on her legacy, especially now that the Credit Crunch has called so much of it into question. Since leaving the world of my parents far behind, I’ve settled into an idiosyncratic brand of conservatism that allies me more comfortably with the Right. Yet, I'm still uncomfortable with what happened to Britain in the 1980s and I lack the enthusiasm that many of my peers feel for Mrs. Thatcher. My critique of her is a Tory one, but it is critical nonetheless.

Margaret Thatcher’s analysis of what was wrong with Britain in 1979 was spot on. Militant unions, spiraling costs, outdated infrastructure, punishing tax rates – all these things crippled our industrial base and prevented growth. Then, as now, we were spending too much and taking too little in. A restive Left complicated matters. The Seventies breed of trades-unionist had less interest in a good deal for their workers than they did in replacing Parliament with a Supreme Soviet. In this climate, the medicine that Thatcher applied was correct: tax cuts, regulations on union power, privatization. Her measures were sensible enough for most other Western governments to copy them. Even social democratic parties in Germany, Sweden, and Australia cut and privatized their way out of recession.

But the sense of social dislocation that resulted from these policies was far bigger in Britain than anywhere else. Reaganomics could be equally as harsh, but Reagan’s approval rating was consistently high and he died a father figure appropriated by both Left and Right. So why does Mrs. T get such bad press?

The answer partly lies in the severity of the early Eighties recession, which still looms large in the public imagination. As the government cut off subsidies to failing businesses, the fall in productivity was the largest since the Great Depression and unemployment tripled to three million. Rioting in major cities became ubiquitous and crime soared. Thatcher’s policies tore up a “postwar settlement” that had promised an ever increasing standard of living through full employment. Right-wing ideologues saw that settlement as a shameful sell-out to socialism that swapped empire for welfare state. But the settlement had endured for so long because it was supported by consecutive Conservative governments. Those Tory grandees felt a sense of duty to the men they had fought and died alongside in the trenches, so they accepted the consensus regardless of its financial cost.

By dismantling the postwar settlement in the name of rescuing Britain from decline, Margaret Thatcher became a more revolutionary figure than her Labour Party opponents. In an excellent piece in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore writes that she redefined conservatism as “insurrection”. By so doing, she created a paradox. The point of conservatism is to preserve as much as possible of the social order that we inherit. It can be necessary sometimes to throw out the bad to preserve the good – which is why previous Conservative governments emancipated the Catholics or expanded the franchise. But the idea of purposefully uprooting the social order – even to return to a pre-Lapsarian, pre-socialist past – contradicts the conservative instinct for cohesion and order. A more traditional Conservative leader might have responded to the crisis of 1979 by trying to build a new consensus for piecemeal reform – to defend what was best about the postwar settlement by discarding what was worst.

Instead, the Thatcher government regarded its task as starting the world over again, and they approached it with the unbending fervor of the ideologue. As much was recently acknowledged by Norman Tebbit, the former “enforcer” of Thatcherism. In 1981, in response to the suggestion that rioting was the natural response to unemployment, the then Employment Secretary said, “I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ‘til he found it.” The paraphrase “on yer bike” became shorthand for the government’s firmness in the face of social protest. In 2009, Tebbit admitted that Thatcherism, particularly its conflict with the miners, had resurrected the British economy at a terrible price: “Black-hearted old Tory that I am, I recognize that in those mining towns and villages crime was very low, as was school truancy and yobbish behavior, because here there was a close-knit social structure in which there was a great deal of social stability. The rapid collapse of the coal mining industry did break up those communities in a terrible manner. I think it was a contributory factor to what was going on in society and the change in a lot of our old inner cities, where once, even if you were Norman Tebbit, you could walk safely through the streets.”

It should be stressed that the decline of the mining and industrial sectors was inevitable and germane to the Western world: Thatcher didn’t start it and she couldn’t have stopped it. But something about her government gave the impression that she didn’t really care about it, that her policies were class war masquerading as public policy. It wasn’t just the brutalism of her manifesto, or the fact that she was (inaccurately) quoted as saying there was “no such thing as society”. It was the lady herself. Her terrifying, patiently rehearsed vowels rang with the fiery anger of the Puritan. Her frightening stare barely contained the rage of the overtaxed haves against the indolence of the have nots. She was the silent majority personified, on the phone yet again to complain about the late delivery of the post or the foul language of the garbage men. Such a Conservative woman is infinitely more chilling than their male counterparts. She could not be mellowed by Rotary Bridge or public school frolics. She was the revolutionary vanguard of a late-to-liberation, female bourgeoisie.

Since 1945, Socialism and the welfare state have been responsible for the deaths of many great British characteristics, particularly frugality and chivalry. But Capitalism has done a lot of damage, too. The deregulated marketplace has brought competition, but also ugly chain stores, a taste for drugs, pornography, violent television, avarice, and materialism. Post-Thatcher, the Conservative Party seemed to lose sight of the fact that the freedom to make money isn’t the only pillar of the Good Society (although it’s a strong one). Ask a Conservative what kind of society they’d like to live in and they’ll generally identify the 1950s. This is highly ironic, because the faithful, decent national community that we imagine the 1950s to have been was also economically highly regulated and strongly wedded to the postwar consensus that Margaret Thatcher tore up.

If there is a psychological problem with the post-Thatcher generation of Conservatives, it is that they lack the emotional condition that forged the postwar settlement. I don’t expect them to endorse it or revive it, but the kind of Tories who signed up to it in the 1950s were men and women who had greater sympathy for the Britain of yesterday and today. They took pride in Church and Empire and they loved the people who had stood by them at Ypres and Dunkirk. They governed Britain because they felt they owed it something. They were burdened, even blinded, by duty. Mrs. Thatcher had her own faith, and it was strong enough to pull Britain out of the abyss. But I see little such passion or compassion in George Obsorne or David Cameron. These are ambitious young men with little experience of the world beyond Westminster. Their forebears might have called them vulgar. At least Margaret Thatcher had conviction and wit, and the withering tone of voice that gets things done.

 

Occupying New York

11/20/2011

 
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_ My latest trip to New York saw me straddling the social divide of employed rich, white liberals and unemployed rich, white liberals. The latter lot I met in Zuccotti Park, protesting against Capitalism, Obama, inequality, and the spiraling cost of Gant summer wear. I’ve been skeptical about the Occupy movement (hereafter referred to as OWS) because I went to university with many of the people in it. These were generally folks from good families and expensive schools. Something about Oxbridge put their backs up, because they walked away from it out-and-out revolutionaries – critics of the very social order that had given them a brilliant education. For about a year – during the Iraq War – we were kith and kin. I never entirely fitted in, but they were nice enough to share their nut roasts wrapped in tinfoil on long marches around Trafalgar Square. They slept with anything that moved; took a bucket-load of narcotics. They were citizens of the world, jetting from crisis to crisis to be seen standing with a sign declaring the end of the world. Their faces were evergreen and innocent: the soft, wide-eyed stare of someone who has never had to worry about paying for food or rent.

When their names came up in association with the St. Paul’s protests in London, I thought, “Haven’t any of these kids got a job yet?” They’ve been occupying things for about ten years. All that made a difference this time is that the media finally paid attention. I refused to attend the London occupation because I was worried about bumping in to people I know. They won’t like the fact that I now write for the Daily Telegraph and that I’m a hardcore “burn the witches” Catholic convert. I also seem to remember that some of them didn’t smell so good.

However, I was perfectly happy to drop by Zuccotti Park while I was passing through New York on a trip to see my publisher. It was a sad sight. As I wrote in the Telegraph, the media and journalists outnumbered protestors, and at least half the protestors were mentally ill folks looking for soup and shelter. A large proportion of the coherent demonstrators were foreign: always a bad sign. It suggests that they are part of that international jet set of anarchists that I knew at Cambridge. The Tea Party might have been crazy reactionaries, but at least they were American crazy reactionaries.

After a few hours standing in the rain taking photos of tattooed women climbing trees, I dashed back to my hotel to change for the evening. I was staying in a part of town I’m sure most of OWS has never visited. My hotel was next to an exposed subway track; the walls shook every time the 7 train passed by. I’d guess the hotel was used almost exclusively by ladies of the night: almost exclusively, because at breakfast I spotted a family of cornfed Alabamians tucking into their free oatmeal. All the other tables were populated by women in low cut tops who had stayed just the one night.

I threw on a suit and took the metro over to Park Avenue, for a cocktail party to celebrate my publisher’s 25 years in business. I promised myself that I’d stay thirty minutes and only drink OJ, but ended up polishing off two bottles of red and staying through to the bitter, bitter end. It was there that I had the good fortune to meet my boyhood hero, Steve Guttenberg. He’d written a book and was in town doing a show on Broadway. Growing up in the early 1990s, living on a diet of Blockbuster videos (how miraculous that technology seemed back then!), much of my understanding of the world outside West Kent came from watching Police Academy. Admittedly, they dropped off in quality after the first one (and about fifteen minutes into the first one, at that) but Steve seemed the acme of cool to me. Like the chivalric knight or the cheap detective, the wise guy lady killer remains a standard in heterosexual chic. The conversation was stilted because I was overcome with nerves, but the best bit went like this:
SG: What’s that on your lapel?
TS: It’s a badge for the British Red Cross.
SG: It’s shaped like a flower. Is it anything to do with Veteran’s Day?
TS: No it’s not, although I think you’re thinking of the poppies that we wear to commemorate the British dead in World War I. Although, actually the Poppy Appeal was started by an American nurse.
SG: Really?
TS: Yes, it was inspired by the poppies that grew where the soldiers fell on the battlefield.
SG: You know, we are really the first generation in history that has never experienced suffering like that. We’re the first generation who have never been called to kill or die for something.
TS: Yeah – instead we send other people to do it for us. And, of course, we fetishize anyone who acts like a killer.
SG: I’d love to see some of those hip hop guys spend ten minutes in the army, dodging real bullets. It’s one thing to rap about blood and guts but it’s a different ball game to actually see them.
TS: They sing about killing, but all they really do is eat pizza and smoke all day.
SG: Although, there’s nothing wrong with pizza and pot.
TS: No. Nothing wrong with that.
PAUSE
SG: You got any pot?
TS: No.
SG: Well, I hope you won't think I'm rude if I go and talk to someone else.
TS: Okay, bye.

Wow, I thought, Steve Guttenberg is kind of deep.

And now, as I write, I’m taking a train out of New York north to Boston. From a distance, New York is brown and beautiful. Even the railroad tracks seem to glitter in the morning sun. It takes just twenty minutes to hit open countryside and an hour to see the Atlantic. How loud and cruel it is, crashing mercilessly against the fishing boats. Above me are gulls and to the left, miles of reeds and silver pools of water. No wonder the Puritans thought New England was a gift from God. In the midday sun it is as pure and golden as it was when the Mayflower first landed. God bless America.

 
 
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On Friday I co-hosted a public conference on the decline of history as a discipline. The morning session saw a panel of UK politicians (Tristram Hunt, David Willetts, Kevin Brennan) discussing the role of history in society. Politicians (and not just those of the Right) tend to presume that history teachers have a duty to inculcate British identity. It's not an easy task. For one, our speakers couldn’t agree on what that identity should be: Hunt seemed to favor a Tory constitutionalism, Willetts an emphasis on liberty and free enterprise (reflected in a more decentralized, privatized educational sphere), and Brennan stressed localism and multiculturalism. But the larger problem was that the panel presumed that history (above all the arts subjects) could and should have purpose.

In contrast, I argued that the joy of history was that it offered an insight into the alien. The study of past societies reveals a multitude of different ways of looking at war, sex, women, God, and the ascent of man. For those of us who are perpetual tourists, that is its appeal – not an effort to find similarities from the past and, therefore, reassurances about the future.

At eleven o’clock, we all stopped to observe two minutes silence for the men who gave their lives in World War I. It was, my co-host said, “A day on which we all become historians”. But, as a historian, I am a little curious about what it is people are remembering when they remember the Great War and what that has to say about us now. Often the act of remembrance has much more to say about the present than the past. The way we think about World War I – typically as a pointless bloodbath – reflects a greater truth about ourselves today than it does the fallen of the Somme. The British are a very different people to what they were one hundred years ago. In some senses, that’s the biggest tragedy of all.

There was a time when World War I was regarded as a noble sacrifice. In 1918, most Britons thought they had beaten a wicked enemy to a miraculous victory. They had held the line against Prussian imperialism, upholding the right of small nations (like poor little Belgium) to exist. The British took the sacrifices of the war not as an indictment of the cruelty of the class system but as an opportunity to build a fairer, more democratic society. Women got the vote, pensions and unemployment benefits were expanded and the government subsidised “homes for heroes”.

In the 1930s, when war with Germany seemed likely again, the Great War suddenly became a lesson in the barbarism of war. RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End (the play that inspired a young Ronald Reagan to take up acting) depicted young men pressured by a misplaced sense of honour into giving their lives for a worthless cause. Sherriff’s message was troubling, but his social setting was orthodox and even comforting: the stars of Journey’s End are public school boys who quote Alice in Wonderland before going over the top.

By the 1960s, Sherriff’s personal tragedy had morphed into class war. Alan Clark’s book The Donkeys and Joan Littlewood’s musical play Oh! What a Lovely War! portayed the conflict as the result of sheer negligence. In keeping with the Marxist sensibilities of the Sixties, the aristocrats became incompetent vampires and the working class their innocent victims. In Littlewood’s play, the generals tallied the war dead like a cricket score, while singing, “Form fours! Right turn!/ How shall we spend the money we earn?/ Oh! Oh! Oh! it's a lovely war!” Ironically, Littlewood complained that the audience was full of ex-soldiers who came not for the social commentary but for the wonderful tunes.

By the 1980s, most of those veterans were dead. And so Thatcher’s generation bequeathed to us a testament to the conflict that had no input from anyone involved: Blackadder Goes Forth. Everyone under thirty will recall being shown this comedy series at school as if it were newsreel footage. It’s a funny show that reflects a lot of the madness of war, but it’s more about the materialism and loneliness of the ugly Eighties than it is the 1910s. No one in the show is sympathetic: General Melchett is insane, Lieutenant George is a halfwit, Blackadder is sardonic and manipulative. In a repudiation of Littlewood’s socialist idealism, even the working class Baldrick is a dung eating cretin. We laugh when Blackadder slaps him round the back of the head and giggle when he talks wistfully of a revolution in Russia. By the time Blackadder was broadcast, the USSR - in many regards, created in opposition to the nightmare of the Eastern front - was falling apart.

Today, war is so distant from the lives of the average Briton that most people probably see the Poppy Appeal as a charity rather than a social compact with people who died fighting for them. And the Great War is a folly that is taught in classroom as a lesson in the stupidity of patriotism, jingoism, elitism and giving a damn about anything beyond ourselves. In Downton Abbey, it’s just the backdrop to costume drama. The moment servant William Mason says he can’t wait to “serve ‘is majesty thur King o’Englund”, we know he’s going to get it in the belly. The Great War and its casualties are totally alien to 21st century Britain, so they’ve become stock characters and clichés. And how are we, who have never known real sacrifice, supposed to sympathise? The war dead are names on a cenotaph who willingly died for the empire, for the vainglorious struggle to keep as much of the map as imperial pink as possible. There is little in all of this for contemporary students to identify with.

The million dollar question is, would Britons fight the Great War today? The British war effort was sustained from 1914-1916 without the need for conscription: volunteers were that easy to find. Many thought life in the army would be easier than life in the slums. But most were probably motivated by a degree of instinctive patriotism that I suspect is gone (and that’s due, in part, to how we remember World War I). It is hard to imagine a mass sacrifice of blood and money by a generation that riots over tuition fees or public sector cuts. Moreover, our nation lacks the worship of our sovereignty that once defined us as an island nation. We have voted for government after government that has surrendered our right to govern ourselves to other people – dare I suggest, to the very people we fought to remain independent from in 1914? 
Studying the world of 1914 is an example of how the past offers contrast, not ways of reinforcing modern identity. The modern British are wealthier, better educated, more liberated than they once were. But we have lost the love of tribe, and the pride and beautiful self-sacrifice that come with it. And when you consider the differences between us, you have to conclude that we are donkeys compared to the lions of World War I.

 

A bad book

11/06/2011

 
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As all my regular readers will now know, I don't like the New Atheism. I don't like its chauvinism, its bad manners, its appeal to adolescent barbarity, the lack of philosophers and theologians involved, and, most of all, its intellectual arrogance. So it was with the expectation of getting very angry indeed that I picked up The Good Book: A Secular Bible by Professor A.C. Grayling. Surprisingly, it proved a worthwhile effort. For this might be the text that sinks the New Atheism forever - so artless, humorless, vain, and conceited that it is.

The Good Book offers a non-religious religious text for non-religious readers in search of something a bit religious that isn’t in any way remotely religious. It’s hard to think of a more perfectly oxymoronic title than A Secular Bible, although The Kama Sutra for Eunuchs springs to mind. It is a collection of sayings by humanist figures strung together in a narrative that parodies the Christian Bible. There are chapter headings like “Genesis”, “Wisdom”, and “Parables”, and it is structured in verses. The language is epic; naturalism ascending into heroic lessons on reason. “Genesis” begins this way: “In the garden stands a tree. In springtime it bears flowers; in the autumn, fruit. Its fruit is knowledge, teaching the good gardener how to understand the world.” [Pause for thought: is the gardener morally good or just a good gardener? And is there a link between the two? The original Good Book was written in Hebrew, which lends itself better to subtleties like this]. This section goes on to describe the apple falling on Newton’s head, “[He] saw what no one had seen before: that an apple draws the earth to itself, and the earth the apple/ Through a mutual force of nature that holds all things, from the planets to the stars, in unifying embrace.” From this we bound to the first lesson. Life ticks by, but man is unique in nature because he notices it. “In humankind there is experience also, which is what makes good and its opposite/ In both of which humankind seeks to grasp the meaning of things.” QED, it is the ability to recognize what works and what fails that gives us ethics and makes us different from the animals.

The Good Book offers an ethical blueprint to the Good Society, as opposed to a faith-inspired dictat. It catalogues the sum of human knowledge as drawn from practical experience rather than mystical revelation. Grayling quotes great figures like Aristotle or Lycurgus of Sparta, whose legal experience forms a great many of the “Acts” that readers are encouraged to emulate. We learn to be nice to one another, to study, to pursue the truth, to reject superstition and bigotry. And in this enterprise, A.C. Grayling may have done the world a great service. He has exposed the New Atheism for the unimaginative, anti-intellectual bore that it really is. If you want to know why it won’t fly, buy this book.

From the above excerpt, it should be obvious that the prose is leaden, repetitive, and self-important. Parodying the Bible only reminds the reader of how marvelous the real Good Book is. In its Hebrew variant, the Tree of Life is a complex image divided and subdivided into branches of good and evil. Rabbis have spent centuries arguing about its meaning: one word can be expanded into a million and translated ten-times more ways. In Grayling’s hands, it is either a pear tree or a metaphor for a BSC in Chemistry. Compare Grayling to the King James Version. A few words to remind you of their beauty and power: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat/ And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Perhaps the Christian version has a more censorious take on the getting of wisdom, but the English is far superior. And artistry and mystery are elevating to man, where as practical observations will put him to sleep; especially when extended over 608 pages. It’s an artificial, unedifying read – like cracking open a billion Chinese fortune cookies, studying every empty platitude that falls out, while masticating that nasty vanilla shell that sticks in the tongue and dries the gum.

The Good Book is a work of stupendous arrogance. Not only is it vain to try to rewrite the most influential and popular book ever written, it takes some nerve to try to sum up all human experience in a single read. Inevitably, things will be overlooked. “Mythology is fantasy” according to Grayling, but Jung would disagree. He argued that they are the conscious realization of things buried in our psyche. Most contemporary anthropologists would at least concede that there is a need demonstrated across all societies for the expression of something beyond material life – normally communicated in worship and veneration. Whatever its source, it is perverse to dismiss it so. It is downright bizarre then to construct or appropriate a whole new mythology in service of Grayling’s ethical fancies. The chapter called “Parables” is manufactured in part out of a conversation between a fox and a leopard as recounted by a heathen. And yet, the overall narrative of “historical discovery” suggests that all of human knowledge is interconnected – that progress begat progress. The Bible was more elaborate, as the enormous differences between the sensual Psalms and the tyrannical letters of St. Paul demonstrate. Moreover, knowledge actually isn’t disseminated across history in that way. A philosopher might think that it is, because he/she is textual in approach. But history shows that ideas are invented, censored, forgotten, and later reconstituted in a different form to their conception. There is no religious or cultural context applied to any of these stories. Greek society was very religious and very moral. That’s why Socrates was condemned for corrupting the youth of the city and promoting false gods. Nor would sociologists enjoy this book. Concepts like “man”, “society”, or “knowledge” pass undefined. Marx would rankle at the book’s lack of concern for material realty; Foucault would laugh at its naïve faith that “learning” is objective and unrelated to power.

Aside from these authorial missteps, The Good Book illustrates two big problems with the New Atheism. First, the ethical system of the Bible is superior to Grayling’s version precisely because there is a God involved. The threat of God’s wrath means that readers are not persuaded to be nice to each other, they are compelled. Likewise, Christ’s physical resurrection gives us hope of salvation. Without his divine nature, Jesus was just a failed revolutionary. It is the literal realization of God on Earth that gives Christ moral authority, confirming the truth of everything that has gone before and prophesying what is to come. Even if the reader does not believe in God, they can surely see the greater social utility of theistic morality than Grayling’s republic of ethical astronomers. The Good Book’s model for basing ethics on experience raises this question: what if experience and necessity urge us to make a decision that is objectively evil? Theistic morality says that we have to say no, but Grayling’s text is full of loopholes. Without an authority external to man, good and evil become constructs. Recall that in Genesis, Grayling wrote, “In humankind there is experience also, which is what makes good and its opposite.” Not only can he not name evil at this foundational stage [why? Is this political correctness?], but he defines good as the sum of human experience. Until very recently, experience said that blacks made good slaves, that the disabled could be sterilized, or that women were intended for housework and breeding. There was also a consensus that accumulated human experience proved there was a God that served a useful moral purpose.

Second, Grayling’s decision to produce a sacred text for atheists underlines the New Atheism’s evolution from healthy skepticism to the status of a new religion. It has its inquisition (Richard Dawkins’ endless TV programs exposing miracles we all knew were frauds), its process of confession and redemption (the phenomenon of teenagers posting recantations on Youtube), and now its own Bible. Why does every humanist movement inevitably imitate religion? The French Revolution produced the Cult of the Supreme Being; the Cultural Revolution gave us the Little Red Book. The reason is that man needs something to venerate, something to live and die for. What is unusual about the New Atheism is its lack of artistry. None of its proponents are formally trained in theology, so their knowledge of the subject is embarrassingly limited. Most are scientists of some ilk, so they lack the imagination required to offer something in the place of faith. Their movement will eventually be forgotten because, like this text, they are fundamentally dull.

No better review could be written for The Good Book than this one I found online: “Grayling had signed my copy, so I couldn’t even get my money back”.