Allen Lane £20 (237pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

Ill Fares the Land, By Tony Judt

Tony Judt is Britain's greatest baby-boom historian. He has been the finest interpreter of 20th-century French intellectual politics writing in English. His masterpiece history, Postwar: a History of Europe since 1945, was chosen as European book of the year in 2009. At the award ceremony in the European Parliament I had to read out the citation because Judt had just been stricken by a wretched motor-neurone disease that took away his body while leaving this great, restless mind burning with things to say.

Now much of that passion can be found in this valedictory essay. Judt, born in 1948, is the quintessential London Review of Books left intellectual. Is he describing himself when he writes: "Sadly, contemporary intellectuals have shown remarkably little informed interest in the nitty-gritty of public policy, preferring to intervene or protest in ethically-defined topics where the choices seem clearer"? During the long Thatcher-Major years, such writers never had to think about policy as there was a clear target of venom. When Labour arrived in 1997, there was a momentary pleasure at the despatch of the hated Tories but then the attacks began again.

This book is in that tradition of how non-Conservative politics always lets down its supporters. In fact, the baby-boom intellectuals have never had it so good. The smart ones like Judt went to America where they had well-paid jobs and an audience that lapped up the oh-so-English cleverness of the 1968 generation of Oxbridge writers – Judt himself plus Simon Schama, Paul Kennedy, Niall Ferguson, Christopher Hitchins, Martin Walker and Colin MacCabe, among others.

Judt's generation practised not so much a trahison but an exil of clercs, and this book is a lament about a lost world of social-democratic fairness - which Judt believes was brought into being after 1945 and then thrown away by Tony Blair, or what he describes as President Obama's "bumbling stewardship of US health care reform."

In France, Judt's generation of left intellectuals laments the passing of les trentes glorieuses – the three post-war decades when, according to their eschatology, the world was made into a better place before it descended into the awfulness of the last 30 years. It suffices to attach the prefix "neo" to almost any word to produce a reflex reaction of hostility. So "neo-liberal" and "neo-conservative" pepper Judt's book as if it makes the argument.

But were the three post-war decades so glorious? There were wars galore. Europeans in east or Mediterranean nations lived under tyranny. There was more equality between workers and the middle classes but only for a limited number of men. Women, gays, immigrants benefited little from the patriarchal, trade-union, Fabian world that Judt so admires. In fact, in this book every quote is from a dead white English-writing male.

Since 1980, the share of the state's income from the wealth produced in most democracies has increased significantly. It's a funny kind of neo-liberalism that sees taxes go up and state bureaucracies appropriate more wealth to their own ends. It is the last 30 years that have seen the greatest growth of democracy in world history: new rights for gays; the Vatican exposed; Islamist ideology with its misogyny, Jew-hate, and denial of human rights challenged; the European Union creating a new model for co-existence between nations.

The Institute of Fiscal studies has just produced a report arguing that under Labour the better-off pay more taxes and there has been redistribution to the poor. I can see that in my working-class constituency in South Yorkshire, where there are new schools, new SureStart children's centres, no waiting lists at the hospital, more public-service workers, and redistributive allowances for poor families and pensioners. But a New York intellectual does not come to Rotherham. If he did he would not be allowed to write for the London Review of Books and he would not have written this book. Judt's history writing is immortal. This book is not.

Denis MacShane MP served as Minister of State for Europe from 2002 to 2005

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits