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
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced