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
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition