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Our Times, by AN Wilson
An edgy elegist for our divided kingdom
Friday 19 September 2008
This is an intermittently brilliant, hastily written, hugely idiosyncratic and, in the end, rather depressing book. The brilliance lies in its crisp, if occasionally weary, re-statement of a particular conservative view of the last 60 years of British history. The speed at which it was compiled is confirmed by the scattergun nature of some arguments, which have a tendency to leap all over the place like a frog over lily-pads. The idiosyncrasy gleams from many of the judgements – the Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles, FR Leavis was a great man – which are erratic to the point of provocation. It depresses, not only because no knowledgeable reader, whether of right or left, could fail to agree with most of its conclusions, but because that reader would also concur with Wilson in thinking that nothing could be done to change the social forces that have brought them about.
The Wilson thesis goes like this. Since Her Majesty's accession in 1952, the idea of "Britain" as a coherent society, underpinned by shared cultural traditions and a behavioural consensus, has ceased to exist. Several factors have contributed to this descent into shabby pluralism, but the most obvious are mass immigration, loss of sovereignty to the EU, the decline of organised religion (or rather the state church's loss of nerve) and the revolution in technology. The fixed point in the shifting landscape of fast bucks and self-serving politicians is the monarch herself. If what follows is not quite the jeremiad it sounds – see Wilson's view of race relations and the ability of most multicultural Britons to live in peace with their neighbours – then the prevailing note is elegiac: the thought that something profoundly important to national life has been lost, which no amount of government initiatives can ever quite bring back.
This is a conservative argument, of course – a liberal historian would doubtless be arguing that pluralism is a jolly good thing – but not straightforwardly conservative, and therein lies its interest. In its arguments and, more important, in its iconography, it reproduces the atmosphere of The Spectator in its late 1970s heyday: libertarian, concerned with individual freedom, regularly invoking its in-house philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, finding its symbols in municipal architecture and the 1662 prayerbook, its villains in Sir Basil Spence and RD Laing, its heroes in maverick right-wing journalists of the Michael Wharton school, and its solace in a series of character judgments that hover somewhere between rudeness and outright abuse.
The Wilson tone is at its purest when he writes about politicians, most of whom he merely loathes. Eden, we learn, "the only British Prime Minister known to varnish his fingernails, was easily the best-looking individual, of either sex, to occupy that office in the 20th century. Many also regarded him as the most disastrous, though there is such competition for the role that attempts to draw up an order of prime ministerial incompetence... would be invidious." No point in suggesting that Eden's finger-varnish has nothing to do with his political ability, that the dig at Baroness Thatcher is gratuitous: Wilson doesn't want to be fair, and while this cranks up Our Times' entertainment value (see the pages devoted to Harold Wilson's crapulous foreign secretary, George Brown) it can limit its value as a social history.
On we hasten, past familiar landmarks (Suez, Profumo, "Satire" and the White Heat of the Technological Revolution), through a succession of bruising snap judgements, a great deal of patient research in the files of Private Eye and a somewhat cavalier reasoning process which, in the chapter headed "False Gods", manages to weld the discovery of antibiotics, Tony Hancock, Elizabeth David, Fanny Cradock, National Service, Diana Dors and Billy Graham into an arresting argument about the Temple of Apollo being shut down and handed over to Dionysus. The usual crowd of left-wing eminencies are convicted for boot-licking of the Soviet Union, and Wilson is notably shrewd about the Royal Family's position.
The villain of the piece, inevitably, is that subservience to materialism that prompted every politician from Macmillan to call for higher living standards when they should have been promoting civilised values. Our Times' real merit, once one has stripped out the waspishness and the heroic renewal of many an ancient grudge, lies in the vast weight of evidence assembled to demonstrate a great truth of British politics: that we live not in a democracy but an oligarchy, in which most of the decisions about how we live are left in the hands of tiny interest groups.
In his discussion of Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, Wilson quotes an analysis of the 100,000 letters sent to Powell in its aftermath. Relatively few could be described as racist. But almost without exception they displayed a feeling of "alienation" from the Establishment view, the sense "that they... have produced problems for us, which do not in any way affect them... Their idea is to tell us what we must and must not do." This could be said of about town planning, transport strategy, regional development – practically any of the foundations on which modern society exists. Democracy, however much government ministers and Guardian leader writers persist in denying it, means listening to the voices from below – however shrill, discordant or misguided they may turn out to be.
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