A demolition job to nowhere: John Biffen finds Paul Johnson acid but entertaining on post-war Britain

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The Independent Online
WESTERN Europe is the political story of elitist government tempered by relatively free elections. It is not an ideal form of government, but there are many worse. Frequently commentators and visionaries bewail that the governed and ruling classes have become woefully out of partnership. That situation heralds the role of the radical reformer, determined to release energies that have been enslaved by lacklustre and corrupt government. Such a development - Berlusconi and Forza Italia - now dominates Italian public life.

More modestly Paul Johnson, without a national football team or a television station, has made a similar analysis in Wake Up Britain] It is an enjoyable book, albeit falling in style and length between his writings as a historian and his contributions as a columnist. It is written with a searing anger and impatience, and the windmills range from Salman Rushdie to Michael Heseltine; something for everyone. I can pay the generous compliment of placing the volume on my shelves alongside Cobbett. They both speak with ingrained hostility against the legion of burdensome bureaucrats and warped politicians.

Johnson's theme is relatively simple. There was a happier age - about his childhood - when values were well established and respected; and 'the British Empire and especially the long arm of the Royal Navy' commanded universal pride. All this began to slide after 1945 with the growth of government controls and public expenditure. 'Post- war governments introduced the (welfare state) culture of dependency which now envelops, and in my view enslaves, a fifth of the population.'

Alongside the domestic economic decline Johnson also believes there was a lack of will to sustain Britain's Empire, a breakdown in the structure of authority which led to rising crime and a fall in educational standards.

Few institutions are spared in this analysis. The monarchy and the Church of England are both upbraided, sometimes by Johnson at his most acid, recalling the days when he wrote for the New Statesman. The House of Lords shows fewer scars, their general ineffectiveness offsetting their malign liberalism.

Johnson attributes the consistent decline in Britain's institutions to an elite resolved to hold power but unwilling to exercise it. The political process undermined the robust sound sense of the British working man, subverting his powerful desire for law and order, honest finance and a British voice in the world. It was the triumph of Hampstead over Hackney.

Was the high noon of Beveridge and Keynes such a total disaster? It continued a tradition to which Johnson himself pays fair tribute: 'In the 19th and 20th centuries Britain fought its wars abroad, and long domestic tranquillity softened its competitive spirit.'

Wake Up Britain] is a polemic against a present that has few redeeming features. It is highly coloured and neglects the fact that many of the institutions that Johnson derides, such as the National Health Service, are popularly supported.

William Cobbett, for all his respect for the British working man, would not have subcontracted upon him the balancing of the national budget. He would have comforted himself with inveighing against the scandal of waste. Johnson prefers the general task of regenerating Britain by means of liberating the instincts of the masses now estranged from government: namely the restoration of democracy. This would be done by electronic headcounts, an idea that has already been floated by Ross Perot in the American presidential election. I do disparage mass and instant recording of opinions, but I would certainly rather employ them for the purpose of electing legislative assemblies.

The author produces no evidence to suggest what economic opinions would be provided by an electronic counter, let alone to suggest that they would be superior to those provided by traditional liberal democracy. It would involve a leap in the dark far more audacious than anything planned by Disraeli with his 1867 Reform Act.

The book, entertaining as it is, reads essentially as a lively demolition of most of our national institutions. This is conducted with a nostalgia for the author's middle- class youth. Even so, this analysis does not establish that working- class attitudes would have repudiated much of the politics of post- war Britain. Wake Up Britain] should be treated as an excellent demolition job that leads nowhere, but is none the less very entertaining along the way.

In particular I liked the story of Canon Lewis Collins, of CND fame. At a country house weekend he was reluctantly induced to attend matins, but 'finding plenty to criticise in the sermon, cheered up in time for lunch'.

Such redeeming worldly frailty did not awake me, but at least I smiled.

Paul Johnson's 'Wake Up Britain]' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at pounds 9.99.

The writer is Conservative MP for Shropshire North.

(Photograph omitted)