The best recipe for a pamphlet is a first-class literary education fried in controlled fury. The late E P Thompson had both. Paul Foot also has the recipe. So does Paul Johnson, whose Wake Up Britain] is just out, and has been serialised in the Daily Mail.
Paul Johnson's talent for polemic, once left-wing and now right-wing, is justly famous. He is an angry, kindly, upright man. His words are clean and hard, their rhythm exhilarating. He enjoyed writing this book, and the enjoyment is infectious. The trouble is that most of what he writes is potty.
Britain, he declares, is going to the dogs - or at least into a greyish hell of decline. Declaring himself an old man, he looks back to the virtuous land of his youth in the 1930s, and asks where those virtues, that grandeur, have gone? How did it come about that his grandchildren have been robbed of that ancient Britain, 'robust, salubrious and sterling'? Instead, they must grow up in a world which is 'unrestrained, foul- mouthed, garish, defiled, vicious and often plain evil'.
This kind of lament is familiar. Most right-wing polemic starts like this. But Paul Johnson does not despair. If he did, he would be no good as a pamphleteer, whose knack is to say that there is still - just - time to save the country from the scoundrels who are pushing it over the edge. He believes that the British (or the English; he does not bother about such petty distinctions) hate what is happening to them and can be induced to defy it.
There follows, taking up the bulk of the book, the naming of scoundrels. The chapter headings are expressive: 'Throwing Away the Largest Empire in History', or 'Handing Brussels Britain on a Plate', or 'A Well-Aimed Gobbet of Spit in the Public's Eye' (this is about art, of course).
Then come the guilty men and women. There are a lot. They include Labour governments, trade unionists, the NHS, the Civil Service mandarins, John Major and his government, the penal reform lobby, the opponents of capital punishment, lenient judges, juvenile criminals, the mass media, the quangos, the Irish, the 'Caribbeans', West Africans, Spanish, Greeks, Portuguese and Italians (the last six being social security scroungers trained by the Irish), New Age travellers, organised teachers, mothers raising children on welfare, the House of Lords, Anglican bishops, literary prize committees, architects, Salman Rushdie, Nick Serota, Philip Larkin, Brussels bureaucrats . . .
To stop here is unfair to Johnson, but my space is limited. There are two surprising omissions. One is the Germans, probably an oversight. Another is ordained Anglican women, to whom he shows respect. But the list is so long that it is practically a census. The healthy, decent British who do not fall into one of these categories must be
a minority, even an endangered species.
Paul Johnson divides the nation into two. There are the 'chattering classes', who run everything and are responsible for all evil. Then come the rest, the taciturn classes who he assumes to be boiling with suppressed resentment. The chatterers have brought Britain down into the mud. 'The empire is gone, great-power status is gone, our sovereign parliament is going fast.' The streets have grown unsafe for children. The Church of England, once a guardian of morals, does no more than blether trendily. The television gushes filth. But now comes the surprise. This kind of analysis usually ends in a call for a Committee of National Salvation to sweep subversion from the land with an iron broom. Paul Johnson, in contrast, calls for more democracy.
Hope rises suddenly - only to be dashed again. What he means by democracy, it turns out, is a new Tory party which will rule in much the same old way, but will somehow express 'the general will' by listening to general prejudice: xenophobic, punitive, benighted. The 'pressure-groups and the lobbies and the single-issue fanatics' who are supposed to have taken over will be pushed aside. The new party will be a party of 'civilised nationalism', to reassert sovereignty and lead the masses of Europe in a continental rebellion against the menace of 'federalism'. The general will can be expressed by continuous plebiscites conducted through cable in every home as a 'meeting of the nation'.
It seems to me, putting down this long pamphlet or short book, that Paul Johnson and I have lived in different countries. I am not much younger than he is. I have seen many of the changes and the vanished ways of life that he has. But in almost all that has changed, where he perceives only decay, I have watched an enormous raising-up, as millions of human beings have risen from confining degradation or dim, deferential narrowness into the light. Freedom, which is both release from poverty and the gaining of the power to realise what is within an individual, is often misused. But if it were not misusable, it would not be freedom.
Much is wrong with this Britain. Most of it is the consequence of archaic, oppressive traditions of government which still bind a people which has grown wiser and more independent. The British state, with its old traditions of sovereignty and secrecy, must go to the scrap-heap. 'Islandism', the ideology which associates all that is good in Britain with the distance from Dover to Calais, is no longer even a joke. But Paul Johnson, incredibly, wants more sovereignty, more Channel, rather than less.
Worst of all is the rhetoric about 'chattering classes'. These are just the same imaginary pests whom English Tories used to call 'pseudo-intellectuals', and the term itself is not important (although I have always been amused by the idea that plain folk in Britain communicate in dark, Lawrentian grunts and monosyllables). But look at the implication] The healthy, natural condition of the human race is stasis. Change is no more than an infection by insolent cliques of heretics who dare to have new thoughts.
'Democracy', in Johnson's plan, is no more than a return to the mythified past, and a populist swatting of all those who criticise it. England is best, or rather always was best. England invented democracy. Italy and Greece are 'countries with no tradition of freedom'.
Paul Johnson calls his book Wake Up Britain]. But in reality he is telling Britain to stop chattering and go back to sleep. This is strange. His sort of writing has always kept people awake, and yet he is condemning his own style of polemic to silence.Reuse content