Here are two books about the relationship of the English to their past. According to Patrick Wright, England is a reactionary society burdened by a false mystique of national identity. To dissolve that mystique must be one of the first priorities of democratic socialists in establishing an alternative society with a renewed faith in its capacity for progress. At the opposite pole of politics, Maurice Cowling abhors the secular modernity of contemporary England and the apostasy of its people from the Anglican faith of Charles I and Archbishop Laud. Given the chance, he would restore in modern dress the divine right of kings and the doctrinal authority of a state church preaching supernatural Christianity.
Wright and Cowling have much in common in their alienation from society as it stands, and their conviction that the forces opposed to them are almost overwhelming. Among these forces is history itself: both the past as academics interpret it, and the past in popular consciousness. If England is in the wrong hands, this is partly because its history has been taken over by the wrong people and falsified. Granted the undoubted truth that history is indeed subjective, this is very plausible as far as it goes. But though we cannot reconstruct it with certainty, England has a real past and everyone living in England today is in a sense its prisoner. It might well be that the most formidable obstacle in the path of Wright and Cowling is not, as they would like to believe, a false consciousness of the past, but the past as it actually was.
When Patrick Wright left England for Canada in 1974, he said goodbye to a country where campus radicalism was still flourishing, and Tony Benn was preparing to hoist the red flag over the ruins of capitalism. When he returned, in 1979, Mrs Thatcher was in power and social reaction in the air. As he looked around he realised, for the first time, that he was living in an old country. ‘I felt,’ he writes, ‘as though I had stumbled inadvertently into some sort of anthropological museum.’
What most fascinated and disturbed Wright was the mounting passion of the English for conservation. The material remains of the past, which had previously been of interest mainly to scholars, were fast becoming the objects of a new popular cult. This was partly due to the influence of television, where historical drama presented mouth-watering images of an aristocratic or upper-middle-class past. But although Wright kept an eye on such things, his curiosity ranged far beyond the media. Having set off on a quest into the origins of the conservationist mentality, he traced it to a variety of sources both high and low, famous and obscure. He inquired into the history of the National Trust and the National Heritage Memorial Fund. He researched the history of the Shell oil company’s remarkable campaign, begun in the Twenties, to popularise the countryside. He cast a beady eye around the streets of Stoke Newington, where he was living at the time, and observed the activities of the incoming middle class as they ‘restored’ Victorian terraces and expropriated the working class who used to live in them. He recognised and responded to the plight of old people who felt stranded in the modern world and threatened even in their own homes. He listened attentively to the views of Mary Alice Salvidge, an old lady who moved her house piece by piece from one county to another rather than see it demolished to make way for a road.
A collection of essays on these and similar topics makes for an interesting pot-pourri. Intermittently Wright displays many of the qualities of a first-class journalist. He has an eye for the exact detail that tells all, and his graphic tour of the streets of Stoke Newington, where the clapped-out old Jag cohabits with the expensively renovated Morris Minor, and a bit of Daniel Defoe’s back-garden wall is still to be seen next to the refuse depot, exhibits a marvellous sense of place. But his larger ambition, a favourite project of New Left sociology, is highly theoretical: to ground political analysis in popular culture, and popular culture in the hegemony of dominant classes. Wright’s curious collection of data is the flotsam and jetsam on an ocean of abstract discussion.
His theme is the historical consciousness of everyday life, a concept borrowed from the sociologist Agnes Heller. According to Heller, the modernity of Western societies generates its own nostalgia: the vacuum left by the collapse of religious belief, and the rapid pace of social and economic change, generates a sense of loss and dislocation. But in an unstable world, people still have an innate need for a stable social order with a fixed sense of values to lend meaning to the life of the individual. Unable to find such an order in the present, they seek it in an idealised past. The rampant nostalgia of contemporary England should therefore be read as a measure of the disruption and anxiety through which society has been passing.
The next stage is to filter Heller’s thesis through the mesh of New Left sociology. The ‘English heritage’ preserved by the National Trust, or featured in Shell commercials, is culturally produced. It is not to be confused with the reality of the past but forms an imaginary realm, an alternative England into which we are invited to step. But, says Wright, we should learn to see this mythical Deep England, so pastoral, pure and gleaming, as a construction of the enemies of modernity and progress. As the projection of an idealised old England, it stands in condemnation of the England of today. As a reactionary counterculture, Deep England is mainly aristocratic or bourgeois in provenance, and it implies something important that is never actually stated: that a natural English community of hierarchy and tradition has been corrupted by collectivism, democracy, and a host of other vulgarities including the immigration of blacks.
Wright detects a strand of Utopianism: the conviction that old England still exists around and beneath us. The past can be recovered and restored: we can touch it, or stroll around it, wherever the material remains of the past are to be discovered. This reconstruction, Wright argues, is a reworking of patriotism. He draws a fascinating parallel between the re-enactment of the English past in the Falklands war, and the raising from the mud of the Thames, later that year, of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose. A common significance could be attached to both events: an ancient seafaring people, Churchill’s island race, were recovering some long-buried aspect of their identity.
Wright is a brilliant analyst of cultural meanings and has uncovered, with much greater craftiness and subtlety than a summary conveys, a central truth about the force of nostalgia in modern England. He never slips into vulgar Marxism but admits that nostalgia engages many virtuous energies and that it serves as a therapy for authentic fears and injuries inflicted by social change. But I think he is mistaken in trying to make nostalgia more sinister, more central, and more political, than it is.
To begin with a practical point, much of the material structure of the past ought be preserved, and would be in any civilised society, socialist or otherwise. I very much doubt whether Wright is the Pol Pot of Stoke Newington with a plan to raze the stately homes of England to the ground. It would be just as daft to close down museums. But Wright intimates a deep dissatisfaction with every possible form of historical reconstruction. If objects are arranged in glass cases, that is wrong. If they are put in context in the imaginary reconstruction of a Georgian house or a Viking settlement, that is wrong too. Aristocratic and bourgeois history are false, but labour history as commonly practised is extremely unsound. The onus on Wright to explain how the past can and should be demystified is immense, but he has worked himself into such a preposterous position that evasion is the only safe course. If the myth of a golden age does hold a dangerous magic, the remedy is not to quarrel with the force of nostalgia, but to create a modern environment in which people no longer feel dehumanised.
In Wright’s vision, nostalgia has become a monster with a stranglehold over English society: as we are almost all governed by a sense of loss and decline, we no longer have the faith to change and improve society. In expressing this view, Wright is, I think, attaching too much weight to the outlook of the gentrified classes, whether Guardian or Telegraph readers. They do indeed feel pushed aside by forces beyond their control, and long for the old decencies of Attlee and Churchill. But they have some compensation. A modernising society has to put the past in its place, and the best way of doing this is by romanticising it as a realm of sentiment and leisure. The ideal people to put in charge of this operation are the obsolescent classes, who can be relied upon to expend love and care on a regimental museum or an old steam locomotive. Conservation in England is mainly an industry, or refuge, for distressed gentlefolk, and Wright is mistaken in regarding it as a keystone of the political structure. His attempts to demonstrate a connection between the herbivorous pastures of conservationism and the carnivorous back streets of racism are extremely unconvincing. The national past as celebrated by Trusts and museums is a civilised place where eating people is wrong and burning them at the stake unthinkable.
As for the other side of the coin, we can be quite sure that now, as in Victorian times, there are plenty of pushful modernisers in England with every confidence in their capacity to construct a new society, and every chance of doing so. Some look to the United States or Japan, others to Scandinavia, others again to the Third World. In spite of the protective chauvinism of the press, the narrow preoccupations of the intelligentsia, and the backwardness of political rhetoric, the world presses in and people with no time to compose manifestos are busy creating a different England in which social divisions will follow international rather than parochial lines.
It is a paradox of Thatcherism that it should supposedly stand both for the restoration of traditional values and for the Americanisation of England. The contradictions are glaring and reflected in the confused battle now in progress over the future of the Conservative Party. Somewhere at the edge of the battlefield, viewing the proceedings with great scepticism and much foreboding, stands Maurice Cowling. Cowling is a reactionary Anglican patriot and authoritarian. He mistrusts all foreign influences in English culture, does not believe in economists, detests liberalism in all its forms, and will not be joining in the celebrations decreed by Mrs Thatcher to mark the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. Cowling, in short, is out of step with almost everybody in the Conservative Party and likely to remain so. In the almost certain knowledge that the causes for which he fights are doomed, he maintains a spirited resistance by writing books with the intention of affronting and offending his readers.
Cowling used to think of himself as a historian, addressing other historians. In a trilogy of works on the evolution of parliamentary democracy in Britain he unfolded a High Tory reading of events, shocking to liberal sentiment, but open to debate on the basis of the evidence. Though his views were regarded by most historians as distinctly rum, they were wholly intelligible from a professional point of view as a methodical interpretation of the archives. For this very reason many of Cowling’s findings have been tactfully assimilated by historians of quite different political outlook. But his latest work is deliberately and dogmatically unpersuasive.
Cowling is currently engaged on a five-volume history of ‘religion and public doctrine’ in England since 1840. The aim is to describe the destruction of traditional Anglican Christianity by its enemies both inside and outside the Church, and the creation of the ‘post-Christian consensus’ of contemporary England. The project as Cowling has defined it is one of the most important an English historian could undertake. But the execution so far is wilfully perverse. In the first volume Cowling prepared for the task by exploring the contours of his own mind, as revealed by the contemplation of various writers and politicians who had influenced him. This was quirky, but interesting biographically, and held out a promise of ‘incandescence’ to come. Remarkable things were to be revealed, and the Guy Fawkes of liberalism set on the bonfire and exploded.
In the second volume, nothing of the kind takes place. Having organised the history of public doctrine into four phases, each exemplified by a selection of key thinkers, Cowling settles down to tell us what his thinkers thought. One by one they are introduced, their writings summarised, their relationship to Christianity defined, and some laconic judgment passed in praise or criticism of their ideas. About forty thinkers later, the book shudders to a stop.
The structure tells a story of a kind. The first section of the book is devoted to the Tractarians, whose failure to achieve a counterrevolution in the Anglican Church sets the scene for all that follows. Next come the Victorian positivists, assaulting traditional Christianity in the name of science and the religion of progress: Buckle, Spencer, Huxley and Morley among others. After about 1880 we pass into the company of a third group whose most prominent figures include Shaw, Wells, Lawrence and Russell. They form, Cowling explains, a second generation of anti-Christian humanists more pessimistic than the first, because more conscious of the persistence of savage and irrational elements in society. Finally Cowling reviews the leading figures of literary Catholicism, a category stretched to include W.H. Mallock (a deathbed Catholic), as well as Chesterton, Belloc and Greene. With the failure of this second attempt at a Christian counter-revolution, Cowling signs off, concluding that ‘the Dickensian or Tennysonian fog through which the English conduct life has been no less pervasive in religion than elsewhere.’ The peculiarity of Cowling’s approach is that, having delineated the progression of ideas, he makes no attempt to explain why the progression occurred. The hands of the clock move round, but if one looks behind the face there is nothing to be found. If the reader asks why the collapse of supernatural Christianity occurred, the author replies only that it was attacked by various men and women in certain ways at certain times: others defended it and the defenders lost.
As history this will not do, but Cowling does not seriously intend that it should. With a sigh of relief he has exchanged the role of historian for that of dogmatist. The ghost of the historian is still to be seen, prowling through the source materials and classifying them under various headings. There is plenty of evidence on display. But Cowling is now so sceptical of historical explanation that he can scarcely be bothered to go through the motions. The major historical problems are dealt with, if at all, in a few tortuous and paradoxical sentences, or by the even simpler device of announcing that they are going to be left out altogether: the author, we are given to understand, has no intention of dealing with such banal problems as the relationship of ideas to the social and economic context. Marx and Weber? Sociology? Stuff and nonsense!
Cowling’s history therefore alternates between two levels. On one level it is a proclamation of faith in traditional Anglicanism and of disbelief in all the formulae that have replaced it. On the other level it is mainly a matter of lists: lists of people, books, quotations and so on. In effect, what Cowling has to say is this: ‘I am no longer going to argue an interpretation of the past. We are all ideologues and you know as well as I do that argument is a device for rationalising prejudice. All I am going to do is build a mighty wall of facts as testimony to my faith that supernatural Christianity is central to the history of modern England. This will be such a monumental exercise that the very bloody-mindedness of it all may undermine the complacency of one or two of you. Obtuse as you are about Christianity, and liable as you may be to confuse it with the Bishop of Durham, I am going to shock you into a consciousness of its power.’
‘Affront’ is the word Cowling actually uses. But who could be affronted by a book so ploddingly descriptive as this? It reads just like a dictionary of biography, interesting here and there but monotonous at a stretch. The occasional value-judgment is like a flickering match applied to a sodden bonfire. Sometimes, it is true, there are brief interludes for general reflection. The following passage on the creation of a post-Christian consensus is not untypical of the author’s style and method:
The category of silent contributor is large and distinguished. Gissing’s pessimism, Galsworthy’s Radicalism, MacDonald’s Socialism, Schiller’s pragmatism, Bowra’s paganism, A.C. Bradley’s Mazzinianism and F.H. Bradley’s idealism, the gloomy Goethianism of Gooch and the religious Goethianism of J.G. Robertson, all belong to it. So does Darwinian evolution, however little Darwin may have intended this. So do Gosse, Parry, Bosanquet, Keynes, Kidd, Leavis, Maitland, Pollock, Moore, Meredith, S.R. Gardiner, F.W.H. Myers, G.M. Trevelyan and F. York Powell.
I can only report that Cowling’s book, though rich as an anthology of the thoughts of others, strikes me as a remarkably barren meditation consisting of nothing but a few prickly assertions. Are these few thistles all that will grow in the soil of a Christian imagination? Is there nothing to gather but other men’s flowers? The writings of J.H. Newman shine out through Cowling’s pages, and so indeed do those of H.G. Wells: Cowling is at pains to report the enemy fairly. But the author himself is a humble presence in the shadows.
Cowling’s book leaves me more than ever convinced that all beliefs are myths, that secular myths are necessary in secular times, and that liberalism and socialism are the most appropriate myths available to us in the late 20th century. Cowling’s reporting serves him well in exposing the fatuities of Gilbert Murray or Bertrand Russell, but what does this prove? It is hardly surprising that the attempt to substitute a humanist for a Christian faith should have led to the propagation of quite a lot of nonsense. But a humanist mythology had to be established, and once established was just as capable of adaptability and change as Christianity itself.
The English religion, according to Cowling, ‘includes decency, respectability, mistrust of enthusiasm, an aversion to theory, and an ever greater aversion to the dogmatic expression of belief, and has slid towards humanism rather than Tractarianism only because it dislikes Tractarianism more’. Quite so. The problem, then, is not how to put the clock back to the Tractarians, but how to preserve the decency and respectability of which Cowling speaks so ironically. There is much greater irony in the fact that Cowling, by helping to bring That-cherism into the world, has conspired to revive a religion inimical to his own. More than a century ago Ruskin declared that although the English were nominally Anglicans, they worshipped ‘the Goddess of Getting On’. When our Prime Minister promises ‘a little bit of heaven on earth’, she sanctifies the most primitive materialism this country has witnessed since Ruskin’s own day. Doubtless Cowling is a true Jacobite whose intention is to restore the obedience of a Christian community to God. But the only effect of his work so far is to sprinkle holy water on the backside of Mammon.