TAC continues to think critically about the legacies of Jimmy Carter (not as bad as commonly supposed) and Ronald Reagan (who wasn’t a neocon, but may have been an Emersonian — see Richard Gamble’s essay in the forthcoming issue). Across the Atlantic, there’s an even more symbolically potent divide between the Harold Wilson/Jim Callaghan era and the Thatcher years. High Tories have always disliked Thatcher’s commercial reconstruction of Great Britain, and over time even many of her erstwhile supporters have revised their view of her. Today there’s a great vogue for “Red Toryism,” although its chief proponents seem to be more red than Tory. (I’m reminded of ill-advised dalliance of some American traditionalists with Amitai Etzioni-style “communitarians” in the early 1990s.)
I sympathize with some of Thatcher’s critics. But I wonder whether the trend of recognizing Thatcherism’s deficiencies is not obscuring just what a social-economic basket case Britain was before Thatcher. A recent piece in the Guardian looks back at some late ’70s novels to remember what kind of society that was:
To many novelists, Britain seemed undeniably in decay, ageing and falling apart. Graham Greene’s late fable Doctor Fischer of Geneva (1980), a tale of corruption and money, includes a vignette in an “English Pub” in Geneva. An Englishman addresses a barman. “‘Get many English customers?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Why? I would have thought …’ ‘They have no money.’ He was a Swiss and not forthcoming.” Belief in British decrepitude usually emerged less directly. It can’t be an accident that three of the shortlisted titles for the Booker prize in 1977 were studies of old age, and both Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn and Paul Scott’s Staying On are about more than the individual situation. They seem to present images of Englishness as mad, impoverished, desperate and mean. Four very different colleagues reach retirement in Pym’s bleak novel, and find themselves wrecked in a new landscape of social workers and tinned food. Scott’s couple, similarly, are beached in a post-independence India with no options, and find their Englishness has no meaning any more. In other novels of the time, such as Paul Bailey’s Old Soldiers (1980), personal ageing is linked to an ageing and helpless Britishness. The chair of the Booker judges in 1977, Philip Larkin, had written extensively and despairingly of the betrayals of nation and empire, as he saw it, by successive governments, and must have seen in these studies of decrepitude his own larger beliefs.
Piers Paul Read, in A Married Man (1979), had his hero dwell on “the squalor around him – the listless slut serving tea behind the counter. It is a sign of a nation’s decline, he thought, that its people no longer take the trouble to dress themselves decently or keep themselves clean.” The urgency of the situation, for Read, sends his writing into areas well beyond the novel’s traditional concerns, and his characters engage in fierce debate about trade union responsibility, his hero’s finances and expenses strictly specified. “He was taxed by governments determined that if they were unable to make the poor any richer, they could at least impoverish the rich … Thus the state was his greatest expense.” Read doesn’t exaggerate: taxation at the time had a top rate of 83% on earned and 98% on unearned income.
The Right on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to get beyond Reagan and Thatcher, but to go back to the welfarism of an LBJ or Nixon, or a Ted Heath or Harold Wilson, would not be an improvement.