Book Review: ll Fares the Land by Tony Judt
by Chris Patten
While I disagree with many of the judgments on recent history made by Tony Judt in this book, there is no doubt that he is himself a great historian. His one-volume book on postwar Europe is much the best-written, most authoritative account of this extraordinarily creative, though latterly disappointing, epoch.
As readers of the New York Review of Books will know, Judt, who grew up in London but has spent most of his professional life in the US, is also a formidably polymathic essayist. He is intellectually brave – witness his well-founded criticisms of Israel’s policies in Palestine. Beyond the imaginings of most of us, Judt is personally brave, too; motor neurone disease has left him quadriplegic. This book is in part the product of the author’s night-time ordeals, using his mind and memory to get through the immobile loneliness of the hours of darkness, and then dictating to an assistant the thoughts assembled on his private Calvary.
While Judt is proudly a man of the left, with a romantic view of a world now gone, in which national solidarity and comradeship were underpinned by pre-Beeching railway lines, there is plenty in this marvellously written book that has an old-fashioned Tory like me nodding in enthusiastic agreement.
“Something is profoundly wrong,” argues Judt, “with the way we live today.” We have wasted the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall; they have been consumed by the locusts, or more precisely by the shamelessly greedy. It has been the era of all the Dicks, from Cheney to Fuld, politically “an age of the pygmies”. Unregulated markets have crashed. Wars of choice have left bloody destruction in their wake. The snouts have been buried deep in the trough. Beyond the noise of guzzling, we can hear no moral critique of what has happened, no shout of rage that things don’t have to be like this.
That is what Judt sets out to provide: a polemic that can offer some hope for the young that there is a better way of organising our affairs. It is called social democracy, and while it represents neither an ideal future nor an ideal past, “it is better than anything else to hand”.
Social democracy is not something that Americans can talk about, though there is a bit of cognitive dissonance about their attitudes to the public and private realms of social provision. Moreover, Eisenhower and Johnson offered them at least a reflection of the infrastructure development and welfarism that were the hallmarks of the “trente glorieuses” in Europe after the war. Planning, progressive taxation, high public spending and nationalised services brought inclusive economic growth with increasing equity and social harmony. A mostly benign state provided the security for which people yearn, replacing the market’s invisible hand with more visible supportive direction. Maybe all was not for the best, but it was pretty good all the same – and would have gladdened the heart of that scion of egalitarian Eton, John Maynard Keynes.
Judt argues that this world came crashing down in the 1980s under the transatlantic assault of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They were not quite the “slaves of defunct economists”, but certainly took intellectual sustenance from a group of mostly Austrian thinkers, such as Friedrich von Hayek, whose work assumed that an increased role for the state (such as was represented by Labour’s policies in Britain) would lead eventually to what Hayek himself called “the state of mind in which Nazism could become successful”. Thus, fears generated by what happened in central Europe in the 1930s came to shape the western economies 50 years later. The problem about all this, identified by the greatest if also the most elusive of modern Conservative philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, was that “a plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics”.
In any event, according to Judt, since the 1980s, from Reagan to Bush, from Thatcher to Brown, it has been downhill all the way, with growing inequity, a declining belief in the role of the state and a falling away from civic engagement. “As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism’s traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders.” The trouble about this argument is that I think that Thatcher would have been among those who would have denounced this “bring on the bling” view of the world, and charitably I must assume that the same would even be true of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.
Of course, Judt is right to denounce all-embracing ideologies. Nothing in politics explains everything. As a fan of Oakeshott, who believed, as I do, that life is a predicament not a journey, I have an instinctive dislike of political road maps. What works, works for me, provided the outcome is benign. But what was happening in Britain in the 1970s wasn’t working. As centre-left commentators such as Hugo Young and Peter Jenkins noted, the country was in danger of seeing relative decline (that is, in relation to our neighbours) mutate into absolute decline. People voted for Margaret Thatcher because they were unhappy with too-powerful trade unions, excessive taxation, inefficient public services that seemed to be run principally for those who worked in them and bossy municipal socialism that had produced dreadful tower-block estates in place of (admittedly often awful) Coronation Streets. Thatcher was not imposed on Britain by the Chicago school. She was elected to turn things around and, like her or not, by and large she did.
The state did not disappear under Thatcher in a bonfire of public spending. In the first nine years under her, public spending as a proportion of GDP was higher than in the first nine years under Blair-Brown. The trouble in Britain is that as soon as we turn the economy around and put it on a more sustainable growth path, we tend to let spending and credit rip and get back into economic trouble. I do not have a declinist view of Britain, but we have been very bad at running our economy. Presumably Tony Judt will be intellectually comforted to know that with the new 50% tax on high earners, the UK will have (alongside Japan) the highest tax rates in the G8. Only four out of the 30 OECD countries will have higher tax rates than us. But I am not sure what pleasure will be extracted from the recognition that Britain is now heading for a debt-to-GDP proportion of more than 100%. Keynes himself thought anything larger than 25% was unwise. Perhaps that is now a defunct opinion and has nothing to do with social democracy.
Chris Patten is Chancellor of Oxford University, a former Conservative party chairman and the last British Governor of Hongkong.
All this said, Judt’s book asks most of the better sort of questions about modern politics. How should we define the role of the state without assuming that the state itself should do everything? How can we restore an argument about values to political debates, which partly because of our straitened circumstances are usually simply about costs and utilitarian benefit? (Look at the present disgraceful treatment by the government of the humanities at our universities.) How can we engage younger citizens in politics, given how much the baby-boomer generation of leaders has discredited what was once seen as an honourable pursuit? Tony Judt himself encourages dissent from conformity, for which there is much to be said. Blessed are the trouble-makers. But there is, too, the more conventional optimistic appeal to activism represented by President Obama, whose star rises again after its premature eclipse. Judt appears to have lost faith a little too readily in Obama’s ability to promote change. A point in the president’s favour is that he is the sort of politician who will read this book and be galvanised by it – as was this ex-politician – into thinking rather harder about his own beliefs.
*Chris Patten is Chancellor of Oxford University and a former Conservative party chairman. His latest book is What Next? Surviving the 21st Century (Penguin)