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Too Much Mustard

A State of England

by Anthony Hartley
Harcourt Brace, 255 pp., $4.95

Mr. Hartley’s book—his first—is a wide-ranging polemic against British intellectuals for their inadequacies in Britain’s present condition—for their parochialism, nostalgia, sentimentality, delusive pride, intellectual self-indulgence, and much else. Anyone who has read his articles in the Guardian, Encounter, the Spectator, and elsewhere will know that Mr. Hartley is shrewd, widely read, and has a sharp wit. He uses his assets to good effect here and makes some telling points. But I found myself becoming more and more puzzled by his argument as a whole, chiefly because of a curious thinness in his treatment of each issue.

This is how he proceeds. He selects one of the areas in which there is intensive debate in Britain today—education, or mass communications, or nuclear disarmament, for example—and he then attacks what he claims to be the “progressive” or “left wing” or liberal intellectual attitude on each of these issues. Some of his targets would be quite familiar to Americans—for instance intellectuals who advocate nuclear disarmament, or who believe that mass culture contributes to a worsening in the quality of the imaginative life of centralized commercial societies. Other targets are more specifically English—for example the educational expansionists who want more varied kinds of education made available to more young people; an end to the system by which the kind of schooling children get is determined at the age of eleven; and a sharp reduction in the effects of social class on educational opportunity.

But in fact Mr. Hartley does not usually give a proper account of the liberal-left-progressive attitudes on these and similar issues; he gives brief and partial summaries and then crisply disposes of them. Thus he castigates the English nuclear disarmers and their tactics—which range from fairly simple disobedience, such as sitting down in Trafalgas Square, to move elaborate enterprises, such as forcing entry into an operational rocket site. Mr. Hartley points out that to place the State “in a position where it has to show its teeth or cease to function is to run the risk of losing carefully accumulated stocks of liberty and tolerance.” True—and that is a fair warning to anyone who isn’t deadly serious about civil disobedience of any kind. But that there might be some who are deadly serious—who have calculated (rightly or wrongly) that this is an issue where they must in conscience and whatever the consequences defy the state—does not seem to weigh with Mr. Hartley. He particularly dislikes free-wheeling intellectuals who strike moral attitudes without recognizing the complexity of issues and the need for compromise and maneuver. He hates anything inflated or pretentious, and he calls for a “determined cynicism.” This may be preferable to irresponsible moral inflation, certainly, but these aren’t the only possible positions; there are also sober idealists.

The really odd thing is that, having thus disposed of the liberal progressives and the “jeremiahs” (who are always carping at the Affluent Society), Mr. Hartley quite often throws in a few assertive sentences of his own in which he not only accepts the central case of the opposition but presents it at least as vehemently. Take two issues, education and mass communications:

The opponents of a big increase in the number of English university students were given a handy slogan a couple of years ago by Kingsley Amis when—drawing on his long experience as a teacher at the University College of Swansea—he declared that “more means worse.” By this he meant that if you much increase the opportunities for university study you will not only waste resources on people who are incapable of benefiting from them but you will lower the standard of the education you give to those who can benefit. Mr. Hartley substantially accepts this view. He argues further that the people who want a large educational expansion are so sold on a mushy belief in the social value of education that they are prepared to let standards go to pot so long as they get an educational system which isn’t socially divisive like the present one. But he confuses here several different approaches to educational reform and so he makes the case for expansion seem much thinner than it is. For example, we have evidence that a good English “comprehensive school”—where all students are accepted without discrimination—can achieve social and intellectual benefits which the more selective “grammar schools” are not free to nurture.

Furthermore, his own argument is confused. Elsewhere in the book he insists, since is very keen that Britain should go into Europe, that we need all the well-trained people we can produce. But of course one strong argument of the expansionist case rests precisely on this assumption—and the expansionists go on to say (though this Mr. Hartley does not pursue) that our present educational net lets far too many people of talent fall through for social reasons: working-class children go to more crowded city schools with no tradition of passing their pupils along to higher education, and so on. If Mr. Hartley really wants a well-trained society he cannot afford to make an Aunt Sally of the case for educational expansion; it is, in its major assumptions, the only approach which will make intellectual sense of his demand.

Similarly, Mr. Hartley lays about critics of the mass media who have doubts about the “consumer-society” and even more doubts about the relations between the two. He accuses such people of being nostalgic social romantics—hazy idealists who are disillusioned because working people have used their increased opportunities to buy television rather than to seek culture. Or he charges them with being intellectual and social snobs who are really rationalizing their resentment at the emergence of “the masses”—their transistors on every beach, their cars on every road—into possession of the fruits of prosperity. Mr. Hartley says some very useful things here—particularly about the ways in which what sound like weighty intellectual propositions may be in fact little more than projections of unexamined and rather nasty assumptions which we are not willing to have disturbed.

But the really tricky questions concern the nature of mass culture and mass communications themselves—and not our attitudes to them. These remain virtually untouched, and Mr. Hartley gives no effective sign of wishing to confront them. Except that—and this is the curiosity—elsewhere in the book he makes more outright and more moralistic attacks on aspects of modern society than do most of the people he accuses of excessive moralizing. He is a strong admirer (and the sequence is recognizable and admirable) of Matthew Arnold, Dr. Leavis, and Orwell, and can say, to give only one instance: “Much of the output of cinema, press, and television is intellectually enervating and morally void.” He finds it impossible to contemplate the moral consequences” of Lord Northcliffe’s revolution in the British press, which has led to our present appalling popular newspapers, without feeling both anger and shame.” He can refer, as briefly as one remarks on a proved and accepted fact, to the anarchy which reigns in standards of behavior” It seems odd to be able to make such out-and-out statements and at the same time to belittle practically all specific critical analysis of mass culture and mass communications. Only the New Left, in its journal New Left Review, has consistently tried to trace connections between politics, industry, commerce, communications, culture, and morality in modern Britain. The New Left has sometimes been silly, of course. But it seems odd that Mr. Hartley is sharply scornful of its cultural-moral criticism and so inattentive to the moral shiftiness of recent Conservative governments. In view of the human charity and concern Mr. Hartley shows elsewhere in the book it seems surprising that he can so briefly settle the question of “the casualties of the Welfare State”—of those several million who are leading very unprosperous lives indeed. Provision for the aged in England, for example, is far shabbier and meaner than most people realize. Similarly, one is startled to find Hartley so easily disposing of the problems of suburbia (loneliness, agoraphobia, and the rest)—“The monotony of suburbia is a precondition of economic efficiency…” but only for “Them,” the others, one suppose; not for the intellectual or artistic minorities?

Though this book exposes a lot of silliness it commits many silliness itself. (“Africa we have always with us, a constant theme for politicians interested in denouncing the government or intellectuals seeking a vicarious satisfaction for their guilt-complexes.”) It doesn’t greatly clarify most of the questions it examines because it takes them only at the level of popular punditry. Mr. Hartley has too good a mind, too much of an unusual kind of tough humanity, to spend his time in this way.

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