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 …