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Can Conservatism Work?

The Squandered Peace: The World, 1945-1975

by John Vaizey
Hodder and Stoughton, 455 pp., £8.95 (paper)

Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties

by Paul Johnson
Harper and Row, 817 pp., $27.95

The British Political Tradition, Vol. I: The Rise of Collectivism

by W.H. Greenleaf
Methuen, 336 pp., $45.00 each

The British Political Tradition, Vol. II: The Ideological Heritage

by W.H. Greenleaf
Methuen, 579 pp., $45.00 each

Crossing the floor of the House, that is to say changing one’s party in Britain, has always been somewhat nerve-racking. Will old friends speak to one and how will new friends treat this potential cuckoo in the nest? Churchill had some experience in this matter, deserting his family’s party as a young man for the Liberals and in the 1920s sliding back among the Conservatives when the Liberal party was split and doomed never to govern again. He said, “Anyone can rat once; but it takes a certain ingenuity to rat twice.”

No one uses this word for those who left Labour to form the Social Democrat party. Those defections are too numerous and serious. The fact that most of the Labour members of Parliament who went over to the SDP lost their seats in the general election has not put heart into those who stayed with the party, because so many of them too were ousted. Far more bitter are the comments Labour politicians make about those who actually joined the Conservatives. They varied from the dirge sung over the former Labour minister, Reg Prentice, who not only seceded but got a post in Margaret Thatcher’s first administration (“that poor, misguided and deranged man”) to the delicately worded advice to her colleagues concerning the treatment appropriate for another defector which was breathed by the alluring baroness who until recently was the Labour chief whip in the House of Lords: “Speed the shit on his way.”

Outside Parliament people are more tolerant. During the Seventies it became evident that Harold Wilson could no longer maintain a credible government and keep the Labour party together—that was one of the reasons why he quit. Callaghan, who had wrecked Wilson’s bid to get an agreement on wage control with the unions, reaped the harvest of his opposition to his leader. When his turn came to deflate the economy, their unions showed him no gratitude and the strikes of the winter of 1978-1979 discredited his government. The policy and philosophy of the Labour party were discredited too. The Gaitskellite policy, which Anthony Crosland advocated in his writings, was to increase public expenditure to maintain full employment and create a larger cake by stimulating industry and business to become more efficient. Egalitarian legislation would ensure that the work force would get a larger share of the cake in order to reconcile them to greater efficiency. The bankruptcy of this policy, just as much as the swing in the Labour party to the loony left, made numbers of perplexed but thoughtful people ask whether it might not be true, as in 1945, that a complete break with the policies of the past was needed to revive the British economy. In present circumstances changing one’s party is scarcely more surprising than changing one’s dentist.

And yet clearly there must be something traumatic about it. If it were not so, why has it become apparently obligatory on being converted to the new conservatism to write a history of the world? Whether it is done as an expiation for past sins, a self-inflicted imposition like copying out 500 lines of Virgil at school, or whether it is a way of reorienting the mind like a course of yoga or Zen, or whether it is meant to establish a reputation for gravitas by regurgitating words which have been eaten, is far from clear. Hugh Thomas was the first.1 He is the chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, which analyzes problems for Margaret Thatcher, and he has been made a member of the House of Lords. He denies writing his history as a form of therapy. His explanation is that as a historian of the twentieth century (he wrote an authoritative history of the Spanish Civil War) he wants to set the concerns of our times in perspective; and he has certainly done so in a lively way. There’s nothing stingy about his survey of world history since he begins with the Creation. It is a book free from rancor or embarrassment, with no message other than the very proper plea that if we want to understand the present we must study the past and learn that history has no purpose but to teach wise disillusionment.

That is not the objective of another thoughtful peer. Like Thomas, John Vaizey was once a professor and was one of the most sprightly publicists for social democracy, a fine Keynesian applied economist whose specialism was the economics of education. During the Seventies he concluded that it was impossible any longer to work on the assumptions of the Fifties. His history skips the Creation and starts in 1945. It reflects the disappointment that many intelligent people of his generation feel about the course of events during their lifetime. Why, he asks, has Marxism continued to be so attractive despite the knowledge that the greatest Marxist power is an inefficient, corrupt, and brutal police state? Why has America, which attracts the young by its freedom and the consumer goods created by capitalism, failed to become the model for countries which so often prefer the violence of anti-imperialism and nationalism of a semi-Marxist kind?

I blame America,” Vaizey says confidently. America should have used its power to impose or sustain constitutional government upon states within its sphere as it did in West Germany and Israel. Instead America followed shortterm interests and failed to end the cold war after Stalin died. More perversely, in the Forties and Fifties America undermined Britain which was the one world power which could have helped it to maintain stability in the Gulf and Far East. But Vaizey considers that Britain too was to blame. Britain, suffering an appalling loss of self-confidence, did not serve its own interests and ended by serving nobody’s. It dithered between a policy of cutting and running and of remaining a world power. Indecision gave it the worst of both worlds.

Vaizey puts the statesmen of the world into the schoolroom and ticks them off for bad behavior. The trouble with books of this kind is that they provoke the thought that whatever the politicians did they would still be getting a tremendous tongue-lashing. This way of writing history is by no means confined to the new conservatives. On the center left in Britain Anthony Sampson has been holding his anatomy class for years and pointing with his scalpel to the effete, inefficient upper classes and to the interlocking circles of power which they still dominate. How few pieces of healthy tissue, he argues, there are still left—tissue which should be growing from a new generation of grammar school civil servants and ambitious entrepreneurs who alone can be expected to revivify Britain. And then suddenly you read that the new ruthless chairmen of nationalized industries are “all competing over the numbers they had fired…. What will future historians make of a period whose rulers so rapidly changed their whole attitude to jobs, and allowed three million unemployed to become ghosts outside the economic system?” With Sampson you can’t win. Anyone who takes steps to make British industry more competitive is pilloried for doing so.2

Such scolding and pillorying are one thing. Court martial and the firing squad are another. That is the treatment which Paul Johnson metes out to practically all statesmen since 1917.3 As a young man Johnson was the fiery editor of The New Statesman. His predecessor, Kingsley Martin, bumbled as he buzzed from flower to flower, sometimes fellow-traveling, now gathering honey from the liberals. The sound turned into an earsplitting whine as Johnson dive-bombed his opponents. The tone of his book is more seductive than it was in those days. The excellent smooth prose rolls on. The book is so devoid of vulgarisms and catchwords, the portraits of statesmen are so feline, the quotations so selective and destructive, the argument so controlled, that the reader is carried down the estuary and out to sea before he realizes that the tide has turned. It will fall like balm upon the inhabitants of East Hampton and Dallas and make stockbrokers in the dells of Surrey gird up their loins. But the harshness of Johnson’s judgments has not diminished over the years.

His book is in fact an astonishing attempt to rewrite the history of the world to justify the new conservatism. Of course the real devils remain the totalitarian tyrants who have massacred and imprisoned millions, assassinated their enemies, and made destabilization a norm of late-twentieth-century political practice. Closely following them are their imitators, the tin-pot dictators of many African and Asian states who have as great an appetite for blood. But they could never have succeeded had not most other statesmen—with the exception of those who stood up to Stalin—sold the pass after 1945. Roosevelt and Kennedy, Gandhi and Nehru, Hammarskjöld, Eden, and Brandt are mountebanks who did untold harm, and are put up against the wall. The great American presidents now become Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower because they did not interfere with the beneficial processes of capitalism and therefore presided over great eras of prosperity. Why is this fact not recognized?

Johnson is a Catholic and to him the answer is simple. Men no longer believe in religion. Its decline was accelerated, he declares with awe-inspiring simple-mindedness, by Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which encouraged moral relativism. Thereafter intellectuals rushed to shift personal responsibility for actions onto the impersonal forces of history. Every time the West neglected to distinguish right from wrong—when the British began indiscriminate bombing of German cities—they debased the moral currency and gave their enemies a propaganda victory. This has enfeebled leadership in the West; and that is why the history of our century is the history of terrorism and massacres. Yet the men Johnson despises are not the hard men who dropped bombs but the do-gooders, the liberals, those who aid and abet communism by blaming the rich nations for the poverty of the poor and who let even their language become affected by Marxist gobbledy-gook by inventing such terms as the third world or North and South which are so wildly inaccurate that it is scarcely credible educated men can use them.

Look at the world and judge whether or not the states of the Pacific Ocean which have flourished on free enterprise are not preferable to those where, as in Britain, planning and the welfare state have led to inefficiency and torpor or where Marxist regimes and economies have produced deserts and servitude. Johnson only respects hard men. It is, of course, a moot point when a hard man becomes a tyrant.

It is also a moot point when a hard state should be treated as beyond the pale and not as an ally. Johnson seems to think the Western democracies should stand up for South Africa in the UN. The fact that this would antagonize every country whose population is not white as well as millions of their own citizens is lost on him. Perhaps his most bizarre judgment on British foreign policy is his conviction that the British were mad when they decided to get out of India. No doubt he has made a calculation and concluded that the British would have had to kill over the years slightly fewer Indians than were killed in the Muslim-Hindu massacres at independence. He despises India; and it is true that, by the moral standard which comes most naturally to him, India is not as rich as Japan. But it is richer than China; it is growing richer steadily every year.

  1. 1

    Hugh Thomas, An Unfinished History of the World (Pan Books).

  2. 2

    Anthony Sampson, The Changing Anatomy of Britain (Random House, 1983), reviewed in these pages by Peter Jenkins, July 21.

  3. 3

    Modern Times was first published in England under the title A History of the Modern World: From 1917 to the 1980s (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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