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.

And is the standard of living always to be the final criterion? India has preserved its own culture and preferred to operate without the hegemony of the multinationals and the more flamboyant manifestations of consumer society. And should it not please Johnson that India is a religious country? Of course India’s sanctimonious rhetoric is not endearing. Nor is its ability to extract sizable aid and technological help from the West which is not all that graciously acknowledged. But what country does not invent its own rhetoric or address blarney to its friendly neighbors as far as is practicable?

Or take another instance of Johnson’s argument. What is one to make of his astonishment at the folly of the British in the days of the Control Commission for imposing upon West Germany—its competitor—an admirable trade union structure which for long protected the West Germans from the worst features of the English illness? Is he suggesting that at the time when the Allies believed they were going to govern Germany for years to come they should have imposed an unworkable pattern of trade unionism to plague themselves? Such ironical judgments become tiresome.

Just as one distrusts left-wing accounts of history in which the villains are the deluded and evil statesmen of the capitalist system, so an account of the recent past which so smoothly glides over the misjudgments of the right arouses irritation. How can Johnson not recall the Conservative attempt to appease Hitler? This sprang not from a strategic attempt to buy time but from a fear of Bolshevism—or of anything which might remotely be thought to smell of egalitarianism in Europe—that caused Chamberlain and Co. to make a deal with Hitler. How can someone of his intelligence regard all countries wherever they are, and whatever their standard of living or political tradition, as able to sustain the same degree of parliamentary government or political liberty?

Or consider his treatment of ideas. The heart may warm to Johnson’s trenchant attack on the depersonalization of history, indeed of the humanities themselves, launched by the excesses of the French structuralists and post-structuralists. How one applauds his assertion that history can be changed by individuals—a view, one might add, that has been for the past forty years at the center of the writings of that celebrated liberal Isaiah Berlin. But does Johnson imply that impersonal forces of history do not exist and that all historical movements, indeed all human actions, are solely caused by the conscious individual will? He resents that men and women should be stirred by ideas and ideals instead of being governed solely by self-interest. But that conclusion seems somewhat far from the decent society Johnson wants to promote.

He has a curious attitude toward ideas. He analyzes the follies of the Versailles Treaty and, a few pages later, summarizes Keynes’s account of the treaty. There is little difference between them but Keynes is denounced as one of those who weakened the will of the West and Paul Mantoux’s old arguments for the treaty are trotted out. The truth of the analysis scarcely seems to concern him. Or is he echoing John Henry Newman’s warning that on certain matters the truth should be “reserved”? His hatred of ideas—the “wrong” ideas—drives him to unmask an institution hitherto unsuspected of undermining the capitalist system. It is Cambridge, the procreator of Bloomsbury, an “insidious anti-establishment” place governed by “narcissistic elitism” fit only as the nursery of pacifists and spies. He apparently hasn’t heard that most of the leading British scientists who took part in World War II came from Cambridge as did the leaders among the cryptographers at Bletchley who broke and read the Enigma code: the most famous of whom, the mathematician Alan Turing, was also a homosexual. Sometimes he seems as cavalier with facts as any vulgar dialectical materialist. It is astonishing to find that he thinks that Lytton Strachey’s ideas had such a far-flung influence that in the 1930s patriotism had rotted away. He might just as well—and as absurdly—have thought Evelyn Waugh corrupted England (Duff Cooper said so in an angry moment, goaded beyond endurance by Waugh).

In fact Johnson’s central thesis about religion is rubbish. From Mexico to Patagonia lies the largest block of states in the world whose citizens are mostly Catholics. Are they notable for their stability or freedom from assassination, torture, dictatorships of left and right? The Church is as powerless to stop barbarism as it was in the Dark Ages when it proclaimed the Truce of God. And what of the Islamic revival? Johnson refers to the Khomeini terror but it is certainly free from the heresy of relativism. In fact religion can be as disobliging as communism to the politics of civility. But then Johnson’s book is a polemic; and although a product of the new conservatism in Britain I do not think it throws all that much light upon it.

Panting after the punishing pace of this marathon, one settles down with relief to a steady plod through the first two volumes of a four-volume work by W.H. Greenleaf, The British Political Tradition. This academic enterprise is buttressed by 3,257 footnotes. The author declares that they are inadequate for his task, but at least every one refers to an item that he himself has personally read, as he has never had a research assistant or a grant from a research council. But let no one suppose that these are dull professorial tomes. The narrative teases, is unbuttoned, reveals bias but keeps it within bounds, quotes from novels and poetry as readily as from government “blue books” and though it covers ground which other worthy scholars have trodden, you come to see that a different trail is being followed.

Greenleaf was one of the last of Laski’s students at the London School of Economics and as a strong socialist regarded his teacher’s conservative successor Michael Oakeshott with the utmost suspicion. But he became strangely unsettled. He found, so it is said, that whereas Laski had talked with his students for an hour and sent them away amazed by his brilliance and wealth of allusion, a week later he could scarcely remember anything Laski had said. Oakeshott, on the other hand, would question him for hours, apparently saying very little, but a week later his mind seethed with subversive thoughts, which Oakeshott’s originality had inseminated. Greenleaf identifies the malaise of British politics during the past century as the remorseless drift to collectivism and abandonment of the virtues of individualism. But he does not see the heresy of believing that the state and political action can cure most human ills as infecting solely one political party. Conservatives, no less than Labour, became advocates of collectivism; and who but the Liberal party in the first years of this century did more to lay the foundations of the welfare state and break decisively with Gladstone and laissez faire?

The Labour party is naturally regarded as the strongest advocate of collectivism; and so it is with its longstanding belief in nationalization of industries. At one time nationalization was thought not unreasonably to be the cure for industries which capitalism could only run harshly and unprofitably. (Tired of nationalizing concerns such as coal mining or railways which have the greatest difficulty in making a profit, Labour now has its sights fixed on nationalizing those activities for which the British still seem to have considerable talent such as insurance and banking.) But collectivism of all kinds gained ground among intellectuals from the experience of the economy in war. Greenleaf does not perhaps stress sufficiently the fact that Britain is a tiny, homogeneous country, and that most people there live in England and Wales.

That is why some have imagined that an incomes policy could work or that the environment could be protected and turned to best account simply by government planning—a notion which at first sight is not so ludicrous as it would be in America. Not so ludicrous because in the Second World War social and economic policies were coordnated to a degree that astonished friend and foe alike. From this experience technocrats derived great confidence. Government could be more scientific, less susceptible to the vagaries of chance. Science, which had solved so many military problems, could continue to be harnessed by the state to solve the problems of peace. Collectivism, it was argued, was more efficient than marketplace economics; and state-owned industries run by technocrats and informed by research would ensure a larger income for everyone, not merely for an elite.

But collectivism in the Labour party is faced by other traditions. Keynesians and Fabians have been met headon by syndicalism, by demands for workers’ control of industry, by an unqualified loyalty to the politics of equality. They have also been met by the hard-left theory of democratic representation—or “caucus politics”—which is central to Communist party politics. Not only the hard left but many Labour supporters are not prepared to accept that efficiency or individual liberty should on any issue take precedence over the measures that will bring greater equality even if it means making the capitalist system unworkable.

Conservatives too are divided. When capitalism was clearly in distress in Europe after the First World War, young Conservatives such as Harold Macmillan or Bob Boothby or, on his way to fascism, Oswald Mosley advocated extending the responsibilities of the state. They wanted not only to protect workers against abuses in factories. They were willing to legislate on housing, health rates, and widows’ and orphans’ benefits to such an extent that by 1939 Britain’s social services were the most advanced in the world.

The younger Conservatives believed in state intervention in investment and on unemployment. The waste of human beings’ lives during the slump made them champion industrial reconstruction. These young men grew older. After 1950 they became the leaders of the party. They dismissed as grotesque the aged survivors of the groups that look back to Victorians such as Lord Hugh Cecil and the constitutional lawyer A. V. Dicey. The member of Parliament for the London suburb of Orpington, an eccentric old dinosaur called Sir Waldron Smithers, was derided by Macmillan for urging the Conservatives to repudiate and reverse the collectivist legislation of the postwar Labour government. The Conservative collectivists often came from the aristocratic connection within the party, standing for paternalism and for transmitting to industry and the community the concern for his tenant farmers and laborers which the squire was supposed to display.

The most recent exponent of this faith is Ian Gilmour, son of a baronet, grandson of an earl, and married to the daughter of a duke. For him politics comes before economics.4 Is it not, he asks, against the Tory skepticism of ideologies and the Tory faith in eclecticism—try this today, that tomorrow—to put one’s faith in Hayek’s or Friedman’s economics? Do not these laissezfaire monetarists show a mad disregard for the traditional Tory concern with those who are genuinely in distress in society? No Tory should fear bringing in the state to help the poor and the weak against the mill owner of yesterday or the tycoon of today. Heath, who once stigmatized a certain tycoon as the “unacceptable face of capitalism,” sulks and does not disguise his disgust with the present government not just out of astonished pique that he should have been displaced but because he represents a different tradition of political thought within his party.

Margaret Thatcher’s government exemplifies the anticollectivist tradition of the party: the reverence for private property, the right of a man to do what he will with his own, his freedom to spend his money as he wants to, the contempt for bureaucrats and intellectuals who tell him that he is wrong to spend it that way and force him to spend it in another way—through taxes, which finance ministries and government commissions of little visible use to him. (Some old-style Conservatives, such as Hailsham, hold both points of view with equal passion.) That extreme Victorian individualist Herbert Spencer found that his strongest supporters were among the Tories and watched with dismay the Liberal party of Gladstone’s day turn to the collectivist policies which won the Liberals their famous victory at the beginning of this century.

Just how powerful, among those who usually vote Tory, was the discontent with the Conservative leadership for genuflecting to collectivism became apparent in 1962 when Sir Waldron Smithers’s old constituency elected a Liberal who advocated getting government off the people’s backs. Heath himself fought the general election that he won on precisely such a policy but shattered the morale of his party by refusing to face the implications of such a policy—high unemployment, successful confrontation with the trade unions, and deflation. In other words he tried to work out policies based on both traditions of conservatism. Margaret Thatcher believes this to be impossible and immoral and is prepared to break eggs in making her omelet.

The only people to bubble with new versions of old political ideas in Britain are the new conservatives. Today it is returning the fire services to private ownership, tomorrow a reduction in taxes for those who educate their children in private schools. Bureaucratic centralization, public expenditure to meet every deficiency or injustice, collectivist paternalism, legislative pollution, miasmas such as an incomes policy, policies for running men and women instead of policies that allow them to run themselves, are now denounced with fervor by a new generation on these issues who take as their guru Enoch Powell, the finest intellect among politicians of the right, and Oakeshott as their philosopher.

There is some confusion of thought among them about what their true objective should be. Greenleaf is anxious to establish that the new conservatism should not be a modish variant of antistatist Gladstonian liberalism. The state should certainly cease to meddle where it has caused untold harm in economic affairs. But it needs to be strong so as to “attend to its proper business of sustaining the rules or framework within which people may see to their affairs. In particular its major task in present and foreseeable circumstances will be to restore public order and social discipline, authority and the rule of law.” But what do we mean by collectivism? Does it differ from the present term of abuse among conservatives: “corporatism”? Is collectivism to be restricted solely to the intervention by the state in the financial and industrial concerns of the country? Or does it extend, as most people imagine it does, to the subvention of certain services, notably in health, education, and social welfare, and to many other concerns in Britain such as state support for the arts?

Is Britain for instance to move nearer to the US and expect private enterprise to support opera, ballet, and the theater? And if so would conservatives view with equanimity the market price being the sole arbiter in the purchase of works of art? Would they then rejiggle the tax laws to enable those who possess works of art to bequeath them in their lifetime to museums on terms eminently favorable to themselves even though by such legislation the market value of all objects would be distorted and vastly enhanced? Certainly there is little sign of this being Conservative policy since the government recently set up a national heritage fund to help state-financed institutions to acquire collections and works of art for the nation. In European countries the scope of state aid is so wide that when one talks of the government being anticollectivist it is often taken as synonymous with reducing public expenditure in any or every field.

Greenleaf warns that disentangling the state from economic life and even more from vast areas of social life in which people have grown to expect aid will be exceedingly difficult. Heath failed to do so; and Margaret Thatcher met with decidedly limited success in her first administration. Someone uncovers some case of injustice or of need. In both houses of Parliament there will be an outcry and the lobbies, usually with support from both sides of the House, will be at the government and attack it for doing nothing. There is endless pressure in Parliament and local government to provide better services and extend collectivism or at the least protect the services that exist. Greenleaf admits that the more educated a democracy the more demanding the electorate becomes for action by government to remedy this abuse or meet that need. (The present government has recently been accused in the London Times of murder by neglect for failing to spend an additional £50 million a year on kidney machines which would prolong the lives of 3,000 people—which lends credibility to another of Greenleaf’s conclusions, that the more philanthropic we get in Britain the more likely those who run humanitarian causes are to call for state action.)

Margaret Thatcher often declares that one of her main tasks is to reeducate public opinion and wean people from the cornucopian breast of the state. No group has helped her more in undermining belief in the virtues of collectivism than the trade unions. The unions in the public services, white and blue collar alike, have been more successful than their brothers in the nationalized industries in postponing cutbacks and maintaining their claims for higher wages and better conditions of services for their members—and worse for the public. The readiness of the unions in hospitals or in essential services to inflict deplorable hardships on their fellow citizens who use them when they strike has made them loathed and has made the services offered increasingly inefficient. Given the choice, the unions will always settle for fewer men and women in work so long as those on the job get higher wages and easier conditions of work such as shorter hours.

But the unions were not alone in exploiting collectivism. The Seventies was the decade when every pressure group engaged in exploitation. Individuals and institutions learned how to exploit liberalized society, consensus government, and the collectivist state. In the Forties the public services provided were regarded almost with awe as triumphs of civilized state action; they were praised and accepted by all parties and in the Fifties became commonplace. In the Sixties they were extended lavishly and began to be despised. In the Seventies they were pillaged and began to run down after the oil crisis. Every public service or institution learned to fight its own corner and their machismo and prestige were judged by how skillfully they did it. The new conservatives welcome this aggressive competitiveness and selfish egoism. To them it spells vitality. But they want it to revitalize business and industry, not to turn public institutions such as universities or national airlines or telecommunications into monopolies that blackmail the public. They will not find it easy to praise egoism as a virtue in one walk of life and decry it in another.

As one coasts to the end of Greenleaf’s long, readable work, one wonders whether after all collectivism and libertarianism are any longer such important concepts. The other day one of the best Conservative publicists, Peregrine Worsthorne, was contemplating with distress the fact that perhaps as many as 10 million people in Britain live in degrading poverty and noticed that in one of the worst London boroughs there was a high incidence of one-parent families among the most poverty-stricken. Not lack of money but lack of a husband and father accounted for their misery. Perhaps, he speculated, feminism rather than capitalism or socialism was to blame. By this he meant the adoption by society, whether in family life or in schools or hospitals, of moral and cultural norms which may (perhaps) be appropriate to middle-class families but which are wholly inappropriate for the families of the very poor in the home or in schools. In fact, he continued, the cultural diet on which the poor are now fed is every bit as inappropriate as the coals-in-the-bath economic assumptions that the rich made about the poor in Britain between the wars. Beefing up the welfare services, he said, will not solve this problem: only the state using all its potential fiscal, educational, and coercive power can improve matters.

Worsthorne’s inference that before Germaine Greer no single-parent family existed outside the loose-living intelligentsia and the rich is egregious. But what many of the sensible new conservatives are saying has more to it: namely that what Britain needs is not more education, but more appropriate education, not more doctors but doctors less hamstrung by committees, not more probation officers but ones with greater powers and initiatives. The trouble, as the new conservatives will find, is that government is far better at making quantitative than qualitative decisions. It will be interesting to see whether in fact they are able to reverse the trend to collectivism, which is the easy way of appearing to deal with palpable abuses or needs, and confound those observers who would rejoice if the trend were irreversible.

This Issue

October 27, 1983