Has Britain Found a Role Yet?

The leading historians Professors Norman Stone and Jeremy Black discuss how this country might recover its once unique contribution to Western civilisation with Standpoint Editor Daniel Johnson

Left to right: Professors Norman Stone and Jeremy Black 

Daniel Johnson: Let’s get straight in medias res. Do you think Britain and its new coalition government is going to play a significant part in international affairs in the coming years? Do we still have a unique role to play? 

Jeremy Black: I doubt it. British commentators do not realise how relatively inconsequential they have become in the world. The easiest way to show it is to read foreign newspapers, just to see how infrequently Britain occurs, or articles about Britain as opposed to articles about some cat being stuck in Buckingham Palace. It is relatively uncommon in most countries in the world. 

Norman Stone: Yes. If you are talking about the 1980s, when this country was well and truly on the map, huge numbers of people were very interested in what was going on here. I don’t think it’s true now.

JB: The paradoxical aspect is actually that in the last decade we’ve played an active role in warfare. We’ve gone back to east of Suez — if you’d have told people in the ’70s or ’80s that we would go back to east of Suez they would have thought it remarkable. Britain has actually played quite a major role but interest in Britain has receded. I think one of the reasons for that is that, fairly or unfairly, British foreign policy is seen as essentially an adjunct to that of the United States. There isn’t much of a sense of Britain as an independent player. 

DJ: What about Europe in this? Is this partly a consequence of Britain being absorbed into a larger European whole or is it as you suggested, Jeremy, that we are just an adjunct to the United States?

NS: Oh, I don’t know. England is a funny country. And you’ll notice I say “England” firmly as a Scotsman who disapproves so strongly of Scottish nationalism. 

We were an awful warning to everybody in the Seventies. In fact, the 1970s is a parallel that strikes me as quite interesting at the moment: there were internal commentators who were terribly obsessed with whether it would be Heath or Wilson or the trade unions or Jack Jones or what-not and the outside world just yawned and saw the whole thing going down the plughole. Then along come the 1980s and the thinking was that the country was a similar place but one that comes up a bit and then goes down and then comes up again. So it’s, “Hello, it’s us.” Most countries aren’t like that. There is something creative here. We try to bury it, literally — as I see it now looking out of this window, we are trying to bury it under concrete. But we are not even that good at concrete.

JB: What Norman says is right: there are periods when you have intellectual and philosophical and political energy and there are others when it is not the case. But there was another reason for Britain’s revival in the 1980s: North Sea oil. We actually had a one-off, great opportunity — whether we squandered it or not is something I suspect the historians of the future will debate and the people at the present time ought to be aware that they have just lived through the final stage of the squandering. But in a sense in the 1980s and 1990s we were able to act in a more active role with some meaning because we could afford to do all sorts of things. 

We could afford to avoid facing up to many of the challenges of contradictory commitments. Now we can’t do that. Now in some respects we are like many other second-rank powers and in so far as people choose to focus on economic issues — and I’m not an economic determinist for a minute — we don’t appear to be playing a clear role at the top of the narrative. We are not a tiger economy. We are not an economy that is seeing great growth rates. We are not a country which attracts an enormous amount of inward investment, other than buying assets in some sort of fire sale. 

I suppose one of the present challenges is to try and right the economy. And if that doesn’t happen, there may well be interesting and fascinating intellectual and philosophical ideas and they may be really important but whether anybody else will necessarily be interested in them is another question. I suspect what helps is the very fact that you, Daniel, are sitting here as the editor of a journal which, thanks to English being the universal language, will be read widely outside Britain. Therefore, in a sense, ideas that come to fruition here have a wider resonance. That is going to continue to be the case but in terms of foreigners being interested in the policy of the British State, it’s much less clear that that will be the case. 

DJ: That’s a sort of linguistic accident. But our part — and it is only a small part — in for want of a better word one has to call “Western civilisation”, or perhaps the “Atlantic community”, is still significant, I think. So I want to broaden the question really to: does the West still have a great future? What is it really, now that the Cold War is over, that we represent in the world? Why do we still matter? 

NS: Well, everybody wants to go there. Full stop. That’s the answer, isn’t it? I live a lot of the time in Turkey and if you think about it, Turkey is the only place between Athens and Singapore that actually attracts refugees. Nobody wants to live anywhere in that hemisphere, or quartersphere, or whatever it is. The reason is that Turkey is quite close to the West and everybody wants to go to the West — apart from a few crazies. So let’s not talk about the declining West. There are some very interesting questions about why there are such negative features for this success, and that I do find difficult to understand. Quite often as you get into a Turkish taxi people will ask: “What’s your favourite football team?” I have rehearsed a line which translates into, I think, any language under the sun, that sometimes sounds a little anatomical, which is: “I would very gladly break the jawbone of the last rock singer with the shinbone of the last footballer.”

DJ: Well, that’s not what we are defending, the culture of sports and pop music…

NS: Oh no, if you want me to join the Taliban then send me to Michael Jackson’s funeral. But I think that is a bad sign about Western civilisation — it may contain a cultural rot of that class. It is very difficult to get round. There are all the social consequences which people point to, like the business of endless unmarried mothers, or teenage pregnancies and all that. I get sick of it and I don’t understand why on the one side we have this fearfully creative civilisation, which everyone wants to imitate, and at the same time we’ve got this negative side. I don’t understand it. It wasn’t like that when I was a boy.

JB: Is that because there are different “Wests”? That it’s entirely possible to have a position in which a large percentage of the world’s population wish to migrate to Western states and yet there are individual states within the West which may have a rapid decline. You might think of Argentina over the last 100 years, whose economy really went down, whose culture suffered badly. I don’t think for a second that we are in that league but it’s no accident that you can have a situation in which we could simultaneously be saying that there are serious problems in Britain and yet also that Western culture — and Western society exemplified in the US — is still very vibrant. The US has got a lot of reasons for that: its demography — there are a lot of young people there, which is tremendously important for a dynamic society. It has a lot of space — the American cities may be big but if you fly over the US you are repeatedly struck by how a lot of the country is not particularly heavily populated. And there is a sense of “can-do” enthusiasm and openness, which is really quite a dynamic feature. Obviously there are a lot of problems with America, I’m not ignoring that — adversarial politics is becoming more and more strident, it’s getting harder to move through policy formation — but as a dynamic society, the US is there. One of the difficulties is that when we talk about the West and ask whether there is, or whether there is not, a crisis in the West we have to think about what we mean by “the West”. Do we mean the US and the rest as an add-on or do we imagine there is some kind of average, as it were, which encompasses people from, shall we say, Helsinki to Honolulu?

Jeremy Black 

NS: Don’t forget Glasgow.

DJ: Just think again about the Cold War. Norman, your book is entitled The Atlantic and Its Enemies. We can argue, as Jeremy rightly says, about what we mean by the Atlantic community and the West, but what about its enemies? In the Cold War we could to some extent define ourselves by our enemies. We knew who they were and that helped us to decide who we were. That’s not so clear now. Who do you think are the enemies of the West now? Are they mostly within — the sort of problems you talked about — or are they external? Or maybe we don’t have enemies any more?

NS: Good question that. We’ve got an awful lot of enemies. I think this problem has grown since the 1960s. Call it self-hatred if you like. Or is it just a part of a certain strand in the West which keeps producing things which in the end might kill it? I am very impressed by those books by Melanie Phillips, for instance on education. How on earth anybody in a country like this would have thought up the educational reforms that we got in the mid-Sixties and later; and why they weren’t scrapped? I don’t want to harp on about this one but it’s all too visible what has happened with governments now, like the one we have just elected. It’s going to have to face cuts and we all know that universities are the first on the line. There are about 110 universities which will all be up for cuts of five per cent, which means that some institution which frankly wanted just to have been left doing a good job as a polytechnic will lose five per cent. And King’s College London will lose an important professorship in the understanding of how to read old manuscripts. This kind of thing is bound to happen. You get awfully sick of that kind of thing. These are the internal enemies and they are the real problem. I cannot really believe that a few crazy Taliban or Taliban-sympathising people are doing nearly as much damage over the medium term as internal factors.

DJ: Jeremy, how do you see this?

JB: The transition from democracy to democratisation, in a sense that society has to be accountable in all its actions, is a clear challenge. Different parts of the West and the non-West are responding to it with greater success. Norman is right — there are clearly serious problems, for example in educational standards and other such issues — but we are responding to the way in which society across the world is very volatile at the moment. Increasingly people are living in very large cities. If you go to the third world, places like Kinshasa or Lagos or Mexico City have more than 10 million inhabitants in these kind of environments. They are not really under control of any particular agency and people there have to create their own new senses of social identity. It’s not surprising that when they do that those senses often aim against other aspects of the society that are present at that moment. 

I suppose that when I am feeling a pessimist I would feel this is a terrible thing. But on the other hand I’m not quite sure how one could imagine a steady-state answer to a world which is growing so rapidly in population. I don’t think you are going to be able to say that continuity is going to happen in such an environment. As far as the West is concerned, we actually are not the area of the world whose population is growing most rapidly. That problem, that challenge, is not the one that is actually the issue in Europe. If anything, in Europe the challenge is the mismatch between the so-called indigenous populations which are not growing particularly rapidly — in countries such as Hungary or Italy, or to a certain extent parts of Western Europe which are actually shrinking — and the incoming groups, which may not always wish to accept the fact that they are a part of a pluralistic community. That challenge is very different to the challenge in much of the New World — the different West. When we look at the New World, we tend to think only of the United States but of course we have to bear in mind that Mexico to Chile is also part of the West.

We very rarely conceptualise Latin America as a part of the West. Most societies have very different challenges. And in a way what one has to decide is, is this a second iteration of Edward Gibbon or not? That sounds like a very bizarre remark but Gibbon, you will recall, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire asks the question: can it happen again? Can Western civilisation decline again? He explains why he does not think it is going to happen again — he actually takes the view that if groups from the outside are going to overthrow the West they will only do so by becoming Westernised and he cites the example of Russia. But he then says, at the end of the day it simply does not matter because civilisation has already been reborn across the other side of the Atlantic. We’ll leave aside, in this politically correct age, the question of what one would have thought of that remark if one was a Native American, an Aztec or an Inca. 

But that proposes a geography of civilisation which I’m not sure still pertains. I think the relationship now is much less integrated between Europe and the New World, and within the New World, between the US and the Latin American societies that were created. If you were writing in the 1760s or the 1780s you could feel that Mexico was not too different from the Thirteen Colonies. But now we have at least three Wests. We also have to consider the extent to which what we understand as aspects of Western society have been adopted by Eastern societies and sometimes transformed. For example, Japan is not the same society now as Japan was in 1850 and the process of Westernisation is not identical — Tokyo is not the same as Dublin — but nevertheless it is in its way an explicitly Western society. I do sometimes feel that we have a very Anglocentric, or even Eurocentric, view of the West when in some respects we are just a spare wheel on the car.

NS: Oh, I don’t know about that…

JB: I’m being provocative, Norman.

NS: Everyone knows vaguely what is meant by the term “West”: it’s good old women’s rights and voting and so on. You can define it in the way its enemies would look at it.

JB: Take women’s rights and voting, which you mentioned. I think that’s very cogent — we’ll leave out champagne for a second. What is interesting is that societies across the world which we would rightly see as authoritarian — and in some respects, what Daniel would correctly see as enemies of the West — often actually formally endorse Western values. If you look at the constitution of states such as Libya or Syria, in some respects these are joke documents but in some respects what they capture is the sense that almost everybody is signed up to Western values now. 

The point is that many places do not follow them. Which then opens a way to start thinking about some of our more classic Western countries — and I am in no way comparing us to Libya — and those aspects of them which we are not proud about: where you can see similar challenges to the reality of freedom, whatever the formal constitutional purchase on it is. Those challenges exist here as well. So we are in this rather bizarre world in which people everywhere across the world — there are exceptions of course like North Korea — sign up to aspects of Western values but what is really troubling is how deeply grounded these values are. 

There I would agree with you, Daniel, when you say that you are worried about aspects of social breakdown. The easiest way to have a failure to respond to people’s wish for liberty and freedom is in a society where there is a high level of social breakdown, because either people do not care or they are more concerned with bread and circuses. 

I was very struck when I was canvassing during the General Election in Plymouth Sutton and Devonport that on the one hand you would have very interesting conversations with electors about all sorts of things, ranging from politics to tulips, but on the other hand there were some people who made absolutely explicit that they could not care less. They did not wish to engage. Now obviously for that latter group freedom is in part a matter of feeling that they can opt out of society. But then, actually, they are unfree. If somebody chooses to take freedom away from them they don’t really care, as long as they have their television and cigarettes.

NS: Aren’t you making complications about this? The electorate are just bored to tears by the political class, which is the political class’s fault. We have been presented with this bunch of marshmallows, haven’t we? Most people are just switching off. This is another big problem, surely, not just with us but with pretty well any democratic system at the moment — the politicians are all saying the same. You create in these circumstances an extra-parliamentary opposition — as the Germans used to call it — which kidnaps businessmen and shoots people. Then you get this huge great lump of apathy and 40 per cent abstaining. In America the problem was there even before Clinton — why don’t 60 per cent of Americans vote? This was not the case in the past. Another problem is the emergence of this political class. I have to say when I look at the faces — maybe it’s just because I’m getting old — but when I look at the faces at those television debates I think: “Are these just babies’ bottoms filled with Botox?” Faces which have seen nothing. No wonder people want to abstain. 

Norman Stone 

JB: What Norman is offering there is a good definition of an aspect of our culture, which is a degree of civic engagement: whether it’s represented through voting or associating with others for a common purpose in a free environment; whether it is, as it were, to organise allotments in your local area or to organise a local choir or organising voting for an election — that kind of associational element for which you do not, as it were, need permission. Interestingly enough, one of the troubling aspects of British society in recent years is that a mixture of health and safety legislation, concerns about adults with children, issues with insurance, is actually sapping the associational element of society. Whoever runs the country in the next 20-30 years will benefit if political engagement is linked to wider patterns of social engagement. 

DJ: Can I introduce an historical element here: how far do you think some of this has to do with a sort of collective amnesia? I mean the subjects and events which you write about in your book, Norman, happened before many of the electorate were born and they simply don’t know about them. A lack of historical perspective is surely a factor in this sort of weakness of the West, in this feeling that the West is anybody’s for the taking and that because we don’t know what it is that we stand for or what we have to lose, we are therefore very vulnerable. How far do historians have a special role to play here in reminding us who we really are?

NS: Gosh, this is awfully difficult, Daniel.

JB: Academic historians do not own the past. This is important. There is clearly a sense of relationships between the generations, relationships between the present and the past that exist either explicitly or latently in all societies. The relationship between those senses and the explicit academic pursuit of history is very variable. If you wanted to criticise modern British historiography and that of some European countries, as well as some aspects of American academic history, you could argue that there has been a fault of a lack of engagement with these wider issues. 

I’m not talking about everybody. I know there are many writers out there who do try and look at the long-term issues and who do try to write in an accessible prose, who do understand that academic history has a public and social function. 

Unfortunately, there are books which, whilst intellectually distinguished are often very inaccessible, written in a sort of jargon — often called discourse — which is very difficult to follow. There I think historians have suffered because their public function has been lost — or maybe they themselves have lost it, or maybe because there is an often politically-induced, obsession within the academy with certain kinds of behaviour and certain kinds of output. Your essential question about amnesia is a good one but what I would say is that history is not simply an academic pursuit. In many senses our understanding of the past, in the UK and indeed in other countries, rests much more in television and film in what are increasingly visual societies and the way in which they portray the past. What I really regret about that is that on the whole the visual presentation of history is two-dimensional: there is only one answer and Simon Schama or David Starkey will tell you what that answer is. That is not helpful. 

You turn on the television, you listen to a public debate between politicians and you know that there are different views on things. But then people somehow come and simplify the past and part of the challenge is to make the diversity of the past, the way it could have gone in different directions, the way people in the past were not all sitting in some kind of common zeitgeist nor spouting the same discourse — to try to make that diversity something that is interesting and which also fulfils a civic function, because if you can encourage a sense of humane scepticism about overarching interpretations — “it has to be this way, history was clearly leading in one direction” — if you can encourage some kind of humane scepticism about that, that is actually part and parcel of living in a democracy, because democracy rests on
legitimating differing views. 

NS: Supposing we get into a time machine with a guillotine. In English history, which would be one’s first target? I suspect in my case it might be Lloyd George. If Lloyd George had been guillotined in 1902, say, because they always used to say the rot set in with Lloyd George, much could have been avoided. More seriously, people have to know history in the background. Without it, you couldn’t really understand the present crisis. 

DJ: Do you think each period throws up its own special history? Your coming of age, Norman was the ’80s, which was a very exciting time. You helped to provide a sort of historical narrative that Mrs Thatcher and people like that needed to understand why they were doing what they were doing. My father [Paul Johnson] provided a similar book at exactly that time, Modern Times, which Ronald Reagan read, and it helped him, I think, to understand his role. It’s the same today, isn’t it?

NS: Oh, I’m not so sure. The thing is, we’re landed with quite of lot of big technical problems. The book which I’m a great admirer of is Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money: a wonderful book putting the current financial crisis into some sort of perspective. And of course you have to look at history from this point of view. As to the grand narrative side of it, I have a weakness for A. J. P. Taylor, who’s always a bit on the defensive because English History ended up being more or less propaganda for the Labour government. He wrote it in 1965 and it is an “Easy Answers for England” sort of book. Fast-forward to 1975 and the man is very depressed, his savings eaten up by inflation as he looks out over Twisden Road with litter blowing about. I wonder what he’d have done with that book if he’d written it ten years later. 

DJ: Obviously, history isn’t simply invalidated when the caravan moves on and we then see things differently. Jeremy just mentioned Gibbon. We still read Gibbon because he still has interesting things to say about us as well as his own time, let alone the Romans. But how can history help us to meet the challenges of the present and the future? Isn’t there a danger that history has now been reduced to entertainment? It’s simply good television, it generates a lot of money for publishers, and it’s one step up from journalism but not really fundamentally different. How can we make history be more than that?

JB: First, let’s be pluralist. There are multiple ways in which history exists and the fact that there is a journalistic and entertaining strand is not a bad thing. History is useful if it encourages people to have a sense that time doesn’t have an impact in a predictable fashion. There is not a predictable pattern of cause and effect, and also, people make a difference. I would say that academic history as a whole, Norman may or may not agree, has been moved very much against the dominance of Marxist determinism over the last 30 years. So Marxism now doesn’t really have much purchase in the intellectual community. What that means in practice is one understands the role of contingency, individuals, groups, maybe whole societies at particular moments. 

You started off by asking what we would make of the political situation. One of the things we clearly have seen since the General Election is that individuals and small groups of people make a difference, just as the electorate as a whole — everybody who voted and those who didn’t vote — also made a difference. This is a tremendously important point because if what you want — and I suspect this is very dear to your views, Daniel — is an engaged society with a sense of cultural values, then a self-awareness that one does have a role is important to it. An historicised imagination does help to show that people have a role. When you look to the past, you don’t write a history of the 1950s saying, “Well, nothing then mattered and the people didn’t count.” You might write a history which exaggerates the importance of some aspects, that’s a different question, but what you actually do is give agency to people, and particularly these days we’ve moved away from giving agency to these abstractions of great historical forces. We’re much more concerned to put the weight on people, both social groups and collectivities, and as individuals. 

I have always been tremendously attracted — at university I did geography as well as history — to the longue durée French kind of history, which has a risk of determinism in it but, done well, a sense that time and space are part of the matrix within which human beings existed and exist is tremendously important. To give people a sense of place as well as time, I think that’s very significant. 

DJ: Norman, as a case history, a very big one, let’s look at the Cold War. Could it have gone differently? Could it have ended differently? When you came on to the scene in the ’70s and ’80s, do you think it made a big difference the way that people like Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, the Pope behaved? Did the decisions they took matter? Could the whole story have ended quite differently?

NS: Yes, I think not there and then, in the sense that it would have taken quite a long time to dismantle the West in any sense. But if you think of the world of the latter 1970s — 25 per cent inflation in the heartland, this country farcically unworkable, the West Germans running to Moscow, even Franz Josef Strauss trying to make terms with them over recognising that absurd little statelet East Germany, Frenchmen turning up in Hungary and saying, “Oh, this is just like Sweden” — it was a crazy world. 

It is certainly thinkable that if that had been allowed to go on, if it hadn’t been for a Reagan/Thatcher reaction in 1979-80, that things could indeed have been ugly. We had that splendid fightback period in the first half of the ’80s. It goes back in the end to Henry Kissinger in 1975, and the idea that you can actually draw up rules for the economy of the West which will drive out inflation even at the cost of some short-term pain. That took some courage to do, it certainly did. What would have happened to this country? 

Since we’re in London, what would have happened? There was nobody else in the Tory party except Margaret Thatcher who had that combination of gifts, and even then her candidacy came up completely accidentally. Keith Joseph, who was proposing to stand, had allowed Alfred Sherman to write his speeches, and they were such spiffingly good speeches that he gave up reading them carefully before he read them out. So Joseph went to speak in Birmingham in 1974. 

He then discovered that Alfred Sherman had written a speech saying — sounding not unlike some German eugenicist — that the trouble was that the proletariat, especially “those of low intelligence”, were having too many children.  So the choice was to give them contraception or face national “degeneration”. So Keith Joseph was then immortally pilloried in Private Eye as “Sir Sheath”. They met that evening in Flood Street, where Mrs T was cooking — fried eggs or something in the kitchen — and Keith Joseph said with his head in his hands, “Well, I can’t possibly stand after this” as the wolves bayed outside. She came in dancing in with her frying pan and said, “Well, if you’re not going to stand, I will.” In some ways, it’s very tempting to look at it like that. 

DJ: I’m not trying to trivialise history. It’s not just about individual quirks and character. But I do think the story of the Cold War is simply one of many examples of a major historical event where individuals, and also individual nations, played a key role.

JB: The Polish people, for example, in the early ’80s played a key role, in a way that the Romanians didn’t. 

DJ: Solidarity didn’t have to happen, and might not have happened — it was a huge risk for the people involved — but it worked. 

JB: If you want to make a counter-factual point, the contrast between China in 1989 and the circumstances in Eastern Europe and Russia at that point is quite dramatic. That reminds us that how we understand China today is bound up with what we think of the Cold War. Now in a sense we have a very benign view of the end of the Cold War because our perspective is that of Western Europe. If your perspective on the Cold War was that of, say, South Korea or Taiwan, you might not have such a harmonious view of it. This is quite significant because in a way the question of when and whether the Cold War ends means very different things in different trajectories. 

If you lived in Angola, for example, the fighting between the MPLA government and Unita goes on into the early ’90s. It has a different timetable, a very “hot” war incidentally, in some parts of the world — it was the same in El Salvador. So there are complexities, and one of the interesting things about history is the way in which you have to try and reconcile into an analysis, into a narrative, very disparate developments. The fact that individuals, groups, nations move on different timetables, that is a challenge. 

DJ: I want to come back to the beginning — the new government we now have and its immediate tasks ahead. Given your historical knowledge, do you give this government, this extraordinary “pantomime horse” as someone has already called it, a chance of survival? Will it make a serious difference or is it doomed from the beginning?

NS: I have to say, I do not expect too much from it. You can obviously take a disparate cabinet and drive it in a particular direction some of the way, but how far is at least questionable and it will take prodigious gifts of leadership. Margaret Thatcher took about two years to settle down, and she had a solid enough majority. If it is a fissiparous coalition, then I’m afraid it might be just a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and the lowest common denominator changes. I’m afraid I would expect an election in a very short time — in a year or so. Supposing they are confronted with a run on the pound and the IMF is called in, on which I agree with Niall Ferguson. We probably should now do the audit of the accounts to pin the blame very firmly to where it belongs.

JB: I am not necessarily disagreeing with Norman but this is not inherently a proof that the coalition government is a bad thing. All governments are coalitions — the Conservative Party, the Labour Party are coalitions, the Liberal Democrats more than most as a political party is a coalition. I’m not convinced that a coalition at the present moment is inherently less likely to succeed than a government which, after all, is supported only by a minority of the electorate. 

I don’t take the view that because it is a coalition government it is necessarily going to be more successful, but neither do I take the view that because it is a coalition government it is necessarily going to be less successful. From an 18th-century perspective this is what they used to call the “broad-bottomed ministry”. In a sense there has always been a tension in British politics between governments that are based on party loyalty and governments which are based on a different composition. Now, the extent to which that comes through is often historically contingent. I’m not essentially against the idea of a “broad-bottomed ministry” but agree entirely with Norman: there are serious questions here as to whether people are willing to subordinate, as it were, personal consumption, consumption on behalf of collectivities, their own aspirations and the aspirations for society in one generation. We’ve anticipated the future. Now the bill has come in, it’s very unclear we can kick that habit. What is interesting is that if it fails people will turn and blame the coalition but I’m not sure the fault will be the coalition’s. In many senses societies end up with governments which in some respects are the function of those societies. They try to slough off the responsibility — and in some cases these are highly controversial issues like those in Germany in the 1930s — but there is a degree of relationship between the society that you are in and the government you end up with. 

DJ: So we deserve what we get.

JB: It is more complicated than this. At the present moment there is not a majority view in favour either of conservatism, as understood, or socialism, as classically understood, or a majority of liberals, as they understand liberal democracy. I think that creates a problem. 

NS: I’m not sure if it is fair to blame the government on the people. We have after all got a political class now — all these superficial people yapping into mobiles who did PPE at Oxford.

JB: That’s a marvellous phrase.

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