Forward to the Fifties

‘There is a real danger that the new coalition will overlook the urgent need to restore the ladders of aspiration that have been wilfully kicked away since the 1960s’

Manchester Square

The end of the New Labour era may also mark an epoch in the nation’s intellectual life. Will 2010 be seen in retrospect as we now see 1997, or 1979, or 1945? It seems more than likely. But how could we define the ethos of British intellectuals today? 

In order to answer this question, it is helpful to look back at a very evocative snapshot of an earlier generation. In her review of Capital Affairs, Frank Mort’s study of the emergence of the Permissive Society, Nichi Hodgson rightly draws attention to a celebrated essay: “The British Intellectuals” by Edward Shils, the great American sociologist. It was published in the April 1955 issue of Encounter, then edited by Stephen Spender and the late Irving Kristol, whose widow Gertrude Himmelfarb is on Standpoint’s board. Although a colleague of Saul Bellow, Friedrich Hayek and others on Chicago’s Committee for Social Thought, Shils had served as an interrogator with the British Army in the Second World War, had taught at Manchester and the LSE and knew the British better than they knew themselves. When I met him many years later at Peterhouse, Cambridge, Shils lived up to his formidable reputation as a scathing critic of the politicisation and dumbing down of the intellect. He was at his most incisive in diagnosing liberal and socialist pathologies, but he also wrote a devastating critique of McCarthyism while it still took courage to do so. His friend (and Standpoint contributor) Joseph Epstein wrote: “He once described a certain intellectual to me as ‘a rabid anti-Communist’; then, after a perfectly timed pause, he added, ‘Wait a minute — so am I.'”

Observing the serpentine posturing of his British counterparts with similarly acerbic insight, Shils argued that the alienated outsiders of the 1930s and 1940s had, by the mid-1950s, become insiders, ardent apologists for the “aristocratic-gentry” culture they had once despised. “Continental holidays, the connoisseurship of wine and food, the knowledge of wild flowers and birds, acquaintance with the writings of Jane Austen, a knowing indulgence for the worthies of the English past, an appreciation of ‘more leisurely epochs,’ doing one’s job dutifully and reliably, the cultivation of personal relations — these are the elements in the ethos of the newly emerging British intellectual class.” However, Shils also noted that, thanks to the grammar schools, a larger number of well-educated lower-middle- and working-class aspirants was being kept on the periphery of the ruling classes, and he foresaw trouble if they could not be assimilated. The Sixties were to prove him right.

How does Shils’s searchlight illuminate the scene today? More than half a century later, the ethos of the British elite was superficially not so very different from that of its Fifties predecessors. They still liked continental holidays, good food and fine wines, revelled in TV adaptations of Jane Austen and worshipped the academic celebrities who could transport them into a sensationalised, sentimentalised and sanitised past. But these similarities were shallow: at a deeper level, new attitudes now dominated. Birds and flowers were now only of interest if they were endangered, and nature had in any case been subsumed into the new secular religion of environmentalism. “Cultivating personal relations” had by the early 21st century acquired a sexual connotation. In its abandonment of any semblance of moral restraint or discretion, the British elite no longer even pretended to set an example to the rest. The most striking aspect of the new ethos was, in fact, its spongiform amorality. It was a profoundly unethical ethos, the ethos of an exclusive liberal elite, sustained by the public purse. The new intellectual class of the Fifties had atrophied into a caste. 

Finding itself the victim of the greatest debauch of the public finances in British history (“I’m afraid to tell you the money’s run out,” wrote Labour’s Chief Secretary to his successor), the country may well conclude that intellectuals are the least of its problems. But there is a real danger that the new coalition will overlook the urgent need to restore the ladders of aspiration that have been wilfully kicked away since the 1960s. Fortunately, some of the best brains in British politics now have their hands on the levers of social mobility: Michael Gove (on the board of Standpoint), David Willetts and Oliver Letwin (both contributors), and Iain Duncan Smith all share a commitment to recreating an educated elite worthy of the name. Frank Field (also on our board) says he would “like to pick up the conversation so rudely interrupted 12 years ago” when he was sacked as Minister for Welfare Reform at the instigation of Gordon Brown.

At the time of the Coronation, there was talk of a New Elizabethan age. As Shils dryly observed, it “petered out into thin air”. British intellectual life today is no more worthy of comparison with the Elizabethan age than it was in the Fifties. But raising the sights of the young was not an ignoble ambition then; still less now.