The letters page was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
The Real Divisions
Your editorial (July/August) does not reflect what is actually happening in our societies — whether here, or in America or in other European countries, although less so in Asia.
You talk about “the left” and “the right” but the real divisions today are between the ruling managerial and professional class, along with academia and the liberal intelligentsia, much of the media and most of the judiciary, almost entirely with university degrees — totalling at very most one third of the adult population — and the other two thirds of workers and wage-earners (of all colours and ethnicities, not just white, as anachronistically claimed) whose power and platforms for expressing their views have drained away and for whom the old left, centre, right ideological battles and “isms” among the elites are largely irrelevant.
The views of the former are to be found in all three major parties at Westminster — broadly in favour of market economics with a debatable degree of state involvement plus, nowadays, “progressive” social liberalism and a sort of cultural hegemony.
The views of the latter, such as putting high value on family, home, robust law and order, a moderate degree of national and local patriotism, reasonable job protection and a balanced, but not racist, attitude to immigration, have a minimum outlet and nowadays barely any representation in either the Commons or the Lords. And even when put forward they are immediately vulnerable to being demonised as bigotry, xenophobia and extremism.
Long gone are the days when wage-earners, by far the largest majority, could bargain through their unions for a fair share of national income or wealth, or have a strong say in shaping national policy, economic or social or cultural, through their institutions, religious groupings, guilds, clubs, professions and skill groups. That kind of mosaic of democratic pluralism — which did exist for a time after the war but went to seed as the unions were misled into overmighty mode — has disappeared almost completely, to be replaced by top-down instruction with a technocratic flavour as to “inevitable” trends which people must now accept, or for which they must now be retrained, as their jobs disappear.
All this is fertile ground for extremism and increasingly violent strains of populism, and the false messiahs to which these trends lead, followed invariably by national disaster.
So this is the real and really dangerous divide in our society and a reminder that much more than elections and a resumption of Westminster party warfare are needed to bridge it. In the past the “new” ruling class could just keep the rest under their thumb, with occasional palliatives. Today that “rest” is not only angry but informed and empowered by the miracles of communications technology as never before in history. The old methods and the old centralised politics to keep us all in line simply will not suffice. A real sharing of wealth, a real voice and a real sharing of power between these “classes” cannot come soon enough.
David Howell (Lord Howell of Guildford)
In his scathing critique of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Alistair Haimes (July/August) looks forward to a royal commission of inquiry. One must take care in prejudging the outcome, but I doubt whether the mass discharge of elderly patients to care homes could be anything less than institutional manslaughter. Half of those dying from Covid-19 were care home residents, many caused by transferred patients seeding the disease in a highly vulnerable community. The buck stops with ministers, but highly paid senior administrators should not escape justice. This catastrophic policy was agreed by the Care Quality Commission, Public Health England and NHS management. A rotten establishment sacrificed older people for the politically correct slogan “Protect the NHS”. What did they do to deserve this callousness: was it how they voted?
Dr Niall McCrae
Haldane and Germany
Andrew Roberts, in his review of John Campbell’s biography of Haldane (July/August), is right to criticise Asquith for showing poor judgment in 1915-16, but his animus against him is excessive. Other prime ministers have likewise sacked their closest allies to protect their position, notably Harold Macmillan on the Night of the Long Knives.
Yet Macmillan did not have to endure the vitriol of the yellow press as the Liberals did or as even more recently politicians have had to do at the hands of a foreign owner (the irony in this!) in the form of Rupert Murdoch. The fury whipped up against Germans had its effect on my grandparents because they had a German name, though their connection with Germany had been well over a century earlier and they had hitherto been respected members of their community.
A point that Andrew Roberts misses is that before World War I Germany was held in higher regard than France in Britain, according to Bertrand Russell speaking in 1952. He presumably was expressing the views of liberals and Cambridge academics. He added that the Kaiser’s government was not so terribly bad as far as Germans were concerned and Bismarck was dismissed as an unthreatening peasant. In that context Haldane’s Germanic enthusiasms were unremarkable.
Dr Selby Whittingham
Douglas Murray’s article (July/August) reminded me of the time that I, too, had the great fortune of guidance from the late Sir Roger Scruton. I sent him, along with several other people I admired from a considerable distance, my first attempt at a newspaper article, on the unlikely subject of Michel Foucault. His response began, “I would add just a couple of things to your attack on Foucault . . .” before drawing my attention to the Frenchman’s definition of “liberation”, and also his “transcendental amoralism, that makes him useful to everyone who thinks himself more important than the status quo”. To this day I am still drawing on the intellectual capital of this brief exchange.
W. Sydney Robinson
Critiquing the Critics
The Secret Author’s remarks on the supposed decline of the English novel (July/August) reminds me of when as an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1980s I shared a staircase with your contributing editor, Dominic Green. Seeing one day through his open doorway a copy of The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut album, I asked for his opinion. Never one to say much, he replied with the crushing words, “It’s all right”. That album is now widely acknowledged as one of the best pop/rock albums of all time, though a brief look into its critical reception at the time reveals Green’s initial reaction wasn’t far off the mark.
It is, of course, notoriously difficult to make judgments on contemporary culture; the annals of criticism are littered with great works poorly received at their birth. That which is groundbreaking is often first trashed as rubbish, or — more brutally — merely overlooked. I see this in my own field of art history: the comings and goings of fashion, the rise and fall (and sometimes rise again) of reputations. Augustus John, Stanley Spencer and Eric Ravilious are all exemplary examples, as is much contemporary conceptual art.
As a writer myself I’m sceptical of Douglas Murray’s claim in the same issue that he’s not much bothered by the public’s reception of his work and satisfied with the positive response of a few discerning readers, friends and mentors. Can this be true?
I appreciate the praise of friends and family, but would not trust their discretion to make an honest judgment. For that I rely on the critic (and feel that if I win high praise from some and ridicule from others, then I’ve at least produced something of both merit and originality).
Still, this leaves us with a conundrum. Who are we, in a way, to judge our own times, and our own cultural output? Do we live in an era of mediocrity? Or are we perhaps somewhere we do not expect? Can only time and history tell? The role of critic is vital. But who, I wonder, watches the watchman — who critiques the critic?
David Boyd Haycock
Buddy, not Nelson
The skill of the arrangers of the Great American Songbook generally goes unacknowledged. It was therefore pleasing that Michael Henderson in his essay “Sing it again, Frank” (July/August) mentioned the arranger Nelson Riddle when praising Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the Rogers and Hart song “It Never Entered My Mind”. It is indeed a lovely recording.
However, the arranger on that occasion was Buddy Bregman, not Nelson Riddle.
Horsham, West Sussex
In his review “The Flaws of Liberalism” (Books, June) Nick Timothy rightly notices that Professor Patrick Porter’s academic title has “bestowed upon him even greater alliteration than his parents had intended”. True. However, it is not only the title and the parents: Professor Patrick Porter published with Polity Press.
Dr Alessandro Testa
Charles University, Prague
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe