The Rise of an English Ideology and the Joys of Reading ‘The Spectator’
Scottish Review, September 8th 2016
I have long been an admirer of ‘The Spectator’. Well, why would I restrict myself to reading only that which confirms my world-view? It is good to be challenged, provoked – as well as entertained – plus the magazine gives an insight into another world (that of right-wing England) – which is influential and plays a role shaping ideas around the Tory Government.
In the last few months I have been reading ‘Spectator’ back issues for a forthcoming book and, having become more absorbed in, and familiar with, its terrain, I realise it represents something much more that I ever thought. Not only is it a key part of the right-wing alliance – which includes the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and Taxpayer’s Alliance which believes in low taxes, a minimal state and greater choice – it is also putting forward a view of Britain which can be called the English ideology.
The components part of this are first, an advocacy of ‘the Great British economic miracle’. In the view of editor Fraser Nelson this is primarily about job, jobs, jobs, and even though he didn’t approve of George Osborne and his deficit reduction and austerity, he was upbeat about the underlying nature of the economy. Don’t make the mistake of thinking any criticism of Osborne was because Fraser is a bleedin’ heart liberal; it was because the then Chancellor wasn’t hard enough on cuts and austerity.
Second, ‘The Spectator’ is a celebration of the uniqueness of the United Kingdom: a land that has historically defended liberty, dissent, individual rights and the rule of law. Britain in these accounts is ‘this scepter’d isle’ – one which has consistently stood against authoritarianism – from Napoleon to Hitler, the Soviet Union, and even in some accounts, the European leviathan. Sometimes this argument is put with insight, sometimes it can sound a bit delusional in its British exceptionalism.
Third, Scotland matters in this – sort of. In the indyref ‘The Spectator’ organised a reader campaign of letters telling Scotland how much it was respected and needed in the union. Yet, there is a contradictory strand to this – with several ‘Spectator’ writers and columnists wanting to berate Scotland because it dares to choose a different political trajectory compared to England.
Some of these tensions are held together by the fact that ‘The Spectator’ allows the different strands and opposing parts of unionism to speak openly. For example, in last year’s UK election, as Cameron and company used the spectre of the SNP and its possible Westminster influence over Labour to terrify floating English voters, Hugo Rifkind wrote a wonderful piece exposing the hypocrisy of this. As he observed one minute it was ‘oh, there’s an indyref, we love Scotland’, the next minute it was, damn those Scots, they are going to elect a pile of whinging Nats to the imperial Parliament. Rifkind concluded, appropriately, that unionism was over and its advocates ‘the real separatists’ who will destroy the union.
Fourth, it savages the busybodies of the nanny state and their left-liberal apologists. Having lost the economic argument the left has regrouped on social liberalism and worked out how to police and control people via political correctness, multi-culturalism, and such ruses as public health (from ‘eat your greens’ to the war on obesity) and health and safety regulations. ‘The Spectator’ believes that the left is engaged in a continual war to undermine individual liberty and choice, and promote collective action and the state. Scotland in this analysis, is a basket case.
Fifth, Europe is finished as a political project, possibly economically, maybe even socially and culturally. The European Union project has created a stranglehold over its members, and then compounded it with the euro. Perhaps even more seriously, in the writings of Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society there is a belief that Europe is engaged in a new era of appeasement with militant Islamic opinion.
Finally, what is celebrated in ‘The Spectator’ beyond Britain’s shores are the joys and dynamics of the Anglosphere – the English speaking democracies of the developed world. They are seen as go-getting, emboding economic freedom, entrepreneurship and buccaneering capitalism, and in many respects, along with the Far East, seen as the future, and Britain’s future, post-Brexit.
There is a bizarre alliance of convenience between ‘The Spectator’ and ‘Spiked’ under the editorship of Brendan O’Neill. ‘Spiked’ represent (they like to think) the ultimate contrarians, and are connected to the Claire Fox-led Institute of Ideas. This latter group is a front for the Revolutionary Communist Party, which then morphed into ‘Living Marxism’ and when that got into legal hot water, transformed into the Institute of Ideas. ‘Spiked’ see their agenda as sticking it up the mainstream left and challenging bourgeoisie liberal do-gooding, thus providing common ground with ‘The Spectator’ for now. Like Molotov and Rippentrop this is an alliance which cannot last.
‘The Spectator’ worldview represents an English ideology on a number of ways. There is the distinct English tradition of individualism and individual rights with its wish to limit the arbitrary power of government. It has a fixation with sovereignty and the right of the British people to make their own laws. In this it buys uncritically into the myths of Britain and parliamentary sovereignty – a piece of mumbo jumbo which has no real basis in reality, but has become close to a cargo cult on the right (just like it used to be on the Bennite left). Any criticism of this outlook is seen as denying the Whig view of Britain’s history, and holding back progress.
Interesting ‘The Spectator’ doesn’t seem to understand that it represents an English ideology. It does not see that parliamentary sovereignty and its absolutist fetishisms are a particular English hang-up. And nor does it reflect the tensions about seeing the UK as an unitary state when it isn’t. Instead, it is England whose political elites see themselves as a unitary state – a country which isn’t about sharing political sovereignty but instead focused in one centre of political power: Westminster.
One English writer who knew these contradictions well was the academic and Orwell biographer Bernard Crick who lived the last twenty years of his life in Edinburgh. Crick took a long view of the myths and fabrications of the British political classes, seeing the defeat of British absolutist sovereignty and imperial delusion in the independence of the American colonies in 1775-76 and Ireland pre-1922 as indicative of their inflexibility and lack of statecraft. Even more, Crick believed that the whole UK edifice was held together by smoke and mirrors and that ‘Our rulers have ended up believing their own rhetoric, and therein often lies ruin and disaster.’ He wouldn’t have given much time to ‘The Spectator’ version of Britain, or given it much chance of surviving into the future.
‘The Spectator’ represents in some respects a very old-fashioned tradition and style of politics: one which is a mix of a Churchillian and Thatcherite vision of Britain. It also though draws from a quality of left determinism – focused on a belief in its interpretation of history, progress, and that it has the future.
What ‘The Spectator’ has in spades is two-fold: one is a viable political project. It knows where it stands, what it wants to say, and everything flows from that. The left used to be like that. And unlike large acres of the left it recognises rightly that there is more to life than politics – with its, often brilliant, cartoons and idiosyncrasies such as the ‘Dear Mary’ agony column. In all this ‘The Spectator’ is optimistic about humanity, the present state of the world, and the future. The left used to have that too, but instead now embraces the opposite now: a political miserablism that the world is going to the dogs.
‘Spectatorland’ is in another political universe to most of Scotland, but there are many things to admire in it, as well as disagree with, and even occasionally find repulsive and repugnant. I want to understand and get inside that mindset, one which whatever happens in Scotland, will continue to have influence and hold sway until its ideas are defeated by debate. And the only way to do that is read it and understand its perspective: which is really the highest compliment.