In the Critics this week

Jason Cowley on Cameron, Douglas Hurd on Churchill and Vernon Bogdanor on Powell. PLUS: the NS jazz special

In the leading article in this week’s New Statesman, we ask if David Cameron is capable of ever restoring the Conservative Party to its former status as “one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe”. However, the portents for the Tories are not good. “If Mr Cameron is to win a majority he will need to do what no prime minister has done since 1974 and increase his party’s share of the vote. One would not wager on him succeeding where Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher failed. But to do that, he will have to decide if he is a One Nation Tory pragmatist or a consensus-breaking radical. At the moment he is neither.” As Jason Cowley writes in his review of the updated edition of Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron’s views are an incoherent “pick’n’mix of old-style shire Toryism, soft Thatcherism and Notting Hill social liberalism”. The comparison with Thatcher is unflattering: “Cameron has none of the originality of Thatcher, who was not constrained by class and tradition and had a story to tell the electorate of where she’d come from and how she intended to remake the nation through conflict.” We search in vain, Cowley concludes, for evidence of a settled Cameronian world view, for “[he] has published nothing of significance”.

The contrast with the torrential literary output of one of Cameron’s predecessors as Conservative leader is startling. In his review of Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, former Tory Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd examines Winston Churchill’s literary career. In the 1930s, Hurd notes, “Churchill’s personal finances were in a state of crisis. His solution to the problem was simple: he had to step up his literary output.” Clarke’s book, Hurd writes, leaves the reader with “a vivid mental picture of Churchill working night after night in his study at Chartwell, brandy in hand, having played his nightly game of backgammon with [his wife] Clementine and packed her off to bed.”

Also in Books, Vernon Bogdanor considers the legacy of a man who sought but never claimed the Tory leadership, Enoch Powell. Reviewing Enoch at 100, a collection of essays edited by Lord Howard of Rising, Bogdanor writes: “Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right … But what did he teach?” Powell’s lesson, Bogdanor argues, was a pernicious one. The notorious 1968 speech in which he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood” because of immigration “made Powell a hero,” Bogdanor observes, “particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgiveable.”

Also in the Critics, our jazz special:  poet Christopher Reid writes about his late-flowering love affair with jazz; from the archive, we publish a 1960 article by Eric Hobsbawm, who, under the pseudonym "Francis Newton", was the New Statesman's jazz critic from 1955-66. PLUS the New Statesman recommends this summer's unmissable jazz shows and recordings (including Pat Metheny, Wynton Marsalis and Ravi Coltrane).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America; Rachel Cooke on When I Get Older on BBC1; "Dig", a new poem by Julia Copus; Thomas Calvocoressi on Tate Modern's major Edvard Munch retrospective; Antonia Quirke on Radio 4's Meeting Myself Coming Back; and Will Self discovers to his horror that he's going bald.

Wynton Marsalis comes back to the Barbican this summer (Photograph: Getty Images
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Gael blown: how cultural appropriation went hand-in-hand with the Highland clearances

Madeleine Bunting’s account of her travels in the Hebrides reveals an often-overlooked history.

In the opening pages of this excellent book, Madeleine Bunting tries to provide a justification and rationale both for her Hebridean journey and then her wish to write about the most complex of Britain’s archipelagos. As she points out, the Hebrides comprise no fewer than 270 islands and islets, 51 of which are permanently inhabited, and the Hebridean coastline, at 2,500 kilometres, is almost three-quarters that of England’s.

It transpires that Bunting’s connection to the nation’s north-western extremities really began when her parents went for holidays to a fragment of what she rather archly refers to as the Gàidhealtachd, the cultural territory of Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking, predominantly croft-working population.

Yet the Buntings’ “Promised Land”, as she calls their summer retreat, was nowhere near the Hebrides. It was in a hamlet called Amat at the heart of the salmon-rich Strathcarron, in Sutherland, near Scotland’s north-eastern coast. These visits were intermittent and happened only in her childhood, since when the author, Yorkshire born and bred, has migrated to London and become a committed metropolitan as well as a senior journalist with the Guardian. What right, one wonders, does she have to des­cribe her travels along Scotland’s Atlantic shoreline as in any way a “search for home”?

The answer is time and commitment. It has taken Bunting eight years to write this book and she made one excursion after the other in order to assemble her thoughts of these beautiful, storm-battered islands. That depth of engagement gives authen­ticity to the writing and substance to her arguments. In truth, she never really claims the Outer Isles as her own but she does ­inquire deeply into the Hebridean people’s own passionate devotion to place. She also illuminates how these islands, but more especially Celtic culture and identity, were instrumental in shaping all of Britain’s, and especially England’s, sense of self.

A critical moment for this came in 1765 with the publication by James Macpherson of The Works of Ossian. These were translations of Gaelic poetry and folk tales that went down a storm in literary Europe and alerted many to the overlooked oral culture of northern Scotland. The Works of Ossian are not without controversy – Samuel Johnson infamously dismissed them as fake and sneered at Gaelic as the “rude speech of a barbarous people” – but the book had a huge impact on Romanticism.

Imbued with Rousseau’s notions of the noble savage and antipathetic to the effects of industrialisation, writers such as Keats and artists such as Turner were suddenly alive to the savage beauties and the more authentic life-ways of the Scottish west coast. Bunting shows that behind this Romantic engagement with Hebridean life was a kind of cultural imperialism that developed through a series of opposites. If Celts were depicted as imaginative, idealistic and wild, then, almost by definition, the Anglos were utilitarian, pragmatic and civilised. If the Gael was backward-looking and melancholic, the Saxon must be optimistic and forward-thinking. Above all, the English were utterly dominant.

The author demonstrates how such cultural appropriation was intimately connected to territorial dispossession. Bunting takes us on a brief tour of the Clearances; the retelling still has the power to enrage, and she shows how the treatment of Hebridean crofters was identical to British imperialism in Africa or Asia. As she puts it tellingly, this is a “history which will not go quietly into the past”. Yet she also demonstrates that it was not Hanoverian England alone which suppressed the Gàidhealtachd. Much of the dirtiest work was done by former clan chiefs who had simply reinvented themselves as London-based grandees.

Bunting further points out that this colonial exploitation has hardly ceased. The recent plans to build a vast windfarm on Lewis, involving 234 turbines with sails the size of jumbo jets, and the 1990s quarry scheme to dismantle whole mountains on Harris to build English roads, are further demonstrations of how the centre plunders resources from its Atlantic periphery.

If I have a small disappointment in Love of Country, it is that Bunting makes too little of the Hebridean natural environment, which involves the most harmonious transaction between human beings and wildlife now found anywhere in Britain. The shell-based coastal lawns known as machair are among Europe’s richest habitats, still smothered in orchids and resounding to the sounds of lapwing display and curlew song.

At times one feels that Bunting thinks much harder than she looks. Occasionally she betrays her metropolitan roots. She describes rivers as being “the colour of manuka honey”, and of a chorus of birds like nothing she had heard before, she writes that “the air vibrated . . . setting all my senses alert”. The prose, however, is always most elevated when she engages the formidable clarity of her intellect. It is the almost perfect marriage of physical travelogue to the inner landscape of political ideas and cultural reflections that makes this such a super read. I cannot think of a more intellectually challenging or rewarding travel book in recent years, except perhaps Jay Griffiths’s Wild.

Love of Country is in every way a richer, more mature work than Bunting’s award-winning 2009 memoir, The Plot. I expect it to bring her prizes and fame.

Mark Cocker’s books include “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (Vintage)

Love of Country: a Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting is published by Granta Books (368pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood