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The Condition of England

Charles Masterman’s devastating anatomy of Edwardian Britain, reissued on its 100th anniversary, for

Charles Masterman was 36 when his far-sighted, finely written and anxious book was first published a century ago. A member of Asquith's Liberal government, literary editor and social historian - but described by a biographer as a "splendid failure" - he lost his Manchester seat in the 1924 Liberal meltdown and died, an alcoholic, in his mid-fifties.

He saw his England, five years before the outbreak of the First World War, as living through a time of "amazing advance", a time of "telegraphs, telephones, electricity, bombs and aeroplanes", of "energy", "acquisition" and "acceleration". Yet "moral progress" had not kept up with material growth; "plenitude" and "privation" went hand in hand in a nation of "monstrous inequality". Invention and "ambition" made their ever-larger conquests, but Masterman enquires of himself, and of us, "What does it all mean? . . . what does it all come to?" It is the same kind of diagnosis that many make today, and the same questions we ask.

There are also large differences. His were the early days of the construction of the welfare state, when the needs of the "broken poor" still cried out from a partly Dickensian world. The labour movement was making progress, but workhouses, sweatshops, child labour, vagrancy and high infant mortality scarred the land. At the same time, those whom Masterman calls the "super-wealthy" luxuriated in riches, old and new. To him, they constituted a "vulgarised" plutocracy, given to "extravagance" and "ostentation". He saw them as confident and complacent, while the "obscure multitudes" - "tearing from coal and furnace and factory the vast industrial wealth of England" - led "hampered and limited lives" in their "coagulations".

Placed somewhere between them, in Masterman's class schema, are the "suburbans", members of the commercial and business classes, whose growing numbers "defy imagination". His vision of them is mostly unfriendly and sometimes snobbish. They are respectable but, says Masterman, no one respects them; they are "lacking in ideas"; they are "timid" and "frugal". Increasingly comfortable in villas with "well-trimmed gardens", they substitute "high tea" for "dinner" and enjoy "trivial amusements". They also think themselves "over-taxed", are hostile to the "demands of the working man", dislike the emergent Labour Party, and object to welfare for "loafers".

If we still recognise this portrait (and we do), we are struck by other similarities between Masterman's times and ours - or at least similarities of perception. He complains not only that society is "organised on a money basis, with everything else a side-show" - a commonplace of social criticism then and now - but warns of the dangers of "financial speculation in this free market of England". And precisely as we see it, he declares that religious faith has become "irrelevant to the business of the day". It is "collapsing slowly and in silence", but without replacement by "alternative impersonal ideals". The family, too, says Masterman, is "breaking in pieces" under the strain of daily existence.

Or again: with its "vacuous vulgarity", the "cheap and sensational press" - which our "quality press" is now emulating - is "mean, tawdry and debased". "The crowd", declares Masterman, is not merely "cajoled", "deceived" and "excited", but "betrayed" by what it reads in "the newspapers", as it is excited and betrayed by today's press.

As for "socialism", Masterman claims that there is little real interest in it. Instead, the "multitude" is thinking of "almost everything but the socialistic millennium". The rich may "lie awake at night listening fearfully to the tramp of the rising host", but, then as now, "the 'people'" has on its mind the issues of "how to get steady work, the iniquities of the 'foreigner' and . . . which football eleven will attain supremacy in some particular league".

And the new Labour MPs in 1909? "They may perhaps" - I like the "perhaps" - "stand for the working man in opinion", says Masterman, but "the majority of them are certainly remote from him in characteristic", while "a Labour leader, if successful, tends to become conservative".

Déjà vu and plus ça change don't quite capture all this. Rather, these parallels between his times and ours suggest a hidden stasis, the stasis of a "civilisation" (to use Masterman's word) which has gone nowhere fast, despite the speed of seeming change. He even found, as we find today, that there was a "strange mediocrity" in "high positions in church and state", a lack that has grown disastrous now.

Since Masterman's time, there have of course been great figures upon the British scene. Moreover, on the verge of the First World War, the always-anxious Masterman asked himself whether, "in a day of trial", the people - his conquerors, his suburbans, his multitude - would show "tenacity, courage and an unwearying devotion to an impersonal ideal". Five years later, he had his answer.

Nevertheless, Masterman not only judges his England shrewdly, but time and again provides foreshadowings of our own times. The nations of the world are "an armed camp, heaping up instruments of destruction" (a familiar trope of the professional Cassandra), "the East" is "suddenly awake" and "the people in England and America" are "writhing in the grasp of a money power more and more in the hands of enormous corporations". No change there.

And looking to the microcosm of England, he finds, as we find now, "a people by and large not rebellious", though he wonders how long its "patience" will last before "the smile" turns into a "fierce snarl". The future of the country is in "the multitude", he says, but he does not try to guess how it will turn out. Instead, he reveals his fears: that progress "will find its grave in a universal suburb"; or that there might be "a kind of internal collapse and decay" in the nation; or, more striking still, that a "collapse in the whole edifice of credit", together with "permanent decline in trade" and "permanent unemployment", might "tear to pieces all our accepted standards".

In some respects, Masterman echoed the fears of cultural commentators of his time - the same fears that are arguably even more widespread now, and with increasing justice. But Masterman's anxieties were particularly profound and troubled. He visualised a "dark and ominous outlook" for the "modern world", with its "mechanised ingenuities" become "masters for us, rather than servants"; and he thought "city life" to be marked by "mind-sickness" and "life weariness", with little "silence, permanence or repose". On all hands he saw, or thought that he saw, "welter and chaos" in a "baffled society" that was "going nowhere".

It was a world of "empty effort" and "grotesque invention" without "intelligible goal", the "machine" of modern life appearing to him, in his louring mood, like a "black windmill with gigantic wings, rotating untended under the huge spaces of night" - an extraordinary image. But it was also, he thought and hoped, "an age in passing". "What is coming to replace it?" he asked. "No one knows," he answered. One hundred years later, we feel much the same and are no wiser.

David Selbourne's "The Principle of Duty" has been reissued in the Faber Finds series, 258pp, £15


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains