Melvyn Bragg and David Hare on culture and progress

“Shame is a revolutionary emotion.”

Melvyn Bragg and David Hare photographed for the New Statesman at Sion Hall
Melvyn Bragg and David Hare photographed for the New Statesman at Sion Hall in London by Muir Vidler.

In October 2010, the novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg guest-edited an issue of the New Statesman. In his editorial, Bragg recalled reading the magazine at his grammar school in Wigton, Cumbria. “The Statesman,” he wrote, “came out of the unimaginable Great World” – the metropolitan world of books and ideas, power and influence. Today, he belongs to that milieu, one that must have seemed to him, as a schoolboy, impossibly distant. To mark the NS’s centenary, we asked Bragg to nominate someone with whom he could discuss the immense changes that have taken place, not just in his lifetime but over the course of the “New Statesman century”. He chose the playwright David Hare, born a few years after him, in 1947, a time of optimism as well as austerity, when a left-of-centre government was trying to build the New Jerusalem. They met at our offices in London.

David Hare I’d like to start with something Edward Acton said. He’s a historian and is now vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia. He still teaches a history class and has said he always starts with the question, “Did the left or the right win the 20th century?” Unfailingly, his students put up their hands and say the right won. Their idea of history is that there was something called socialism or communism and that it was defeated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who then, as it were, ran with the ball towards the line that is 2000.

But Acton says that the left won the 20th century. Look at the conditions of workers at the end of the 19th century and compare them with the conditions of workers at the end of the 20th century. Look at the idea of the welfare state, of the state accepting that it has responsibility for the people who live within it, the idea of providing a health service. And then there’s the vote being given to women all over the world, the abolition of the death penalty in many places – these are all progressive achievements. You’re better off at the end of the 20th century than you could possibly have been at the beginning. Yet somehow this narrative of improvement doesn’t hold; people don’t believe it.

Melvyn Bragg The question is why people don’t believe it any more. A century ago, half a mile from where we’re sitting now, in the City of London, there’d have been thousands of people in slum conditions that we would not tolerate now.

Very few improvements in conditions were inevitable. That’s an aspect we now tend to gloss over or forget. We assume that these things somehow happened naturally. They didn’t. The suffragettes – that’s one fight. The trade unions, that’s another fight. All that has been a massive movement forward. But people seem to have given up on the idea that it happened. It’s almost like an intellectual betrayal. You want to say: “Don’t you realise what people did?”

Do societies get spoiled and forget how those changes were achieved? There have been massive moves forward – for women, for the working class, for the disabled. But some people have short-term memories: we are in danger of forgetting our radical past.

DH It’s because people now feel themselves publicly helpless, don’t they? People feel they no longer exert either any individual or collective power over public life. The nature of public life has changed, hasn’t it?

I wrote a play, South Downs [2011], set at a time when people believed in God, or professed to believe in God. They certainly believed in British institutions, even though these were questioned after Suez, they believed in deference, they believed in respect, they believed in the essential virtue of people who worked in public life. I tried to explain all that to a cast of teenaged boys and they just looked at me as if I was from another age.

There’s a wonderful phrase of Marx’s, in which he says that shame is a revolutionary emotion. He writes: “Shame is a kind of anger which is turned inward.” That’s what we feel about our public life today. We feel shame. The anger, for some reason, is not expressed outwards.

I don’t know if anger will ever turn outwards. Since the Thatcher years, it’s been religious leaders, rather than politicians, who have functioned as a moral corrective. They do have values that are anti-Thatcherite. As Thatcher herself was well aware. It wasn’t surprising that the first thing the new Archbishop of Canterbury did was criticise Iain Duncan Smith. The Daily Telegraph point of view – that religion is about spirituality not society – is wrong: you only have to read the life of Christ to see that!

MB Yes, and Christian socialism was a powerful movement. But I think there’s a danger of romanticising how much people used to think they could intervene. Going back 100 years, many people felt helpless, especially women.

But it wasn’t only women. For the dockers down the river from here, the miners up north – the only way they thought they could intervene was with explosive action that often hurt themselves, that is to say, through strikes. The end of this was the deliberate political destruction of our manufacturing base.

But what has changed tectonically are the material conditions of people’s lives, the opportunities they have and their expectation. Serious expectation. Take health: nowadays, people’s expectation is that whatever is wrong with them, they’ll be looked after. Expectations are very high across the board – and I think they should be high. People have worked for them to be high. But the ever-expanding nature of expectation and the ever-diminishing size of the pot that’s required to service these expectations are grinding against each other.

DH The crudest way of putting it is to say that people used to be stoics and now they’re hedonists. I was brought up among stoics, with a lower-middle-class ethic: the ethic was that you endured.

I wanted my life to be pleasurable. For my generation – to a ridiculous degree when we were all doing our own thing in the Sixties and Seventies – pleasure was thought to be a good thing. We felt we’d been brought up in a pleasure-free environment.

What has also changed significantly is the tone in which politicians address us. It isn’t just that our contempt for them has grown but that their contempt for us has grown. I wouldn’t, for once, blame this on Margaret Thatcher. I’d say it began with Edward Heath – with that tone he took in which he would address us as if we were a bunch of recalcitrant children, who were refusing to modernise.

Thatcher continued that tone – the whole country simply exasperated her. Blair was the same. John Major is the only prime minister I admire, because he did sound as if he liked ordinary people.

But today, if you speak to a parent or a teacher or a schoolchild, it isn’t merely dislike of Michael Gove they have, it’s loathing. And similarly, Gove has a loathing of teachers. It is a mutual thing. It isn’t just that we hate politicians; they hate us for not understanding their project.

MB Let’s introduce another word here: honour. I think we’ve lost a sense of honour. We know now that there’s no honour in the City. There’s no sense of dishonour whatsoever in being responsible for something that goes hideously wrong. The same is true in the public sector. People used to think: if you did wrong, either you were punished or you quit. One way or another, you took responsibility, you were accountable. Shame seems to be a dead duck.

DH It seems extraordinary to me that someone who overclaimed his expenses and had to pay back £7,000 to the state is now Secretary of State for Education. I find that unbelievable. Similarly, Liam Fox, who abused his position in the Ministry of Defence, is now making remarks about the economy that we’re expected to take seriously. There used to be something called “disgrace”. How right-wing papers can publicise Fox’s views as if they’re a serious threat to the Prime Minister when he so abused his position, I simply don’t understand.

It would be wrong, though, to conclude that there’s no sense of the common good. It just leaks out in different ways, not through our institutions any more. People still have a sense of the common good, a sense of how they would like their societies and communities to be arranged. What the expenses scandal revealed is that the political class is now just one more cartel.

MB There’s a sense that London is a bubble and that it has its own rules for behaviour. You’re quite right to suggest that those rules don’t apply elsewhere. There’s a small town in Cumbria I know well in which people work hard for nothing to get a youth club going, they turn out for things to help the town – they do that sort of thing still. We didn’t need David Cameron to tell us about the “big society”.

I don’t think there’s despair outside the bubble, but there is a great sense of disappointment – a feeling that the politicians let us down. This is the weather of the times.

DH It is now assumed that virtue is private – we see what is admirable in private individuals. We rarely see virtue in group institutions any more.

MB There’s a feeling that there aren’t any answers to the big problems – something in the air that says there’s nothing we can do. Indecision seems frozen into the system.

DH There are two political movements in which I’ve been a happy and enthusiastic participant – the Vietnam war protests in the late Sixties and the anti-nuclear protests in the early Eighties. Those were the worthiest causes, by and large, one of which was a partial success, the other a total failure. They do seem to me to be the honourable fights that I’ve been involved in.

MB I’d like to shift the discussion and talk about the incredible gains in people’s cultural lives – the successive advent of radio, TV, more theatres, recorded music, movies. Someone who was our age in 1913 would have been dumbstruck by what’s available today, what it’s possible to have access to just by sitting down of an evening and turning on a television or a computer.

DH I don’t think people take this for granted today. They love it and enjoy it. MB Yes, it’s a life-changer. It’s an immense progression – the enrichment of people’s private lives. The gains in the democracy of taste and knowledge are immeasurable. Cultural privilege is now a busted flush.

DH I don’t think there’s a danger of overabundance. People discriminate and choose what they want and what they like.

MB One of the striking aspects about culture is that it’s anti-Darwinian. Every time something new comes along, people have said, for instance, “Oh, the cinema is going to kill off the theatre” or whatever – but it didn’t.

DH I recently went to a hotel in Eastbourne to write. And I was born in Bexhill, so I was back among the people I grew up with. There was an air of disapprobation in which I grew up, where everyone disapproved of everyone else. It was great to sit in a pleasant restaurant in Eastbourne and see everyone having a wonderful time, not judging each other. That element hasn’t been removed entirely from British life – we are still brilliant at disapproving of each other – but the pedal has been taken off the accelerator. It’s really changed; it’s pleasanter.

MB I’ve recently written a novel that begins at a time when, if a woman had an illegitimate child, she or the child would be expelled from the community. Even though most people would have been secretly tolerant, society said you had to get out. The stigma of illegitimacy was ferocious. That has largely gone. That’s a great move forward. Some people say the pendulum has swung too far the other way but I’m not so sure.

The situation of women has changed dramatically. My mother worked in a factory. When she got married, she was fired. She never complained. That’s inconceivable today. Then there’s the lack of fuss, compared to other countries, with which people from abroad have been absorbed, despite all the difficulties. There’s still a feeling of confident tolerance about the place, although it is now being dangerously stretched.

DH For me, everything in life is about avoidable and unavoidable suffering. I was preceded by a group of dramatists – the British dramatists of the postwar period – who were very difficult people: John Osborne, Harold Pinter and others. They were much more anguished, agonised people than my generation was.

They had this existentialist anxiety about the consumer society that seemed to be threatening to destroy the individual voice of suffering. This was what Osborne was on about all the time. Harold was a very difficult man who became incredibly unhappy if he felt things had settled into a routine. He had to keep saying: “There’s someone suffering here.” The project was to maintain “I” in a world where “I” was being obliterated.

My generation are much nicer people. If you meet Howard Brenton or Caryl Churchill, they’re very nice people! This is because their project is “we”. And what “we” are interested in is the avoidable and unavoidable suffering of other people. The question is, while we’re here, can we stop and limit the suffering to the maximum degree?

Through the 20th century, that project was followed. And people now feel that project is not being followed. MB Alongside the developments we’ve been discussing, there’s pop culture. Ask anyone brought up in the late Fifties or early Sixties how many lines of contemporary poetry they can remember, and there’ll be silence after a short time. But ask them how many lyrics from pop songs they can remember and you’d be here all night. They’d not only sing them, they’d tell you where they were when they heard them for the first time. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet how much it’s now part of the culture.

DH The other day I read Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, about the foundation of Australia. I thought, “This isn’t much below Conrad.” In fact, I’m not sure it’s below Conrad at all. It’s as good. I also went to see George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin recently. It generates the kind of excitement people would have had one hundred years ago when they first heard Berg or Schoenberg. It’s incredible music.

There’s a kind of nostalgia I dislike, which is to say: “All the greats are dead and there’s nothing left.” I find ridiculous people like Eric Hobsbawm who dismiss all art after the jazz age.

MB I don’t think there’s a competition any more. I think there was a competition for a long time. But it’s changed. Culture’s now about coexistence and interdependence. And it’s no longer class-bound.

DH It’s beyond doubt that for people in certain geographical areas on the planet life has become infinitely pleasanter and richer. The lives of peasants in China are unarguably improved. We loathe totalitarianism, but we would have loathed feudalism more. In India, the poor now at least know what possibility is, even if they don’t have it. There was a striking remark a Catholic made to me once about the revolutionary priests in South America. They were evil, he said, because they showed the peasants the lives of the rich. But I think peasants are better off knowing the rich are having a wonderful time. Although it creates all kinds of discontent, it also creates a drive for justice.

To go back to what we were talking about earlier: we have not been able to articulate what the progressive project now is. On the left we’ve been engaged in a reactionary project since Thatcher. We’ve been saying, basically, “No, we don’t want the future in that direction; we want it to go in the direction it went in 1945.” It’s no coincidence that Ken Loach has just made a film called The Spirit of ’45. The only way he can conceive of a vision of a future is to go back to 1945.

MB But there are still aspects of the progressive project that it is important not to miss. For instance, the Open University is still going strong. It’s an amazing institution.

One institution I find it difficult to talk about is the BBC – partly because to attack the BBC is to feed its enemies, which I don’t want to do. It’s a huge organisation, and inevitably it begins to behave more and more like other huge organisations.

Huw Wheldon once said that the BBC is the sum of its programmes and I agree with that – there are still plenty of fine programmes on BBC radio and television that might not be done on other stations. There is certainly a bloated stratum of management at the BBC. Even so, in many ways, it remains the cultural pulse of the nation.

DH According to polls, the most loved institutions in Britain are the NHS, the army and the BBC. They’re the three most loved and respected institutions in Britain yet they’re the ones that attack. The press is always on a rag about these institutions, too. If you look at the bottom of those polls, you’ll find politicians and newspapers!

I don’t think the BBC has been hugely damaged, but if you ask me if it’s being run as I think such institutions should be run, I’d say no. It’s completely out of control. For instance, I’ve never understood outsourcing. The BBC seemed to do it in order to follow a Thatcherite agenda and to suck up to No 10. The destruction of their own in-house production facilities seems catastrophic.

To give you an example: I made a film for the BBC three years ago and I wasn’t paid. Because it was made by a production company I wasn’t paid to direct it. It came to this: “If you want this film made, you’ll have to direct it for free.”

I said to the woman who ran BBC Films: “Are you at peace with this? The BBC is meant to represent some idea of responsibility.” But of course, the BBC just says, “We’ve outsourced this. Whatever the production company says is nothing to do with us.” Everything’s now at arm’s length. If you outsource things, you also outsource responsibility.

MB True, but by outsourcing you’ve enabled independent production companies to grow; they’re much more daring and bold now. These companies have enriched this city. But one thing we can say about the BBC is that the structures revealed by the Jimmy Savile affair are catastrophic and smug beyond belief.

DH It’s clear that there’s been a skewing of priorities at the BBC. It put its chips on becoming the world’s biggest news-gatherer. But news can be perfectly easily gathered by CNN, by all sorts of people. That isn’t what the BBC can do and nobody else. The educating, entertaining, informing part is what the BBC alone can do. The lack of arts programming on the major channels is disgraceful. Once they lose that they lose their distinctiveness, and once they lose their distinctiveness they lose their rationale.

MB You wouldn’t think, from looking at BBC television, that we’re in the middle of the most remarkable arts boom. You can’t get into galleries, you can’t get into plays in the West End. I think the arts coverage on the BBC is meagre. It’s punching well below its weight.

DH What is the function of the BBC if not to draw people’s attention to what they might otherwise miss? That, surely, is what it exists for?

Melvyn Bragg’s next book, “Grace and Mary”, will be published by Sceptre in May. David Hare is about to make two more films to complete the story of “Page Eight”