The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the philistines

Geoffrey Wheatcroft laments the paucity of politicians who can quote Homer

When Tony Blair was asked recently to name his favourite book, he said The Lord of the Rings. Pausing only to stifle a low groan, and to recall the late Maurice Richardson reviewing Tolkien under the words "Adults of the world, unite!", I thought that this dispiriting choice was at least an improvement. As Sue Lawley's castaway, Blair had previously chosen for his desert island book Ivanhoe, the worst novel even Scott ever wrote. And when Blair's predecessor was asked the same question, John Major chose, from all the glories of European and English literature, Trollope's The Small House at Allington.

What is it with our politicians nowadays? In 1943 George Orwell complained that "the illiteracy of politicians is a special feature of our age". But he was living in a wonderful era compared with ours. The House of Commons is now full - on both sides and irrespective of party - of men and women who are adroit, industrious, fairly honest, and in a technical sense well-educated. And yet there has never been a time when we were governed by people who were less cultivated or widely read, with less mature taste or with so little broad cultural hinterland.

Last month Roy Jenkins gave the London Library lecture on "The reading habits of politicians", a fascinating subject - in any age until today, when the very phrase might be one of those small books (like Great Norwegian Humourists or Famous Argentine Generals). Image consultants will now provide political clients with lists of books they can mention as if they had read them. One of them, asked what her clients actually did read, replied with genuine astonishment: "Politicians don't read anything."

As Gladstone's biographer, Lord Jenkins naturally takes the Grand Old Man for a starting point. That human freak read, over more than 60 years, more than 20,000 books in at least six languages: English, French, Italian, German as well as Latin and Greek. He was one of those who have to read anything rather than nothing; he would read a good book, or failing that a bad book, or a serious magazine, or a trashy newspaper. One entry in his diary records that he read a long pamphlet on the manufacture of small arms by Colonel Colt, a subject in which, as Jenkins says, he never showed any interest before or after, and which could have been of no use to him whatever.

Although he claimed not to be a profound or original mind, Gladstone fitted Housman's definition of the scholar as he who must spend his life acquiring much knowledge that is not worth having for its own sake and reading many books that are not worth reading in themselves. But then, as well as reading so much that was not worth reading, Gladstone read everything that was, and wrote perceptively on Homer, Tennyson and Leopardi. He effortlessly and unaffectedly quoted Greek and Latin in his speeches and articles - like his contemporaries, but not like ours. As G M Trevelyan wrote, and Orwell reiterated, "In the 17th century MPs quoted the Bible, in the 18th and 19th centuries the classics, in the 20th century nothing."

It matters that they have nothing to quote. You don't need to like music to understand particle physics, you don't need to know Wittgenstein to play cricket for England (come to think of it, you don't need to be able to bat or bowl, either), and you don't strictly need to have read the Bible or Homer to be a statesman. But it does matter if our rulers know nothing beyond day-to-day party intrigue and administration. As Kipling might have said, what should they know of politics who only politics know?

No one expects or indeed wants MPs to write or orate like Churchill any more. But even what Evelyn Waugh called his "sham Augustan style" at its worst is better than the awful verbless adman's English of Tony Blair's speeches, or the prose of his book My Vision of a Young Country - "A young country should be proud of its identity and its place in the world, not living in history but grasping the opportunities of the future" - or Chris Smith's Creative Britain, described by one critic as excruciating and semi-literate ("National Heritage . . . is actually exceptionally important, as a later chapter identifies").

Reading books matters, not only because they help you write better than our present ministers, and not because someone who can quote Latin is morally superior to someone who can't, but because reading, culture, Bildung, teach men and women what life and society are like. If our politicians did "live in history" - or at least know some - then they would understand Irish or Chilean politics, European integration or Balkan conflicts, better than they do.

This is not a fault confined to new Labour. As recently as 20 years ago there was the odd Tory MP like Norman St John Stevas, behind whose amiably camp exterior lurked an amiably camp interior, but also an outstanding constitutional scholar, whose edition of Bagehot is a monument of scholarship. And opposite him on the Labour benches 20 years ago was a man like Bryan Magee, author of numerous books on philosophy and the brilliant essay Aspects of Wagner. You could almost date a turning point in the decline of parliament: Lord St John of Fawsley, as he now is, was sacked from Mrs Thatcher's cabinet in 1981 and left the Commons six years later; Magee, after switching to the SDP, lost his seat in 1983.

Although the word "intellectual" has not taken happy root here - in a country where Bertrand Russell could say, "I have never called myself an intellectual, and no one has ever dared call me one in my presence" - it has to make do. Gladstone was plainly an intellectual; Balfour was an amateur philosopher, the author of A Defence of Philosophical Doubt ; Asquith admired the books of both D H Lawrence and P G Wodehouse as they came out, which shows unusually broad as well as good taste.

But who was the last English prime minister who could be called an intellectual? Four of our last six prime ministers were Oxford graduates - Wilson, Heath, Thatcher and Blair - and yet none was or is in any serious sense an intellectual. Blair is clever, maybe even thoughtful, but not a man of broad cultivation. Thatcher is a complete philistine and so is Heath, for all his supposed love of music. Wilson may have got the best PPE first of his generation, but he claimed, plausibly enough, that he had never been able to read Marx, and he read few other serious books. Alec Douglas-Home's tastes were sporting rather than literary. Harold Macmillan did have literary pretensions, but he was a middlebrow (as befits a publisher) and something of a fraud. When a journalist like my late friend Henry Fairlie went to interview him, he would have a copy of Sense and Sensibility in his hand; but this was done for calculated effect. Jane Austen's style certainly didn't have much influence on Macmillan's, as readers of his leaden memoirs will discover.

Surprisingly enough, the last intellectual prime minister was Anthony Eden. Feline, feminine, highly-strung, vain and very clever, Eden took a first in oriental languages at Oxford, where he and Lord David Cecil founded the art-lover's Uffizi Society, and he was a passionate and intelligent reader.

Woodrow Wyatt's Diaries describe a dinner where Roy Jenkins said he had read Proust three times in English and once in French, prompting an aside asinine even by Wyatt's standards: "I find [that] very revealing about Roy because Proust was the arch snob and student of social manners." That passage reminded me of Eden's dealings with Leon Blum during the Spanish civil war. You might think that an English Tory foreign secretary and a French socialist prime minister would not get on; but they did, when they discovered a common passion for Proust. For his part, Blum was an old-fashioned homme de lettres rather than a modern intello, a discerning theatre reviewer, and an essayist who praised Stendhal and Jane Austen when they were completely out of literary fashion; the French don't produce that kind of politician any more, either.

Roy Hattersley has said that the quality of MPs has improved with every parliament he has known. Unless he is talking simply about GCSEs and A-levels, diplomas and degrees, it is hard to know what he can mean. Look back 40 years, and at Hattersley's own party. There was an astonishing array not merely of political but of intellectual, literary and academic talent on the Labour benches. In 1958, two of the brightest stars were, as it happens, resting from parliament thanks to the electors. C A R Crosland used his absence to write The Future of Socialism, a book which influenced a generation, while Michael Foot wrote The Pen and the Sword, an absorbing and original book about politics in the early 18th century, even if part of its originality is Foot's belief that Swift was an early member of the Tribune Group.

But still in the Commons were Dick Crossman, sometime fellow of New College, author of Plato Today and, later, a brilliant introduction to Bagehot's The English Constitution; Roy Jenkins, the author of several excellent political biographies; and the novelist Maurice Edelman (does anyone now read him? He's worth it). Other outstanding intellects included Hugh Gaitskell, another Oxford first, Barbara Castle, Douglas Jay, Denis Healey and Aneurin Bevan. The last name reminds us that this is not a question of class or university degrees. Bevan left school at 13 to go down the mines, but was a man of high intelligence and wide reading.

Thirty or so years later, when Neil Kinnock was leading Labour, the Oxford don R W Johnson asked what it said about the party of Crossman, Crosland and Jay that it should now be led by a man who had taken four years to get a pass degree in education at Cardiff. That sounded unkind, which it may have been, and snobbish, which I don't think it was.

Look again at that Labour galaxy in the 1950s and 1960s, and then look at the government benches now. How many members of the present government have written books, and how many of those are real books? Does anyone think that My Vision of a Young Country, Creative Britain or Peter Mandelson's The Blair Revolution will be read in 20 years' time - or five? Is there a single member of the cabinet today capable of writing Plato Today, or the Bagehot essay - or, for that matter, that disgraceful, illuminating and utterly absorbing book, The Crossman Diaries?

The myth of the golden age is always potent, and usually wrong. I don't claim that the Commons has always been filled with dazzling wits and scholars. Most Conservative MPs have always been uncultivated if not downright boorish country gentlemen, or coarse-grained, narrow-minded businessmen. And yet there was always a leavening of learned and gifted Tories.

But it's what has happened to the Labour Party that is saddest of all. One of the most powerful forces that animated the socialist pioneers was the belief that the poor had been deprived of their intellectual and spiritual as well as their economic birthright, and that, in the struggle for working-class liberation, books were as important as elections or strikes.

And what books! When the first substantial block of Labour members was returned to parliament, 30 of them in 1906, they were asked by an enterprising journalist what books had most influenced them. Students of the Labour movement won't be surprised that Capital, or even Fabian Essays, didn't rank high. The book chosen by easily the largest number of these high-minded working men was Ruskin's Unto this Last. That was more than 90 years ago, long before universal secondary education and the kind of upward mobility that produced Tony Blair. From Unto this Last to The Lord of the Rings: no, "progress" has never been linear.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!