The postwar middle classes feared the loss of both status and wealth. CREDIT: POPPERFOTO/GETTY IMAGES
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Tory Heaven: the forgotten 1948 novel that predicted a Conservative dystopia

Marghanita Laski’s razor-sharp satire offered a vision of a brutal Tory government.

In April 1948, as he looked about him at Derry & Toms department store and elsewhere, the writer John Brophy noted, “Quite a number of the original upper middle class Kensingtonians survive”. “All over 60, now, some over 80. Most of the men are bewildered and defeated. The old ladies are invincible. Neither rationing, queues, the disappearance of servants, nor heavy taxation and the lowered purchasing power of money gets them down: the unforeseen bad times gives them something to talk clichés about.” These old dears mainly took their meals in restaurants, talking to each other across the small tables “as though from mountain top to mountain top”. They were also, observed Brophy with grudging admiration, “quite unscrupulous”: “They were born to privilege, and in the days of their decline they fight for it. Given half a chance, any one of them will sail in ahead of the longest bus queue.”

During those difficult years after the Labour Party’s landslide victory in July 1945 – years of daily austerity almost worse than during the war itself – it sometimes seemed that the middle class, comprising at most a quarter of the population, grumbled for England. Take two correspondents to the Evening Standard (the most upmarket of London’s three evening papers) in April 1947. “Before the war,” complained one, “we could afford to go abroad for holidays. Last year we imposed ourselves upon relatives. We used to play golf, tennis and badminton. How can we afford them now?” A grammar-school master was only marginally less miserable: “We could give up the car; but we cling to it as a last link with comfort and luxury, having surrendered so many other things, including annual holidays, library subscriptions and golf.”

It was already becoming almost axiomatic that the middle class had taken the biggest hit since the war – and crucially, not just economically but psychologically as well, with a growing feeling that they had somehow been muscled out of the picture by the hitherto patronised-cum-despised working class. “It is very noticeable that nowadays the well-fed, well-clad, sweetly smiling bourgeoisie male & female have disappeared from poster and advertisement,” reflected another teacher, Gladys Langford, in her diary in May 1947. “It is the broadly grinning and obviously unwashed ‘worker’ who appears in more than life size on our hoardings and Tube stations.”

It was obvious enough which political party stood to benefit from an increasingly aggrieved middle class. In the summer of 1948, almost exactly three years after the shock of defeat, a memo from the Conservative Party’s Research Department set out what it hoped would be the next election’s battle-ground: “The floating vote is mainly middle class (incomes £700–£1,200 per annum). These people are now finding it impossible to live. The chief fear of the middle-class voter is being submerged by a more prosperous working class. Our whole appeal must be in this direction.” Back in 1945, much of the moderate or faintly progressive middle class had voted Labour for the first time in their lives. The question by 1948 was whether it was also going to be the last time.

A light but deadly touch: Marghanita Laski​. Credit: Corbis via Getty

Marghanita Laski’s novel Tory Heaven appeared 70 years ago, in April 1948, the same month as Brophy’s field research in Kensington. Advertised by the Cresset Press as an “exquisite fantasy”, and “as amusing and gay as Love on the Supertax” (her wartime novel), it had a clear political agenda – being aimed squarely at those in the middle class now starting to long for the overthrow of Clement Attlee’s government and a return to the familiar Tory certainties of social hierarchy, rigid class distinctions, and almost unquestioned privilege and entitlement for those born on the right side of
the tracks.

With a light but deadly touch, Laski evokes a counterfactual world in which (in the words of Hugh Fausset in the Manchester Guardian) “the most reactionary Tories have come to power and recreated a class system in which everyone is graded with feudal exactitude and all the picturesque trappings of the 18th century are artificially restored.” For all her palpable design, she is too subtle and elegant a writer to express her own horror at this grotesque turning back of the clock. Instead, like the best political satirists from Swift to Orwell, Laski leaves it to others to draw out the lessons of her story. Or as Ralph Straus put it in the Sunday Times: “Conservatives with high blood pressure are advised not to read it.”

One of the most telling episodes is when the central character, the hero/anti-hero James Leigh-Smith, newly returned to England and delighted to have been allocated (as a “public-school man”) Grade A status, visits his parents in Hindhead. The father being a stockbroker, they are likewise Grade A, but seem increasingly unhappy about the state of things since the Tory coup d’état. James asks him why. “I suppose it was partly the war,” explains a cogitating Leigh-Smith Senior. “We found ourselves mixing with all sorts of peculiar people then, and the funny thing was, we rather liked it.” Not least the socially jumbled experience of the Home Guard: “A rare old time we used to have together. Even after the war was over, we all used to meet at that pub down the road for a pint and a good chinwag.” Under the implacable Tory regime, however, any such mixing is strictly forbidden. “We’ve got to stick to our class. That’s the law. If we don’t, we’re liable to get degraded.” Laski’s message, here and throughout the novel, is twofold: not only that the war had acted as an entirely beneficial solvent in the breaking down of class barriers, but that in Britain an authoritarian regime was as likely to emerge from the right as from the left.

The latter point was especially timely (and in our populist/nationalist era perhaps still has relevance). Winston Churchill in the 1945 election had sought to equate a future Labour government with the murderous tyranny of the Gestapo; while that same year, George Orwell’s Animal Farm had, for all its undeniable justice in relation to Stalinism, provided easy propaganda points for the right. Another telling scene comes towards the novel’s end, after James’s elderly, well-bred friend, Ughtred, is unable at Paddington station to buy a copy of the Spectator or the New Statesman as both have been shut down by government. “I have always been a Conservative,” he tells James. “I have always believed in Privilege. I have always believed in the natural superiority of one class and that my own; I have always believed that this class alone was by nature fitted to govern. But equally I have always believed, fundamentally and decisively, in the freedom of the British press.” To James’s consternation as well as incomprehension (“they’d all be putting forward progressive views and then you’d never have a sound Tory government”), Ughtred on these grounds breaks decisively with the regime, in the process forfeiting all his deeply cherished rights as a full-time London clubman.

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If Laski’s prime agenda was political (befitting a niece of Harold Laski, leading political theorist and a recent chairman of the Labour Party), she also may well have had in her sights a high-profile literary target. “A clever though reliably conventional school friend rebuked me for never having heard of Angela Thirkell,” the critic and novelist David Pryce-Jones has recalled of his boarding school in the immediate postwar period. “‘At home we think she’s the best living author. Everyone reads her.’ Home was in Camberley.” Thirkell’s hatred of what she saw as the socialist destruction of old England struck a deep chord, and during these years her “Barsetshire” sequence of novels sold prodigiously. The most recent, at the time Laski was writing, was Private Enterprise (1947), which was as usual set among the acutely class-conscious minor gentry of Trollope’s fictional county. In it, Thirkell discerned after a year or so of peace “a great increase of boredom and crossness, which made people wonder what use it had been to stand alone against the Powers of Darkness if the reward was to be increasing discomfort and a vast army of half-baked bureaucrats stifling all freedom and ease”. Tory Heaven is the anti-Thirkell – and seven decades later, it has (in horse-racing parlance) stayed on appreciably the stronger.

It may also have been a response to another writer, Mollie Panter-Downes. Her story “The Exiles” appeared in the New Yorker in October 1947. Told with acute human understanding, it relates the final weeks of a retired colonel and his wife before they leave London and emigrate to South Africa. “Arthur felt Things very keenly, she would say,” when people asked why they were leaving. “As she spoke, Things seemed to assume the shape of a dragon that was now firmly couched in its lair beneath the hitherto benign towers of Westminster. This dragon, she implied, was out to devour the Stanburys and their kind, to gobble their modest, honourable incomes, to push them to the wall and bar every path with the lashings of its hideously powerful tail. In time, Arthur felt, the monster of Things would get the whole country down…” Things, Panter-Downes hardly needed to spell out, meant the Labour government and its monstrous regiment of bureaucrats implementing every socialist wish.

The colonel also identifies a fundamental moral decay under the new order. “There was no honesty left in the people,” he is described as telling his barber, “there were no manners, there was nothing but this new, slipshod idea of working the shortest possible hours for the largest possible wage.”

The reader is left to sympathise with the couple as they make their reluctant exile, and at no point does Panter-Downes distance herself from their bitterness. It is no more than a punt that her story influenced Tory Heaven – which, after all, was published only six months later. But at the least, it is a further indication of the embattled middle-class mood that Laski was seeking to counteract.

Laski’s highly engaging, beautifully written novel – the work of someone long immersed in Jane Austen (is there a nod to her in the central character’s name?) – was only sparsely reviewed by the English press. Straus thought it “wickedly amusing”, Fausset called it “an ingeniously contrived and wittily told tale”, but most papers and magazines ignored it. There was a greater response in the States, where it was published under the unhelpful title Toasted English, yet presumably it was in her own country that Laski would have hoped for the major impact.

In February 1950, less than two years after Tory Heaven’s appearance, a general election saw Labour’s majority cut savagely; and in October 1951, the Tories under Churchill resumed their accustomed seats of power. In both cases, the middle class returned en masse to its traditional allegiance. Angela Thirkell, cousin to Stanley Baldwin and Rudyard Kipling, had won the immediate political, if not the literary, battle. 

“Tory Heaven” is published by Persephone Books on 19 April

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

A 1907 painting of Spinoza, who was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656. Credit: SAMUEL HIRSZENBERG
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Why atheists are true believers too

How atheisms are imitating the religions they claim to reject.

In 1995 Richard Dawkins became the first ever “professor for the public understanding of science” at Oxford University. By the time he retired, 13 years later, it looked as if he had privately renegotiated his contract; for he was now functioning as Oxford’s very own professor for the public misunderstanding of religion.

In The God Delusion (2006) he argued that the existence of God was a scientific hypothesis which was almost – almost – demonstrably false. Miracles were scientifically impossible (yes, professor, I think we knew that: the clue was in the word “miracles”). And the creation story in the Book of Genesis was very bad science indeed. Opposing the stupidities of modern “creationism”, and all the other pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific dogmas of the fundamentalists, is one thing. Criticising the moral evils committed by religious fanatics is another, and no less worthwhile. Yet to treat religion itself as merely a defective form of science is a strangely crude error, rather like thinking that poetry is just a way of conveying factual statements that are to be tested for their truth or falsehood.

In his new book, Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray – who, I should mention, is no more a religious believer than I am – has little time for the so-called New Atheism of Dawkins and Co. The confusion of religion with science is only one of the points he objects to. Even if it can be shown that religion involves the creation of illusions, he argues, that does not mean that religion can or should be dispensed with; for “there is nothing in science that says illusion may not be useful, even indispensable, in life”. As for the idea of the American New Atheist Sam Harris that we can develop “a science of good and evil” which will contain all the correct liberal values: Gray sees this as a piece of astonishing and culpable naivety, ignoring nearly two centuries’ worth of evidence that scientism in ethics and illiberalism go happily hand-in-hand.

If this short book were just another intervention in the Dawkinsian “God debate”, it would be very short indeed. In fact it would get no further than page 23 where, at the end of his brief opening chapter, Gray concludes damningly that “the organised atheism of the present century is mostly a media phenomenon, and best appreciated as a type of entertainment”.

But the New Atheism is the least of the seven varieties that make up the subject-matter of this book. The others are all much more interesting, being connected with significant elements in our culture. And if the phrase “our culture” sounds parochial, well, that is an issue Gray deals with explicitly, pointing out that what we call “atheism” is something much more specific than just a rejection or absence of religion as such. It is a rejection of certain religious beliefs – and that narrows the field already, as many religions of the world are not primarily belief-systems at all. In particular, Gray argues, it is a rejection of belief in an omnipotent creator-god, which means that while atheism is Christianity’s close relative, it bears no relation to Hinduism or Buddhism at all.

So this is a book about post-Christian thinking – most of it, in Gray’s view, pretty bad thinking, too. One of his targets is secular humanism, which he describes as “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation through history”. Another is what he calls “making a religion from science”, a delusion which he traces all the way from Mesmerism in the late 18th century, via dialectical materialism in the 19th and 20th, to those futurist thinkers today who dream of uploading a human being’s consciousness to computer circuits, thereby rendering it immortal. And another is political religion, “from Jacobinism through communism and Nazism to contemporary evangelical liberalism”.

Obviously there are overlaps between these three varieties of modern atheism; dialectical materialism, for instance, has also formed part of the creed of Marxist political religion. The one fundamental thing they have in common, on Gray’s account, is that they are all doctrines of progress, of an onwards and upwards march of humanity through history. Whether he is right to say that secular humanism is committed to this view, I am not so sure; doubtless, those who believe in humanist ethics will also think that if more and more people adopt their ethical system the world will become a better place, yet it’s not clear why they should regard that as inevitable.

But one thing at least is clear: John Gray regards all belief in human progress as the most pernicious of delusions. Despite all his eloquence on this subject, some readers may feel that his argument runs away with him, taking him further than he needs to go. It would be enough, surely, to say that the basic moral qualities of human beings have not changed over time, and that there’s no reason to think that any improvements in human behaviour that have taken place are part of a pattern of inevitable progress. Yet Gray goes further, claiming that there has been no real improvement at all.

The abolition of slavery? Slave auctions in “Islamic State” territory have been advertised on Facebook. The abandonment of torture? It has persisted at Guantanamo Bay. Well, yes; but having pockets of slavery here and there in the world is not the same as the situation 200 years ago, when it was a huge and entrenched institution, questioned only by a small minority. Yes, torture continues, but not as a standard judicial procedure. And in many countries there have been substantial, long-term changes in attitude and treatment where female subjugation, child labour and the criminalisation of homosexuality are concerned. Surely there must be some way of acknowledging this, without relapsing into Pollyannaish Steven Pinkerism?

One reason for Gray’s emphasis on the theme of temporal progress is that it fits these various secular atheisms into a larger pattern – that of salvation through history. And this brings us to the core of his argument: out of the whole range of major religions, only Christianity works in a historical dimension like this, which means that the secular atheisms are imitating, or unconsciously reproducing, a central feature of the very religion they claim to reject.

He makes this point again and again. These modern atheists’ view of the world is “inherited” from Christianity. Their belief in progress is “a secular avatar of a religious idea of redemption”. Jacobinism and Bolshevism were “channels” for the millenarian myths of Christianity. Bolshevism was in a “lineage” going back to medieval millenarianism. The apocalyptic myths of radical Christian movements “renewed themselves” in secular, political forms.

Having watched Gray wield his scalpel so effectively on other writers’ arguments, I can’t help thinking that this one deserves a few incisions. What does it mean to say that a communist who yearns for the coming of the classless society is really expressing just the same view as a millenarian looking to the reign of Christ on earth? The form of the belief may be roughly similar, but the content is entirely different. And if these are “inherited” ideas standing in a “lineage”, what is the evidence of a continuous chain of transmission – from, say, the 16th-century radical Anabaptists of Münster (whose chaotic quasi-communist experiment Gray describes in graphic detail) to the Bolsheviks of Petrograd and Moscow? As for the religious myths “renewing themselves” in a secular guise: this seems perilously close to the mindset of Dawkins’s theory of “memes”, which Gray has scornfully dismissed as hardly a theory at all.

Gray also mentions a Gnostic “impulse” that has recurred, unchanged, over two millennia. But if the same impulse can produce a religious idea in one period and a secular one in another, it seems that the impulse is something that stands behind both, itself neither secular nor religious. In which case, the modern atheisms may be not so much reproducing religious beliefs as expressing some basic yearnings that are pre-religious or non-religious in themselves. These are dark theoretical waters, and I am not convinced that Gray has got to the bottom of them.

Yet what he has done is to produce a marvellously stimulating account of some major currents of post-Christian thought, in which ideas and arguments leap constantly off the page like white-hot sparks from an anvil. The dismissals are concise and often devastating; but there are also wonderfully funny details, lovingly accumulated by a wry observer of human foolishness. It is nice to learn, for example, that Auguste Comte’s secular religion of Positivism imposed on its followers “special types of clothing, with buttons placed on the back so that they could not be worn without the help of others – thereby promoting altruism”. And I would challenge anyone to read Gray’s account of the cult of Ayn Rand, with its compulsory cigarette-smoking and rational tap-dancing, and not laugh out loud.

But what of Gray’s own post-religious beliefs? He certainly does not belong in the fifth category discussed here, that of “misotheists” – the Marquis de Sade, Dostoevsky and William Empson – whose views were shaped by a positive hatred of God. (Here, at least, he has no difficulty in showing that some kinds of atheism are dependent intimately and inseparably on Christian theology.) Gray’s own sympathies are divided between his two final varieties: the naturalistic, undogmatic and guaranteed progress-free atheism of the philosopher George Santayana; and the philosophico-theological theories of Spinoza and Schopenhauer, which argued obscurely both that a greater reality, possibly to be identified as Spirit or God, existed, and that to talk about it as a god who created the world, or intervened in it, or issued commands to humans, was to misunderstand it entirely.

Santayana was himself an admirer of Spinoza, and towards the end of the book, Gray quotes his characterisation of the Dutch-Jewish philosopher as follows: “By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honouring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom.” I am not sure that this is quite the image that readers should take away of Gray, whose tolerance of human weaknesses – at the personal level, if not the intellectual one – seems admirably generous. Nor can it be guaranteed that people will acquire unruffled superhuman wisdom by reading this book. More likely they will find themselves tremendously, even painfully, ruffled. And I mean that as high praise, for an author who is one of the greatest intellectual provocateurs of our time. 

Noel Malcolm is editor of the Clarendon Edition of the Works of Thomas Hobbes and a fellow of All Souls, Oxford

John Gray will appear in conversation with Jason Cowley at Waterstones Trafalgar Square, London WC2, on 2 May (newstatesman.com/events)

Seven Types of Atheism
John Gray
Allen Lane, 176pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war