After the 2017 general election, I assumed responsibility for editing the New Statesman’s letters pages because I wanted to get a better sense of what our readers were thinking. I read every letter and email that is sent to the office and reply to some of them when time allows. No recent piece in the magazine has generated a more powerful response than Jonathan Powell’s essay on the decline of the political class, written from inside the political class. Most of the replies broadly agreed with Powell’s trenchant analysis – namely, that something had gone seriously wrong in our politics and the people were being repeatedly failed by complacent elites, from all parties. Powell was especially appalled by the mismanagement of the Brexit negotiations and Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to hold Theresa May to account for her evasions, inflexibility and multiple blunders.
For me, the Brexit debacle has revealed what was already evident: that the United Kingdom is fragmenting and both our electoral and party systems are broken, as Chuka Umunna and other defectors to the Independent Group have said. Reading Powell’s indignant essay I was reminded of Charles Masterman’s book The Condition of England, which was published 110 years ago in 1909 during another period of prolonged political upheaval, and which I have been rereading in preparation for a book I am researching on the English Question.
I return often to Masterman’s urgently written book, with its arresting metaphors and pointed observations, because it so persuasively captured the “temper and tone” of a country on the cusp of irrevocable change. He did not know, of course, that within five years Europe would be sleepwalking into a cataclysmic war that would lead to the collapse of empires, but he sensed that an era was ending; that even time itself was out of joint. “Public penury, private ostentation – that, perhaps, is the heart of the complaint,” he wrote. Note that qualifying “perhaps”.
Masterman was a Liberal MP and a friend of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, founders of the New Statesman and co-founders of the London School of Economics, and of Winston Churchill. Back then he despaired of the dismal quality of our national leadership. “The present extravagance of England is associated with a strange mediocrity, a strange sterility of characters of supreme power in Church and State.” He railed against the unelected House of Lords and the imperial ruling class – “conquerors”, he called them. They were “imperturbable, profoundly careless”. This would do as a description of the insouciant style of David Cameron.
What the conquering class feared above all, Masterman said, was “socialism”. “So it lies awake at night, listening fearfully to the tramp of the rising host: the revolt of the slave against his master.” What changes socialism would bring he could not say, nor did he predict the strange death of Liberal England. But in the Edwardian twilight, he saw that Britain was “evidently moving in a direction which no one can foresee, towards experience of far-reaching change”. We feel a similar sense of foreboding today as power leaks from both Corbyn and May and a febrile atmosphere grips the Commons.
Masterman was influenced by the great Victorian moralists: Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, all preoccupied with the condition of England question. He was profoundly troubled, as they were, by the poverty and plight of the urban working class, and he understood how the ugliness of the surrounding environment affected their morale and spiritual lives. One of the consequences of the years of austerity has been the degradation of the public realm in many parts of this country. One would have thought that Conservatives should wish to conserve the natural as well as the built environment, but so many of the county and district councils, deprived of resources, seem intent on destruction.
I live in a market town in Hertfordshire that is being systematically ruined by a Conservative-controlled district council that has no interest in creating a built environment of the kind Ruskin might have encouraged. The town train station – with its nominally fast rail links to London and Cambridge – was recently “redeveloped”, and the result is a drab, grey, flat-roofed prefab. It is a station without aesthetic value, less a symbol of civic pride as it ought to be, than a source of shame and contempt.
A beautifully built and conserved train station – one thinks of Kemble in Gloucestershire, which I use quite often – can elevate the spirits of those who use and work within it. It can connect us to a deeper past. For Ruskin, architecture was not just about utility and the mathematics of design: it “is, or ought to be, a science of feeling”. My local station in the market town of Bishop’s Stortford inspires only feelings of revulsion.
“We need to make room for beauty,” Kit Malthouse, the housing minister, said in a recent speech. “A simple question would be: ‘Am I building the conservation area of the future?’” However, he said, “People are feeling what’s being designed is ubiquitous and not fitting in with communities… People worry what’s being plonked down won’t enhance the area.” Fine words, but will anyone act on them?
We had a recorded winter temperature exceeding 20°C for the first time in the UK this week. Should we feel guilty about enjoying such unseasonal warmth? I like cold weather, so long as the skies are clear and bright. What I struggle with is the gloom of the East Anglian winter, and so the radiance of recent days felt like blessed relief. But do these temperatures portend something strange and ominous about this scorched Earth?
This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics