A welfare culture?

– It is time to think again. An older phase of capitalism has ended. A received culture of class has declined with it, disarticulated by new forms of industrial organization, a transformed information economy, and changed patterns of consumption and recreation. The right has thematized these developments and prosperedfrom them, as successive Conservative electoral victories demonstrate. The left has been slow to respond in anything like an effective contemporary spirit; but here too, now, there is potentialfor change. A new generation of Labour leaders, alert to the social novelties of the period and unwilling to bear another parliamentary season in exile, is proposing bold revisions of the party’s programme; communism, which twenty years ago bewitched a whole radical generation, is surely finished. The left can make a new start.

– It is the 1990s. Or it is the 1950s. The comparison is of course selective, deliberately overdrawn; no one will confuse the two periods. Yet the objective resemblances are close enough to be perhaps interesting. Can the familiar terms of a certain style of left-intellectual annunciation so fully replicate that of an earlier time and yet be lucid, or even self-consistent? A second-hand apocalypse is a poor revelation. Or, if the similarities really do run deep enough to justify the echoes, may it not be that the concerns of the fifties are more actual than they are conventionally thought to be? The intellectual left, above all in those densely populated quarters where cultural analysis goes on, habitually thinks of the fifties as a cradle, a thing well remembered but hardly suited to the purposes oflater years. The founding texts of socialist cultural theory in Britain are just that: enablers of a certain history, not actors in it. But there may be critical value in anachronism, in returning to the period as if without the knowledge of what followed, to remember afresh the terms of its arguments as they emerged, to consider whether they may not have retained – perhaps regained? – a certain value for the present. What follows here is a contribution to such a project.

After 1945: welfare liberalism

It has been claimed that effective political victory in 1945 went not to Labour but to liberalism, in its generic postclassical form. Drawn into an early contest by an overconfident Churchill, Labour acceded to office through a slump in the Conservative vote and went on to implement a social programme that had been designed largely by reformers in Westminster’s senior parties.1 A parallel claim may be pressed more strongly in respect of cultural policy after 1945.

Post-elementary state education was made available to all, and compUlsory to the age of fifteen; merit rather than money determined access to the upper echelon of the new tripartite system, the grammar school. Higher education expanded rapidly in the early postwar years, though from a tiny demographic base. Radio, continuing as a public monopoly, expanded and diversified its programming, but again – like education – on strict hierarchical assumptions. Access to television viewing widened dramatically, though without prejudice to Reithian paternalism. The licensing of commercial television in the middle fifties caused widespread foreboding, but in fact the new service was subject to significant public-service constraints. A governmentfunded council was created, succeeding the wartime CEMA, to support the arts and promote wider interest in them. And in the bookshops, the shelves turned orange and blue, the colours of Penguin and the mark of cultural quality as bestowed by AlIen Lane, a more affable, more radical Reith of the printed word.2 Of course, pure commerce too was active in every paper shop and cinema; but in the old and new centres of cultural policy, a common formula had been set in place. A minority culture, received and continuing, would be diffused to an ever-widening audience. All the terms of this summary should be noted. The expansion was real; but there was no fundamental questioning of what counted as cultural value or of the proper forms of cultural participation. Self-confirming traditions would now be unveiled for a deserving population. Culture – ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’, ‘sweetness and light’, in Arnold’s famous gloss – would now, literally, be broadcast.

The formula governing this emerging world of policy and practice was a Victorian bequest; its classic exponent was Arnold. In its mid-century applications, it was to a great extent the achievement of the two salient tendencies in liberal minority culture between the wars: the Bloomsbury circle and the group around F.R. Leavis and Scrutiny. It has been usual in retrospective commentary, as it was at the time, to stress the contrasts between the two formations. Bloomsbury was an upper-middle-class bohemia, a congeries of families and friends whose unity and security in the face of commercial pressure and ancestral philistinism were sustained by private money. Scrutiny was proudly petty bourgeois, hostile to all metropolitan ornament and hereditary presumption, the self-conscious vanguard of a ‘critical minority’ that sought nothing but – and nothing less than – the recognition due to unaided intelligence. However, these social-stylistic differences were variants of a shared liberal formula, which both helped to promote after the war. John Maynard Keynes was not only the pioneering theorist of the new macro-economic policy; he also founded the Arts Council. Bloomsbury’s free-thinking modernism was hardly consonant with Lord Reith’ s cultural preferences, yet that ‘civilized’ manner eventually lightened his own puritan tone in the BBC, just as it also became standard in the formerly ‘middlebrow’ cultural and recreational pages of the polite press. Scrutiny‘s insistence on careers open to talent appeared to find some acknowledgement in the weakening of class privilege in education – where, at the same time, Leavisian accents were more and more widely heard. The new styles of cultural seriousness, in education and in the media, were essentially generalizations, named or not, from these interwar models.

Two counterpointed sequences patterned the new period. On the one hand there were expansionary trends: a significant system of welfare, rising working-class confidence and spending-power, enhanced public cultural provision, and, together with these, intensified cultivation of consumer-goods markets, including, very prominently, strictly commercial cultural enterprise. However, these trends developed within a contrary historical tendency: Britain’s long relative decline as a capitalist power continued, and was now invested with a special politico-cultural pathos by the postwar retreat from colonialism, the loss and symbolic redemption of Empire in the Commonwealth. ‘Progress’ was the officially favoured gloss on this configuration of change, and, in the ordinary terms of liberal politics and culture, the word was not inapt. But, looking back from beyond the seventies and eighties, we can see the decade after 1945 as the formative moment of an abiding crisis. The re-balancing of existing class relations in a caste-ridden society and a declining economy, the seeding of new black communities through reverse migration from the colonies, and, pervading all things, the scarcely articulate faltering of Anglo-Britishness as a self-evident identity and mark of precedence: these familiar pretexts of the late-twentieth-century reaction against consensual liberalism were shaped together within a short historical span.

Indeed, amid all the signs of liberal paramountcy, the liberal intelligentsia itself was not free of discontent. Cultural life had become narrower and meaner since the war, according to one Bloomsbury survivor. The twenties and thirties had been bohemian and cosmopolitan; the fifties were provincial and earnest, their tone set by ‘lower-middlebrows’ who approached the arts in the spirit of sanitary engineers.3 Among a younger generation inspired by Leavis, there were those who would have smiled at this caricature of themselves, who affirmed that their kind of intellectual was now poised to take possession of the heritage.4 But others of them were disturbed by postwar Britain (or England, as they would more typically say). Scrutiny itself, now closed, had recoiled from the approach of educational reform; Leavis himself could see only further deterioration, the nearing extinction of English minority culture. The official vaunting of liberal nostrums, in the heyday of Encounter and the Congress for Cultural Freedom, intensified the air of paradox, as the highbrow passions of the thirties became the good sense of the fifties. Assimilation as rejection, advance as continuing decline, intellectual freedom as voluntary conformism: these apprehensions were voiced by both kinds of liberal intellectual as they contemplated their given place in the incustomary social landscape of postwar Britain.

Among conservative intellectuals, there was unequivocal resistance to the prospect of a diffusionist welfare culture. The best-known initiative from this quarter was T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, a Burkean defence of customary inequality in intellectual life and education.5 But had that book been signed by anyone other than the canonized master of the new English poetic, it would have passed more or less unnoticed. Those minority liberals, like Leavis, who raged against the unheroic fulfilment of their desires were isolated as cranks.6 For now, and for most, liberalism was an ecumenical, not a sectarian rite; in effect, an established church – the unsaid, often enough the unthought, of intellectual initiative and exchange.



1. See Paul Addison, The Road to 1945, Macmillan, London, 1975; Perry Anderson, ‘The Figures of Descent’, in his English Questions, Verso, London, 1992, pp. 121-92; Gregory Elliott, Socialism and the English Genius, Verso, London, 1993.
2. W.E. Morpurgo, Allen Lane, King Penguin: A Biography, AlIen Lane, London, 1979.
3. Stephen Spender, ‘Comment: On Literary Movements’, Encounter, vol. 1, no. 2, 1953, pp. 66-8.
4. Malcolm Bradbury, ‘The Rise of the Provincials’, Antioch Review, vol. XVI, no. 4, 1956, pp. 469-77.
5. Piloted in essays for the New English Weekly in 1943 and then in public seminars, the book was published in 1948, the year in which Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature and was admitted to the Order of Merit.
6. Leavis’s philippic against C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture The Two Cultures was one of the more lurid intellectual events of its time but hardly a significant one (‘Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow’, Spectator, 9 March 1962; C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and a Second Look, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1964, gives the original text, with a retrospect and details of the published reactions to the controversy).

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