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Progress, what progress?

Transcript of part two of Simon Heffer's series of essays for The Westminster Hour

Last week, in re-considering the attack upon the Whig interpretation of history made 75 years ago by the Cambridge don Herbert Butterfield, I spoke of Butterfield's impatience with those who saw history as a justification of the present, rather than as events to be understood for themselves. Butterfield, in taking an explicitly Tory view, objected to this propagandising use of history by his political opponents, which he saw as aiming to justify all the reforms and changes in the ordering of society that Whigs had argued for since the 17th century, and which the liberal intelligentsia has argued for in modern times. In his book, he ridiculed 'progress, of which the Protestants and Whigs have been the perennial allies while Catholics and Tories have perpetually formed obstruction'. In more modern times the religious aspect of the case Butterfield was arguing has become, to many people in an increasingly secular society, less pressing. The political one, however, is still persuasive.

Butterfield talked of the Whigs' view that the past somehow 'ratified' the present: of the mistaken and illogical idea of events not being important for themselves, but for how they justified the modern world and led to it. This, in turn, leads to a failure to achieve what should be one of the prime requisites of the study of history: that of getting inside the minds of people at specific points in the past, and to examine what they were doing and why they were doing it. Three-quarters of a century after he wrote - a period in which 'progress' has had a field day - this vice is still prevalent. As we stand in 2005 and look back on that period, how is the Whig interpretation of recent history still causing us to misunderstand and misinterpret what has happened in Britain since 1930?

In one respect, Britons have been especially lucky. Although we had our share of suffering in the Second World War, we have not generally, like so many others around the world, had to pay for 'progress' with our lives. Here, the price has been mostly economic, but also moral. Some would argue that in our own history there has been a straight line of causation from the slump of the 1930s to the war itself, then to the era of consensus, then to Thatcherism, then to New Labour's Third Way. Each phase, as it were, provoked its successor; and each phase was designed in some way to achieve the outcome we now, in 2005, have inherited. I hope if I put it like that you can see what absolute nonsense the Whig interpretation is. Neither Chamberlain, declaring war in 1939, nor Attlee, in leading the post-war consensus after 1945, nor Mrs Thatcher in embarking upon her reforms in 1979 had in mind that their policies would create some specific and planned result at the present day. Nor, if we are minded to ignore their conscious intentions, can we plausibly see them as unconscious actors leading us along a path that led inexorably to our present circumstances. To avoid the lazy idea of the line of causation, and the self-regarding thought that we are the direct and intended beneficiaries of earlier phases of our historical development, it might be best to examine each of those episodes individually.

It would be obtuse to argue that when Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 one intention was not to secure the nation's freedoms for the indefinite future. This unavoidable fact would seem to justify the Whig view that people in the past engaged in actions specifically to secure a better life for those of us in the present. However, it is also apparent that Chamberlain was, however belatedly, acting to secure a certain way of life that he and his people enjoyed in what was then the present. He would also have told an interlocutor on 3 September 1939 that he was acting to preserve the British Empire and British imperial power, not to end it. It cannot have been remotely in his mind, either, that the war would threaten a social order in Britain that had, more or less and to general surprise, survived the Great War and that had, if anything, been entrenched by the slump after 1929. However, his action help achieve all this. The war did not finally achieve a classless society, but it altered the social dynamic in a way revolutionaries had wanted and Tories had always feared. Chamberlain might be credited by Whigs with being a 'progressive' in these respects: which he certainly was not.

The victory of Labour at the 1945 election was not part of a continuum begun at the Glorious Revolution 257 years earlier. It was a direct response to the Conservative caretaker government's failure to have policies that appealed to an electorate whom the war had emancipated from deference. Attlee did not dispose of India in 1947 because he wished to fulfil the aims of an anti-imperialist movement that had been growing in radical circles since the end of the 19th century. He disposed of it principally because Britain, bankrupted by war, simply could no longer afford to maintain the imperial status quo. As an aside to this, by the way, the progressive revolutionary theory of anti-imperialism has two other spanners thrown into its works. First, the end of the Indian empire was an unstated policy aim of the Democratic administration in America, who saw the imperial panoply as a political, economic and psychological obstacle to America's overtaking Britain as a world power. The Second World War, and the consequent indebtedness by Britain to America after it, served this purpose brilliantly, in making empire unsustainable. The second spanner is that most of the Empire was not 'liberated' by the international socialist brotherhood, but by the government run by Mr Harold Macmillan, an old Etonian who married a duke's daughter and spent many happy autumns thereafter on her family's grouse moors. He was driven to what many of his colleagues regarded as this regrettable pass by the same forces that caused Attlee to get rid of India: namely, the Great British national overdraft.

Indeed, the more one studies the 30 or so years after the Second World War, the more one comes to realise that the line of causation hardly exists at all. The period proves Butterfield's point that 'history is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which the past was turned into our present.' Governments were not following through some sort of invisible programme that would one day create the progressives' nirvana. They were buffeted more and more by what Macmillan himself called 'events'. The events themselves were not part of a plan or a scheme - mystical or real - either: they tended to be sporadic, or the result of opportunism or immediate necessity. And, ironically, the more Britain retreated from empire into herself, the more she became the victim of what our own generation has come to call 'globalisation'. America's still largely unseen hand in the end of empire is one clear example of how these events take place outwith the context and constraints of British political life and history. We might equally add, from the last half-century or so, the effects on Britain of nuclear proliferation, the 1973 oil crisis or the European Union, all matters where others took decisions to which we, at different stages, were compelled (or thought we were compelled) to react.

The principles of socialism were not applied here properly until 1945, and they caused sclerosis and decline. That was not, of course, the aim of the Attlee administration when they established a welfare state and nationalised certain key industries such as the railways, mines and electricity and gas suppliers. However, it was an object lesson not merely in how the path of progress does not always run smooth, but how progress is not always what progressives think it to be. Churchill's coalition government had seen the need for a welfare state not so much out of humanitarian or progressive concerns, but to lower the chances of social unrest after a second great war. That was why Sir William Beveridge, a Liberal, was commissioned to deliver his famous report in 1942. However, the self-help welfarism of Beveridge was supplanted by a doctrinaire statist welfarism implemented by Sir Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan. In so far as redistribution was a Whig aim, welfarism achieved it. However, by diverting investment from the productive sectors of the economy to the unproductive ones, it also constricted economic growth at a time when Britain's harder-headed competitors were re-building their factories, modernising their plant and forging ahead. In 1951, when a Conservative government came back into power, it found a set of circumstances in which its room for political manoeuvre was severely limited. Some might argue that it had swallowed the Whig idea that revolutions - in this case, the democratic socialist revolution of 1945 - constituted progress, and should not be undone. In fact, in leaving the welfare state largely intact, running scared of organised labour, and leaving almost all the nationalised industries under state ownership, the Tories were obeying an instinct far more profound than support of 'progress', however that is defined. They were merely ensuring that they stood a decent chance of being re-elected, by endorsing certain Labour policies because a majority of the electorate, for whatever reason, supported them. They were so good, indeed, at following the socialist prescription that they were actually re-elected twice.

This was the era of what became known as 'Butskellism'. The term came from the first syllable of the name of the Conservative Chancellor, R.A. Butler, and the last syllable of his Labour counterpart, Hugh Gaitskell. If anything, Tory governments under Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Heath were more prone to appease the working class movement than Labour governments were. No Government minister has ever been more of a pushover for the trade union movement than Walter Monckton, Churchill's Minister of Labour in the early 1950s. Macmillan and, to a much greater and more damaging extent, Edward Heath pumped money into the economy at a painfully inflationary rate. This was because they feared the political effects on them of rising unemployment, and feared too popular agitation if restrictions had to be made in the benefits accorded by the welfare state. This was what the 'post-war consensus' really meant. However, it was not a masterplan, designed to deliver a land of milk and honey by the early 21st century. It was a frequently opportunist political strategy, based on the observation by contemporary politicians of what they could get away with - what Butler called 'the art of the possible' - and it served only the pursuit and retention of political power.

The consensus, however, like all good ideas finally wore out. In doing so it further gave the lie to the notion of a line of causation, or a smooth continuum of events. Seldom can there have been such a lack of continuity, or predictability, as was caused by the succession of Mrs Thatcher to Downing Street in 1979, ending 35 years of socialistic rule by both main political parties. What any remaining Whigs would have seen as the continuum of history through the 20th century - the decline in the power of the individual and the growth of the power of the state - suddenly came to a grinding halt. Perhaps this proved that Tories do indeed obstruct progress. However, in economic terms, the years of Thatcherism then saw more economic progress than had been achieved in several decades of peace before them. The nature of that progress also made this unpredicted change of direction largely irreversible: such as by selling people their own council houses, or allowing them to buy shares in previously nationalized and highly-inefficient utility companies.

Mrs Thatcher was being consistent in one respect. Like all her immediate predecessors, she adopted policies geared to appealing to a mass electorate, to secure her own election and to try to ensure she held on to power for as long as possible. She exemplified Butterfield's thesis, that at any stage in history the principal players act according to immediate needs and not with an eye to the future. Mrs Thatcher undeniably had a vision, and to a great extent she fulfilled it. But hers was a vision that went against the Whig idea. She was determined to derail the train, or turn round the ship, or use whatever metaphor you like to signify a complete break with an earlier sequence of events. To the tens of millions of us who lived through it, there could be no clearer exposition of how events in history are to be seen purely and specifically in their own time and not for any other purposes. The Thatcher revolution proved once and for all that there is no sense of inevitability about the direction in which events move. For her and the people she ruled the present existed in spite of the past rather than as a consequence of it.

And, for his part, the present Tony Blair has taken the same view. He has not sought, in some important respects, to undo Mrs Thatcher's own reversal of what might have been considered to be the natural 'progressive' trend of things. There have been no re-nationalisations, no repeals of anti-trade union laws, no tearing-up of the special relationship with America, no outright repudiation of the doctrine of monetarism. Does that disprove the theory that Whigs (of whom Mr Blair is clearly one) are the allies of progress? Or could it be that he saw that, in some respects, Tories can be progressive too? Certainly, he might have given some comfort to Whigs of the future by claiming that he has a vision, and is working via the 'third way' towards the land of milk and honey. But, as any half-observant elector can see, his policies are motivated largely by what he feels will cause him to be re-elected. He, like Prime Ministers from all other ages, does what he has to do according to the dictates of the times. If you still believe in something called the Whig interpretation of history, look carefully at Mr Blair and his actions up to the present day. Note, if you please, how he is very definitely not part of the traditional 'line of causation', but a man acting for the moment. He causes us to think hard about the labels we attach to political doctrines about progress: though it all depends, I suppose, what one means by 'progress'. Having now analysed those myths in the context of our own experiences since Butterfield wrote his theory in 1930, I shall move next week to discussing them in an international context. At a time of war against terrorism, with America the focal point of one side in that war, I shall look at whether our comprehension of America has been distorted by a Whig view of this once-revolutionary nation. I shall examine whether the prejudices many people now hold about that nation and its role in the world are, yet again, the unfortunate product of our obsession with seeing history in terms of black or white - or of what the Americans themselves would call good guys and bad guys. Good night.

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