I have just read Tony Judt’s latest book, Ill Fares the Land (Penguin Books, 2010), a fascinating and challenging book. Judt is a philosopher and social historian about whom I wrote in this blog on 2nd July. His book is about what the title of another book, this time by Andrew Rawnsley, the political journalist, on very much the same subject, called The State We (this country) Are In. Basically Judt’s thesis is that Margaret Thatcher acted like a scythe cutting across all the gains this country had made in promoting social fairness since the second world war, and ushered in an era in which self-interest and the pursuit of wealth were lauded above all other aims, with no regard to their effect on the society in which we live. Hence the financial, and of course the resultant social, disasters we now face. He maintains that this trend was further encouraged, devastatingly, by Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown. I myself can still remember how appalled I was when Thatcher abolished essential social services like the well-functioning youth worker network, and encouraged the sale of school playgrounds to developers, thereby consigning generations of schoolchildren to the streets, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, except, inevitably, to add to our current crime figures.
Judt yearns for the return of a time when the good of society as a whole becomes once again the motivating force of society, rather than profit and the achievement of illusory financial targets in all things. He bewails the fact that there are no outstanding characters in government, let alone in parliament, with the vision and drive to halt the creeping advance of self-interest at the cost of the benefits to society as a whole. Just this week, with the announcement of what looks like plans for the wholesale dismantling of the NHS as we know it, we can see confirmation of that, as the parliamentary opposition, which should be fighting on the NHS’s behalf, is intent instead on pussyfooting about who should be its leader, leaving it effectively leaderless and without a clear voice at a time when a strong opposition is needed to take the fight to the government and hold it to account
What frightens me is the terrifying note of glee, rather than appalled regret, in the voices of those announcing drastic cuts to public services. I have heard no expressions of any true concern for those who these cuts are going to damage most, inevitably the poorest and least able to withstand their effects, nor, as Tony Judt points out, any understanding that the unequal society Britain has become, a society with, appallingly, the worst gap between rich and poor of any advanced nation, inevitably endangers the whole of that society, and not just the weakest of its members. If we value what we should now be fighting for, then a reading of Tony Judt’s book offers a lucidly argued condemnation of the direction in which Britain (and the USA) are moving, and constitutes a call for action to halt this downward slide.
This is truly a great and important book. And, thankfully, not a very long book. I read it almost at one sitting. Do read it! And if you want to support your local library in its fight to avoid the closures which now menace all public libraries, then order it through your local library, something I always try to do. I regard this as my small, but I hope important, contribution to helping maintain what I regard as essential social services, and my way of trying, through this blog, too, to change things. In Tony Judt’s concluding words to his book, “As citizens of a free society,we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”