- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Bad news makes for better copy. That truism came to mind as I scanned some of the more doom-laden British and American coverage of France’s presidential election. If the jeremiads were to be believed, here was a prime candidate for a social cataclysm. (Around the time of the riots in the banlieues in 2005, some bloggers were even muttering about an imminent civil war.) We shall see.

Perhaps it is just a sign of the onset of decrepitude, but the older I become, the harder I find it becomes to draw sweeping conclusions about anything. While the great political debate of any particular day sees the right and left drawing up their neatly drilled battalions, ready for a battle to the death, the truth seems to lie increasingly in the muddy middle ground.

Computer technology allows us access to ever-expanding storehouses of information, yet the more data we absorb, the more complex an issue grows. X says one thing, Y another, then along comes Z’s e-mail, a moment or two later, to remind us that we have not taken into account the fact that W has revised his opinions in the light of new research unearthed by A, B and C.

It comes as no surprise, for instance, that academics and journalists alike are fighting over the achievements and failures of the post-World War II Clement Attlee government. Just as an innocent remark about the rights and wrongs of the Thatcher years is still guaranteed to reduce the average dinner party to a pub brawl, so the merits or otherwise of the reforms introduced by the first Labor administration of the modern era continue to be argued over.

For a long time, it was the pro-Labor left that carried the day, portraying Attlee and his colleagues as unassuming, bespectacled pioneers who led a grateful country to the very gates of the much-heralded New Jerusalem.

Then, in the wake of the collapse of the Labor project at the end of the 1970s, came a reassessment. While it never became anything approaching a scholarly consensus — the old guard was too entrenched in academia to allow upstarts to challenge its position — a much more caustic view of the Attlee years began to take hold. This held that the soft-spoken successor to Winston Churchill connived at a catastrophic decline in Britain’s prestige, reducing a once-great imperial power to the status of an American puppet, its resources squandered, its people’s morale undermined by the blandishments of an all-embracing welfare state.

Both schools of thought had the considerable virtue of being sleek and uncomplicated. On the left, the theory arose that 1979 — the year of Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street — marked the betrayal of a noble social experiment. Similarly, to many a conservative it seemed that the Iron Lady’s advent arrested 30 years of inexorable malaise.

Given Britain’s tribal politics, it was inevitable that the two great parties should become locked in a sterile contest in which each sought to blame the other for every social ill under the sun. In a sane world, it ought to have been possible to accept that both sides were at least partly right: The post-1945 settlement did lay too great an emphasis on statism; in contrast, Mrs. Thatcher’s credo of individualism was guilty of straining the social fabric to breaking point.

It was one of Tony Blair’s main virtues that he was willing to confess to his own party’s shortcomings. Sadly, much of the Labor Party never really concurred, which is one reason the out-going prime minister grew so dependent on spin and image-making on the general theme of “New Labour, c’est moi.”

And now we have a new Tory leader, David Cameron, saying previously unsayable things about Thatcherite materialism. I have grave reservations about Mr. Cameron’s meteoric rise, and I wonder if his privileged background — and the similarly cosseted upbringing of so many of his inner circle — equips him to govern modern Britain. (I sometimes find it easier to imagine him in the pages of a Victorian novel than at Downing Street.) Yet there is no denying that the new man has dared to question previously unassailable Tory dogma, addressing questions of social cohesion, poverty and quality of life.

Many of the activists may not like it: Mr. Cameron provokes as much distrust in some sections of the party as Mr. Blair does in his. But the party as a whole will benefit from a little frank talk.

In the meantime, the historians and pundits continue to reassess the gains and losses of the post-World War II era. One book I look forward to reading is Andrew Marr’s “A History of Modern Britain,” which is, judging by the newspaper excerpts that have appeared so far, a brisk but intellectually stimulating journey through a lost landscape.

The hyperactive Mr. Marr is a household name here, thanks to his former role as the BBC TV News’ political editor, but he has also worn many other hats, most notably as a newspaper columnist and editor of the Independent on Sunday. He is very much a man of the so-called “soft Left,” but he is more interested in ideas than in the party line.

One of the principal arguments put forward in his book is that historians have placed too much stress on the narrative of Seventies decline:

“There is a danger of distorting real history with false endings. If one decides that the breakdown of the Seventies was the single most important thing to have happened to post-war Britain, which shadows everything before and since, then inevitably the story of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties becomes darker … But this is a strange way of thinking. In personal terms it would be like defining the meaning of a life, with all its ups and downs, entirely by reference to a single bout of serious illness or marital break-up in middle age.”

I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Marr’s sunnier diagnosis. None of which means the Attlee era and all that came after it should be regarded as one of unrelieved triumph. David Kynaston’s new book, “Austerity Britain 1945-1951,” shows how the cult of the central planner cast its shadow over national life, creating, amongst other things, environmental disasters in our brave new cities of soulless tower blocks.

But on the whole, the new social contract worked reasonably well. Britain stumbled toward a new role, neither in Europe nor quite out of it; the transatlantic alliance held together. Culturally, the UK adopted a new, bolder and more tolerant persona, dressed up in vivid Sixties colors. Tony Blair, a prime minister who enjoyed strumming an electric guitar in his spare time, was a child of that era.

Soon he will be gone, and Gordon Brown — an austere figure who would not have looked out of place in the 1945 cabinet — will almost certainly succeed him. Some pundits talk as if Brown’s first act will be to take us back 60 years in time. But I suspect he is much too intelligent to want to attempt any such thing. Mr. Brown knows his history, and he knows in which way it is heading.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London and keeps a Web log at The Spectator: www.spectator.co.uk/clive davis.

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