Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In dejection near Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee had a column in the Guardian yesterday extolling Labour's bright new generation and the party's achievements in Lambeth:
all around us are good Labour legacies of money well spent: the new school sports hall, the new primary school on Brixton Hill, nine new children's centres, health clinics, squads of neighbourhood police, and a spectacular sixth-form college next door to my home.
I was struck by her celebration of buildings rather than the life that goes on in them. The sixth-form college may be "spectacular", but does it provide its students with a good education?

And It has always seemed to me that one of Toynbee's weaknesses is that her writing fails to convey any sense that she is aware of the pleasures of family life. It is children's centres, children's centres, children's centres all the way.

More than this, I was strongly reminded of another piece of writing about South London. I knew it was by my hero Charles Masterman, but did not know where I had read it. Thanks to the wonders of the net, I was able to find what it was and share it with you.

It comes from the essay "In dejection near Tooting", which was collected in Masterman's 1905 book In Peril of Change. In it he describes that suburb as follows:

On every high hill towered a monstrous building of that particular blend of austerity and dignity dear to the municipal mind. Each was planned of vast spreading dimension, with innumerable blank windows, surrounded by high polished walls.

Down below in the valley, conveniently adjacent to the cemetery, was the immense fever hospital, a huddle of buildings of corrugated iron. In front was a gigantic workhouse; behind, a gigantic lunatic asylum; to the right, a gigantic barrack school; to the left, a gigantic prison.

And that, I think, is one of the differences between a liberal like Masterman, who celebrates life, and a social democrat like Toynbee, who celebrates institutions.

Looking at chapter 2 of Nick Clegg's The Liberal Moment, I discussed Peter Clarke's book Liberals and Social Democrats. In it Clarke draws a distinction between the liberal idea of moral reform and the social democrat or Fabian idea of mechanical reform - again suggesting a divide between life and institutions.

It is for that reason I believe that Clarke was drawing a distinction between liberal and social democrats, rather than arguing they were at root the same thing. This distinction is also one of the reasons why I am a liberal rather than a social democrat.

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Tristan said...

It looks like she's not even celebrating the institutions, but the bricks and mortar.

It seems that the celebration of institutions is something learned from a particular type of conservative - lending support to Milton Friedman's observation that the socialist (ie social democrat and state socialist) took the methods of the conservative to try and achieve the ends of the liberal.

Anonymous said...

Let's face it she'll look as fashionable as bell-bottomed trousers next year and no one will listen to her. She is symptomatic of older people voting Labour because they've always voted Labour and holding back the change that is required.

She's as stale as month-old bread that's been left out in the sun too long.

dreamingspire said...

Breadcrumbs can be useful, but only when combined with something else tasty.

crewegwyn said...

Polly's grasp of the lives led by people outside her millieu has always been frail. Some of us remember her outrage when she stood for the Council (as an SDP candidate) in c.1982, and the electorate chose somebody else, thus missing out on her care and attention. She seemed genuinely perplexed at their failure to grasp the opprtunity to be represented by such a colossus.