For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life. One might make an honourable exception of Harold Pinter, who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all; but his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.
The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment’s reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Hare caved in to the blandishments of Buckingham Palace some years ago, moving from radical to reformist. Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington’s neocons. Martin Amis has written of the need to prevent Muslims travelling and to strip-search people “who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan”. Deportation, he considers, may be essential further down the road.
The uniqueness of the situation is worth underlining. When Britain emerged as an industrial capitalist state, it had Shelley to urge the cause of the poor, Blake to dream of a communist utopia, and Byron to scourge the corruptions of the ruling class. The great Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough was known as Comrade Clough for his unabashed support of the revolutionaries of 1848. One of the most revered voices of Victorian England, Thomas Carlyle, denounced a social order in which the cash nexus was all that held individuals together. John Ruskin was the great inheritor of this moral critique of capitalism; and though neither he nor Carlyle were “creative”, they influenced one of the mightiest of English socialist poets, William Morris. In Morris’s entourage at the end of the 19th century was Oscar Wilde, remembered by the English as dandy, wit and socialite; and by the Irish as a socialist republican.
The early decades of the 20th century in Britain were dominated by socialist writers such as HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw. When Virginia Woolf writes in Three Guineas of “the arts of dominating other people … of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital”, she places herself to the left of almost every other major English novelist.
Not all rebukes were administered from the left. DH Lawrence, a radical rightist, denounced “the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition”. Possession, he thought, was a kind of illness of the spirit. High modernism, however politically compromised, questioned the fundamental value and direction of western civilisation. The 1930s witnessed the first body of consciously committed left writing in Britain. Taking sides was no longer seen as inimical to art, but as a vital part of its purpose.
In the postwar welfare state, however, the rot set in. Philip Larkin, the period’s unofficial poet laureate, was a racist who wrote of stringing up strikers. Most of the Angry Young Men of the 50s metamorphosed into Dyspeptic Old Buffers. The 60s and 70s – the second most intensively political period of the century – produced no radical of the status of a Brecht or Sartre. Iris Murdoch looked for an exciting moment as though she might fulfil this role, but turned inwards and rightwards. Doris Lessing was to do much the same.
It was left to migrants (Naipaul, Rushdie, Sebald, Stoppard) to write some of our most innovative literature for us, as the Irish had earlier done. But migrants, as the work of VS Naipaul and Tom Stoppard testifies, are often more interested in adopting than challenging the conventions of their place of refuge. The same had been true of Joseph Conrad, Henry James and TS Eliot. Wilde, typically perverse, challenged and conformed at the same time.
The great communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid died just as the dark night of Thatcherism descended. Rushdie’s was one of the few voices to keep alive this radical legacy; but now, with his fondness for the Pentagon’s politics, we need to look elsewhere for a serious satirist.
There are a number of factors in such renegacy. Money, adulation and that creeping conservatism known as growing old play a part, as does the apparent collapse of an alternative to capitalism. Most British writers welcome migrants, dislike Tony Blair, and object to the war in Iraq. But scarcely a single major poet or novelist is willing to look beyond such issues to the global capitalism that underlies them. Instead, it is assumed that there is a natural link between literature and left-liberalism. One glance at the great names of English literature is enough to disprove this prejudice.