R W Johnson has left for South Africa after 30 years observing-and later advising-Labour politicians. Looking back to Harold Wilson and forward to Tony Blair, he reflects on the eternal cycles of British politicsby RW Johnson / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1964, having lived my teenage years in South Africa, I returned to England on the eve of Harold Wilson’s triumph in the October election. Now, as I settle back in South Africa, England lives in much the same expectancy of Tony Blair: again we have a Tory government, long led by a commanding figure, but now replaced by a nicer and lesser leader, a government grown stale in age, rank in scandal, ripe for the plucking: again we have a Labour party buoyant with future imaginings under a dynamic young leader, putting aside sterile years of strife to embody-once again-the hopes of a generation. The cycle seems almost complete.
The feeling that English history doesn’t progress, that it just goes round and round, is clearly very comforting to the large, perhaps predominant part of the British soul which is nostalgic to a fault. No other country so enjoys endlessly recreating Victorian and Edwardian images of itself or sedulously reproducing the torments of its class system. And now we’re quite caught up in it because that’s the only thing the American market buys into: of course, our one recent film success had to feature not just any old weddings and funerals but ones with “toffs,” a Scottish laird, and country homes, with an ineffable, apparently effortless Englishman gliding through it all. (In 1964 the apparently effortless Englishman was James Bond, which is to say, Sean Connery-a Scot). About a year ago I was sitting in a cinema in Durban surrounded by Zulus and Indians watching-well, I’m not sure whether it was Howard’s End or the Remains of the Day. I realised that I really couldn’t bear to watch another reel of this sort of thing. As an Oxford don one is well placed to see the elaborate, timeless workings of the British class system, its intricate cruelties and its endless self-obsession. I have watched it, studied it, suffered from it and am now utterly bored by it-above all by its cloying parochialism. Time to go. And yet, despite that, I dragged myself dutifully to Shadowlands, only to see my beloved Magdalen College parodied in the same pitiless time-warp. “All those actors wandering around the college looked much more like real Oxford dons than any of us do,” said one of my colleagues.