Totalitarianism is on the run but liberalism's future is not assured. Chris Patten rediscovers the relevance of Rex Warner's wartime novel for Robert Skidelsky's World after Communismby Chris Patten / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Unpacking books on a hot August afternoon, I turned up a long-cherished and long-unread political classic about whose virtues I have bored friends ever since I discovered it.
Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome (Lane, 1941), written during the early years of the second world war, almost a decade before Orwell’s 1984, is a brilliantly original contribution to the ominously titled genre, “novels of ideas.” Like Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, Warner uses allegory to attack totalitarianism and collectivism and to assert liberal values.
In Warner’s novel, the brave new world is offered by the air force, encamped in its aerodrome outside a slothful and sluttish English village complete with pub, church, rector, squire, agricultural show and-at least until the arrival of the aerodrome-cricket. The aerodrome represents all the spartan efficiency and discipline of the totalitarian manifesto-“a barren edifice of perfection”-in contrast to the “muddle and inefficiency” of village life. The villagers carouse and gossip; they fall drunk into ditches; they bite the heads off rats; they lie and cheat; they even go to church. They lack a sense of purpose and order. They betray all too many signs of basic humanity-falling in love, developing loyalties to friends and places, forming a community which is “intricate and forgiving.”
The narrator, who for a time converts to the air force’s new order, summarises the enthusiasm of its followers: “In contrast with the villagers, the women, the clergymen, and the squires, we were carefree and direct, having made ourselves the servants of a single will and imagination… that would cut through like butter the vague amorphous, drunken and unwieldy life that was outside our organisation.”
The “single will” is that of the Air Vice-Marshall, a tyrant with a very English stamp; more of an intelligent headmaster than a blood-soaked mass-murderer, perhaps, but ruthless, narrowly focused, intolerant and unbending. For him, life itself needs a short-back-and-sides so that men and women can obtain mastery over both themselves and their environment.
It must have seemed familiar and chilling stuff in the 1940s when the book was written, and the metaphor still hits home today. But I have to admit that, re-reading Warner’s book this summer, I found the elaborate working out of the allegory rendered the plot from time to time absurd or obvious to the point of tedium. It does, however, remain an astonishingly powerful book, elegantly written.
What sort of resonance does it have in the 1990s, in a world where collectivism has either been routed or is in headlong retreat? The perfect compliment to Warner was to read Robert Skidelsky’s polemic, The World after Communism (Macmillan, 1995).
Skidelsky is always interesting, and usually wise, and in this densely argued book he traces the history of the intellectual as well as the political defeat of those extremes of collectivism-fascism and communism-in the last half-century. But Skidelsky does not believe that the clock has stopped and that history is now over. He notes the challenges to political leadership caused by the collapse of communism and by the formidable problems that have beset those governments which have sought to plant liberal economic principles among the blasted rubble of command economies. He argues persuasively not only the connection between political and economic freedom, but also that between effective political institutions and successful economic management. Free economics does not dispense with the need for effective statecraft and authoritative government. Without good government a market economy will not prosper; which, of course, begs the question-what constitutes good government?
Skidelsky tries his hand at an answer. Whether or not you agree with his sketch, it seems to me that he is correct in arguing that the failure to answer this question properly risks economic breakdown and a lurch into new flirtations with collectivism, protectionism and cheapskate populism.
For in the post-collectivist era, the debate in Britain and other western democracies has become more nuanced-at least on the economic front. With the exception of one or two relics from the Militant Tendency (remember them?), no one seriously attempts to challenge the market from first principles. Respectable people from left and right (and less respectable people too) back market solutions. This produces a point of balance of sorts.
But where do we go from here? On the one hand there are those-on the new mushy left, and even on the old Tory right-who argue that having staked out this patch of common ground, we should camp on it and move no further. Staying still becomes an end in itself. If we continue to push market solutions, to cut spending and taxes beyond their present boundaries, we are told, the old ties of community will be irrevocably ruptured.
On the other side are those who argue that the revolution has only just begun: it is still in its infancy. They assert tactical as well as philosophical arguments for this. Tactically, they insist that the common ground of belief in market economics has now been occupied by their opponents, the time has come to make a smart move to the right, opening up some political space between the two political sides-for the sake of it, as it were. This is no more convincing an argument than the one-time political wisdom that victory could always be found at whatever was the mid-point between right and left.
Philosophically, the bombardment from the right falls not only on big government, but apparently on any government. Government is the enemy. Allied to this is a confusion between individualism and liberalism (not a mistake made by Skidelsky) and a definition of individual freedom which cuts men and women off from any cultural, social or historical roots and connections.
We need to find answers that enable us to sustain more vigorous market economics with effective governments that command popular support and respect. Any successful formula in Europe and North America must involve a re-assessment of the relationship between private and public sectors. In parliamentary democracies this will require political leadership of a high order; convincing voters of the need, for example, to redefine the boundaries of welfarism without abandoning the essential responsibilities of decent government.
A comparison of the European economies with their competitors in Asia-which spend a fraction of their national wealth through the public purse that we spend, whose people save much harder than we save, whose businesses are taxed and regulated more lightly than ours are-shows that standing still is not an option. Governments and governed alike face tough choices.
Failure to produce convincing liberal answers may give some appeal once more to collectivist views. There will always be those who respond to the clean, brisk attractions of the aerodrome-which is why, even in the high days of the liberal triumph over communism, it is worth re-reading Rex Warner’s fine novel.