Victorian values are no longer so confidently promoted by conservatives in the UK, but their US counterparts are picking up the banner. David Cannadine discovers Republican nostalgia for the 1950s rather than the 19th centuryby David Cannadine / December 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
In those far off days when her power was at its zenith, Margaret Thatcher delighted in celebrating what she called Victorian values: the qualities of thrift, independence, sobriety, entrepreneurship and self-reliance which she claimed she had learned at her father’s knee at his corner shop in Grantham; which she believed had made Britain pre-eminent during the 19th century; and which she was certain would make the country great again under her own formidable leadership. As Lytton Strachey had observed before Thatcher had been born, this was a selective catalogue of Victorian conventional wisdoms: it failed to recognise the complexities of 19th century society, and it took no account of the accidental advantages which the UK then enjoyed relative to other nations. The rediscovery of Victorian values in the 1980s was intended to bring about a national rebirth, but the British public proved reluctant to embrace once more the unbending doctrines of Samuel Smiles and Mr Gladstone.
With the fall of Thatcher and the arrival of John Major in 1990, these Victorian values went back into hibernation in the UK. They are sometimes debated by historians, but they are no longer espoused by most front-ranking Conservative politicians. Neither the past nor the future figure as prominently in the present prime minister’s vision of things, as shown by his ill-judged “back to basics” campaign. To be sure, Major’s idealised picture of England-of a nation at ease with itself, with warm beer in the pubs, cricket on the village green and ladies bicycling to holy communion-might plausibly be derived from the late Victorian era. But it is more likely that his notion of Englishness is an amalgam of Stanley Baldwin’s emollient rhetoric of rural decency, George Orwell’s wartime celebration of national consensus and Agatha Christie’s depiction of cosy English villages in the early 1950s. While Thatcher’s vision was certain and heroic, Major’s (as befits his less messianic personality) is merely vague.
But while Victorian values have vanished from the political agenda in the UK-except among those Thatcher ideologues who follow Michael Portillo or John Redwood-they have unexpectedly re-appeared on the other side of the Atlantic, where they have been eagerly embraced by fundamentalist Republicans determined to roll back the state and to reinvigorate the US in the same way that Thatcher sought to reinvigorate the UK. Here is Newt Gingrich, addressing the National League of Cities: “Queen Victoria’s emphasis on morals changed the whole momentum of British society. They didn’t do it through a new bureaucracy. They did it by re-establishing values, by moral leadership, and by being willing to look at people in the face and say: ‘You should be ashamed when you get drunk in public; you ought to be ashamed if you’re a drug addict.'”