Eliot was a romantic conservative who would have preferred the dowdiness of the Majors to the smoothness of the Blairs. But Kathryn Hughes, her biographer, thinks Tony Booth would have swung her vote to New Labourby Kathryn Hughes / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
George Eliot was not eligible to vote in 1880, the last general election held before her death. What’s more, she didn’t care, much to the disappointment of her feminist friends who were always pestering her for a statement in favour of female suffrage. Apart from a brief intoxication with political radicalism in 1848, which never got much further than some daringly slangy remarks about the Queen, Eliot was a romantic conservative who believed that the only change worth having was social, organic and snail slow. Writing around the time of the second reform bill of 1867, she displaced her fears and criticisms of the political process on to two accounts of the elections held during the first reform bill debate of 1832. In Middlemarch and Felix Holt, The Radical, the hustings are noisy, corrupt and violent, rupturing a social process which, if left alone, would have got there in the end.
But although Eliot would have hated the fuss and bother of the present election, she would have recognised many of its contested sites. New Labour’s attempts to re-imagine community resonate with her own concerns about how to salvage the authentic moral self of the country dweller in the anomic, rootless suburb. Just as today’s new communication technologies threaten both to fragment local community and reconstitute it globally in “virtual” terms, so Eliot saw the potential for the railway and the telephone, which she tried before she died, to reconnect people in ways more vibrant than those available under the fag end of feudalism.
She would have loved, too, the rhetoric of moral rearmament which goes with New Labour’s version of community. Like Blair, and possibly Major, she mistrusted the free market’s capacity to deliver more than selfish individualism-hence her suspicion of the mid-century female suffrage campaign with its intellectual roots in Bentham and the Mills. She would have warmed to the suggestion of Geoff Mulgan, of Demos, that more civic-minded “mentalities” must be created, duties substituted for rights, gratification delayed. And she could just as easily be accused of a sinister coerciveness in the process.
Likewise, New Labour’s difficulties in explaining how you get from the think tank to the high street also dogged Eliot’s attempts to concretise community. It is unclear how a trip to the post office or the police station would be different under New Labour. In the same way, although Eliot could endlessly ponder…