The Rise of the Philistines

By Wheatcroft, Geoffrey | New Statesman (1996), December 4, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Rise of the Philistines


Wheatcroft, Geoffrey, New Statesman (1996)


Geoffrey Wheatcroft laments the paucity of politicians who can quote Homer

When Tony Blair was asked recently to name his favourite book, he said The Lord of the Rings. Pausing only to stifle a low groan, and to recall the late Maurice Richardson reviewing Tolkien under the words "Adults of the world, unite!", I thought that this dispiriting choice was at least an improvement. As Sue Lawley's castaway, Blair had previously chosen for his desert island book Ivanhoe, the worst novel even Scott ever wrote. And when Blair's predecessor was asked the same question, John Major chose, from all the glories of European and English literature, Trollope's The Small House at Allington.

What is it with our politicians nowadays? In 1943 George Orwell complained that "the illiteracy of politicians is a special feature of our age". But he was living in a wonderful era compared with ours. The House of Commons is now full - on both sides and irrespective of party - of men and women who are adroit, industrious, fairly honest, and in a technical sense well-educated. And yet there has never been a time when we were governed by people who were less cultivated or widely read, with less mature taste or with so little broad cultural hinterland.

Last month Roy Jenkins gave the London Library lecture on "The reading habits of politicians", a fascinating subject - in any age until today, when the very phrase might be one of those small books (like Great Norwegian Humourists or Famous Argentine Generals). Image consultants will now provide political clients with lists of books they can mention as if they had read them. One of them, asked what her clients actually did read, replied with genuine astonishment: "Politicians don't read anything."

As Gladstone's biographer, Lord Jenkins naturally takes the Grand Old Man for a starting point. That human freak read, over more than 60 years, more than 20,000 books in at least six languages: English, French, Italian, German as well as Latin and Greek. He was one of those who have to read anything rather than nothing; he would read a good book, or failing that a bad book, or a serious magazine, or a trashy newspaper. One entry in his diary records that he read a long pamphlet on the manufacture of small arms by Colonel Colt, a subject in which, as Jenkins says, he never showed any interest before or after, and which could have been of no use to him whatever.

Although he claimed not to be a profound or original mind, Gladstone fitted Housman's definition of the scholar as he who must spend his life acquiring much knowledge that is not worth having for its own sake and reading many books that are not worth reading in themselves. But then, as well as reading so much that was not worth reading, Gladstone read everything that was, and wrote perceptively on Homer, Tennyson and Leopardi. He effortlessly and unaffectedly quoted Greek and Latin in his speeches and articles - like his contemporaries, but not like ours. As G M Trevelyan wrote, and Orwell reiterated, "In the 17th century MPs quoted the Bible, in the 18th and 19th centuries the classics, in the 20th century nothing."

It matters that they have nothing to quote. You don't need to like music to understand particle physics, you don't need to know Wittgenstein to play cricket for England (come to think of it, you don't need to be able to bat or bowl, either), and you don't strictly need to have read the Bible or Homer to be a statesman. But it does matter if our rulers know nothing beyond day-to-day party intrigue and administration. As Kipling might have said, what should they know of politics who only politics know?

No one expects or indeed wants MPs to write or orate like Churchill any more. But even what Evelyn Waugh called his "sham Augustan style" at its worst is better than the awful verbless adman's English of Tony Blair's speeches, or the prose of his book My Vision of a Young Country - "A young country should be proud of its identity and its place in the world, not living in history but grasping the opportunities of the future" - or Chris Smith's Creative Britain, described by one critic as excruciating and semi-literate ("National Heritage . …

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