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 . …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Rise of the Philistines


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.