Thursday 25 August 2011

Ill Fares the Land...

I've been reading Ill Fares The Land by Tony Judt. For some while I'd been meaning to read Judt and, given the recent graphic evidence of how ill the land is faring, it seemed a good time to pick up this highly praised polemic on what is wrong and what needs to be done. Clearly Judt was a good egg, a humane and highly intelligent man, and a pretty good writer - and he wrote this book while suffering the kind of terrible illness that would make most of us give up any such attempt. I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, though, I soon realised that Ill Fares The Land is built on (unexamined) assumptions that I don't share, or rather entirely disagree with - as I went on to entirely disagree with something on just about every page, if not in every paragraph. Nothing wrong with that of course - it was more the growing perception that what Judt is offering, in what is supposed to be a 'passionate polemic', is a collection of dubious and, sadly, not very original or radical thoughts. Basically Judt seems to be a Keynesian (JMK is quoted approvingly throughout), with a strong belief in welfarism, public expenditure and the power of the state to do good. Like him I'm deeply nostalgic for the good old days of the postwar consensus when the welfare state seemed a good thing and society was more or less united in a common moral purpose. However, I'd disagree entirely with his diagnosis of what went wrong and why we are where we are. He barely mentions, for example, the catastrophic collapse of state education in Britain, nor does he seem to recognise the role of welfarism in creating poverty and inequality, or the untiring work of the liberal intelligentsia in spreading ideas and practices deeply destructive to a wider society, particularly the poor and vulnerable. He gives the impression that the state is withering on the vine, whereas, in Britain at least, it has carried on getting bigger and bigger and spending more and more (only once in recent decades did public spending fall year on year - under Callaghan and the IMF). But then, Judt's focus is very wide - perhaps too wide, as it takes in the US and continental Europe, with occasional excursions elsewhere (and it's quite a short book). When he says 'we', as he does repeatedly, it's hard to know who he means - most of the time it seems to be 'Americans'. This country has its own specific problems, and a book called Ill Fares The Land might have done better to concentrate only on them (as Roger Scruton does in his blistering, thoroughly un-Judt-like polemic, England: An Elegy). That said, Judt's analysis of globalisation is interesting, he comes up with some striking facts and figures, and it is hard to disagree with him that society is in need of remoralising - but his proposals for bringing this about seem vague and unconvincing, nothing like as forceful as his critique of what is wrong. In the end, Ill Fares The Land has left me neither shaken nor stirred, just vaguely disappointed. Never mind - I intend to carry on with Judt, as I'm pretty sure I'm going to enjoy The Memory Chalet a lot more.


  1. The Memory Chalet is good, Nige, and highlights Judt's humane qualities, of which you speak. But yes, his assumptions are, in my mind, entirely the wrong way about.

  2. Yes - it left me confused but that more because i'm pretty ignorant about politics and economics. From my perspective it seems that whatever policies and structures we put in place - we are still stuck with our human-ness - a mixing pot of all good and ill- and a tardiness to change if we have to give anything up.Also the fact that we clearly are not born equal! But an attempt at kindness and fairness seems of utmost importance and i remember Judt stressed fairness above all. And a question i keep meaning to ask - we dont consider medicine to have failed - with all its failings - just because people are still sick so why expect the welfare state to work miracles? The welfare state may have failed but i couldnt bear to live in a society that didnt consider poverty and inequality to be of utmost importance - or left people without work or with disablities to starve. im really open to learn of other ideas and ways though.

  3. Tricia, I see are you channelling the spirit of Edmund Burke with or without realising it.

  4. Ah yes Tricia - but 'fairness' is such a slippery notion, esp once the politicians get their grubby mitts on it. It can be - and has been - used to justify pretty much anything... As for the welfare state, an interesting experiment in counterfactual history is to imagine what wld have happened if Churchill not Attlee had won in 1945. The Tories had well advanced plans on the welfare front but I suspect they might have set up a much less reckless, less fully state-owned model - which might have worked better and lasted longer. Well, we'll never know...

  5. In 1944 the Minister of Health, Henry Willink, (a Conservative) issued a White Paper that in effect committed his party to the introduction of a National Health Service as advocated by Beveridge. But the paper also warned, "there is a certain danger in making personal health the subject of a national service at all. It is the danger of over-organisation."

    According to David Kynaston in Austerity Britain:

    One way in which Willink intended to minimise that danger was through combining free, universal access on the one hand with diversity of provision on the other - above all through not nationalising the hospital stock as a whole, maintaining instead a mixture of voluntary and municipally run hospitals.

    Labour initially supported Willink's plan, but in office abandoned it.

  6. I posted on some pieces he wrote for the New York Review blog. Part-memoir, part-polemic, I'm pretty sure they've appeared in The Memory Chalet in some shape or form.

    I really enjoyed them despite profoundly disagreeing with much of his argument. I think there's no doubt his heart was in the right place. I think he represented the best of the European social democratic tradition that, in his case, was wrapped up in his East End Jewish upbringing. And, of course, he writes wonderfully.

    (Follow this link to learn more:

  7. Like many, I am sure, I read it after seeing the video of his last lecture. I enjoyed it, bur then I was an MBA student unaccustomed to hearing anyone question whether anything was morally right.

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