In defence of champagne socialism

For as long as there have been politics there have been people who, despite being what we might call ‘privileged’, espouse views that place them at the reformist end of the spectrum. Although in recent times it’s become less common for those on the Right to actively deride well-off Lefties (we’re all middle class now anyway, right?), there is still, in much of Western public discourse, an underlying assumption that these people are inherently hypocritical.

This is probably more true in class-obsessed Britain than anywhere else in the world (although our neighbours across the Channel give us a good run for our money). If you’ve ever swilled port, played croquet or gone to the opera in black tie, you must be a closet Tory. Or so the conventional wisdom goes (to borrow a phrase from that archetypal limousine liberal, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith).

Brideshead-Revisited-007

This is, of course, complete piffle (another case in point: you don’t have to agree with Boris Johnson’s politics to enjoy the faintly ridiculous sonority of the word piffle).

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote rather eloquently about the “double life” of being a political radical and having decidedly conservative cultural and aesthetic tastes in his memoir Hitch-22. Describing his student days at Oxford in the late 1960s, he wrote that:

‘To be sure, I had hoped to re-make myself into a serious person and an ally of the working class… But I also wanted to see a bit of life and the world and to shed the carapace of a sexually inhibited schoolboy. There was the Oxford of A.D. Lindsay’s great anti-Munich and anti-Chamberlain and anti-Hitler campaign in 1938… But somewhere there was also the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm and punts and strawberries and enticing young ladies… I was determined as far as I could to have it both ways. To do otherwise, it seemed, would have been to miss the point of being there.’

The reference to Evelyn Waugh is particularly pertinent here. Perhaps the most succinct way to describe the duality to which Hitchens alludes in this passage is in literary terms: it is the condition of simultaneously admiring Waugh and his contemporary, George Orwell. Both were clearly lodestars for Hitchens, as they are for so many others on the gentrified Left.

Orwell, the genuine socialist, fetishised squalor in his books about the European working classes and their struggles against fascism and poverty (Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Homage to Catalonia…). Meanwhile Waugh, a thoroughbred conservative, romanticised opulence in his classic, Brideshead Revisited.

Both were great writers. One drew his inspiration from a sense of righteous indignation about the way things are, the other from a wistful nostalgia about how they used to be. And, although they would both, in all likelihood, have loathed the suggestion, their respective literary works complement each other remarkably well.

***

I went to Garsington for the first time a few weeks ago. Garsington, for the uninitiated, is a summer opera festival that caters more or less exclusively to the super-rich (and their tag-alongs like me). Somewhat confusingly, Garsington is actually held at Wormsley, the 2,500-acre pile belonging to Mark Getty, just off the M40, about halfway to Oxford.

The whole experience felt as though it could easily have come straight out of the pages of a Waugh novel. And, despite myself, I felt like a latter-day Charles Ryder (main character in Brideshead Revisited): utterly bewitched by the sheer beauty of the place and somehow charmed by the off-hand sense of entitlement that comes so naturally to the English upper classes.

As my hostess sang the praises of Mr Getty for so magnanimously opening up the grounds of his home to all and sundry, a part of me wanted to protest. Looking around at the men in dinner jackets and the women in pearls, I hardly saw a diverse cross-section of British society I wanted to say. But I was a long way from righteous indignation. And besides, I felt it would have been awfully bad manners to point this out.

So yes, I’m unashamedly a champagne socialist. Quite possibly this makes me a coward and a hypocrite – I’m almost certainly both things regardless. But, in truth, I believe there’s a great deal of wisdom in having it both ways.

The only thing worse than an underdeveloped sense of injustice is an overdeveloped sense of injustice. I recently wrote elsewhere about spending time in Israel and Palestine, and the debilitating effect of refusing to let go of historic injustices (a trait that was very visible on both sides).

Since I wrote this, the situation in the region has deteriorated in a way that is deeply distressing and disheartening. As always when things turn sour in the Middle East, this has provoked a broad spectrum of responses in the Western media. I find myself filled with pure disgust for anyone simple-minded enough to be able to summon up the righteous indignation to place the blame for what’s happening exclusively on one side or the other. The world is not so simple.

But I do believe that the killing only goes to further confirm my point. So long as Israelis and Palestinians in sufficient numbers continue to carry round in their hearts a sense of having been unrightably wronged, the conflict in the Holy Land will remain intractable in perpetuity (or until one side blows the other off the face of the earth).

***

In the 2003 BBC series Cambridge Spies (about which I have also written previously), the following exchange takes place between Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, whilst both are students at Cambridge in the 1930s. Philby is being recruited into the infamous ring of Soviet agents and tries to impress Blunt with his revolutionary fervour.

Surveying one of Cambridge’s more picturesque quads, he says: “Doesn’t it make you uncomfortable, all this privilege? So much privilege. Don’t you want to smash it up, pull it all down?”

Blunt replies: “No, I don’t. I don’t want to smash it up or pull it down because it’s what I want for everyone. I want everyone to have it.”

I can’t think of a more eloquent summation of my political creed. The wisdom of champagne socialism is in recognising that the impetus for genuine progress comes not from anger at the way things are, but from a desire to see the good things in life more widely distributed. Now to have my cake and eat it…

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