Not Saussure

May 11, 2007

Once more into the breach…

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 11:28 pm

Briefly back, after my mother’s funeral on Wednesday, May 9th. Thank you so much, everyone, for your messages of sympathy. I’m trying to reply to them all, individually, as I am to the many letters of sympathy I’ve received from her life-long friends and colleagues. Over my mother’s 92 remarkable years, that is an extraordinary number. Her Christmas card list — each card accompanied with a lengthy personal letter, not about her and her doings but about those of the recipient and his or her family — numbered over 250, despite her failing eyesight and almost complete blindness this last year.

More later, about this, I fear, since it is obviously a matter greatly on my mind and one on which I will write at more length, but in the meantime I cannot fail to note that the scoundrel Tony Blair took advantage of my absence to resign.

His resignation speech has been excellently analysed by Steven Poole of Unspeak — whose eponymous book had her laughing, albeit somewhat bitterly, no end, since she — as a life-long Labour supporter (born in 1915) agreed with almost all of it — but I feel I have to note this nonsense from our dear leader’s departure:

In government, you have to give the answer – not an answer, the answer.
And, in time, you realise putting the country first doesn’t mean doing the right thing according to conventional wisdom or the prevailing consensus or the latest snapshot of opinion.
It means doing what you genuinely believe to be right.

Well, errm, yes. Up to a point. Sort of. I mean, I’m sure invading Poland seemed a good idea at the time, as did the collectivisation of agriculture in the Ukraine, but that’s not much of an excuse, really, is it? Yes, I know all about hindsight and how easy is 20/20 vision, but foresight now and again is surely of some use. But

It is a test of will and of belief. And we can’t fail it*

might, I think, have given her some cause for worry. As, I’m sure,would that statement had Tony Blair given a moment’s thought to those words.

I do not, of course, try to suggest that Tony Blair was a Stalin or a Hitler. Nor do I suggest, even, he was a Sir Oswald Mosely, another initially apparently charismatic leader by whom many on the left –though never my mother — were seduced (metaphorically in the case of the former two, literally in the case of Sir Oswald — ‘Tried to be charming, but a bad sort,’ in her opinion, and who can disagree?).

However, to my mind, Blair has succumbed to the two inherent dangers of a leader of what might have seemed to be the left; he offered what seemed to be a better, more modern, society and he seemed to have the backing to achieve it, despite — as it turned out — the objections of more and more of his subjects.

Mr Blair told his hand-picked audience,

People are, today, open-minded about race and sexuality, averse to prejudice and yet deeply and rightly conservative with a small ‘c’ when it comes to good manners, respect for others, treating people courteously.
They acknowledge the need for the state and the responsibility of the individual.

I’m sorry, but my mother always did. So, too,did my late father, a man of alarmingly Conservative (with a large C) views. That was when they met, more than half a century ago. Take people as you find them, fair play, all equal in the sight of God, human faults — that sort of thing.

What would have horrified them, to my mind, and what filled my mother with despair for a party she once loved (‘Thank God, dear, that I won’t have to vote in the next election’) is nonsense like this:

But the difference is where the state is supposed to come in. So 1997 was a moment for a new beginning, for sweeping away all the detritus of the past.

This has me spluttering. I’m sorry, but there is no other word for it. The late Michael Oakeshott (my late mother had some anecdotes of him which I will not here rehearse, other than to say they were to his credit) put it, to my mind, very well:

He will defend these principles by argument, and they will compose a coherent [though morally parsimonious) doctrine. But, unavoidably, the conduct of life, for him, is a jerky, discontinuous affair, the solution of a stream of problems, the mastery of a succession of crises. Like the politics of the Rationalist (from which, of course, it is inseparable), the morality of the Rationalist is the morality of the self-made man and of the self-made society: it is what other peoples have recognized as ‘idolatry’. And it is of no consequence that the moral ideology which inspires him today (and which, if he is a politician, he preaches] is, in fact, the desiccated relic of what was once the unselfconscious moral tradition of an aristocracy who, ignorant of ideals, had acquired a habit of behaviour in relation to one another and had handed it on in a true moral education. For the Rationalist, all that matters is that he has at last separated the ore of the ideal from the dress of the habit of behaviour; and, for us, the deplorable consequences of his success. Moral ideals are a sediment; they have significance only so long as they are suspended in a religious or social tradition, so long as they belong to a religious or a social life. ] The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists have been at work so long on their project of drawing off the liquid in which our moral ideals were suspended (and pouring it away as worthless) that we are left only with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down. First, we do our best to destroy parental authority [because of its alleged abuse], then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of ‘good homes’, and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction.

“We are left only with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down”‘ of what once seemed, only 10 years ago to be a worthwhile, though massively over-ambitious, project.

*Update:   I was trying to remember what this reminded me of.   Then it came to me;

But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.

Not, considered in context, the best advice ever given.



  1. Welcome back.

    I have improved things in your absence, like getting a new mobile phone with camera and video and Bluetooth facilities. Even done a few YouTube’s already!

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — May 11, 2007 @ 11:57 pm

  2. Good to see you back, NS.

    Who was Blair?

    He was the British Clinton. I can’t think of anything more damning to say, much as I’ve tried.

    Comment by Flying Rodent — May 12, 2007 @ 12:22 am

  3. Flying Rodent, you flatter Blair.

    Comment by James — May 12, 2007 @ 12:32 am

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