Citizen Clem by John Bew

Revisionist history is not always as patriotic as this recent biography. The greatest ever Labour Prime Minister is painted vividly in red, white and blue. The text focuses on foreign policy, war and anti-communism. One cannot escape from the troubling idea that history is being raided in an attempt to influence current politics. Indeed, the prologue is dismissive of modern Labour leaders like Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

John Bew is critical of the economic knowledge of Clement Attlee. However, Bew spends relatively little time on economic questions. Instead of helping the reader get to grips with Keynes or Marx, Bew prefers to make a host of literary references. The result is a colourful work that does not explain in sufficient detail how the welfare state was created. The massive contributions of Aneurin Bevan and William Beveridge are mentioned but they are explored in a  cursory fashion.

The internal politics of the Labour Party do get plenty of space. However, the struggles of similar European parties are somewhat neglected in favour of a concentration on the special relationship with the United States. Clearly, the Marshall Plan is worthy of considerable attention, but the late lecture tours of Attlee are not of huge significance. It is perhaps possible that Attlee would have preferred an understated account of his life. After all, the modest autobiography of Attlee:

“…was painstakingly guarded and inoffensive. There were no revelations or character assassinations.”


Chavs by Owen Jones

“So, to begin with, workers need to reclaim a sense of pride and social worth.”

With this patronising statement, Owen Jones revealed that he had an attitude about what was good for working class people. Having conducted copious interviews with the great and the good, some of their entitlement had probably rubbed off on the young man. Mr Jones didn’t want working people to be misunderstood, but he assumed a priori that ordinary people lack pride.

Nevertheless, Mr Jones was aware that many workers have pride. Unfortunately for him it was not always the type of pride which appealed to him. This is because it was patriotic and could be manipulated by the right. However, he made insufficient intellectual effort in this text to get to grips with what was happening. When researching support for the appalling BNP, he failed to discover a single one of their voters. Hence the reactionary opinions of a section of working people became a matter of mysterious speculation.

It is thus entirely predictable that Jones has turned against Jeremy Corbyn. He is a commentator of the virtual world who spends too little time listening to the views of working people. He likes to generate a debate, but does not understand loyalties which may be hidden in his polemical narratives.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

“Sin is the only note of vivid colour that persists in the modern world.”

Oscar Wilde

Despite its philosophical quotes from Henri Bergson and Oscar Wilde (above), this novella was originally perceived as amoral by conservative critics. However, the course of the regretful narrative illustrates that the young writer was a moralist. Without dwelling on the specifics of the somewhat intricate plot, it is sufficient to note a parallel with aspects of the denouement of The Great Gatsby.

One of the features of the tale is uncertainty. To what extent do accidents happen in matters of psychology or politics? The story may make the reader think of the fate of Albert Camus. The philosopher of the absurd died in a road accident, but there has been a rumour that this was an assassination. While a biographer of the great writer has been highly critical of the lack of supporting evidence for the anti-Soviet theory, we may never know the truth. Similarly, the main character in the novella is not quite sure of what has occurred.

Sagan was apparently an admirer of Marcel Proust as well as Camus, and this is arguably reflected in her retrospective appreciation of sunlit scenery. While many may prefer works of greater depth and resonance, this novella retains a disturbing charm.

John Stuart Mill by Richard Reeves

This readable biography of the liberal philosopher has an interesting perspective on his evolving thought. Famously, On Liberty illustrates that the thinker was committed to individual freedom in advanced capitalist countries. However, the other work of Mill highlights that he was a feminist and an ecologist who was not necessarily antagonistic to socialism. While Marx and Mill can be clumsily portrayed as opposites, they were both optimists who believed in progress and in certain circumstances urged radical social change.   

However, the author attacks Marx for Utopianism. This seems unfair given the care Marx took to avoid making detailed blueprints for the future. The philosopher never followed in the footsteps of Charles Fourier. Reeves also reveals that Mill had a Utopian streak of his own. This can be seen in Mill’s endorsement of a steady state economy. While such a vision may not be impractical, the contradiction in his liberalism was that it did not really show how such a radical transformation could be arrived at.

Like any great philosopher, Mill was not entirely consistent. He was keener on revolutions in France than social transformation in England. Further, he arguably took insufficient interest in precisely how the struggle between capital and labour was likely to be resolved:

“In the long run, Mill hoped that cooperatively  run companies would supersede the conflict between labour and capital.”

The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey

This grim but colourful novel raises all kinds of questions about economic liberalism. The brief text is written with aplomb. It is more similar to Bliss than Oscar and Lucinda. Nonetheless, the rich imagination of the author gives the book a stand-alone quality.

Tax is something which impacts on all citizens. The narrative does sketch how perceptions of taxation altered between the 1970s and the 1980s in Australia. Evasion of taxes became more prevalent as scepticism about public spending grew. The positive benefits of progressive taxation were attacked by the affluent as they shed their social responsibility. Further, the governing class decided to favour the wealthy with their think tank policies.

However, the novel is not simply about philosophy or politics. It is a vivid engagement with the culture of a changing place. The creative artist does not stop entertaining the reader. It even contains a digression about music:

“‘What I like about Country music is that it never patronizes anyone, not even single mothers.'”