The eight deadly sins of modern democracy

From Anger to Apathy
October 5, 2007

The British seem to be having one of their more introspective moments - or at least they are according to much of the commentariat and those few academics writing serious contemporary history.

Mark Garnett occupies a sort of middle ground between these groups, being the author of a well-received biography, with Andrew Denham, of Keith Joseph and several studies of the postwar Conservative Party. Garnett muses that he is uncertain whether biography is harder to write than general history; here, he demonstrates that it is very difficult to write compelling and convincing contemporary history.

He starts on the right lines with the aspiration that From Anger to Apathy "acts as an antidote to unreflective nostalgia about the 1970s - a mood that has become all too common, due to the prevalence of superficial television documentaries, the incessant reruns of vintage comedy episodes and emotional band reunions". The "pleasure and passion... to explode myths and chastise the common reader for his or her simple beliefs", as Arthur Marwick put it, is certainly one of the central tasks of contemporary history. However, it has been recognised for some time that the field has to sharpen its methodological act and to draw on the writings of other social scientists with contemporary concerns.

For too long, contemporary historians have not been reading the writings of political scientists on modern Britain, and vice versa. Garnett, a historian by instinct with a PhD in politics, seems just the right person to take stock of contemporary Britain and to advance the study of it.

All begins well with the decision to eschew a narrative account in favour of a set of themes that integrate multiple facets of contemporary Britain. Moreover, these are not the routine categories of (say) economic and social change, but instead a series of essays on, in turn, anger, fear, charity/faith/hope, greed, lust and apathy as experienced by the British and as understood by the commentariat. This is highly novel and potentially exciting, although it is also curious that the choice of themes is never justified explicitly and one has to wait until page 353 before mention is made of a 2004 BBC Radio 4 programme (in which listeners voted apathy the eighth deadly sin) that provides a clue to this schema.

Had there been a conceptual core to this enterprise, all of this might have worked well, but instead, what we have is a set of disconnected essays that do not progress much beyond the proximate cause of events to the ultimate and fundamental drivers of change.

There is much of interest here, and at times Garnett is very successful in his prime objective of exploding myths and countering "unreflective nostalgia", but the overall result is disappointing as contemporary history. Moreover, because it is completely devoid of historiographical reflection, in its focus on the negatives of contemporary Britain (there is much grist here for the Victor Meldrew mill), From Anger to Apathy indirectly contributes to what is emerging as a new phase of the declinist literature that has so dominated the historiography of postwar Britain.

Now that economic decline exists only in the minds of the deeper recesses of the Carlton Club and the Murdoch media empire, pessimistic souls have moved on to social decline as the endemic condition of modern Britain. Accordingly, From Anger to Apathy should find a ready audience among the Conservative Party's Social Justice Policy Group, but I doubt many academics will be putting it on our undergraduate reading lists.

Roger Middleton is professor of the history of political economy and head of historical studies, Bristol University, and the author of The British Economy since 1945 (2000) and (with Astrid Ringe and Neil Rollings) of Economic Policy under the Conservatives, 1951-64 (2004).

From Anger to Apathy: The British Experience since 1975

Author - Mark Garnett
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 432
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9780224073066

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