illiam Morris, said Asa Briggs, hated the tastelessness of the middle classes, cared nothing for the institutions of his country, questioned its achievements, and scorned its values. He was not the last to do so; this particular Victorian mindset is now mainstream in much of England, most strangely in the government itself, most particularly in the media (certainly in the BBC), but also in universities, teacher training colleges (therefore also in schools), and whole swathes of the middle class. This way of thinking led Morris to devote his life to a cause and a dream of utopia. One result, News from Nowhere (1890), could well be a blueprint for Greens, foreshadowing as it does exactly what many of them seem to want.
George Orwell came up against all this in the 1930s and '40s. At that time, he concluded, it was an attitude of mind mainly of the intelligentsia. They lumped millions of people into blocks labelled wholly good or utterly bad. The chosen group was idealised, even idolised. It could do no wrong, just as whoever opposed it could do no right. (You can see where he got the slogan: "four legs good, two legs bad".) The wholly bad was their own country, the good could be another country, a cause, a political system (as with Morris), or a religion. In the 1940s, it was the socialists and communists who bugged Orwell the most — particularly because of their Anglophobia in the middle of what was quite clearly a war to the death. They didn't exactly want Hitler to win, just England to lose. Victories were disbelieved, losses celebrated. Worse were the pacifists who not only hated democracy but admired totalitarianism. Their propaganda boiled down saying one side is as bad as the other — except that England and the United States were worse. ("All animals are equal," perhaps, "but some are more equal than others.") To a pacifist, Churchill was the moral equivalent of Hitler. Russia was not blamed for fighting; Britain was.
During the war this Morris-like mindset was not a great threat, particularly after Russia was invaded. Post-war it was a different matter. Free societies evolve all the time; the Welfare State, for example, was set up quietly in the late 1940s, but what happened next was more like a mini-revolution — a major discontinuity in history. (You can date it, jokingly, to the summer of 1958 when Bill Haley and His Comets brought rock 'n 'roll to London.) Older people can feel they've lived in two different countries, the changes have been so deep. Morris's attitude of mind became widespread, and eventually mainstream. At first there was a two-pronged attack on the country's institutions (and independence) — one from the professions, the other from the working class.
In the 1970s (at least so I believe; I'm not sure if others would agree) the Trade Unions nearly had their revolution: wildcat strikes, organised strikes, go-slows, work to rules very nearly won (they were instrumental, I suspect, in the ‘yes' vote in the 1975 Referendum on whether or not to stay in the Common Market as it then was, European Union as it is now.) In 1979 — the Winter of Discontent — strikers stopped food going into cancer hospitals, and corpses were stockpiled in warehouses when the unions refused to bury the dead. The final battle was a miners' strike in 1984, after which Parliament made the unions more subject to the rule of law.
What nearly happened is curiously close to what Morris predicted in News from Nowhere. The book is set in 2102. A utopia-creating revolution had taken place in the 1950s. After some minor blood-letting, there was a stand-off between workers and owners; the Government and Capitalists buckled first and utopia resulted. For all his scorn of them, Morris seems to have credited his countrymen with a certain decency — after the first deaths both sides drew back from violence. (Contrast that with the real revolution of 1917, and its aftermath when mothers ate their babies in the Lenin-induced famine.)
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and communism began to crumble, overthrowing the state by force was not much of an option any more. However, throughout this period there had been what some have called "the long march through the institutions" — infiltration of universities, schools, the media by Marxist sympathisers. Now they are middle-aged or elderly and in positions of authority. Their opinions — Morris's opinions — are in the ascendant for the moment. To illustrate the point let's take something very trivial which happened is the last few weeks (I'm writing this in the summer of 2007). This attitude of mind can have serious geopolitical implication but it is also sometimes so petty as to be almost unbelievable. This year is the 150th anniversary of Elgar's birth (1857-1934). He was the Catholic son of a poor provincial shopkeeper. (It's said he taught himself orchestration in the 1890s when he was composer to a local lunatic asylum (as they were then quite brutally called).) He rose to become perhaps the greatest English composer of all. A major composer, maybe, but also an Englishman, and therefore a problem. What could be done with him? Well, a London newspaper decided, while it's true he was English (bad) he was influenced by Germans (good), so it's all right to listen to him.
Where Morris went wrong was in supposing the institutions he scorned were all oppressive. Some were safeguards for the liberty of the subject. In News from Nowhere, Barry and Pugin's Palace of Westminster is a Dung Market (manure is stored there — it's handy for river barges, apparently). Today Parliament is still with us but emasculated; eighty percent of laws are made in Brussels, and not even then by an elected legislature. The twenty percent of home-made laws are increasingly oppressive — thousands of new crimes have been invented in the last ten years — since we now have a government which is itself scornful of old institutions. The House of Lords was partly abolished (nobody knows what to do with the other half). Fox hunting is a crime, unless a hawk is taken along for the ride (this is not made up). Habeas Corpus has had its shaky moments, as has trial by jury. The neutral civil service — a Victorian invention — has been partly subverted and politicised. Common Law is subordinate to top-down Napoleon-inspired continental codes. One evening, seemingly on a whim, the office of Lord Chancellor was abolished by diktat, but had to be partly reinstated since the whole edifice of state, from the Monarchy down, wobbled. (Having existed for eight hundred years, it turned out to be there for a reason.) It's said there are now more CCTVs in London than in the whole of the United States. A version of Orwell's Big Brother eyes you every thirty yards.
Morris wrongly called his system communist; it is, more realistically, the Arts and Crafts Movement globalised (the whole world has followed London's example it seems). It's also an unrealisable dream of a world free of pain based on the false premise that you can change human nature by changing the nature of society. In 1955, soon after the revolution, the great clearance of houses began and London became an Edenic place of gardens, orchards, country houses, short streets of shops (everything is free; there is no money), and a wild wood. (It covered Primrose Hill. H G Wells got things more nearly right. In The War of the Worlds (1898) gunners fire down on the Martians from this hill. In the 1940s the top really was flattened to take ack-ack guns firing up at the Luftwaffe.)
This Nowhere is the fourteenth century with Victorian plumbing; the country of Edward III with a late nineteenthth-century population living in hamlets in a greenwood. People are so happy it has made them all good looking (if not beautiful at least comely). No-one is unhealthy, all are long lived (are there any physicians?) There are no schools, no schooling, no police, soldiers, or a government (apart from Mote Houses where purely local matters, such as replacing bridges, are voted on). Food is abundant and available free of charge in restaurants and guest houses. Work, done only if you want to, is based on the Arts and Crafts ethos; the industrial cities have been demolished. You have to ask how can this civilisation be maintained? What energy powers it?. Thirty million people would soon denude the land of timber. This summer — 2007 — the iron (rusty) Victorian water mains are being replaced in Tottenham Court Road in London. Skilled men dug the coal, skilled men smelted the iron and cast it, skilled men laid the pipes. Where is the skill in Nowhere? And yet there is still global trade; the narrator smokes latakia, a kind of tobacco grown only in a single province of the Ottoman Empire. You wonder how a man as clever as Morris could believe such things until you realise it is still the dream of many. Even the misconception that you can change human nature lingers on, leading as it must to coercion to make people obey and conform.
What is the psychology behind all this? The need to belong, Orwell suggested; the loss of patriotism and faith left a vacancy. He also noted that many of the people who shared this mindset in the 1930s and '40s were protected, like Morris, by private incomes. Perhaps the present prosperity acts in the same way? Self-loathing is the most common reason given today, though why they hate themselves nobody seems to know. There is certainly a narrowness of vision here, driven by emotion and false reasoning rather than wisdom.
A society which despises itself can't have much of a future but always, in the past, there have been self-correcting mechanisms (otherwise we wouldn't be here). Half of Morris's future is our past. What of the other half? As unknowable as it was in 1890. All the same it's nice to think that, one summer evening in 2102, some young person will be sitting on top of Primrose Hill reading News from Nowhere (looking down on the city which the men of the 1940s saw burning below them), quietly astonished at the lot of us.
- Subversive Nostalgia and Pastoral Utopia: William Morris
- Exploring Pre-Raphaelitism at the Edges of Reality: Fantasy in The Water of the Wondrous Isles
- Morris's Mediaevalism
- Morris's Socialism
Cumming, Elizabeth and Kaplan, Wendy. The Arts and Crafts Movement. Thames and Hudson. London, 1991.
Morris, William. Selected Writings and Designs. Edted by Asa Briggs. Pelican. London, 1962.
Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 3, 1943-1945 . Penguin. London, 1984.
Last modified 27 June 2007