The Archers and Conservatism’s alienation from ‘Time present’

It is sometimes remarked that in the present time it is difficult to be a Communist; it is less often noted that it seems to be as difficult to be a Conservative – by which I mean that sensibility which speaks through such writers as the philosopher Roger Scruton, the historian Andrew Roberts, and the commentators Theodore Dalrymple and Peter Hitchens. The purpose of what follows is to demonstrate the strangeness of Conservative alienation and to suggest the outline of an explanation for this. I do so by focussing on Peter Hitchen’s distaste for The Archers.

 

Rurophilia

Many historians argue that the formative moment in modern Englishness was that event usually referred to as ‘The Second World War’. One of the most remarkable products of the British Propaganda Apparatus of that moment was the fine movie Went the Day Well? (1942). This is framed by the viewer visiting the village of Bramley End after the defeat of Germany and being invited into its churchyard by ‘a local’. Our cicerone directs us to a gravestone which marks ‘the only bit of Britain which Jerry ever took’: the grave of those German soldiers killed in an attempt to establish a forward base in England. The narrative then shifts backwards in time (and a feared future time for its contemporary viewers) to the arrival in Bramley End of a German unit disguised as British troops. The story then unfolds of the discovery that these soldiers are actually Germans, and their defeat by the villagers. In other words: the movie opens some years after it was made (and when it was made to be primarily consumed), the main narrative is told as a flashback – which is intended as in the (near) future of the audience. A key element in this tale is that the elite of that community, the squire, was a traitor. This treason of the elite echoed one of the great polemics of the war, Michael Foot’s The Guilty Men. Its portrayal of the community coming together looked forward to the ‘national-popular consensus’ (the phrase is Antonio Gramsci’s) on which Attlee’s Labour Party surged to victory in the Summer of 1945.

What is remarkable about this movie is its choice of the kind of community which represented England as a whole: not a coal-mining village; not the East End of London; not a factory; not a shipyard – but a village based upon one in Gloucestershire. Stanley Baldwin once remarked that ‘the countryside is England and England is the countryside’; this was clearly felt to be such a commonsensical view that the only contemporary movie which depicted an England invaded took a small country village as the figure for England.

Eight years later the village of Bramley End was, effectively, resurrected in the village of Ambridge, the centrepiece of the longest-running radio serial ever – The Archers – though (at the time) without a squire. Just as Bramley End figured for England as one moment in its history, so Ambridge has over the following decades become a figure for the ‘official’ England of the imagination. To regard The Archers as being, what it was once announced as, ‘an everyday story of country-folk’ is to entirely miss the point. The Archers is not about the ‘actually existing’ countryside, though naïve critics – such as Peter Hitchens and most contributors to the BBC Archers discussion forum – often behave as though it were. A better way to grasp its epistemic modality is by taking it that:

realism is not so much a matter of direct comparison with the Real World …but of the way in which soap opera partakes of, and contributes to, all the different ways in which we make sense of the Real World.
(BRUNSDON ‘Feminism’, p149)

Of course, it might be felt that The Archers is just another soap. However this ignores both its origin and its content. It began as part of a state campaign to induce farmers to modernise methods and to increase output (SMETHURST Archers, Ch 1). The texture of The Archers is woven from a number of central themes in the English polity and culture [1].

The Archers and present-day British culture

The inheritance of its farms is sometimes fraught, but always resolved with no breach in continuity. This echoes the success of the British state in avoiding those Continental convulsions which have so shocked the conservative sensibility. Both monarchical and governmental changes are managed swiftly, yet without revolutionary discontinuities.

The success of the British state in preserving (often invented) traditions is in tension with that revolutionary societal process born in the UK: the generalised production of commodities – capitalism. The farms of Ambridge are situated in a space structured between the poles of use-value and exchange-value. Bridge Farm is organic and lives the illusion that it produces use-values. Home Farm, at the opposite end of the axis, is run by rapacious and cynical Brian Aldridge, it is self-consciously a business enterprise which embraces globalisation. At the median is Brookfield, home of the Archer family. Unusually amongst soaps, or indeed any mass-media productions, its characters discuss political and ethical issues. The commonest theme is the morality of profit.

The longevity of the English ruling elite is often ascribed, at least in part, to its success in incorporating dissident groups. The Archers has the recurring theme of the eccentric figure who travels to the centre. There was Pat Archer, Greenham Common protestor and pioneer organic farmer, now a pillar of the village . Her son, Tom, carried on this tradition by moving from eco-terrorism to business, and is now associated with the farmer whose GM crops he once trashed. The most significant marginal figure who moves to the core is Nigel Pargetter, scion of an ancient family –we will return to him.

However, it is the place of religion in The Archers which most clearly expresses how this fictional “community” is an emanation of the self-construction of ‘official’ English identity . In other words: The Archers is not at all ‘about’ the real England, its object is the English political imaginary. The religion of Ambridge’s priest is a post-modernist multi-faithism whose only article of faith is faith in …. Faith. Its only behavioural imperative is a vague do-goodery: fair-trade, help the hungry, pray for peace and so on. . Though attendance at church is now at a historic low, the UK remains the only major European nation with an official church – The Church of England. So it is significant that religion plays an important role in the community of Ambridge. However, this is not that traditional Christianity, whose decline is so mourned by conservatives. Ambridge’s vicar is a committed progressivist and is about to marry Hindu solicitor Usha Gupta. The only characters who espouse traditional religion are portrayed as being at best eccentric, if not outright bigots.

However, there is another religion in Ambridge: one which is a way of life, impacting on all actions; one which permits of no doubt and no dispute. It is also, in effect, the new state religion of Britain, one of whose foremost proselytisers is the BBC itself. Although the commonsense of our culture is an extreme relativism, this doctrine is promoted with a ruthless absolutism. Its chief spokesman in Ambridge is former playboy Nigel Pargetter, who every month sounds in tone and content more and more like Prince Charley. That religion, of course, is greenism, ecoism, environmentalism, what Christopher Booker calls `Warmism’ [2]. The wheel has come full-circle: Bramley End again has its squire.

Conservative alienation

The Archers is the official imaginative construction of the most stable of the great European polities, a nation which last experienced a constitutional rupture in 1688 – an event which even its Conservatives refer to as ‘The Glorious Revolution’, a state which commanded a far greater empire than its long-time rival France and yet shed it with far less trauma. And yet The Archers is loathed by Conservatives.

Here is a sample of the views of Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens [3]:

Even soap operas are used as a form of propaganda. Leading producers of these programs believe it is their moral duty to enlighten the world, particularly in sexual morality. You simply will not find conservative characters portrayed sympathetically in any of these soap operas. Take the popular radio soap The Archers, which is set in a rural area: The characters all talk like suburban liberals. They use metric measurements, which nobody uses. They even use Celsius temperatures, which nobody understands. [4]

There is surely something very odd about this. At one level this is merely an extension of Europhobia and anti-modernity. Hitchens’ bonkers comments on metric and Celsius echo his demented venom in The Abolition of Britain on the decline in the wearing of leather shoes and the popularity of trainers. However, it seems to me that there is something more interesting going on here. I suggest that there is a parallel between the conservative loathing for the sensibility expressed in and by The Archers and the pervasive notion that English culture is anti-technological and non-military.

The Archers’ imagining of England as rural is not at all eccentric. There is a long tradition of culture-commentary which identifies the hegemonic English self-image as centred on the rural [5].

A recent and massively influential statement of the ruralist nature of the English self-image is Martin Weiner’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981) – a work taken up by the Thatcherist Right as part of its attack on the Establishment and its promotion of market values, as against Tory and Labourist paternalism. Weiner argues that though England was the origin of the capitalist order, effective development of business and scientifically informed industry was crippled by a culture which was deeply oriented to the past, regarded technology and commerce with equal distaste and which subverted the entrepreneurial values of the new business class by incorporating the offspring of this class into traditional aristocratic ruralism.

This is a persuasively argued work, illustrated by extensive quotations from literature and political rhetoric. Its argument is echoed by military historian Correlli Barnett in his Pride and Fall quartet; this ascribes the decline of British power to the corrosive values of an evangelical Christianity which weakened the grasp on hard political reality supposedly possessed by statesmen of earlier times. He regards the Labour Government of 1945 as the outcome of this: an administration which spurned the historic window of opportunity presented by a devastated Germany and instead used its resources to build the Welfare State, rather than for developing a new industrial base.

The works of Weiner and of Barnett have a great appeal and were hugely influential in the thinking of Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph; they speak that pervasive commonsense which bemoans the frequency with which native inventions are developed abroad and laments the poorness of English technical education compared to that across the Channel. However, there is a major problem with the Weiner/Barnett thesis: It is false.

An Inverted Vision

In the words of W D Rubinstein:

each of [the declinist theses] .. is wrong – and not merely wrong, but arguably the very opposite of the truth (RUBINSTEIN Capitalism p 3)

He shows that Weiner’s evidence of the alleged ruralism of High Culture is unconnected with any demonstration that this was echoed in the popular sensibility or that it had the effects ascribed to it. He further shows that the claimed deracination produced by the public schools on the offspring of the business-class must be exaggerated because of the small proportion of these who actually attended that institution. Crucially, he points out that no-one reading Barnett’s protracted lament for the decline of British power and its alleged technical inefficiency, in relation to that of Germany, would gather from Pride and Fall that the UK had been victorious in both world wars of the 20th Century. Linda Colley may exaggerate in remarking that the British state not loosing any of its major wars since the American War of Independence is the ‘essential cause’ of its ‘peculiar social and political stability’ (COLLEY Britons p 148); but it is clearly a major factor.

The historian David Edgerton makes a similar criticism of Barnett. He shows the hollowness of the legend that the British state has been effete, technologically backward and infected by pacifist illusions. On the contrary, the British state has consistently focussed on high tech armed force in the service of `liberal militarism’. The strategy of liberal militarism is: reliance on a relatively small professional army; the use, initially, of naval power to blockade enemy ports and, later, massive air strikes against cities. The development of nuclear weapons was the logical and necessary outcome of this (EDGERTON ‘Liberal’; EDGERTON ‘Prophet’);

In other words, there is a pervasive and systemic misrecognition and misrepresentation of the nature of British power which echoes the fantasy that the essence of England is rural. Stanley Baldwin, though he presented himself as a countryman, was in fact an innovative industrialist who had studied metallurgy (WILLIAMSON Baldwin pp 88-105) [6]. It is no accident that the most potent uses of the imagery of England as rural have occurred precisely when it was engaged in ‘total war’: The infantry who fought and died on the Western Front in what is known as ‘The First World War’ were overwhelmingly from industrial towns and cities, yet were portrayed as country lads (see PAXMAN English pp 145-150). To see just how far removed the ruralist legend is from the reality – even the reality as perceived by the British state – let us return to Bramley End. There would, surely, have been many in the countryside who would have accommodated themselves to the Third Reich. The military effectiveness of the Special Auxiliary Units would have been slight, but their terrorist attacks on the occupiers would have provoked savage reprisals of the kind which would engender hostility towards the German forces [7].

The Alternative ?

Returning to Conservatism’s distaste for the hegemonic culture: One of the most insightful parts of The Abolition of Britain is Hitchens’ discussion of the pervasive phenomenon of sham rebellion, fake eccentricity and radical posturing. He shows –and it’s not hard to show – that the figures who parade as the outsiders, the free spirits, the unconventional are merely part of the spectacle. The druggie rock stars and the music they produce, the cutting-edge artists ‘questioning’ everything except the absurd prices paid for their trash are as much a part of the ‘loyal opposition’ as the Labour Party has always been.

However, Hitchens is not merely offering a criticism, he is urging a reconstruction of traditional values. And it is here that there is curious absence in his book, one which parallels a major weakness in Barnett’s assault on ‘The New Jerusalemists’ who allegedly enfeebled the British state.

Part of the evaluation of a course actually taken must be the consideration of the alternatives: But what realistic alternative was available to the Labour Government in 1945? In fact, there was none. There is absolutely no way in which what Barnett suggests was the rational course of action could have been undertaken. It would not have been tolerated by the populace and could not have been seriously contemplated by the British elite. Quintin Hogg famously remarked at the time that ‘If you do not give the people reform, they will give you revolution’ – an attempt to action Barnett’s economic strategy may not have led to revolution, but would surely have led to massive unrest.

Analogously, what kind of cultural politics does Hitchens advocate? He paints a picture of the England which responded to two funerals: that of Winston Churchill in 1965 and of Diana Spencer in 1997. The former was structured around a culture of deference, respect for authority coupled with a sturdy individualism and acceptance of eccentricity, it valued self-restraint and duty. The England which mourned the death of Diana has jettisoned all these values: It appears to be in a state of ‘permanent revolution’ which yet never questions itself; it valorises free expression, individualism and novelty; it revels in a culture of trash and admires nothing so much as victimhood.

But what is culture for? The origin of that word provides the answer: it is for the construction – the cultivation – of persons with the characteristics necessary for the reproduction of the fundamental power relations of that societal order. The return to ‘traditional values’ which Peter Hitchens advocates is impossible simply because that which he condemns is actually in the service of the politico-economic order which he himself is a defender of [8]. That cultural commonsense which can variously be characterised as nihilist, relativist, postmodernist is itself a conservative culture just because it undermines any possibility of a point of critical distance from the culture itself. Hitchens correctly shows that this culture thrives on the endless production of fake rebellion, yet his own criticism, his own alienation from the given, is just as much a sham opposition. His position cannot be part of any solution, because it is part of the problem.

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NOTES

[1] For a sense of just how much the minutiae of its characters’ lives conforms to the image of Englishness, see FOX English – a book which is not merely about the supposed English character, but an expression of it.

[2] For the ways in which thermoscepticism is suppressed in the ‘media’ see Christopher Booker’s column in The Sunday Telegraph and BOOKER & NORTH Scared

[3] He is a Conservative who hopes that the party which bears this name will lose the next General Election – as only this will force it to reconstruct itself in accord with its presumed essence. The comical parallels of this with the Labour Party thirty years ago would be thought implausible if they featured in a soap.

[4] Interviewed by The American Enterprise Online
<www.taemag.com/issues/articleid.17392/article detail.asp> Accessed 28 May 2008
See also, HITCHENS Abolition pp 262-4. This book is a fine expression of that sensibility which is what I refer to as ‘Conservative’.

[5] For a recent discussion of this, see ch 8 of PAXMAN English
.
[6] It has often been said that Margaret Thatcher was the first British PM with a scientific background. The example of Baldwin shows that this claim is itself part of the ruralist legend.

[7] For a contrary view see ROBERTS & FERGUSON ‘Germany’.

[8] Part of this point is captured in Herbert Marcuse’s notion of ‘repressive tolerance’. For a similar argument, see HEATH & POTTER Rebel. I will develop this argument elsewhere in a critical discussion of Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

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Bibliography

BARNETT Audit: Correlli Barnett, The Audit of War, Papermac, 1987

BOOKER & NORTH Scared: Christopher Booker and Richard North, Scared to Death – From BSE to Global Warming: How Scares Are Costing Us the Earth, Continuum, 2007

BRUNSDON’Feminism’: Charlotte Brunsdon, ‘Feminism and Soap Opera’, in Kath Davies et al (eds.), Out of Focus – Writings on Women and the Media, The Women’s Press, 1987

COLLEY Britons: Linda Colley, Britons – Forging the Nation: 1707-1837, Yale University Press, 2005

EDGERTON ‘Liberal’: David Edgerton,’Liberal Militarism and the British State’, New Left Review, no 185, 1991

EDGERTON ‘Prophet’: David Edgerton,’The Prophet Militant and Industrial’, Twentieth Century British History, vol 2, no 3, 1991

FOX English: Kate Fox, Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, Hodder, 2004

HEATH & POTTER Rebel: Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell, Capstone Publishing, 2005

HITCHENS Abolition: Christopher Hitchens, The Abolition of Britain – The British Cultural Revolution from Lady Chatterly to Tony Blair, Quartet, 1999

PAXMAN English: Jeremy Paxman, The English – A Portrait of a People, Penguin, 1999

ROBERTS & FERGUSON’Germany’: Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, ‘What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?’, in Niall Ferguson (ed.), Virtual History – Alternatives and Counterfactuals, Papermac, 1997

RUBINSTEIN Capitalism: W D Rubinstein, Capitalism, Culture, and Decline in Britain 1750 – 1990, Routledge, 1993

SMETHURST Archers: William Smethurst, The Archers: The True Story,Michael O’Mara Books Limited, 1996

WIENER M English: Martin J. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850 –1980, CUP, 1981

WILLIAMSON Baldwin: Stanley Baldwin – Conservative leadership and national values, Cambridge University Press, 1999

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