First published in Canvas: 2nd June 2012

“…It is yours, as far as the eye can see. That daydream is stimulating a mass migration of urban wealth into the countryside, inflating the value of farmland and creating a new class of would-be rural gentry…”1

One of the more deeply contested issues at the heart of current Coalition policy is the relaxation of planning laws. In the March 2012 budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a mass simplification, – published in the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – that would cut the laws to 50 pages from over 1000, remove the protection given to ordinary countryside, and will presume that the default answer to development proposals is Yes.2In response, the Daily Telegraph began the ‘Hands off Our Land Campaign,’3 with the stated aim of defeating the proposals, and the protection of the countryside. “This finally sounds” said Dame Fiona Reynolds, “the death knell to the principle established in the 1940s that the planning system should be used to protect what is most special in the landscape.”4

The fact that this announcement has created a huge backlash amongst many Conservatives should not come as a big surprise; for it demonstrates fully the contradicting impulses of British conservatism, which have endured since the Victorian period. In this instance, that particular strand of Conservatism which is naturally suspicious of capitalism, and harks back to the ‘utopian’ age of pre-industrial rural Britain. That strand which remains alienated from Thatcherism, and harks back to the Conservatism described by the 1949 Party Manifesto The Right Road for Britain. “Conservatism proclaims,” that particular document stated, “the inability of pure materialist philosophies to read the riddle of life and economic progress to the needs of the human spirit…Man is a spiritual creature adventuring on an immortal destiny, and science, politics and economics are good or bad so far as they help or hinder the individual soul on its eternal journey.”5

This disparity was famously deconstructed by Martin Weiner in his work, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981). Identifying several inter-related attitudes to economic advancement – contempt for material success and profit maximisation; hostility towards capitalism and the market system; the low status accorded to industry, compared to finance and the professions, and the exaltation of the country above the town in literature, essays; and the reverence for the past over the present and future – Wiener claimed that in the latter years of the industrial revolution the industrial class had willingly subjected themselves to a process of gentrification, becoming chiefly concerned with emulating the traditional upper middle class. “Over the past century then,” Wiener concluded, “high among the internal checks upon British economic growth has been a pattern of industrial behaviour suspicious of change…The pattern of behaviour traces back…to the culture absorption of the middle classes into a quasi-aristocratic elite, which nurtured both the rustic and nostalgic myth of an “English way of life” and the transfer of interest and energy away from the creation of wealth.”6

These behaviours were reinforced, Wiener stated, by a state educational system strongly influenced by the elevation of a classical or ‘liberal’ type of education over a ‘practical’ one. “The public schools,” Wiener stated, “gradually relaxed their entrance barriers. Boys from commercial and industrial families, however, were admitted only if they disavowed their backgrounds and their class. However many businessmen’s sons entered, few future businessmen emerged from these schools and those who did were civilised.” Responding to this demand, the education system had pushed academic study ahead of the practical; the classics ahead of the technical. Famously: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the greatest of Victorian engineers, had sent two of his sons to Harrow, where science was scarcely taught and business was looked down upon.7

This aversion was further fuelled by the literature of the day. The ‘Condition of England’ novels of Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell played on people’s perennial belief in a past utopia. They were joined in 1897 by the weekly magazine Country Life, which sold the dream of rural bliss to the aspirational middle classes. Utilising the latest photographic technology to produce sensitive photographs of country houses, villages and landscapes which sprawled across its pages: “Brideshead remarketed.” The result: “The resulting conflicts of social values – progress in the two widespread and contrasting cultural symbols of the Workshop and Garden (or Shire),” wrote Wiener. “Was England to be the Workshop of the World or a Green and Pleasant Land? This question, with its presumed incompatibility of industrial and rural values, lay at the back of a great many English minds.”8

Though Wiener’s analysis was fresh and exacting, it was not entirely original. Many academics have attempted to explain this disparity. Roy Lewis and Angus Maude (1949) notedthat“[T]he sons of manufactures…exercising their intellects upon Latin and Greek grammar…lost contact with the technical problems of their fathers’ factories, which began to slip behind those of America and Germany in efficiency and competitive power.’9Corelli Barnett claimed (1973)thatthe primary explanation for Britain’s decline since 1870, “lay in the character and outlook of the British governing classes…derived from the early 19th century religious revival, which was itself a manifestation of the remantic movement….The governing-class character thus formed was that of the ‘gentleman’ who despised the qualities that make for getting on in the world. The new or re-vamped Arnoldian public schools transmitted these values to succeeding generations of the upper classes (including ‘upper middle’) while the non-conformist chapel performed a like service for the lower-middle and ‘respectable’ working classes.”10

Such ideas however, were particularly amenable to the social and economic climate of the times; industrial decline and an increasing reliance upon financial services. Industrial Spirit sparked intense debate in media circles, and attracted supporters and detractors from across the political spectrum. Each side, Wiener remarked, “were responding to a genuine effort on my part to write a history that made current dilemmas more comprehensible.” Government ministers viewed Industrial Spirit, “as an account of a century-old wrong direction that it was seeking to rectify,” while critics saw it as the basis for their indictment of the government’s “betrayal of British industry.”11

The Sunday Times endorsed Wiener’s theory. “For well over 100 years,” they wrote, “the aristocracy has found industry grimy and distasteful…as a result our values are dominated by rural nostalgia, our government establishment by clever, effete, non-committal Wyknamists, our academic establishment by abstruse theoreticians who know nothing and care less about the industrial base on which their incomes depend so precariously.”12 In this manner, the British class system had allowed successful entrepreneurs to give their offspring a public school education through which they could emulate the fastidious manners of their ‘betters.’

The conclusions made by Wiener also encountered criticism, particularly from those quarters that supported traditional conservative ideals. Peregrine Worsthome and Auberon Waugh both spoke out against Thatcher’s economic policies, and against Andrew Neil, editor of The Sunday Times.13“You feel more in touch with England through Country Life,” Auberon Waugh commented, than through any other publication.”14Samuel Brittan added “If people dislike lives devoted to getting and spending, if they prefer the quiet of their garden to the business or technological rat race, that is their affair,” and was not a reflection on a weakness of spirit.15

The intangible nature of a spirit did not go unnoticed. “People will believe such things,” Professor David Coleman claimed in a 1986 speech to the London School of Economics,“because they offer comforting excuses. In reality, it was not so much that any industrial spirit declined after the high noon of Victorian Britain, but, on the contrary that too many of the attitudes of mind associated with the industrial revolution persisted for too long.” Instead of misplaced nostalgia for the industrial revolution, greater attention, Coleman went on, should be paid to the past and present behaviour of the business company.16

Specifically, Wiener’s assumptions regarding British values were, like all histories, based on the musings of a certain kind of person: the British intellectual or man of letters, and ignored wider social issues. Rural nostalgia was not confined purely to British behaviour: across Europe, Swedes, Germans, French an Spanish citizens too wish for a cottage in the country. This is not hard to understand: the countryside, in terms of air quality and noise pollution, is far more agreeable, and appreciating these qualities does not mean that one is trying to emulate ‘ones betters.’ Since the advent of the railways in the 1830s, the British have migrated too and from the cities, temporarily and permanently, to escape the drudgery of industrial life. “It seems to me,” wrote Samuel Brittan “The British are not, in the main, and never have been really interested in making money. Some are, of course..but by and large the national ethos frowns on making money for its own sake…I can hardly see the point of complaining about the ‘betrayal’ of British industry, especially when the complaints come from those – academics, journalists, politicians – who have chosen not to work in British industry.”17

If Wiener’s analysis is still relevant, it causes to highlight the continuing disparities of British conservatism, particularly our relationship with the countryside. In November 2011, a study by The National Policy Exchange, claimed that there was a “mistaken belief” that the protected green belt around towns and cities – which accounts for 12 per cent of all the land in England – is “necessarily more attractive,” and that “building on the green belt should be permitted if the majority of local people are in favour.” Yet, in response to the allegations that the proposed planning laws would lead to the destruction of green belts, David Cameron attempted to calm fears, claiming that “sprawling over the countryside isn’t the answer.” We must absolutely protect our green belts and national parks, but we also urgently need to find places where we’re prepared to allow significant new growth to happen.”18

1Carl Mortished, ‘Urbanites Seek to Recreate the Dream of an Aristocratic Lifestyle’ The Times, June 30 2007

2The UK Budget, March 2012

Click to access budget2012_complete.pdf

5’The Right Road For Britain: With a Forward by Winston Churchill,’ 1949
6Ian Davidson, ‘Britains Economic Decline: Making Money is Not Quite Cricket’, The Financial Times,December 30, 1982
7Book Review, The Economist, April 25, 1981
8Martin J. Wiener, ‘Conservatism, Economic Growth and English Culture,’ Parliamentary Affairs, XXXIV (1981) p. 411
9Michael Dixon, Analysis and Paralysis, Financial Times (London, England) – Thursday, December 2, 1982
10Corelli Barnett, ‘Review,’ Management Today, July 1981
11Ibid. p. xv
12Ian Davidson, ‘Britains Economic Decline”
13Andrew Neil, Full Disclosure, (MacMillan, 1996)
14Popham “Century of Glossy Squirearchy
15Samuel Brittan ‘A Very British Status System’ Financial Times, Monday, March 7, 1983
16Business Nostalgia ‘Misplaced’ / Prof. D. C Coleman addresses London School of Economics, Financial Times, Wednesday, November 12, 1986
17Samuel Brittan ‘A Very British Status System’


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