Tony Judt

Tony Judt, the great historian of modern Europe, is dead from a terrible neurological disease.  The news commands attention out of our usual box.  Judt was not afraid to preach a social democratic humanism to fill the vacuum left by the end of ideological conflict.  He was that rare thing for an Englishman- a public intellectual, although based on New York. Born an east end Jew, and later a  volunteer serviceman in Israel, he caused uproar there by advocating a Jewish-Palestinian State,  describing  Israel as  ” an anachronism”. 

In one his last essays, he returned to the theme defined by George Orwell – the political use of language. While this has parochial echoes, its application is universal.

Articulacy is regarded as an aggressive talent. But for me its functions were substantively defensive: rhetorical flexibility allows for a feigned closeness – conveying proximity while maintaining distance

In Politics and the English Language, Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously

 IIl Fares the Land was Judt’s last major work, extracted here, expressing his fears that the challenges of the future will produce  a narrower , harsher State. His analysis will certainly be challenged, but David Cameron please note.

The last time a cohort of young people expressed comparable frustration at the emptiness of their lives and the dispiriting purposelessness of their world was in the 1920s: it is not by chance that historians speak of a “lost generation.”

I want to challenge conventional wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic. To be sure, the target has softened considerably. In the early years of this century, the “Washington consensus” held the field. Everywhere you went there was an economist or “expert” expounding the virtues of deregulation, the minimal state, and low taxation. Anything, it seemed, that the public sector could do, private individuals could do better.

The Washington doctrine was everywhere greeted by ideological cheerleaders: from the profiteers of the “Irish miracle” (the property-bubble boom of the “Celtic Tiger”) to the doctrinaire ultra-capitalists of former Communist Europe.

Today there has been a partial awakening. To avert national bankruptcies and wholesale banking collapse, governments and central bankers have performed remarkable policy reversals, liberally dispersing public money in pursuit of economic stability and taking failed companies into public control without a second thought.

All change is disruptive. We have seen that the specter of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil. Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences. Men and women will be thrown back upon the resources of the state. They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for “security.” The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state. It is thus incumbent upon us to reconceive the role of government. If we do not, others will.

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London