07 March 2019
Where is that?
By John Watson
“Tufar?” Like “Tofu?” Something nice to eat? Well, not nice exactly but sufficiently nice for vegans, vegetarians and others of similar religious persuasions. No, don’t worry. We have not lost it completely. The Shaw Sheet is not about to inflict on you the type of menu you find among the intelligentsia. You know, the sort of menu printed on a piece of recycled grey paper which depresses your spirits as it hangs limply, pinned up outside the restaurant to which you have had the misfortune to be asked to lunch, the harbinger of an inevitable ear-bashing from aggressive beardos spitting over their pulses. No, we value our readers far too much to inflict that on them. Here the use of the word “Tufar” is a crime against spelling rather than against taste. Try it again, altering the spelling to fit the sound. “Tufar?”, “Toofar?” That is better.
“Abridge too far.” “You go too far”. “Too far gone”. What exactly does “too far” mean?” Nothing of course by itself. There has to be a standard, explicit or implied, against which the thing which has gone too far is being measured. Where a political movement goes too far, it goes beyond the point where the speaker thinks that it should have stopped. Where is that? It depends on the speaker and how he or she thinks that the movement should develop.
Take Mrs Thatcher, for example, and the tough sink-or-swim policies which killed off so much industry in the north of England. High interest rates to force inflation out of the system. A refusal to continue subsidies to uneconomic coal pits. Her policies certainly led to high unemployment and a deep recession in the early 1980s. Does that mean that they went too far or merely that she had to take measures with unpleasant social consequences to ensure that her programme would change things? Look at it from her perspective. There she was, faced by a country weighed down by post imperial inertia, subsidy dependent, industries in decline, and, worse than that, a public which had lost faith in their ability to create anything new. The slow disappearance down the drain seemed inevitable and yet there was a spark, if a flickering one, the thirst for change which, combined with a good deal of luck, had rather unexpectedly allowed her to push through the defeatist ranks of the Tory grandees and take office. Now you may admire Margaret Thatcher or you may not but one thing must surely be true. The nightmares which haunted her sleep must have been that she would fail to shake the country out of its lethargy by not being sufficiently radical rather than that she would go too far. Faced by the question “how far is it right to go?” she must inevitably have gone to the extreme because she needed to be sure that the tipping point would be reached. To say now that less ruthless policies would have done less damage to Britain’s industrial capacity may be true but it also misses the point. She had to go too far to go far enough, the dilemma of all the great reformers of history.
So let’s fast forward 40 years and look at another revolution, the change in the way in which we regard women and sexual and racial minorities. For years we have wrestled with the issues here and not without success either. Glass ceilings have been heightened. Immigrants have been absorbed. We are a tolerant race and accept much that would have shocked our forebears. Still there is a step change now and a revolution is taking place which will change attitudes for ever. So what do we see? An irksome, humourless, pedantic correctness which offends our sensibilities; good men being traduced for venal offences of presentation in a way which must be truly terrifying for those on the aspergers spectrum, a destruction of careers and reputations going far beyond anything we would regard as common sense. But why? Have our fellow citizens lost their minds? It could of course be that, but there is another interpretation. This ugly correctness is just the bow wave of the revolution which has to go too far if it is to be sure of hitting the tipping point. “To be sure we must go further,” that is the cry “or the world may not be changed”. Mrs Thatcher would have understood.
One day future generations will wonder how some of us were so pedantically reactionary about the whole thing and will ask themselves why that was, rather as we ask about the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 1950s. “Badly educated, of course,” they will say about us, “not enough attention given to the humanities”. Or maybe they will take a more evolutionary tack: “It is extraordinary how understanding and compassion have developed in the last twenty years or so. Nowadays we could never behave like that.”
Of course it will be worse than that. They will say patronising and forgiving things about us having acted according to our lights. How did Saki put it?
“It is dreadful to think that other peoples’ grandchildren may one day rise up and call one amiable. There are moments when one sympathises with Herod.”