Last week in SR, having revisited 'Conversations in a Small Country', his 1989 interviews of 23 prominent Scots, Kenneth Roy commented on something he hadn't previously noticed. The now-deceased of his interviewees had something more in common than being born into the 'Scotland of between the wars'.
Although of different classes, experiences and material circumstances – they ranged from Alec Douglas-Home to Tom Winning – they were haunted by the same fear: fear of poverty, whether their own or other people's. This fear shaped their lives. We are of a different generation, born after the second world war into a period of 'relative peace and plenty'. So what, Kenneth Roy wondered, shapes us?
I think I have the answer. Disillusion shapes us. By this, I don't mean disappointment. Leaving aside the personal disappointment experienced by all but the completely unreflective on the realisation that we are never going to be the people we hoped to be or achieve what we hoped to achieve, disappointment is superficial and passing. Disappointment is generated by things of which, or people of whom, we expected better. Amongst these, post war, I would include, in no particular order, striking firemen; dirty hospital wards; rogue soldiers; Tony Blair's New Labour project; MPs' expenses; paedophile priests; complaisance and corruption in public bodies; voting apathy; and the divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
Disillusion strikes much deeper than disappointment. For a start, it's neither superficial nor passing. It's like a death; it shakes the jigsaw and not in a good way. It takes some time to face. The disillusion that shapes the post-war generation is easy to identify. It's that education, always believed key to making people rational, happy and virtuous, does no such thing. The socialist utopian conviction (also believed by non-socialists) that, when combined with better living conditions and a welfare state, education naturally leads to everyone living 'actively, in accordance with reason', as Aristotle (not a socialist) put it, turns out to be nonsense.
Don't worry. The rest of this column isn't a lament for a golden time, now past, when the socialist utopian dream was reality. If truth be told, the dream only managed a brief flicker in the immediate aftermath of the war. In 1945 people voted Labour – the nearest thing to utopia – firmly convinced that reforms would finally usher in the era when every lad or ladette o' parts would not just be presented with opportunities for educational, social and financial advancement of which their parents could only dream, but would seize these opportunities enthusiastically with both hands.
It was a good flicker whilst it lasted, but as I say, this is not a flickery lament. I simply remark that for quite some time the flicker was genuinely believed to be a strong flame, and it has taken the post-war generation to see the mistake. Speak to people in their 50s, and I think you'll find that reluctantly accepting as misguided the last vestiges of socialist utopianism is our sorry leitmotif.
It's disillusioning indeed to discover that with 60 years of state schooling, housing and welfare behind us, we're as far away from the promised land as we ever were. Worse, if education is not the ladder up which man progresses towards what Matthew Arnold termed 'sweetness and light', then perhaps there is no ladder, and if there is no ladder, how are we to stop ourselves falling back into a nation 'raw and half developed…half-hidden amidst its poverty and squalor', a nation, as Arnold memorably put it, of barbarians and philistines?
Actually, I've nothing particular against barbarians and philistines. I'm sure I've some barbarous and philistine characteristics of my own. I just want to draw attention to the fact that – in Britain anyway – striving for personal improvement doesn't seem to have been installed along with inside plumbing, as was hopefully expected. Indeed, with hindsight, the benefits claimed for compulsory schooling have proven as illusory as the banishing of 'want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness' through broad implementation of the 1942 Beveridge report on welfare.
It says something about our capacity for blind tenacity that despite education's obvious failure, every government still holds it up as a panacea. There's no ill, apparently, out of which we cannot be educated: education for jobs; education for health; education for relationships; education against teenage pregnancy; education against intolerance; education against discrimination. Those in power cling to the tatters of the educational dream because there's little else to cling to. Yet education's results – joblessness, obesity, hopelessness, greed, drug addiction, child neglect, intolerance, celebrity culture, mindless consumerism – serve only to increase our disillusion.
Gosh! How bleak! And it's not all bleak. On balance, I'd rather have unsatisfactory social reforms and a bit of disillusion than no social reforms and Dickens's blacking factory. But we need a new narrative. Perhaps the transformation of education will be part of this narrative, with new Aristotles managing to sell self-improvement through learning as something joyful and desirable. Through his 'dream school', perhaps Jamie Oliver will reflect the idea of virtue and goodness as fine educational aspirations, not junk to be mocked. If he can stop the condemnation as 'elitist' (now a pejorative word) of those who prefer 'Don Giovanni' to 'Celebrity Come Dancing' he would deserve a knighthood. If he felt able to condemn the weary denigration of Eton, surely a school of which Britain should be extremely proud, he would be the true heir of New Lanark.
Our generation may be shaped by disillusion, but the next generation will be shaped by something different again, perhaps by an uncomfortable twinning of anger and gratification. I was struck last weekend at the juxtaposition of the young protesters furious about the world we've bequeathed them and the queues, also predominantly youthful, snaking round the Apple shop waiting for up to 11 hours to grab the iPad 2. The new iPad will be here for months, at least until usurped by the iPad 3. However, there's a new kind of virtue in getting a new gadget first, even whilst marching in outrage at the consumerism and globalisation that produced it.
Amongst those contradictory young people, I hope there is an enterprising journalist who, as Kenneth Roy suggests, might with 'energy and curiosity' interview 23 prominent Scots born after the second world war to see if my thesis on disillusion holds good. I'd do it myself, only disillusion is quite tiring and 23 doses of it might prove terminal.
Katie Grant is a journalist, novelist and broadcaster
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