Here is the opening paragraph from Francis Mulhern’s review of Ferdinand Mount’s ‘English Voices: Lives, Landscapes, Laments’ :
‘By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister’, Ferdinand Mount has reported, he ‘had long ago abandoned any thought of a political career and had happily settled for a life of writing anything that came to hand or mind’. English Voices is the book of that prospectus: only one among the score he has published, including novels and works of history and political advocacy too—for as it turned out, politics had not altogether done with him—but the one that answers most readily to this light sketch of a career in the world of letters. Ranging across thirty years from 1985, it gathers up some fifty-three substantial book reviews, half of them from the Spectator, where Mount has written since the 1970s, most of the rest coming from the Times Literary Supplement, which he edited for much of the 80s and early 90s, and the London Review of Books, which bulks larger in the more recent work. A compilation on this scale does not lend itself to conventional synopsis—the number of books discussed is greater still, totalling more than sixty. The title and subtitle of the volume are designed more to accommodate its diverse materials than to define them or to indicate binding themes. An introductory discussion of Englishness stresses the mongrel historical constitution of its people, taking a cue from Defoe’s well-known satire—and motivating the indefinite plural ‘voices’. But the appeals to shared legacies of common law, and a language both rich and loose-limbed—with echoes of Tennyson and Orwell respectively—have no follow-through in the preambles that sub-divide the contents, or in the essays themselves. However, there are other ways of characterizing it.
Here is Mount, a bit later in Mulhurn’s essay:
The subject that speaks in English Voices is recognizably the older self of Ferdy Mount in Cold Cream, at ease and engaged across a wide range of matters, convivially learned, with a sharp eye and an attentive ear and a particular knack for correcting the blunders of writers less inward than he is with the usages of the titled classes. The novelist is never very far away. Mount is droll, affectionate at times, with a mild suggestion of decadence—the word delicious has an improbably wide range of attachments in these pages, most of them not normally edible. ‘Sheer delight’ was the response of the Times Literary Supplement, pursuing the metaphor of consumption; ‘lovely’, said the London Evening Standard. Yet it cannot be a great surprise to find him, in the early 60s, working in the Conservative Research Department, on the way, he hoped, to a parliamentary seat, without any evident prior process of political acculturation; or to find him, twenty years later, in 10 Downing Street, where he had been invited—just like that—to head an independent policy unit for Margaret Thatcher. True to form, it seems, he had been always-already a Tory, and by 1979, after an instructive stay in the United States, he was done with ‘convictionless, wind-blown politicians’. Writing in the Spectator in the days after Thatcher’s electoral ‘triumph’, he hailed her ‘individualist and populist Toryism’ and concluded: ‘A cautious half-glass of good ordinary claret may safely be raised to the future.’
Here is a link to Tessa Hadley’s review in the TLS, referred to in Mulhurn’s essay. The first two paragraph’s Hadley’s essay are indicative of the emeritus status of Mount? Begin with the title and subtitle:
This collection of Ferdinand Mount’s essays – on politicians and writers and a miscellany of characters and subjects, loosely connected by their Englishness – is sheer delight. Any sensible reader…
This collection of Ferdinand Mount’s essays – on politicians and writers and a miscellany of characters and subjects, loosely connected by their Englishness – is sheer delight. Any sensible reader would take the essays slowly, putting the book down between each one in order to savour its stories and digest them; but I found it difficult to resist temptation and kept leaping eagerly forwards into the next revelation, the next unexpected insight or novelistic portrait. The pieces – mostly written for the London Review of Books, the Spectator and the TLS – are a cornucopia of wonderful gossipy details, informed analysis, complex psychology: the deep seriousness is inextricable from the exuberant fun. I knew even as I couldn’t stop turning the pages that I was doomed to forget three-quarters of the new things I was finding out, even though as I happened on them they seemed like essential additions to understanding.
Mount’s thinking is satisfyingly thick with particulars; his history is a drama of lived moments and spoken words. It’s fleshly and tangible – and vividly audible. “‘What a thing it is to have Power’, Dickens told his wife Catherine.” “Hurting people’s feelings seems to be my prevailing vice”, worried Margot Asquith. Henry Kissinger wrote confidently to his President in 1975, “I don’t think Margaret Thatcher will last”; you can hear him growling it. Sir Robert Peel apparently had a slight Staffordshire accent: one “snobbish observer noticed that ‘Peel can be always sure of an H when it comes at the beginning of a word, but he is by no means sure when it comes in the middle’”.
The former editor of the TLS enjoys the praise of a contributor!
Wooldridge and Mount are Oxbridgers, and both shared in the benefits of ‘The Meritocracy’, that Wooldridge extols in his ‘History’. Mount praises Bagehot and James Wilson:
Wooldridge is the political editor of the Economist and author of its “Bagehot” column. He is indeed a worthy successor to Walter Bagehot and to Bagehot’s father-in-law James Wilson, who founded the magazine and also devised India’s first income tax. The Aristocracy of Talent is unfailingly entertaining, effortlessly drawing on a wealth of anecdote and statistics. Wooldridge quotes liberally from the most scorching critiques of meritocracy: from Walter Lippmann’s indictment of IQ tests in the 1920s to Michael Young’s incomparable satire, The Rise of Meritocracy (1958), in which the word itself makes its debut, much like “Whig” and “Tory” first being deployed as pejoratives. He sets out Young’s exploration of what a fully realized meritocracy would mean for the losers, though he does not quote what seems to me the most telling passage:
Chapters One and Two of Alexander Zevin’s ‘Liberalism at Large: The World According to The Economist’ puts Mount’s praise of Wooldridge into proper historical perspective!
Let me defer to Pankaj Mishra’s review of ‘Liberalism at Large’, in the New Yorker, the first two paragraphs, just the opening salvo:
Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it,” an article in The Economist lamented last year, on the occasion of the magazine’s hundred-and-seventy-fifth anniversary. “Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal élites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people,” even as authoritarian China is poised to become the world’s largest economy. For a publication that was founded “to campaign for liberalism,” all of this was “profoundly worrying.”
The crisis in liberalism has become received wisdom across the political spectrum. Barack Obama included Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” (2018) in his annual list of recommended books; meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has gleefully pronounced liberalism “obsolete.” The right accuses liberals of promoting selfish individualism and crass materialism at the expense of social cohesion and cultural identity. Centrists claim that liberals’ obsession with political correctness and minority rights drove white voters to Donald Trump. For the newly resurgent left, the rise of demagoguery looks like payback for the small-government doctrines of technocratic neoliberalism—tax cuts, privatization, financial deregulation, antilabor legislation, cuts in Social Security—which have shaped policy in Europe and America since the eighties.
Later, Mount attempts to demonstrate, to the reader, that he is not a captive to his status, as an unidentified member of a Class of Beneficiaries, that he and Woodridge share:
Wooldridge admits that meritocrats can be not only intolerably smug and conceited but also blind to the practical disadvantages of their wheezes – nowhere more so than in the case of the golden generation of the McNamaras and Bundys who brought us the Vietnam War and were so excoriated in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972). There are occasions, though, where the author lets off the cocksure meritocrats too lightly. He praises Thomas Babington Macaulay and Macaulay’s brother-in-law Charles Trevelyan for introducing meritocracy to the civil service in India and Britain, without mentioning Trevelyan’s wilful negligence during the Great Famine, during which his almost religious belief in the free market condemned millions of Irishmen to starvation or emigration. Wooldridge does, however, mention Macaulay’s notorious “Minute” of 1835, which proposed to educate an elite that would be “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” – surely the apogee of imperial arrogance. And he seems unduly admiring, too, of the meritocratic revolutions of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte. The carrière ouverte aux talents is a splendid principle but the actual legacies of all this social mobilizing were millions of dead across Europe and a political instability so profound that it could end only in the restoration of a revamped ancien régime.
Not that Wooldridge and Micklethwait began their tandem writing careers with this collection of books : ‘The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus’, of 1996, ‘A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization ‘ of 2000, ‘The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea’ of 2003, ‘The Right Nation: Why America is Different’ of 2004, ‘God is Back’ of 2009, ‘The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State’ of 2014, ‘The Wake-Up Call: Why the Pandemic Has Exposed the Weakness of the West – and how to Fix it’ of 2020.
As a reader of The Economist from the early 1990’s till sometime in 2007: the editors decided to remove, and expunge the record of the comments section. I spoke at length to an Economist Sales Rep. about why I stopped subscribing!
I can comment on portions of ‘The Right Nation’. Every page of this book, that I read – I had a feeling of déjà vu. As if I had read it before, in another iteration: call this unsettling!
The last two paragraphs of Mount’s essay almost resembles critique of a very particular kind.
At the very least, we need to reflect on the complexity of political action. Meritocracy is an admirable principle but it is not the only game in town. Businesses thrive on competition but they also depend on intricate networks of co-operation. Societies flourish not just on capitalism’s famous waves of creative destruction but also on the steadiness provided by the rule of law and by institutions that strengthen the sense of community. These other values are not “alternative”, as Wooldridge calls them, but complementary and intertwined. Unless you want a ruthless rat race, equality of opportunity cannot rule on its own without going hand-in-hand with other sorts of equality, of access to justice, to healthcare and education, social arrangements designed to suit us all as we are, not merely as vehicles to speed the fortunate few to their proper destination. Wooldridge quotes Donald Trump’s boast, “I love the poorly educated”, which is creepy and cynical, especially coming from someone who regularly denounces those who disagree with him as “losers”. All the same, the thought does offer something of a challenge to the self-absorption of the meritocrats. If you can’t love the losers, why should they love you?
The Aristocracy of Talent is a serious treat from first to last. Not the least of its pleasures are the possibilities of disagreement that it provokes.