What Dickens could do for Dave Cameron’s Tories

Oct 7, 2011
Michael Bywater

Face it, Mr Micawber's principle provides the perfect model for Daveism

HERE'S one of the most extraordinary opening sentences ever written. I'll quote it in full:


It's the beginning of Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House, as vivid a piece of virtuoso writing now as it was in 1852 when it was first published. And it sums up not only that book, but the majority of his novels, whose underlying subject was the Moloch-like pitilessness of inexorable London and the whole establishment it stood for: the Law, the State, the arrivistes, the aristocracy and the underworld.

He had the morality of a reforming preacher, the style of a music-hall comedian, and the forensic eye for detail of a detective - appropriate, since he invented the first literary detective, Inspector Bucket, in the same book.

Born 200 years ago next year (how time flies!), Dickens was in many ways the man who invented London: a London which has physically all but vanished, but which endures in the imagination. His trademarks are fog, rain, crowded streets and ramshackle, overcrowded slums and that sort of Holly Village Gothic which didn't even exist until 23 years after Bleak House came out.

The same stamp is on his characters. The sleek and upwardly-mobile, the mean-spirited seekers-after-advantage, the downtrodden but still (in what's become the 'Cockney' manner) perky, the drunks and beggars, the strivingly respectable.

The great and terrible literary critic F. R. Leavis denounced most of Dickens's work as comic melodrama and proclaimed the only novel of any merit to be Hard Times, whose fact-obsessed, anti-imaginative schoolmaster Gradgrind would, if he materialised now, be co-opted as a Special Advisor on Education.

Leavis was, of course, wrong, and with his odd angry/fey Aesthetico-Marxism, quite missed the point. Dickens the writer rehabilitated the London working class - or perhaps we should say non-middle-class - restoring to them a sort of symphonic variety and complexity that we hadn't really seen since the mediaeval guild mystery and miracle plays.

But Dickens the legend is a different story. George Orwell pinned him to the board with his usual precision, upset that he didn't devote more time to the "ordinary" English working-class (which we needn't worry about) and that he didn't, in the end, see anything wrong with how things were.

That's to say, he thought that those very institutions which grind and obliterate people's lives and souls were, in themselves, fine. "His whole ‘message'," writes Orwell, "is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent."

Watching the Tory conference on the telly this week, it suddenly struck me that the Dickens of the popular imagination is a Daveista.

Old Labour believed that people weren't decent, and the State had to be decent on their behalf.  Old Tories believed that the fact that life had been decent to them proved that they were obviously decent chaps, and the rest could go hang.
New Tories, though, believe that people are basically decent, and so the market is basically decent too, and any evidence to the contrary is just a big misunderstanding brought about by something they haven't quite put their finger on.

So why don't they use the man who, in his popular incarnation, can be claimed to have invented not only the London they thrive in, but the world-view they peddle?

He's popular. Even Daily Mail readers have heard of him. His stuff gets on telly. And there are riches to be mined.

Dickens himself was propelled to his monumental efforts by fate's great gift to him: his father's imprisonment in the Marshalsea prison for debt, and his own spell of working in a basement blacking factory off the Strand.

Hard work and decency paid off in the Dickens world; not something for the Daveistas themselves, but a nice policy to peddle for the electorate.

Mr Micawber's principle - "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery" - provides the economic model for Daveism (although nobody expects the banks to follow it).

As for the poor, "they had better die then, and diminish the surplus population," as Scrooge says in A Christmas Carol. (He changes his mind - or rather, this being Dickens, his heart - later on, but no need to tell the punters that. And while we're at it, we can keep quiet about his hatred of the arrivistes, the snobs, the fake aristos, the frauds, duds, dandies, dullards and non-specific twazzocks. No need to upset the apple-cart.)

There. That's my gift to Dave. And while he's at it, he should read the first of what's bound to be a flood of bicentennial biographies, Claire Tomalin's concise, masterly Charles Dickens.  

The man's life - poverty, riches, fame, adultery, children, disownings, and unimaginable hard work - is as interesting as any of his books and Tomalin's will prove a very hard act to follow. But it's the real story of a real man who genuinely cared about the weak and the vulnerable. Nothing in it for the Daveistas, then.

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, Viking. ISBN 978-0-67-091767-9

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