As one might expect of a great portraitist, Lucian Freud had a knack for understanding what made a person tick. I’ve just finished a book called Man With a Blue Scarf, by the Spectator’s art critic Martin Gayford, in which he describes sitting for Freud and relays the fascinating conversations between the two men over the many months it took to complete the work.
Freud, by then in his early 80s, knew or had known everybody and could be gloriously waspish, though never without good reason. In fact, what comes across most is his deep reserve of empathy for especially complex, troubled personalities, and his generously worded insights into what made them so.
One line has stuck with me above the rest. Gayford asked him about George Orwell – Freud knew him, of course – and after a quick overview of the work (“1984 is unreadable, but Coming Up For Air is a bit good”), he delivered a judgement of masterly precision: “I would say that he carried decency to the point of real imagination”.
Any fan of Orwell must surely read that line, sigh, nod, and acknowledge, “yes, that’s it”. Orwell was fired by a belief in decency, his work marinaded in the stuff: the struggle of each man and woman to live in such a way, physically, psychologically, morally; aching laments for its regular absence; and excoriation of those who gave it no place.
Freud may have had little time for 1984, but Orwell’s great dystopian piece portrayed a world in which decency had died, in which the innate dignity of the individual was rejected. In carrying indecency to the point of real imagination, Orwell reveals to us the centrality to any humane society of its opposite.
If it’s a good theme for literature, its surely not a bad one for public life. If you can convincingly describe your credo as an MP or minister as ‘carrying decency to the point of real imagination’, you’re setting your feet on the right path. What do we mean by decency? Something deeper than its rigid Victorian definition of suitable and decorous behaviour – also the care we should have for one another, those for whom we are immediately responsible, but also those who comprise the different onion-like layers of the society we inhabit, locally, nationally and globally. Not for nothing does Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state the following. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
If the dignity of the individual is where we begin, then, I would argue, the modern Right has some big questions to answer.
Let’s start with Britain, where we have a government that simply seems to have forgotten about people – or, at best, to have deprioritised them. It is cocooned in the Brexit negotiations, in an abstract language of billions and tariffs and borders and frictionless trade. It is a pinball machine of egos and personal ambitions, of calculated slights and open plots. It is, in many ways, not a functioning government at all.
Here, at a little length, is what Theresa May told us from the steps of No 10 on the day she became Prime Minister.
“We believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from. That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.
‘If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.
If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.
If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.
‘I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
This speech was, not to put too fine a point on it, magnificent: a clarion call for decency. It seemed to herald something better, grittier and more real than the posh-boy chess match we’d grown used to. I was talking about this with a Labour MP last week and he admitted: “When I heard he say that I thought “she’s amazing. We’re f**ked.”’
Today, when you look around the country at the legions of homeless souls shivering in shop doorways, at the seemingly endless parade of desperate individuals crushed by the grinding cogs of the Universal Credit system; as you read stories about teachers handing out shoes and food to impoverished children; as you build into your weekly shopping bill a levy for the local food bank, something Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg apparently finds ‘rather uplifting’: that speech seems like a bad joke. In their ideological pursuit of breaking with the EU and their inner battles for control, the Tories have simply forgotten about the people who need decency from government most of all.
It’s ironic, in a way, that the Right is currently so obsessed with systems and statistics, its own equivalent of grand economic theory and tractor production figures. The consequences of this for its reputation and for the country are horrible. We seem to have a government that lacks any kind of heart, a hard, ruthless, unbending administration of shadows that is impossible to admire and that allows Labour’s grotesque neo-Marxist leadership to position itself as the caring, optimistic wing of British politics. The Tories have been cowardly on taxation, unambitious on social policy (as Tim says here, you can’t blame Brexit for the almost total inactivity on most other fronts), careless with the Union, and absent from the field where the poor and the sick are battling the toughest of environments. No wonder the devastating tragedy of Grenfell Tower felt like such a grotesque commentary on our times.
Sir John Major, a Tory lion to today’s mewling kitties, says his party needs to “show its heart again“. At their best the Conservatives have married heart and head in pursuit of transformative reforms, from the abolition of slavery to the introduction of same-sex marriage. Today, they seem part of a wider global movement that is interested only in its own self-preservation and ideological obsessions. One look at the US Republicans, propping up the worst and most shaming president in the country’s history as they shove tax cuts for the rich through Congress, shows where this mindset can end.
Sometimes the circumstances require you to govern in poetry, even just a bit, even when the weather is against you. If they carry on like this, the Tories will put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. They are allowing him and the hard, bad men who surround him to lay claim to the nation’s heart, to hoist the flag of virtue, to present themselves as tribunes for the vulnerable, to carry decency to the point of real imagination. It’s utter nonsense, of course, but when people are in need of a hug and all they are offered is a smack in the mouth, it should be no surprise when they look to the guy with open arms.