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The end of the New Labour era may also mark an epoch in the nation's intellectual life. Will 2010 be seen in retrospect as we now see 1997, or 1979, or 1945? It seems more than likely. But how could we define the ethos of British intellectuals today? 

In order to answer this question, it is helpful to look back at a very evocative snapshot of an earlier generation. In her review of Capital Affairs, Frank Mort's study of the emergence of the Permissive Society, Nichi Hodgson rightly draws attention to a celebrated essay: "The British Intellectuals" by Edward Shils, the great American sociologist. It was published in the April 1955 issue of Encounter, then edited by Stephen Spender and the late Irving Kristol, whose widow Gertrude Himmelfarb is on Standpoint's board. Although a colleague of Saul Bellow, Friedrich Hayek and others on Chicago's Committee for Social Thought, Shils had served as an interrogator with the British Army in the Second World War, had taught at Manchester and the LSE and knew the British better than they knew themselves. When I met him many years later at Peterhouse, Cambridge, Shils lived up to his formidable reputation as a scathing critic of the politicisation and dumbing down of the intellect. He was at his most incisive in diagnosing liberal and socialist pathologies, but he also wrote a devastating critique of McCarthyism while it still took courage to do so. His friend (and Standpoint contributor) Joseph Epstein wrote: "He once described a certain intellectual to me as ‘a rabid anti-Communist'; then, after a perfectly timed pause, he added, ‘Wait a minute — so am I.'"

Observing the serpentine posturing of his British counterparts with similarly acerbic insight, Shils argued that the alienated outsiders of the 1930s and 1940s had, by the mid-1950s, become insiders, ardent apologists for the "aristocratic-gentry" culture they had once despised. "Continental holidays, the connoisseurship of wine and food, the knowledge of wild flowers and birds, acquaintance with the writings of Jane Austen, a knowing indulgence for the worthies of the English past, an appreciation of ‘more leisurely epochs,' doing one's job dutifully and reliably, the cultivation of personal relations — these are the elements in the ethos of the newly emerging British intellectual class." However, Shils also noted that, thanks to the grammar schools, a larger number of well-educated lower-middle- and working-class aspirants was being kept on the periphery of the ruling classes, and he foresaw trouble if they could not be assimilated. The Sixties were to prove him right.

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