A Liberal Dose

Polly Toynbee

Since 1993, Third Way has been talking in depth to men and women who help to shape our society or set the tone of our culture. We spoke to Polly Toynbee, the living embodiment of the Guardian’s women’s page, on the 22nd June 1998.

The interviewer was Roy McCloughry.

The media in general are blamed for a lot of the ills of British society. Do you think there is any truth in that?

Yes, absolutely. I think it is a very pernicious influence. If you look at the tabloids and the relentless pumping-out of cynical attitudes they think are popular – pandering to people’s lowest tastes, instincts, prejudices, narrowing their minds and horizons – I think it’s pretty dreadful.

We have probably the worst media in the world – certainly the worst in the West. Go around Europe, you just don’t see a vast bulk of newspapers quite as nasty as ours. Certainly in America you don’t get jingoism or xenophobia of the kind that is routinely pumped out from the Telegraph right through to the Sun. Who’s responsible for the football hooliganism? The only thing you can put your finger on, the one thing that sets us apart from the rest of Europe, is that we have a really filthy press.

Why did you go into journalism?

I had very grandiose ideas about wanting to be a novelist and poet – I’d already had a novel published before I went to university.

I left Oxford half way through, because I hated it, and went and worked in factories and did some waitressing, with an idea that if you were going to be a serious artist you should keep your mind uncluttered during the day and spend the evening writing. But you quickly discover why people who work in factories mostly don’t write novels and poems – they’re so exhausted. So, after about six months I gave up and got a job at the Observer.

I suppose my career would have been different if I’d never had children – I married a widower who had a seven-year-old child, and then I had a child straight away when I was 24. I probably would have decided to be a labour correspondent and then a political or foreign correspondent, and I’d have gone through the tougher end of the news spectrum. Instead, I did social reporting, and then I was offered a column on the Guardian’s women’s page.

I think that serious journalism is a sort of front line in history in a way, describing what’s going on around you in ways that help to clarify in people’s minds what kind of society they live in. I think respectable journalism (which, it’s true, there is less and less of) is an honourable profession.

You’ve been writing about women’s issues for a long time. How do you think the agenda has changed?

Well, you get steps forward and then you get backlashes and then you get some steps forward again. Certainly things gradually do get better for women, in the sense that there are fewer and fewer things that women can’t do any more.

The real difference is with mothers. Women who don’t have children have really no problem and are as equal as ever you can hope for. But having children eliminates them from lots of careers. Men never have to choose; a lot of women have to.

Fay Weldon said recently: ‘The point of feminism was not to win, not to put men down but to achieve equality. To be allowed to be a person first and a certain gender second. But now it’s gone too far. Now women diminish men in the same ways as men used to diminish women.’ How do you react to that?

I never saw feminism as being against men. There were always lunatic fringes: the kind of lesbian separatists who thought you should abort sons, and bra burning – all of that was wild stuff for the tabloids to have fun with. Most feminists knew the problem was how to live and work with men and be equals.

That remains the project. It remains difficult because I think that feminism changed women, in terms of their attitudes and aspirations, incredibly rapidly. The Guardian’s women’s page might start ideas off but they’d be picked up the next week by women’s magazines that were read by everybody, all the way through society from top to bottom.

So, there women were, almost subversively, reading an amazing amount of really quite serious feminist stuff from the very beginning – and men weren’t reading anything like that. They had nothing to persuade them that it was time their attitudes changed. So, I think men have been very confused.

I think it’s very hard for men to adapt, but they will. And when they do, they’ll find that life is better for them, too, because the whole business of sexual stereotyping was just as limiting and damaging for them. They might not notice it, because having power is nice, not doing housework, being able to say what’s what and control the money – and husbands still have much more leisure time than wives in all the surveys I’ve seen.

So, it’s quite hard for them to see the advantages in real equality at the moment perhaps. There are still lots of men who expect their wives to be inferior, who deliberately marry less educated women because it makes them feel secure. And all that is going to have to change. They’re going to have to see that an equal partner is more fulfilling.

What kind of upbringing did you have?

My family had been intellectuals for several generations. My father, Philip, was a writer and poet, and one of the founders of [the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament]. My grandfather was the historian Arnold Toynbee.

My parents got divorced when I was three. My mother married again, divorced again. So, I come from a broken home. A pretty civilised broken home – my parents always got on very well, and I spent half the time very amicably with my father.

Has that kind of family background affected you?

I think it’s made me realise that to say bluntly that divorce is always a bad thing is just not true. For my parents it was a very good thing. I was fond of my father, but he was a very difficult man and also quite drunk, and my mother was right to leave. So, I think that what happened to my family was the best thing. A complicated family background is not necessarily a disaster. Certainly wasn’t for me. I can think of lots of other children where divorce was the right thing for them, not just for their parents.

The perfect background, I’m sure, is to have parents who love each other and get on well; but if you don’t, then divorce is better. To be forced to live with someone you don’t want to live with for the whole of your life, I think, is as bad as slavery in a way. A society with a high divorce rate is probably a very liberal and decent society. A very low rate implies that there is some extremely strong social-control mechanism at work.

Is marriage an instrument of oppression, then?

Everybody enters marriage hoping that it’ll last for a lifetime – I think it’s interesting that 90 per cent of the population still say their ideal is to be married to one person for the rest of their life, and there’s always a sense of failure if that doesn’t work out. But a lot of people make bad mistakes, a lot of people change during the course of their lives and it’s difficult to stay together, and not always right.

Do you regret the fact that political radicalism seems to be on the retreat?

I’m not sure that it is. It makes less noise than it did; it talks a very different language. I suppose we’ll wait and see how another five years or so of this [New Labour] government work out. In fact, their social policies are quite radical. Whenever you meet any of them – junior ministers, cabinet ministers – all they really want to talk about is the social agenda: how do you get people back to work, what do you do about appalling housing estates, what do you do about the health of the poor, what do you do about no-hope kids?

It doesn’t worry me a lot that they no longer talk the socialism of the past. If they can deliver what socialism never managed to and keep everybody on board, that’s all right with me. And I think they’re setting about it in a pretty businesslike way. Also, Gordon Brown has surreptitiously managed to collect quite substantial sums of money and all of it is going into the sorts of programmes I would want to see it going into.

I would rather they did a bit more persuading of middle England to change its attitudes, but it comes back to the media. In the face of constant daily blasts from the Mail, it’s very tricky to stand up and say, ‘We believe you should pay for people less fortunate than yourselves.’ But if you can trumpet some successes, then people may see that investing more money in such things actually pays off rather than just being money down the drain.

Politicians are always asking us to trust them now. Do you think we are right to be so suspicious?

It’s interesting that we’ve got the most popular government ever and yet the figures show that people’s suspicion of politicians is still incredibly deep. I think that’s quite healthy, really. People see that the business of keeping in power is about compromise. It’s not a pure art, never could be – and anybody who ever thought it was has ended up doing monstrous things to their fellow human beings.

Is there a danger in a lack of respect for authority?

I think that what’s called lack of respect for authority is quite healthy, because it means that kids don’t take things at face value any more. People have to earn respect: they don’t get it because of the uniform they wear. I think kids are very willing to respect things that seem to them worthy of respect, people who they can see do good.

I don’t think I’m worried by a sense that society is falling apart. I worry about the sheer frivolity of a lot of it, but maybe it’s no more frivolous than it was.

Amitai Etzioni, the guru of communitarianism, says that our societies in the West are characterised by rights without responsibilities. Is that true?

I think Etzioni is a real authoritarian, and I’m glad to say this government had a brief flirtation with his ideas before it came into power and has backed off pretty sharply. You don’t hear them talking about communitarianism any more.

What it amounted to when you prodded and poked at Etzioni – and Francis Fukuyama – was sending mothers home from work. Who creates community? Mothers. Women at the school gates. Women as home-makers. Women as volunteers. That’s their cosy idea of what community is and they want women to go home and do it.

Well, it may have been a social good – maybe. I suspect that even that is a fantasy, an idea of an ideal society that existed when they were children and were not really in a position to see. Children have these Janet and John images, and somehow they carried it into adulthood. I don’t think that was what life was actually like.

The point about this magical thing called ‘community’ is that the only people expected to create it are those who have least resources, least hope and most problems. We look at some God-forsaken estate, where huge numbers of people live in fortress-like physical surroundings, and we say, ‘Somebody around here’s got to create some community.’

In the streets where you and I live, we don’t need to: we make friends with people we choose to be friends with. I love living in great big, sprawling conurbations, and so do most people in the world, who flee to them whenever they can, because it’s a chance to choose your community and not have it thrust upon you. A community of people who work in newspapers, a community of people who play badminton, whatever it is: we all want more choice. I’d hate to live in a village where you just have to get on with the people around you and that’s it.

Do you have any views yourself that are not liberal?

I don’t think I do, really. It’s a great problem being predictable, though most people are. You only need to know one or two of their views to know almost everything a person thinks. It’s funny the way these things come in packages, but they certainly do.

I suppose some liberals might be against all censorship and I’m not. I’ve always said that a measure of it is necessary in film and television.

I definitely don’t like animal rights…

You don’t like animals?

No, no, you can’t not like animals. Animals are just animals. It’s humans obsessed with animals that distress me greatly. The squandering of emotional and political energy I think is gross and grotesque.

The sheer number of animal programmes there are now! I don’t mean lovely wildlife programmes, I mean pets-and-vets programmes. When you’ve got disabled children living in appalling squalor all across Eastern Europe, to be doing fly-on-the-wall stories of RSPCA inspectors finding moggies being badly treated I think is real and serious decadence.

It shocks me that schools encourage young kids to think more about animals than about humans.

You are a convinced humanist, and sometimes your columns betray a quite aggressive atheism.

Yes, possibly. Sometimes.

Where does that come from?

I don’t know. I suppose partly from growing up in the Sixties. I always found all that hippy stuff insufferable: astrology, druids, any old superstition will do. One ‘truth’ is as good as another. And I feel that it’s not, that people shouldn’t be deceived by false ideas and fairy stories and fantasies. Their minds should be concentrated on real things, things of value, and I don’t regard superstition as a thing of value: it’s a waste of time and energy and effort.

There’s a lot to be done in society, a lot to be thought about. Maybe art, and human endeavour at its highest, seems to me something worth spending a lot of time contemplating, but not the afterlife.

Do you lump Christianity with superstition? Because Christians would agree with your dismissal of incoherent pluralism.

I wouldn’t put Christianity in the same… The thing about Christianity is that it has such a long culture behind it that it is anyway extremely interesting. The Bible is such a rich strand running all the way through our culture that you can’t just dismiss it.

I think that belief in the supernatural is rubbish – and I couldn’t, for that reason, go to church – but I can look at wonderful paintings and at the emotion that’s gone into contemplation of all sorts of scenes from the life of Christ and see in there, absolutely, humanism. I see it as a sort of icon of the human experience. It’s a very bizarre one, because people are not on the whole vilely tortured to death and don’t assume that they are the sons of God.

But I still wish people wouldn’t believe in magic and the idea of a God outside of ourselves. We’ve got quite enough of a god inside ourselves. So, I am very much a humanist. It’s all down here.

Two billion people would disagree with your characterisation of Christianity in terms of ideas. They’d say it’s about the revelation of God in Christ.

Well, I think they’re sadly mistaken. Very large numbers of people have often believed things that have been quite disastrously wrong. You know, only Galileo believed what was true.

And also you don’t know exactly what their belief is. I suspect that quite a lot of Christians don’t particularly want to challenge the magical bits of it but use it in that rather humanistic way as a way of thinking about human experience. They’re not terribly interested in the actual facts of the Resurrection, or if there is a heaven.

There seems to me such fundamental problems with a God. It’s terribly trite to say so, but I cannot believe in a God that is both powerful and good. If he’s good, he wouldn’t do these things to people. It’s just common sense.

‘Oh well,’ you say, ‘it’s all a great mystery. It will be revealed to us at the last trump…’

Well, the Christian answer would be that God identified with human suffering in the Crucifixion.

Yes, but how dare he create the suffering? I won’t have it! I won’t accept that people die horrible deaths through no fault of anybody’s, except God’s if he’s there.

Also, heaven seems to me impossible. The idea that after death you can leave your body behind is a total misunderstanding of what it is to be human.

But you don’t leave it behind. It’s transformed –

But, even so, you’ve got to be the same person, and that means you’ve got to go on being bad as well as good. You’ve got to go on being bloody-minded and sour and cross and have rows and be jealous, all these things that make us human.

I am the mixture of my good bits and bad bits. I’m a constant struggle to be more good bits than bad bits, but that’s me. If you strip me down to that essential gem that God first created before I went and spoilt it all, that’s nothing I would recognise as me. And nobody else would recognise me either.

And I wouldn’t recognise anyone I loved if they’d suddenly become all good and were swanning about plunking on harps and understood the meaning of everything. They’d simply cease to be people in any way that was recognisable to me or of any interest or use. What I love about human life is its disharmony. Our essential nature is to be contrary.

In your columns, you sometimes catalogue the evils that religion has caused. Isn’t it fair to say that atheism has also been responsible for tremendous evil – for example, under Stalin and Mao?

Well, I’m not in favour of intolerance. I will fight to the death to allow you to be a Christian. I’d simply argue very hard with people not to be. It distresses me to see people on their knees praying to something that I think isn’t there, just as it distresses me to see people poring over astrological charts and running their lives by something that is palpable nonsense.

So, it’s not that I regard Christianity now as pernicious. If you totted up the pros and cons, you’d say that in our society Christianity now does more good than harm (not true in the past). But that’s mainly because it’s a minority religion. It’s beleaguered – it’s no kind of threat.

But where religion is strong in the world, it is always pernicious. Now it’s Islam – not because there is anything essentially worse about Islam than about Christianity: all religions, I think, have the same potential for good and evil in terms of the social functions they perform. But anybody who believes they’ve got a one-and-only truth will do awful things if given power.

What if the absolute truth of Christianity is that we should serve other people? The exercise of power you are talking about is on that basis always and everywhere a denial of Christian truth.

Increasingly that’s what Christians in Britain tend to think. And they are very often the people – in some areas, the only people – struggling to serve others and do good. They’re not very strong – they’re certainly not agents of change – but if one wants to look for groups of people who are trying to get something going for the poor and less privileged, then (apart from a few fanatics) Christians are pretty damn good by and large.

These clergy came and had lunch at the Guardian the other day and they told us, ‘You know, we’re the only professionals who are actually out there in some of these poor communities. Doctors go home, teachers go back to their nice suburbs; but we live there, and very often the church is the only place around which you can begin to get anything going. At least there is a physical church, at least there is a congregation of people who act together as a community, who might be able to set something going in places where there is really nothing.’

I think that’s really impressive, and very valuable. But I could only respond by saying, ‘I’d love to be part of such a community, if only you didn’t believe this stuff that I simply cannot and will not believe.’ You could be the foundation of a tremendously good social organisation if only you didn’t require people to believe that it’s all to do with a God in the sky and a contract with his Son.

You said ‘cannot and will not believe’. Which is it?

Both. I can’t believe and I don’t want to. Maybe if driven to extremes of suffering or despair you’d say, ‘Right, I’m going to make myself…’ There are a lot of writers who have written about trying to acquire faith, particularly intellectuals: people who wanted to be religious and have tried to make that plunge. I don’t think that’s an admirable thing to do.

And yet humanism is just as much of a faith commitment. You have no evidence that there is no God.

But it seems to me that the onus is on you. You’ve got to prove that there is.

The world is evidence, isn’t it?

No, of course not. We know how the world…

No, we don’t.

Well, the more we discover, the more you change your systems of belief to fit in with it. Every time there’s a new scientific discovery, Christians say, ‘Oh yes, that’s how God did it’ and completely reconstruct the Christian cosmos to fit in.

So we’re incorrigible?

Yes, you’re pretty incorrigible.

My point is that you do have faith, you just put it in a different worldview. It isn’t a matter of working up belief.

That’s just semantics, I think. When a Christian believes, it means that you simply pluck out of the air a faith in things that can’t be seen.

Well, yes, ‘faith is the conviction of things not seen.’ That’s what the Bible says.

So, I could just say, ‘I doubt if it’s true.’

But your faith is no different.

Well, perhaps I don’t have faith. I think it’s a word I’d never use.

Do you see yourself as a spiritual person?

Average, I should think. You know, everybody has their more and less spiritual moments. How much of my time do I spend thinking about the bigger things of life? Not as much as I should.

Where do I find…? I suppose you could say it’s in beautiful things of all sorts, both natural and man-made, in art and great writing and ideas. And I think the human mind is so fantastic, so extraordinary in what it can do. There’s plenty there to keep one going without having to look outside ourselves.

When your friend and colleague Jill Tweedie died of motor neurone disease, how did it affect you?

It was devastating. It reaffirmed my sense of the injustice of things. That there is no justice, there is no order, there is no sense. There just is what there is. You have the time you have: do the best with it you can. There is nothing else.

Maybe you could say, ‘If she’d believed in the hereafter, she could have come to terms with it.’ But she didn’t. She said, ‘This is monstrous!’ And I felt it was monstrous, and I felt that was honest. She should have had longer.

I can’t imagine how someone getting motor neurone disease could bring you to an idea of God. If I did believe in a God, I would be so angry with him.

Clare Short once said that she couldn’t believe in God because if she did she wouldn’t like him.

Yes, I feel that. I really, really would not like him at all. I would be in a state of rage, I would be wanting to get my revenge. I think I’d be a Satanist, on the grounds that ‘How can you say that what you’ve created is good? Just look about you! It isn’t.’

You said that the church in Britain is beleaguered, and yet there is a great resurgence in religion in the rest of the world. Why should Britain be different?

Most of Europe is going in our direction. We are amongst the lowest churchgoers, but the others are declining at the same kind of rate. The rise of Islam, I think, is very much to do with throwing off chains of colonialism and finding old identities, new identities, black identities. It’s a way of expressing yourself as a nation. I find it a very unpleasant way.

I don’t think there’s any hope for Christianity really in this country. It does distress me that it isn’t taught in schools as culture (I don’t want it taught as religion). I think it’s increasingly difficult for young people to read books or look at paintings, because they haven’t had enough Christian education – they need to learn the history of our culture. My children went to vaguely Christian schools and had assemblies and things, but they don’t seem to have absorbed anything from the Bible, or any hymns.

I love hymns. If anything would make me go to church it would be if I knew they would only sing hymns and there would be no praying at all. My children don’t know any – a great chunk of culture is missing, and I’m very sad. It’s ridiculous, really: I should say, ‘Hymns are all superstition, too.’ But they are wonderful.

Do you think that our society is so built on the Judaeo-Christian tradition that as that collapses, so the basis of our morality may also collapse?

I see no sign of it. Children from the earliest ages playing together have a really clear idea of what’s good, what’s unfair, who’s done what to whom and who’s to blame. It just is ingrained in us.

Some people can deny it or are deliberately bad, usually because of bad experience; but I do feel that awareness of good and evil is part of what makes us human. And don’t say that’s a religious thought, because I would also say that (although I don’t really like evolutionary psychology) those socialising instincts probably account to a very large degree for the success of the human race, and you can’t have them without a collective sense of good and bad that is deeply imprinted in us.

What signs of hope do you see in our culture?

I think we’re living in rather a hopeful time at the moment. We’ve had a lot of very dark years where everything negative and selfish and unpleasant has been emphasised about humans – encouraging the well-off to be selfish, but also castigating them as if they were all villains. And I think we’re coming out of that, and that’s wonderful.

Whether we can develop that into a permanent state of mind – even if one doesn’t want one party in power forever – making politics permanently more generous, more understanding, more open-minded, I don’t know. The Conservative Party still seems to be encouraging fellow citizens to think badly of one another.

I think I’m feeling more optimistic than I’ve felt for a long time. Looking across the world you could say there are as many horrors going on; but I suppose, as a humanist, I have to believe – as Christians do – in the constant possibility that we can do better. I have to believe in progress. I can’t imagine a society in which you thought progress isn’t possible.


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