Paul Foot, in his column in The Guardian, offers the following criticism of the Shadow Home Secretary’s remarks about education and asylum seekers:
His fatuous speech about schools coincided with his call to dump asylum seekers on a faraway island, he knows not where. Where did he get that idea? It is unlikely that a hypocritical snob such as Mr Letwin has read any Wordsworth, so, in an attempt to bring him down to earth, I offer this valuable advice from Wordsworth's poem on the French Revolution:
"Not in utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us - the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all."
I considered Oliver Letwin's Conference comment on schools inept and his policy on asylum seekers illiberal and wrong. I also see a legitimate place for insult in the political lexicon. But when an insult has no external point of reference, when it's simply unfounded abuse, it usually indicates a paucity of reasoning ability on the part of the utterer.
So it is in this case. How does Foot judge that Letwin is a hypocritical snob who is unlikely to have read Wordsworth? Even supposing, as I have no evidence to assume, Letwin is indeed a hypocritical snob, why does that militate against his having read Wordsworth? Never having met Letwin I don't know that he has, but I should think it more likely than not that his academically distinguished parents (his late mother, Shirley Robin Letwin of the LSE, wrote an excellent study of The Gentleman in Trollope) would have taken some trouble to acquaint him with the Romantic poets.
If so, Letwin will be able to see through Foot's affectations without much difficulty. The lines Foot quotes (which are from The Prelude) are not 'on the French Revolution', but on 'The French Revolution - As It Appeared To Enthusiasts At Its Commencement' (emphasis added). The difference is important both poetically and historically. Wordsworth, having been an early supporter of the French Revolution reverted quickly to the Burkean critique of it. He even gives in The Prelude (in the 1850, not the 1805, edition) an urgent and remarkably accurate account of Burke's philosophy of society:
"I see him – old, but vigorous in age,
Stand like an oak
While he forewarns, denounces, launches forth,
Against all systems built on abstract rights,
Keen ridicule; the majesty proclaims
Of institutes and Laws, hallowed by time;
Declares the vital power of social ties
Endeared by custom; and with high disdain,
Exploding upstart Theory, insists
Upon the allegiance to which men are born…."
If Foot – the author of a worthless tract on Shelley - knows this, then he's distorting the historical record in his appropriation of Wordsworth's lines for his own ideological ends. If doesn't know it, then he doesn't know Wordsworth - and he thus might aptly be termed a hypocritical snob.