Another title for this enthralling family memoir might be the “would-be-goods”. The phrase was coined by E Nesbit of Railway Children fame, who was also a co-founder of the Fabian Society, but it perfectly encapsulates the middle-class liberal-left tradition that Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee can trace back through her family for generations. As well as her parents and grandparents there are cousins and great-aunts, all educated, clever, public service-oriented men and women anguishing over a set of subjects that have only become more urgent in recent years: low pay, environmental harm, colonial appropriation and, most pertinently here, the way that social stagnation props up the political status quo.
This makes Toynbee singular and perhaps Toynbees plural sound smug, but nothing could be further from the truth. In her laceratingly honest and often funny book she illustrates how “to live on the left side is to live with inevitable hypocrisy and painful self-awareness, with good intentions forever destined to fall short of ideals, social concern never enough”.
The hero of the story is not a famous Toynbee – not the one after whom Toynbee Hall is named, nor the one who was a world-famous liberal historian, nor the one who was a novelist and Observer journalist – but Harry Valpy Toynbee, an unsung Edwardian. In 1905 he was employed to work on the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress. He started as an old-fashioned liberal who believed in giving small handouts to the deserving poor to get them back on their feet. Increasingly, though, he aligned with social reformers Beatrice Webb and George Lansbury, who argued that economic and social dysfunction could not be solved at an individual level but required state intervention. The stress of juggling these contradictory yet adjacent positions led Harry Toynbee to a mental breakdown.
Polly Toynbee knew vaguely about her great-grandfather’s sad story but was horrified to discover recently that he lived for nearly 40 years in an asylum, muttering self-recriminations – “silly fool” – and dying a few years before she was born in 1946. She sees in Harry’s mental struggle an acting out of the damaging split between liberal and socialist positions that bedevilled the British left for generations, allowing the right to remain in power. And she should know. In 1983 she stood as a candidate for the newly formed Social Democratic party, something which would have made her communist father turn in his grave.
From here the tales of family dysfunction escalate. There’s Harry’s son Arnold, the historian, who marries a ghastly woman who mocked his earnest ways: the would-be-goods, being so unworldly, tend not to be good pickers. Arnold’s bride Rosalind was the granddaughter of the countess of Carlisle, a radically inclined aristocrat who took care to offset any suggestions of moral backsliding by decanting the contents of Castle Howard’s wine cellar into the lake. It was this joyless teetotalism that Toynbee believes accounts for the many alcoholics in the family, including her father, Philip, the Observer journalist.
And then there is Polly herself, on whom she sheds a fierce, forensic light. What she finds is the inherited good fortune that takes the form of confidence and connections rather than thousands of acres or millions in the bank. It was this that allowed her to spectacularly mess up her education (11-plus and O-level failure, Oxford dropout) and yet eventually emerge with a well-paid career as a journalist specialising, by and large, in other people’s misfortune.
Toynbee wants us to understand that she enjoyed second and third chances that would not have been open to someone from a different class background. Worse still is the fact that things are no better today, indeed are getting worse. She has the figures to show that the social mobility lift is stuck at ground level and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Despite various Toynbees’ efforts, individual action will not fix this. What’s needed now, she insists, is for the political class to find the will to stop this poisonous heirloom being handed down to yet another generation.
• An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals by Polly Toynbee is published by Atlantic. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.