The Battle of Britain -- Is the sun setting on the United Kingdom?
The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana by Peter Hitchens Encounter, 332 pp., $ 22.95
A few years ago, I was hiking up to an observatory in Georgetown on the Malaysian island of Penang. On the steep, winding road to the top, I fell into conversation with a well-dressed middle-aged man, a Malaysian Chinese, who told me about the problems his daughter faced getting into university because of the regime's nastily racist program that favored ethnic Malays and penalized the ethnic Chinese minority. It was unfair, unjust. "You're British," he said. "You should do something about this."
It was touching and not a little sad that he thought British influence still counted for so much, and that he automatically associated the concept of fair play with the former colonial power. From a historical point of view, he wasn't entirely mistaken: Over the centuries, many people -- African slaves in agony in the Middle Passage, Hindu widows being burned alive, Indian travelers strangled by religious lunatics, Belgian civilians brutalized by Wilhelmine soldiery, and Jews being kicked to death by Nazi brownshirts -- have all wanted the British to do something about it, and eventually they did.
But then Britain and its prestige are perceived differently abroad than at home these days -- especially by the political class. When Peter Hitchens, the former Trotskyite who is now Britain's most forthright conservative pundit, laments the "abolition of Britain," he isn't talking just about the Blair government's formal destruction of the United Kingdom as a unitary state or even the modernizing Kulturkampf against such vestiges of the imperialist, racist, class-ridden past as the breeches worn by the Lord Chancellor and the popular Royal Tournament show of military pageantry. He's also talking about the long-term shift in national self-perception that allowed all this to happen -- a shift, strangely enough, that accelerated as Britain left the strikebound malaise of the late 1970s for the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s. Essentially, the British seem to have reacted, rather belatedly, to the loss of empire with an orgy of self-contempt. Pushed along by a middle-class minority who passionately desire the submersion of Britain in a European superstate, this peculiar self-loathing has made the British particularly vulnerable to a virulent form of PC multiculturalism and to the idea that Britain's institutions and traditions are, at best, outmoded and absurd.
"We allowed our patriotism to be turned into a joke, wise sexual restraint to be mocked as prudery, our families to be defamed as nests of violence, loathing, and abuse, our literature to be tossed aside as so much garbage, and our church turned into a department of the Social Security system," Hitchens writes in his concluding chapter.
"We let our schools become nurseries of resentment and ignorance, and humiliated our universities by forcing them to take unqualified students in large numbers. . . . We abandoned a coinage which. . . . spoke of tradition and authority. . . . We tore up every familiar thing in our landscape, adopted a means of transport wholly unfitted to our small crowded island, demolished the hearts of hundreds of handsome towns and cities, and in the meantime we castrated our criminal law, because we no longer knew what was right or wrong."
Some of these changes were organic and others artificial (though Hitchens, to the detriment of his argument, rarely distinguishes the two). Some were initiated by Labour governments, but a surprising number were the work of Conservative administrations.
So, for instance, the foreign office under Margaret Thatcher pursued a relentless policy of post-imperial betrayal, beginning with hints to the Argentines that Britain no longer cared about the Falkland Islands and culminating in the selling of the people of Hong Kong to Communist China -- after first removing their right to reside in the United Kingdom, so they'd have no leverage and nowhere to run.
And so, for another instance, the Tories under John Major took the country deeper into the European Union -- while reciting the mantra that further integration into the emerging superstate was the only way Britain could hope to exert any influence, now that it was merely a "fourth-rate power." (This phrase is always delivered in tones of such gloomy satisfaction, no one notices that such a "rating" ignores factors like economic strength, nuclear deterrents, seats on the U.N. Security Council, and cultural influence.) But Tory surrenders of sovereignty pale beside the changes instituted by the "New Labour" government of Tony Blair. For the most part, the British population has been an unenthusiastic but oddly resigned witness to even more revolutionary changes. (Though the drive to abolish British currency and replace it with the Euro provoked a surprisingly vocal opposition.) The most important of these changes are the constitutional "reforms" carried out merely because the need for such changes was self-evident to the London media elite that calls the tune in British society.
The fact that the United Kingdom seemed to work -- despite the oddness and antiquity and irrationalism of its constitutional arrangements -- was declared irrelevant. Sure, it provided reasonable prosperity, liberty, and security at least as effectively as systems in use in the Continent (or across the Atlantic). Sure it proved less vulnerable to economic and political storms than, say, the modern German state since 1870 or the various republics, empires, and monarchies that have ruled France since 1789. But that's all ancient history. The key thing is that nothing about the old United Kingdom conforms to what the new British elite conceives of as "modernity."
The idea that there might be risks in sudden, radical constitutional change, that for a constitution to be effective it needs legitimacy and the emotional allegiance of the people, is not one that Britain's hyper-rationalist but parochial reformers have given much thought to, despite the warnings flashed from Yugoslavia. For the new public-sector middle class and the metropolitan media elite, a single idea is paramount: Britain is a musty, provincial place "held back" by dated, irrational institutions and a culture that wrongly venerates a history that is essentially a record of shame and oppression.
In its mildest form, this idea is manifested in the culturalist theory of British decline that influenced Thatcher as much as Blair: the idea that postwar economic failure is inextricably linked to the persistence in Britain of a culture of deference. Better policy might well have been found by asking instead how a pair of small islands off the coast of Europe managed to become the world's most powerful nation for a century and a half, producing a fair number of the world's best scientists, poets, admirals, and statesmen. But those old successes were dismissed. As the newly elected Tony Blair put it in 1997 -- so memorably and tellingly, in marketing-man's jargon -- Britain desperately needs to be "rebranded" as a "young country." That the Blair government has been able to tear so much down in so short a time with so little effective opposition is one of the most fascinating mysteries of modern politics. After all, it's rare for a perfectly viable system of government to be dismantled in a time of peace and prosperity. Peter Hitchens understands that Britain came to this pass because of a series of social and cultural changes, some of them inevitable results of postwar exhaustion and impoverishment, but many more of them the products of cultural and class warfare.
Unfortunately his Abolition of Britain is arranged in such a scattershot way that it conveys no real sense of either the chronology or the interplay of the various factors that broke British morale and allowed a resentful section of the population, without previous experience of power and responsibility, to make a revolution. Still, The Abolition of Britain is an entertaining and moving read that helps explain why certain key strata of the British middle classes are such enthusiasts for eliminating the things that make Britain unique. It offers a key to such mysteries as how the British state could actually prosecute merchants for using non-metric measures, jail a farmer for defending himself against brutal robbers, and arrest a man for the "racist" act of flying a flag above a pub.
There are so many effective anecdotes in Hitchens's book that it is difficult to pick one as particularly telling. So, for symbolic concision, how about the abolition of the flag? It was in 1997, the year of Blair's election, that British Airways removed the Union Jack flag from the tails of its aircraft and replaced it with "ethnic" designs that it hoped foreign customers would find more sympathetic.
The airline's then-CEO, Robert Ayling, apparently feared that foreigners associated the British national flag with skinheads, soccer hooligans, and imperialism. This was not based, of course, on any polling of Africans or Asians or Europeans. But Ayling did know that the Union Jack is associated with skinheads and soccer hooligans and imperialism by the media folk and the professional middle classes who now control Britain. These are people far too well-educated and sophisticated to have any truck with anything as atavistic as national pride and who simply cannot conceive that anyone would see a Union Jack as a symbol of something positive. (Britain is not in fact a flag-waving country; its inhabitants have long been embarrassed by the kind of loud patriotism associated with their continental neighbors or the United States. But there's a difference between this kind of reticence and actual hostility to the flag.)
Kipling once asked, "What do they know of England who only England know?" The Blairite elite, for all their vacations in French or Tuscan villages, have much less experience of the outside world than the imperial elite they replaced. It's why they don't know that the French, whom they worship, are utterly unembarrassed by the traditional pageantry being scourged in Britain and would not dream of deconcessioning the tricoleur. Have the Blairites never seen the Communist deputies saluting, as mounted republican guardsmen in breastplates and horsehair plumes lead the Bastille Day parade, just in front of the tanks? Apparently not, which is another reason no one in the new ruling elite even questions the assumption that Britain is an embarrassingly Ruritanian society, long overdue for a thorough house-cleaning.
Still less do they doubt that a country properly cleansed of cringe-inducing vestiges of a quaint, elitist past like the changing of the guard, Oxbridge, red telephone boxes, hereditary peers, and the monarchy will be both more efficient and more popular with foreign tourists. For them it is an article of faith that new is better.
Alas for Peter Hitchens, impassioned, perceptive, and courageous though he is, the opposite is also an article of faith: For him, all change is bad. Hitchens actually laments the advent of central heating and double glazing, because families are no longer brought together by having to huddle around a single hearth. When he contrasts the Britain of Princess Diana's funeral with the Britain of Churchill's funeral, his case that everything has gotten worse includes the "crazed over-use of private cars" and "the disappearance of hats and the decline of coats."
Indeed, if you were going to be harsh you might almost subtitle this book "A compendious diatribe of everything I hate about Britain today, with minor, aesthetic irritations given the same weight as the destruction of the constitution." There's a silly chapter in which Hitchens bemoans the famous trial of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, which made it all but impossible for the British government to ban books on the grounds of obscenity. Then there's his notion that the "American Occupation" of Britain from 1941 to 1945 introduced adultery to British womanhood -- a claim that would have amused Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton.
But the most bizarrely wrong chapter is the one that blames the satirical television and wireless programs of the late 1950s and early 1960s for destroying national unity. The idea that a culture that survived Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift could be brought down by Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett is preposterous. And if comedy "made an entire class too ridiculous to rule," then P. G. Wodehouse and perhaps even Charles Dickens are also to blame.
Of course many things are worse in Britain than they were during the 1950s, the decade that Hitchens takes as his paradigm for the real, lost Britain. Even people of the Left look with disgust upon Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" with its ubiquitous youth culture awash with drugs, its government by glib marketing men, its increasing corruption, the ever-spreading coarseness, and the startling ubiquity of violent crime (you're now much, much more likely to be mugged or burgled in London than in New York).
But is it so terrible that the food is better, that there are sidewalk cafes, that middle- and even working-class people can afford to travel, that the state plays a smaller role in the nation's economic life (though a far greater one in other realms)? Some of Hitchens's nostalgia fixes on things that were not especially British, or not laudably so -- like censorship, or the prosecution and blackmailing of homosexuals. Other things Hitchens sees as quintessentially British were, in fact, freakish phenomena of the postwar decades. In particular, the placidity and gentleness in those years was an artificial state, the result of exhaustion and wartime discipline.
Hitchens should know that for centuries European and other visitors were struck by the amazing pugnaciousness of the English and by their quick sentimentality. (Two enjoyable recent books, Jeremy Paxman's The English and Paul Langford's Englishness Identified, take up this topic.) From the eighteenth century on, Britons were seen even by their many European admirers as terrifyingly violent. That's why small numbers of them were able to defeat large numbers of foreigners either on the continent or the battlefields of empire. The British soccer hooligan is a mere return to form. So, too, the Victorians were famous for their weeping: They kept emotional reserve for important moments, like when they were about to be tortured by Fuzzy Wuzzies.
It's a shame The Abolition of Britain includes so much cranky fogeyism (including nostalgia for the flogging of teenage criminals). It's a shame, because at its best this book combines superb reporting (especially about the hijacking of education by frustrated leftists) with a heartbreaking analysis of one of the strangest revolutions in history. And in many ways it is the most important of the torrent of books that have dealt with the crisis of British identity.
What Hitchens understands is that bourgeois New Labour is far more revolutionary than any government before -- although, ironically, it learned just how easy it is to defy tradition and make radical constitutional changes from Margaret Thatcher, who abolished the Greater London Council merely because it was dominated by her political enemies. Hitchens rightly sees the New Labour "project" as a kind of politically correct Thatcherism with a punitive cultural agenda aimed at certain class enemies. The House of Commons's vote to abolish fox hunting is a perfect example: an interference in British liberty enacted by our urban middle-class rulers in order to kick toffs in the teeth -- one that will put thousands of rural working-class people out of work. When Labour was dominated by cloth-capped, working-class socialists, ownership of the means of production may have been at issue, but the party never threatened the structure of the kingdom. Tony Blair heads the least socialist, least redistributive Labour government ever. Yet at the same time he has used the legally unchecked powers of a House of Commons majority to enact the most revolutionary changes in the British constitution since the Civil War of the 1640s.
It still isn't clear whether the Blair government sees its steady stream of attacks on the old order's structure and accouterments as a clever and harmless way of distracting its genuinely socialist members and supporters from their fiscal conservatism, or whether they actually know that traditions and rituals are rather more important than marginal tax rates when it comes to destroying the old United Kingdom they despise. Because the reforms, enacted swiftly and without serious debate, were intended mostly to proclaim the new government's difference from the Tories, they followed no consistent theory. Scotland and Wales got separate parliaments but continue to send MPs to Westminster where they make laws for the English (some 80 percent of the population) who do not have their own separate parliament.
Of course, it never occurred to the Blairites -- who see themselves as technocrats above primitive feelings of attachment to nation or any community other than their own cosmopolitan class -- that by tossing bones to the Welsh and Scots nationalist minorities they might awaken the long slumbering beast of English nationalism. These people have lived so long under the protection of an inclusive British nationalism, they couldn't imagine that English nationalism, fed by growing submission to Europe and the unfair favoring of Scotland, will of necessity be racial and resentful. When a few old souls mentioned the danger of awakening nationalisms after centuries of peace and comity, they were laughed at by the Blairites. Now you see all over England the red cross of St. George, a symbol from the medieval past that spontaneously appeared in the hands of soccer fans and on the dashboards of London taxicabs. It's enough to make Hitchens warn of "interesting times" ahead -- in the scary sense of "interesting." As he says, "When a people cease to believe their national myths and cease to know or respect their history, it does not follow that they become blandly smiling internationalists. Far from it."
Of course, you can detect in the Blair generation's discomfort with Britain's past an element of envy and insecurity. It cannot be easy for middle-aged Britons to look back on the achievements of their fathers and grandfathers (who defeated Hitler and the Kaiser), or, worse still, those of their great grandfathers (who brought peace and prosperity to millions around the globe), without wishing to denigrate those achievements. But if you want to understand why a significant chunk of the British population loathes Britain and wants to undo it, you have to look beyond generational resentment to class. An acquaintance of mine was on his way to a party for the fiftieth anniversary of VE day in 1995 when he bumped into Jon Snow, a well-known British broadcaster and fairly typical figure of the new British establishment. He asked Snow if he too were going to a VE celebration. Snow sneered back that he was going to "an anti-VE day party." Not for him any of that jingoistic nostalgia for World War II.
As Orwell pointed out, the English intelligentsia has always been severed from the common culture of the country. But in the 1930s, the intellectuals were joined in their alienation by a significant number of mandarins, upper- and upper-middle-class civil servants, who responded to democratization and the simultaneous decline of British influence by deciding that their country would be better off ruled by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The modern equivalent is to transfer one's allegiance to the "European ideal," which means, in practice, rule by the smooth bureaucrats of Brussels. For the remnants of the mandarin class, there's something comforting in the idea that Britain and Europe can be run by a sophisticated international elite -- made up of chaps not unlike themselves.
"Europe" also solves a status problem for the new public-sector middle class. Unlike the treacherous mandarins, these people have not lost position; they never had it. They therefore define themselves as being more "civilized" than the country-house toffs above them and the bigoted proles below. And they take to an extreme the retarditaire notion that everything is done better on the Continent. The basic idea is that if you are the kind of person sophisticated enough to appreciate wine and cappuccino -- rather than beer and tea -- then, of course, you must favor the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels.
There are good reasons for Americans to study Peter Hitchens's The Abolition of Britain. It won't be a good thing for America if British PC multiculturalists manage to discredit the parent culture of the United States. More important, however, is the lesson about the fragility of culture that Americans should take from this book. In his famous essay "England, Your England," George Orwell wrote, "It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture." But reading Hitchens you soon realize that Orwell was wrong: A culture can be destroyed from the inside, as well.