We know what Robert Browning meant. We have long wished that The New Criterion were more readily available in England. Nor are we alone. Writing recently in The Claremont Review, the historian Paul Johnson observed that "One of the cultural treasures Britain lacks, and America happily possesses, is the monthly review New Criterion." We are pleased to report that the lack Mr. Johnson lamented is about to be filled. Beginning this autumn, The New Criterion will be available at select bookstores and newsstands in Great Britain.
To celebrate this happy event, we have assembled in this issue a special section on British cultural and political life today. With contributions by Theodore Dalrymple, John Gross, Daniel Johnson, Rodney Leach, Peter Mullen, Kenneth Minogue, John O'Sullivan, David Pryce-Jones, and Andrew Roberts, this colloquy is a wide-ranging cultural damage report, at once sobering and invigorating. In Potemkin Vistas, Mr. Pryce-Jones limns the problem:
Over the last fifty or sixty years the sometimes indistinguishable combination of decline and change has shredded its tradition and its spirit, even its identity. The revolution has been accomplished by peaceful and often imperceptible degrees, but it is a revolution all the same.
It has been a revolution in character, in politics, in religion, in the everyday virtues that made Britain Britain. As recently as twenty-five years ago, Theodore Dalrymple reports, visitors from abroad were struck by the survival of those traditional, those Victorian, virtues whose practice helped to define Britishness: "politeness, lack of self-importance, stoicism, fortitude, emotional self-control, and an ironic detachment from their own experience, especially when it was unpleasant." Today, by contrast, these virtues seem as outdated as powdered wigs. "[T]he ideal that I have described," Dr. Dalrymple notes, "has been abandoned as absurd, oppressive, and anachronistic by more than one generation of Britons. Self-control now seems merely ridiculous to them, and even harmful."
What happened? One might resort to shorthand, say "The Sixties," and leave it at that. Britain—Europe generally—has suffered from the same latitudinarian impulses that swept through the United States during the last few decades with such fearsome consequences for social, cultural, and moral life. The bill for that assault has yet to be fully tallied. Ponder what has happened to our notions of decency, for example—we can barely use the word today without an embarrassed smile—of intelligence, of self-reliance, of aesthetic delicacy and moral circumspection. Kenneth Minogue registers some of the deeper reasons for this decay. Curiously, ironically, it is deeply bound up with that unmodulated craving for perfection that often goes under the name of idealism but really is one of the more destructive allotropes of sentimentality. "Could it be," Mr. Minogue asks,
that our very greed for social perfection has destroyed our grip on the real moorings of human life? Perhaps our sentimental addiction to the superficialities of social perfection has eroded our capacity for the hard and demanding work of moral integrity. Certainly, tolerance and benevolence are often shallow virtues. But it may well be that this personal loss of integrity merely reflects a similar collapse of integrity in the institutions of civil society as they respond to the sickly embrace of government and of projects of social perfection.
To a large extent, the shape of British culture today—like the shape of contemporary American culture—illustrates some of the less beneficent effects of the law of unintended consequences. What our leaders sought—not just our political leaders, but even more our cultural and moral leaders—was liberation: from the burden of the past, from poverty, from spiritual narrowness, from social opprobrium. What they got was liberation all right—liberation from the very conditions that made the everyday exercise of freedom possible. Consider, for example, what has happened to that once great institution, the Church of England. Once a civilizing bulwark of British society, the C. of E. eagerly grasped at social "relevance" and thereby assured its descent into parody and fatuity. As the Rev. Peter Mullen observes below, "the Church accepted wholesale the new social agenda of permissiveness. . . . The old belief that certain actions were prohibited by God's Commandments was simply passé—something that 'modern man come of age' could safely leave behind." The result is a Church that is part laughing stock, part co-conspirator in the moral dissolution of the country it once sought to enlighten and call to righteousness ("righteousness," another word we cannot use without apology—what does that tell us?).
In part, the pathologies chronicled in the essays below are illustrations of political correctness in action. The farcical aspects of this are nowhere more patent than in Britain's efforts to commemorate its past without (heaven forfend) celebrating its greatness. Consider, for example, the festivities organized around the two-hundredth anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, one of the greatest naval battles in history and one in which heroism, military strategy, and an absolute commitment to duty conspired to lead England into definitive victory over a voracious continental tyranny. Not, of course, that we are allowed to express the matter in those rude terms. As Andrew Roberts observes, this summer, in anticipation of the anniversary of Trafalgar on October 21, a quarter of a million people gathered to watch the reenactment of the battle—well, of a battle, for we really mustn't say which one:
In order to save the French and Spanish participants in the Review any embarrassment at having been defeated two hundred years ago, the reenactment of the battle was fought not between the British and Combined Fleets, but between what were euphemistically dubbed the red and blue fleets. Although an actor playing Nelson, with eye patch and empty shirtsleeve, was rowed on board the sailing ship representing HMS Victory, for reasons of political correctness the Navy organizers did not want formally to identify the reenactment as actually being of Trafalgar itself.
In October 1805, when news of the battle reached London, The Times announced the event with a three-part banner headline that advised Londoners, first, that a great victory had been won, second, that the French fleet had been destroyed, and, third, that Admiral Nelson had been killed. Today, it's prizes for everyone, as the dodo in Alice in Wonderland insisted: nobody won, really, and let's not be beastly to the French.
Not all the news from Britain is bad—though much of what is good is the product of adversity. As John O'Sullivan points out, the terrorist bombings in London this summer helped to crystallize a simmering reaction against the politically correct multicultural pieties that have done so much to sap the resolve of Britons in the last few decades. What did it mean that the four terrorists were not exotic imports but were home-grown, cricket-playing Yorkshire boys—Muslim, to be sure, but local-bred lads who had acclimatized themselves to Britain without assimilating to its culture? One implication was that the standard-issue obeisance to multiculturalism had somewhere gone dreadfully wrong. Academics and other elites—media newscasters, politicians, pop culture celebrities, all those members of the chattering classes that Daniel Johnson anatomizes below—had assured us that Britain's future lay in overcoming, transcending, repudiating Britishness. The ideal was a transnational cosmopolitanism untrammeled by anything so parochial as national allegiance. The July 7 bombings tore the mask off that canard. More and more, it seems, the minority argument about "multicultural Britain" was finding an audience. At the center of that argument, Mr. O';Sullivan observes, was the contention that Britian was "not a multicultural society but a multi-ethnic society united by a common culture." Indeed,
Multiculturalism was not only false as a description of Britain, therefore, but it also implied ideas and practices that were incompatible with the nation's liberal common culture. Its theory of the equality of cultures both implied human inequality, since some cultures denied the equality of women, and protected such practices as genital mutilation. It was therefore a reactionary political doctrine.
Britain's future, Mr. O'Sullivan argues, did not lie with the multicultural utopia being pursued in one manner by E.U. bureaucrats and in another way by Muslim fundamentalists. Rather, it lay with the "common culture" articulated by that informal confederation—spiritual as much as linguistic—that has been dubbed the "Anglosphere," those English-speaking countries whose commonalities include "the Common Law, habeas corpus, personal property ownership, a sense of fair play, maxims such as 'my word is my bond,' a tradition of entrepreneurship, and—in all countries except the United States—cricket."
Will there always be an England? Many observers, ourselves included, have had moments of unhappy doubt. Among other things, Mr. Leach writes, England's embrace of that latest experiment in socialistic paternalism—the European Union—pointed to the absorption or obliteration of Britishness. But the E.U., though a clear and present danger, is not the hegemonic monolith we have sometimes feared. As Rodney Leach points out, the recent rejection of the European Constitution is a potent sign of hope. Among other things, it demonstrates "how Europe should revitalize itself and connect with its peoples by setting them free to return to their inheritance, nowadays without the least fear of a recrudescence of the confrontational or military aspects of nationalism that discredited the concept in the 1930s. Call it devolution, if you want to be modernist." Optimism, as Candide knew, is a beguiling temptation. It is too early to be optimistic about Britain. But there are portents that in the midst of loss recoveries are possible. Rev. Mullen concludes his essay with some sage advise. He quotes the Psalmist—Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered—and then admonishes: "Always remembering that the enemies are within."
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 1, on page 1
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com