There’ll always be an England, the casual visitor may comfortingly remind himself. Outward signs seem to affirm it. Derby day, Wensleydale cheese, cricket and football, policemen in quaint helmets, Georgian brick terraces, hedgerows, country churches: these things are as they have always been. Wearing her expression of patient exasperation, the Queen looks set to reign as long as her great-great-grandmother Victoria, that unequalled symbol of stability. The Household Cavalry still ride with historic splendor alongside the monarch in a landau to the state openings of parliament in Westminster. “My lords, ladies, and gentlemen,” intone innumerable toastmasters in their well-cut semi-military scarlet uniforms at banquets given in assemblies official and unofficial all over the country.
But what lies behind the trappings? Because the trams are running, they think this is a normal country, the poet Osip Mandelshtam said of Stalin’s Russia. Britain is not a bogus construction like the Soviet Union, nor has it been subjected to anything like the horror of Communism. All the same, over the last fifty or sixty years decline and change in a sometimes indistinguishable combination have 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.
Part of this may well have been the mysterious process of history whereby countries rise and fall, and the people within them have to adjust accordingly. To put things in a personal perspective, my grandfather was a professional soldier, one of the thin red line. Serving in the Boer war, he had seen a man condemned to Field Punishment Number One, which involved tying a soldier accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy to the wheel of a gun in action, and he had commanded the firing squad set up for a prominent Boer commander who had been captured. As an old man, distinguished in his stiff collar and regimental tie, and his invariable tweed suit, these memories troubled him. He had also served in Nigeria and spoke of the Ashanti, the Hausa, the Fulani, and the others, with admiration and affection, and I have a notebook in which he recorded the names of the Nigerian men enrolled with him, and the medals and the live ammunition issued to them.
One day at the end of the Second World War, he and I read the copy of The Times in which was printed the list of some 30,000 Englishmen whom the Germans intended to execute summarily after a successful invasion, and there was my father’s name. Previously a Bright Young Thing of the 1920s, thoroughly cosmopolitan, with literary and musical gifts, my father spoke German well and had become a colonel in the Intelligence Service. Yet not many years were to pass before he settled in the United States, where he was still able to live— as he used to say a little wistfully—with the freedom he had always taken for granted.
The end of empire drained the lives of many generations of Englishmen, including my grandfather’s, of their extraordinary achievements. In far-flung countries where once there had been the rule of law and the spread of British standards in health and education, every sort of misgovernance from brutal tyranny to anarchy now flourished. In Prime Minister Macmillan’s words, “the winds of change” were blowing, as though so many abuses had nothing to do with misguided human decisions, but were climatic and so beyond the reach of reason. These same winds served to place the blame for everything on the British, thus absolving those new nationalists who were actually responsible for injustices and crimes in their own countries. A lexicon of words like honor, duty, service, and self-sacrifice duly became obsolete, as did the conduct that went with them. Now it was time to attribute all ills to the past, and to look after oneself.
The welfare state emerged as a structure far more definitive socially and politically than the empire had ever been. From the standpoint of someone like my father, the welfare state could only cramp his style with taxation and regulations, giving in return nothing that he wanted. For him and many of his generation, another lexicon of words and their associated conduct became obsolete, words like liberty, creativity, artistry, responsibility, self-help, and learning. To play Schubert and Schumann from memory, and to enjoy Rilke, Lorca, and René Crevel in their original languages, as he did, was now to be marginalized and condemned as elitist.
Surveying his handiwork as architect of the welfare state, that quintessential bureaucrat, William Beveridge, once wrote a poignant letter to the prime minister who was also its prime mover, in which he wondered whether he might not have destroyed irretrievably the British character. To such as them, there seemed no alternative; the social democracies had to establish that they were superior to Communism in the care that they could provide for their citizens. Opposing Communism, they complemented it. None of the European social democracies today can afford the immense and complex structures of benefit and subsidy they have set in place. Communism is no longer a threat, but they find themselves unable either to dismantle the social protection erected against it, or to pay the bills. All are locked into the consequences. The lexicon of obsolete words further incorporates all the categories of the toastmaster’s “My lords, ladies and gentlemen,” as well as family, marriage, parenthood, spinster, and bachelor, and fewer and fewer children are able to make much sense of the commandment to honor their father and mother. Moral relativity of this sort spreads moral chaos through the whole society.
Out of the same authoritarian and protectionist impulses has grown the super-welfare state—in its way an empire—known as the European Union. Going back to the 1920s, this project has at its core the Leninist concept of building utopia through bureaucracy. For the previous three centuries or so, Britain had been able to form coalitions with other states, separately or in combination, to maintain the balance of power in Europe. Hitherto usually in opposition to one another, postwar Germany and France have come together through the European Union in a combination strong enough to pull in the other continental states. All they have in common is that they were losers or neutral in the Second World War. Isolated, trying to recover former alliances now unavailable, Britain has been under unprecedented political pressure to abandon its unique status as one of the victors of that war and instead throw in its lot with the losers and neutrals.
Successive governments have steadily promoted the reinvention of national identity inherent in acceptance of the European Union and its demands. Decimalization of the currency, metrification of weights and measures, the redefinition of counties, devolution for Scotland and Wales, may seem part of the usual run of bureaucratic decisions, but adjustments to the national character and behavior necessarily follow. Shilling, florin, and half-crown are among additions to obsolete words, and mile, yard, pound, and pint are reprieved only for the time being. It is already an offense punishable by law to sell a pound of bananas, rather than a kilo.
Institutions that once framed and governed the nation exist in name but not in the efficacy which once was their pride and justification. Carefully built down the ages in order to accommodate conflicting interests with various checks and balances, the original machinery of the state is being dismantled. Some two-thirds of the legislation affecting the country now originate from the European Commission and Council in Brussels. To outward appearance, the Westminster House of Commons is familiar, with its bewigged Speaker and attendants in breeches, but its proceedings are more and more irrelevant, rubber-stamping through committees what it is powerless to affect. Prime Minister Blair has hastened this decline by curtailing the time allotted to question the government, and by attending hardly more than 5 percent of parliamentary votes, where no previous prime minister fell below 50 percent. He has abolished the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, thereby ensuring a chamber of cronies and placemen, with the corresponding obsolescence of all associations of aristocracy. Even eighteenth-century cynics would blink at the way that large donors to Blair’s New Labour are rewarded with commercial contracts, ennobled, and appointed government ministers.
Repudiating its socialist roots, New Labour is the vehicle for Blair’s version of a presidency. Blair likes to present himself to television viewers in his shirt sleeves, always informal, “a pretty straight kinda guy,” as he once chose to put it. More than one critical official report has described how in reality he governs from his sofa, a pocket Napoleon dispensing orders via scores of unelected advisors and spin-doctors, politicizing the civil service and evading what last vestiges of parliamentary and constitutional procedure still exist. One fine morning, apparently over breakfast, he decided to abolish the thousand-year-old post of Lord Chancellor, responsible for the administration of the law—only to learn that this could not be done constitutionally. In another typical move, he appointed a young woman to clean up anti-social behavior on the streets, whereupon in a public speech she proclaimed that everyone worked better when drunk. Blair’s proudest boast is that he introduced human rights legislation into the country, giving it a supremacy over British law that undermines the legal and social order, and which the electorate, if it had the opportunity, would reject overwhelmingly. But as Peter Mandelson, a Blair crony rewarded with the appointment to be a Commissioner in Brussels, ominously said after the 1997 election, “The era of representative democracy may be drawing to its close.”
Historically the Conservative Party spoke for the nation and patriotism. Successive Conservative leaders have been unable to reconcile their innate sense of the national interest with the ever more insistent demands of Brussels. At present, the party is attempting to choose its fifth leader in eight years. Contenders have no clear idea either about what they wish to conserve or on the contrary to modernize. In this intellectual and political void, the national and patriotic vote has fragmented to minority parties, one of them openly fascist.
Other major institutions of the state have similarly mislaid their purpose. The behavior of some members of the royal family, and those who married into it like the late Princess Diana, has called into question what Bagehot emphasized as the important “dignified” aspect of the monarchy. Polls consistently show that, after the Queen’s death, republicanism is a distinct possibility. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, a Welshman, has been eager to describe himself as a Druid as well as a “hairy Leftie.” In a manner which would once have exposed them to Swiftian satire, factions within the Church of England dispute savagely about women bishops and whether a gay clergyman can live openly with a male lover if he promises to abstain from sex. More Muslims attend worship than Christians do. Once as influential on public opinion as the Church, the BBC now behaves like a political pressure group or party, abandoning objectivity in order to indulge its anti-Americanism, its propaganda for the European Union, and its campaigning to delegitimize Israel. According to a BBC diktat, Islamist terrorists are to be referred to as “militants.” The rest of the media, the press and publishing, likewise confuses reality with bien pensant opinion. The Times, formerly the paper of record, is now an erratic and cheapened tabloid. At Covent Garden, the opening act of Rigoletto, of all operas, was staged as a sadomasochistic orgy. There are scores of museums and universities, but no great art or scholarship; scores of prizes, but no great fiction or poetry.
A special case, the army is acquitting itself well in Iraq. One soldier, originally from Granada in the Caribbean, won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery in the field. But there too the writing is on the wall. British soldiers are being charged with war crimes in Iraq. One of them, a lieutenant colonel commanding his regiment, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, second only to the Victoria Cross, and is now being brought to trial to answer for the conduct of several men under him—a confusion of reward and punishment last seen in 1945 when Vichy Frenchmen were simultaneously decorated and condemned to prison.
Meanwhile, the British army is being reorganized and reequipped as part of a European Rapid Reaction Force with its command center in Brussels. Should defense contracts and cooperation with the United States really be abandoned, the two main English-speaking democracies within a few years will not be able to fight alongside, and furthermore Britain will no longer be in a position to implement an independent foreign policy, as in the Falkland Islands yesterday, and in Iraq today. A portent was the recent celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, presented as some unidentifiable contest between “reds” and “blues” in order to obscure the historic defeat of the French and Spanish navies (see Andrew Roberts’s “Trafalgar then and now,” in this issue). Admiral Nelson and the concept of British victory, it turned out, were also obsolete.
Some of these ills are paralleled elsewhere in the world, and may be ascribed to the imperfections of democracy, the universality of political correctness, or the malevolence of the zeitgeist. Britain is not alone in relativizing morality. And as Adam Smith famously observed, there is a “deal of ruin” in a country. All the same, the sudden eruption of British Muslim terrorists exposed the Potemkin façades of the institutions amid which everyone—and above all these actual or would-be murderers—had grown up and taken their ease. The facts are stark. By origin, these men had no real claim on the British welfare state, yet they were its products and beneficiaries. For themselves they claimed the tolerance and diversity which they were not prepared to grant to others. The prevailing ethos of multiculturalism to them meant jihad, the imposition of their exclusive religious imperialism. Cornered by the police, one of the survivors of a failed bombing in London emerged stripped to the waist and shouting, “I have rights!” This cameo of everything that has gone amiss ought to imprint itself on the national memory.
In the wake of the bombings, Blair rightly condemned the “evil ideology” of the Islamist terrorists. At the same time, some of his ministers hastened to preach the intrinsic peacefulness of Islam, and to blame the attacks on anyone and anything except those who incited and supported them. In a press conference, a senior police commissioner informed the nation that Islam and terrorism were two words that did not go into the same sentence. In which case the bombings are merely deranged acts, and no further analysis or preventive steps need be undertaken. But, pointedly, imams here and there in the country have come out in support of the bombers. “Even if I’m British,” one of them declares, “I don’t follow the values of the U.K. I follow the Islamic values. I have no allegiance to the British Queen whatsoever, or to British society.”
Legislation old and new is on the statute books to protect society from Islamist terror. So far, over seven hundred suspected terrorists have been arrested, but only one sentenced to imprisonment. The Law Lords, acting as a Supreme Court, frustrate justice at every turn; notably they have ruled against detention without trial. One of them, Lord Hoffman, earned his place in the nation’s memory when he commented on proposed anti-terrorist measures, “The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws like these.” So movements like Hizbut Tahrir and Hamas and al-Ghurabaa, dedicated to Islamist imperialism through violence and consequently mostly banned in the Muslim world, operate and publish and recruit with impunity in what has been well described as Londonistan.
Lord Hoffman speaks for the multicultural moral relativists who control public discourse, but who nowhere connect with public opinion. The man on the street is outraged that the government has lost control of its borders, tolerates half a million illegal immigrants, allows an escaping suicide bomber to leave the country in the comfort of the Eurostar train, and even if this means that Blair must eat humble pie, he expects derogation from the Human Rights Act, and perhaps the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees as well and the immediate deportation of anyone promoting Islamist terror.
Islamism is hardly the threat to the country that Hitler was in 1940. Since then, however, time and circumstances have so eroded the moral values necessary to survival and independence that the outcome of another Battle of Britain is an open question. It may be that Islamist terror will have the unintended consequence of reviving the many national institutions which went into making England what is was, but whose vital purposes have been so heedlessly emptied of meaning. Otherwise England and its role in the world seem set on a course which will increase the lexicon of obsoletes.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 1, on page 4
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