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The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana
by Peter Hitchens
San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2001
(330 pages; $16.95, paper)
England: An Elegy
by Roger Scruton
London: Chatto & Windus, 2000
(280 pages; £16.99 [$23.65], cloth)
reviewed by Jack Wade Nowlin
Peter Hitchens is the younger brother of left-wing Clinton critic Christopher Hitchens and a conservative journalist—and former Trotskyite—who has spent more than 20 rousing, reactionary years on The Daily Express in London. His book, The Abolition of Britain, now out in a revised and expanded paperback, is a stirring lament for a Britain all but destroyed by the social, cultural, and legal revolutions of the last four decades.
Roger Scruton, one of the best philosophers writing in English today, is the editor of the quarterly Salisbury Review and author of over a dozen books in philosophy, social criticism, and fiction. Scruton’s latest work, England: An Elegy, is a mournful meditation on the meaning and passing of the idea of “England” as a national ideal and “imagined community” alive in the hearts and minds of Englishmen.
Both books are brilliantly perceptive and beautifully written, but neither one, alas, provides any reason to expect spiritual or cultural renewal in the land that produced Thomas More, John Henry Newman, C. S. Lewis, and Ronald Knox.
The story of recent Western cultural disruption and aphasia is a familiar one: An ugly rumbling undercurrent in the 1950s; striking eruptions of serious disorder in the 1960s; dispiriting decades of slow but steady decline in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, including the passing away of older generations and their moral influence; the self-styled “counterculture” gradually moving into positions of authority and becoming a new Establishment; the increasing irrelevance of the dwindling, isolated, and besieged philosophic defenders of the old dispensation; and the ragged and diminishing holding actions and counterattacks of the disorganized remnants of moral traditionalism and settled practices, dominated most often by “populist” leaders who represent the cultural backwaters whose folkways remain intact.
How have the British Isles been affected by this international pattern of cultural upheaval? Peter Hitchens provides an incisive, insightful, and deeply moving account of the British experience. In the polemical form that his faithful readers cherish, Hitchens traces the cultural changes in Britain as they manifest themselves across a range of issues, including social class, the Empire, religion, social satire, illegitimacy, feminism, pornography, and the constitutional changes involving the creation of regional parliaments and the shifting of national political power to the European Union. These changes amount, in Hitchens’s view, to the virtual abolition of the Britain of his youth, of his fathers and grandfathers, and of generations of Britons silently resting in the British soil.
Indeed, Hitchens observes that a “long and profound set of changes in the British way of life” since the 1960s has brought to power a “generation to whom the past [is] not just a foreign country, but a place of mystery,” one which the New Brit finds much “easier to mock than to understand.”
In a powerful chapter entitled “The Warrior and the Victim,” Hitchens brilliantly contrasts the popular reaction to the funeral in 1965 of Winston Churchill, the man whose grit and courage saved England from Nazi tyranny, to that in 1997 of Princess Diana, the suffering icon of the celebrity culture crowd. Hitchens beautifully dissects both events, comparing the maudlin chic of 1997 with the dignified stiff upper lip of 1965 and keenly illustrating, with this one striking example, the fundamental changes that have occurred in the British moral sensibility over the last 35 years.
Indeed, one can only wonder what a giant such as Churchill would think of the incontinent displays of grief and glitz surrounding the funeral of Princess Diana or of the swift and deeply cynical move of the Clintonesque Blair government to capitalize on her death politically. We do know, however, as Hitchens carefully notes, with precisely what immense disapproval and disdain the Blairites and “fashionable” Britain viewed the traditional, dare we say Churchillian, reserve of the royal family in the wake of Diana’s death.
A part of this radical change in British moral sentiments finds its expression in changing religious views. Hitchens observes that “the established church was part of the old order, rural, aristocratic, hierarchical, which was smashed to pieces at the Battle of the Somme” in World War I. The Anglican Church never fully recovered from the Great War and continued to lose ground over the years as Britain became more urban and cosmopolitan.
In the turbulent 1960s, Hitchens observes, the embrace of disbelief was attractive to many Britons because a “world without God meant no punishment for sin, and therefore no sin.” Churches seeking to be “relevant” and “forward-looking” followed suit as best they could. Thus, one of the first theological casualties was the belief in eternal damnation. “Hell,” Hitchens writes, “was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with.”
Church services were also radically changed, and such “gloomy” topics as the Ten Commandments, sin, judgment, and especially death were carefully avoided. On the contrary, moral imperatives such as “Christian charity to [one’s] neighbor” would be expressed through “political action at home and abroad” rather than in one’s own conduct with respect to one’s actual associates, an early manifestation of the political correctness movement.
In part, the human cost of this collapse of religion, Hitchens writes, is one “we prefer not to notice,” as “night after night, in the wards of a hundred hospitals, people die as they have always done, alone at the end and in many cases afraid of what is to come, more and more comforted by morphine, less and less by the Holy Ghost.”
False Dawn & Eclipse
Hitchens’s account covers a grand sweep, and among its great strengths is its recognition of the limited value of mere “conservative” political victories in this period of moral decline. A Tory to his bones, Hitchens is in fact quite critical of Margaret Thatcher and her policies. Indeed, he contends that the “apparent rebirth of conservatism in 1979 was a false dawn because the Thatcherite movement was not interested in morals or culture” but simply in promoting the free market, and because Thatcherism “unintentionally devastated many pillars of stability,” including manual unions and the Greater London Council, setting the precedent for many of the later Blairite attacks on traditional institutions and practices in Britain.
One might say much the same of Ronald Reagan in America, whose two solid victories at the polls in the United States could scarcely turn the tide of cultural change and whose strong preference for economic individualism and mild libertarian/anti-government rhetoric may have actually worsened America’s moral and cultural climate in some ways by helping to promote consumerism and hostility to all governmental restraints on individual liberty.
Another of the great strengths of Hitchens’s book is its penetrating analysis of the power of popular culture, especially television, to erode traditional moral values and to shape radically new moral sensibilities. George Orwell, more than a half-century ago, lamented the conservative and imperialist message of the popular boys’ weeklies of his day, noting that in England, “popular imaginative literature is a field that left-wing thought has never begun to enter.” This is only unimportant, Orwell noted, if you think that what people read “leaves no impression.”
As Hitchens observes, today in the United Kingdom, the post-1960s left—which Orwell, of course, would have detested—maintains an absolute hegemony in popular culture. Even British soap operas intended to appeal to a rural audience contain carefully sugarcoated transgressive themes, as television plays its role as “third parent, amoral teacher, and pornographer in both violence and sexual license.” Indeed, Hitchens poignantly captures the growing sense of cultural isolation among moral traditionalists, who find themselves surrounded by a sea of antinomian pop culture flooding out of virtually every electronic and print medium.
Perhaps most disturbing to American readers is Hitchens’s account of the ominous growth in the virulence of “political correctness” in Blairite Britain. Hitchens observes that this repressive “new empire of ideas reaches into the most intimate areas of life, and those who do not accept it are judged to be personally at fault, not simply politically or philosophically wrong.” Moreover, these judgments of personal fault are absolute and remain “unmitigated by any lingering attempt to loathe the sin rather than the sinner.” Rather, the PC movement, Hitchens observes, is “unshakeable” in its absolute faith “that personal righteousness is reserved for those who share its views about South Africa, landmines, and the homeless,” and it has thus become “the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation.” The end result is that traditional moral and cultural views are fast becoming simply inexpressible in British public life without provoking a battery of violent, intemperate, and often ad hominem counterattacks by the New Left—intended to intimidate, demonize, and ostracize traditionalists.
As Hitchens concludes, the New Britain—young, ignorant, conformist, sexually promiscuous, dismissive of tradition, and unable even to begin to understand the world of its grandfathers—is now in the ascendant; and the Old Britain—elderly, “dying, treasuring values and ideas which stretch back into the misty past” is in eclipse. The forest of the British Constitution took centuries to grow, Hitchens observes, but it has taken surprisingly little time to chainsaw most of it down. Still, Hitchens does attempt to end on a somewhat hopeful note, with a call to arms to unseat the Blair government in the next general election (held earlier this year), but one must note that his detailed account of the collapse of the Old Britain belies any real hope for its revival. The old Britain has indeed been all but abolished, as the second victory of the Blair New Labour Party and the weak performance of the Conservatives in the most recent general election clearly demonstrate.
An Imagined Community
Roger Scruton’s superb volume is intended to serve as elegy for an England now plainly moribund, and it does so quite brilliantly. The work covers part of the same ground as Hitchens, but it is not a detailed polemic scourging English cultural decline. Rather, as the subtitle suggests, it is Scruton’s very personal tribute and nostalgic farewell to England, “to the civilization that made [him],” at the very hour of its death as a vital “imagined community.”
It is also, one must add, a profound, stirring, and highly sophisticated philosophical meditation upon the meaning of England—of English culture, history, and identity—from the perspective of someone who knows its beginning, middle, and now, of course, its end as well. Indeed, Scruton’s work contains illuminating chapters on English character, religion, law, society, government, culture, and even countryside as he reflects on Englishness and English decline.
As one might imagine, the question—What is England?—is central to Scruton’s reflections on its passing. Scruton maintains that the English identity is built first and foremost around England the place—the land, the country, the pastoral countryside itself—rather than around race or religion. This “green and pleasant land” that formed the English identity was, moreover, a home or homeland of the English, and this profound sense of being “at home” in England deeply colored the English character, encouraging the acceptance of English traditions as “home truths” and discouraging the attempt to remake English society along rational or Continental lines.
Further, England, the place and the home, is also England personified, England the corporate personality, with which the English have a very “personal relationship.” As Scruton writes, the English thought of England in precisely these personal terms: “They loved, hated, resented, and praised it in equal measure.” England the place and the home was in a real sense, Scruton maintains, “enchanted” by this relationship with England personified, with England the person.
Scruton’s treatment of the “English religion” is also of special interest in this context. The English, Scruton contends, in effect remade Christianity to fit their own conception of English identity. As Scruton writes: “Their ruling thought was, in Santayana’s words, that ‘nothing can be obligatory for a Christian that is unpalatable to an Englishman.’” Scruton maintains that the English church’s break with Rome was thus grounded in simple English nationalism rather than theological Protestantism, “a dispute over jurisdiction and sovereignty, and a tenacious adherence to local custom and historic compromise as the true sources of legitimacy.” The separation from Rome was achieved with a minimum of disruption to traditional English religious life and practices, and in a relatively orderly fashion, through Parliament, simply because it fit so naturally with the ordinary Englishman’s suspicion of foreigners and his distaste for foreign rule of the pastoral English homeland.
In Scruton’s view, the Anglican Church was also flexible enough to accord a place to both “high” and “low” church Anglicans because the practical and phlegmatic English temperament was itself impressed upon the Church. In particular, the English were a people “who preferred seriousness to doctrine, and routine to enthusiasm—people who hoped for immortality but did not really expect it, except as a piece of English earth.” The English church, in turn, reaffirmed the special identity of the English people. As Scruton contends, the “Anglican vision of England” was that of an “Arcadian landscape enchanted by its law and institutions, and made holy by ritual and prayer.” Thus, the English, “this happy breed,” in Shakespeare’s phrase, viewed themselves, in a religious sense, as a uniquely chosen people inhabiting a uniquely chosen land.
Scruton also perceptively discusses the link between the idea of England—the place, the home, the person—and the formation of an enduring English national character. This personified English homeland was a place to be “served,” to be “lived up to,” where everyone had to do one’s “bit.” Indeed, English identity was built around the communal homeland, an ethic of duty and sacrifice, adherence to the traditional law of the land, as well as the “clubbable” instinct that drove Englishmen to furnish their homeland with a rich variety of civil associations, such as the Boy Scouts, the public schools, and the gentlemen’s clubs. The English character thus has very deep historical roots, whose remnants survive even today. As Scruton observes, “The sublime chivalry of Chaucer’s ‘parfit gentil knyght’ survives in the modern idea of the gentleman, and the ethic of Piers Plowman, with its emphasis on godliness and honest toil, lives on in the Nonconformist conscience.”
Denial & Derision
Alas, with the rise of the anti-traditionalist and hyper-individualist counterculture in the 1950s, as Scruton sadly notes, “all those features of the English character which had been praised in wartime books and films—gentleness, firmness, honesty, tolerance, ‘grit,’ the stiff upper lip and the spirit of fair play—were either denied or derided.” This new dispensation has embraced an ugly “culture of repudiation,” casting English history as a tale of unrelieved racism and oppression. The new dispensation has replaced the political tolerance of the old with a new intolerance, which “while permitting and even encouraging breaches of traditional morality, seeks to enforce a common code of ‘political correctness.’” This new intolerance includes the steady persecution and criminalization of “any activity associated with the hierarchy and squirearchy of Old England,” such as the Blair government’s recent attempt to ban foxhunting.
Moreover, the traditional English virtues are, Scruton observes, “rapidly disappearing.” The English no longer honor their traditional virtues, “their stoicism, their decorum, their honesty, their gentleness and their sexual puritanism.” Money, sex, and celebrity culture are now the order of the day. Indeed, sex, Scruton notes, is the “ruling obsession,” as the English “litter their country with their illegitimate, uncared-for and state-subsidized offspring.” Even sport has moved from its once central role, fostering the imperial virtues, to a “battleground for hooligans.” Further, the rich variety of civil associations once produced by the English are disappearing as well, and even the traditional pastoral landscape, once the focal point of English identity, Scruton writes, has been “scraped away” by urbanization and development.
These cultural changes have not been without expression at the level of constitutional law. Indeed, as Scruton writes, there has been a formal, legal “forbidding of England.” The devolution of power to the Scots and Welsh parliaments, combined with the ceding of more and more political power to the European Union, has all but removed England from the map as a legal entity. The mindset of the new dispensation can be seen in the regulations that simultaneously encourage expressions of Scottish and Welsh nationalism and prohibit the expression of English nationalism; and, of course, the traditional common law and unwritten British constitution are no longer the “law of the land” in England, as they had been for centuries, but increasingly fall before continental decrees from Brussels.
The polemicists of the culture of repudiation, Scruton notes, are likely to greet any defense of the Old England “with a sneer.” And so they have greeted Scruton’s elegy and Hitchens’s account of decline and call to arms. Nonetheless, a remnant will mourn the passing of England and prepare to defend what little of the old order remains. Indeed, they will mourn, remember, honor, defend, preserve, and pass on whatever they can. For, as Scruton writes:
Dead civilisations can speak to living people, and the more conscious they are while dying, the more fertile is their influence thereafter. Roman civilisation, which understood itself so well in the Augustan poets and orators, endowed its successors with law, language, literature, and an image of virtue, and in the moments when European civilisation has returned to these things for inspiration it has taken new heart.
At the end of the day, both Hitchens’s and Scruton’s perceptive accounts of tremendous cultural disarray in the British Isles prove one thing: Whatever the fate of the demoralized United Kingdom, of the “Cool Britannia” of the Blairites and Eurocrats, however steep, irreversible, and grievous the cultural decline in the land that once produced Shakespeare, England will endure. The England that shines forth in the paintings of Constable, in the music of Vaughan Williams, in the poetry of Keats, the ringing truths of the King James Bible, the piety of the Book of Common Prayer, the fidelity of Thomas More, the paradoxes of G. K. Chesterton, and the courage of Winston Churchill, that England will live on, in memory, in future generations, and in the immortal souls of its departed heroes, saints, and common folk, for all the ages to come.
Jack Wade Nowlin received his Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University and his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He is an assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, where he teaches constitutional law.