The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana, Peter Hitchens, Encounter Books, 2000, 332 pp. $22.95
Peter Hitchens is a reactionary–a forthright, unabashed, British reactionary–who thinks his country has gone badly wrong, and would like nothing better than to set it back on the tracks. Homosexuality flaunted, patriotism mocked, the countryside destroyed, the church ridiculed, standards demolished, rampant libertinism, the loss of sovereignty, liberal self-righteousness these are all unalloyed horrors to him, and he attacks them with a pitiless eloquence that is a joy to quote. There is much to admire in this book and little with which to quarrel–except that it says almost nothing about immigration. It is certainly true that the British have torn down Britain with their own hands, but if ever there is rebuilding it will be by whites alone. If Britain becomes increasingly non-white, nothing that has been lost can be restored.
This book’s point of departure is a comparison of the ways in which Britain reacted to two deaths: Churchill’s in 1965 and Princess Diana’s in 1997. In 1965, London was still, as Mr. Hitchens puts it, “the world capital of restraint,” and mourning for the prime minister was heartfelt but solemn. The princess’ death 35 years later proved much had changed:
“Because it was the first royal death for more than a generation, it gave Britain an unexpected opportunity to take its own temperature, and to discover that it was suffering from a rather unpleasant fever. Those brought up in the older tradition were astonished, puzzled and even hurt to hear pop songs and applause at a funeral, and to see mourners who wept at one moment and took photographs of the cortège a few minutes later. Those brought up since the changes took hold were equally surprised, puzzled and annoyed by the restraint and self-discipline of the other half of the nation, seeing it as a failure to show correct emotion.”
Mr. Hitchens explains that this mutual incomprehension was the result of changes so profound that those on opposite sides of the cultural divide hardly recognize each other. He describes the division of forces at the time of the general election that brought Tony Blair’s Labour party to power after years of Conservative rule: “The two Britains which faced each other in April 1997 were utterly alien to one another and unfairly matched. One was old and dying, treasuring values and ideas which stretched back into a misty past. One was new and hardly born, clinging just as fiercely to its own values of classlessness, anti-racism, sexual inclusiveness and license, contempt for the nation state, dislike of deference, scorn for restraint and incomprehension for the web of traditions and prejudices which were revered by the other side.”
Mr. Hitchens writes that in just a few decades the British have laid waste centuries of distinctive tradition, and by preparing to give up ever-greater swathes of national sovereignty to Europe, are poised quite literally to abolish Britain. He describes this cultural revolution as largely an assault on tradition that promoted the view that “rebellion was almost always the right attitude, that the ideas of the past were invariably wrong, that putting the clock back was a sin, while progress and change were both inevitable and right.” This mentality has rampaged through every British institution, and has left the country under a tyranny of liberalism that brooks no dissent. Long ago the revolutionaries perfected an especially nasty way of suppressing dissent, which was: “to impute personal failing, even some sort of mental disorder, to those who are against further relaxation of the rules. This is one of the most unpleasant techniques of the new conformism, which finds it very hard to accept that any normal honest person could disagree with its ideas.”
In Mr. Hitchens’ view, television was probably the most effective tool in the hands of the wrecking crew:
When colour came, even the bad programmes looked good, and by the late 1980s a new generation was growing up, to whom the bright noisy plastic box in the corner was the most seductive, the cleverest, the most articulate, the most beguiling thing they had ever seen.
The following passages are about the decline of sexual morality, but they apply equally well to cultural and racial norms of all kinds:
As time passed, the private beliefs of the majority would hardly ever be reflected in the broadcast media, so convincing them that they were in fact a minority and had somehow been left behind. As time went by, they lost confidence in a morality they had once been proud to support, and became ashamed of it. Enfeebled, isolated and pushed to the margins, the majority were not merely silent, but dumbstruck and powerless, afraid to defend themselves.
“The pattern in all these events is the same: Behaviour which was once deviant is made to seem mainstream, or at least acceptable, and those who are unhappy about it are portrayed as narrowminded, old-fashioned, prejudiced and wrong. The effect of this implicit propaganda upon public opinion has been enormous, causing many people to be ashamed of views they had held since their childhood and had thought until recently were normal.”
Television everywhere is a relentlessly modernizing, iconoclastic medium that despises the past and glorifies the present, if only because it is unlike the past: “[T]he lens of television was sending society a picture of itself that was simultaneously flattering, dishonest and designed to encourage only one set of ideas about what was good–in politics, humour, architecture, foreign affairs, charity, fashion, education, and morals.”
Adding enormously to the destructive power of television–and to every socially corrosive force–was the pose all “progressives” struck as lonely and courageous visionaries:
“[T]hey had invented the image of an all-powerful establishment, made up of hanging judges, public school headmasters, hereditary peers, biblical bishops, militarists, Fleet Street barons, Royal Academicians who still liked proper pictures, the Lord Chamberlain, poets who rhymed and scanned, and of course the monarchy. . . . [I]t was just as the moment when their influence was turning to dust and ashes that they suddenly became famous. They were required, or at least their images were, to make the younger generation feel as if they were true, bold revolutionaries, marching against a wicked foe. . . .” The sinister power of this imaginary establishment “gave the glory of revolutionary struggle to what would otherwise have been little more than the triumph of ambition.”
In many households, television replaced community with “a network of imaginary friends and neighbours who were both more interesting and less demanding than they would have been in real life.” Often the television became a third (or, increasingly often, the second) parent. As purveyor of political, cultural, and moral standards, “television robs adults of one of their most important tasks as passers-on of culture to the young, mediating, explaining, sometimes hiding things until later when they will be less dangerous.”
People who watch more television rarely read, and the new species of Briton “has had little chance to develop its own critical, personal imagination through reading, and so has been a blank page on which the revolutionaries have been able to scrawl their own slogans.” As a consequence, television has “created a national conformism among the young, in taste, humour and politics, that is quite unprecedented.” Mr. Hitchens concludes: “To leave a child unsupervised in front of a television set is no less dangerous than giving it neat gin or putting it within reach of narcotics.”
Britain has come a long way from the days when the BBC was established as a state monopoly to promote high demeanor and Christian morality. The BBC long ago fell to the barbarians, but by ending the monopoly, Britain opened the door to the worst sort of profit driven prurience and vulgarity.
What have been some of the casualties? Mr. Hitchens quotes George Orwell: “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. . . . [A]lmost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.” With the help of television, writes Mr. Hitchens, “this once-laughable strand of thought and feeling would break out of its little bookish world and storm the culture centres of the country, making patriotism, monarchy and Englishness in general unfashionable and–worst of all–comical.”
Just as in the United States, history textbooks are now “drearily left-wing, and focused upon suffering and deprivation rather than upon achievement or heroism;” they teach “tolerance” and big government rather than patriotism. British history is now a chronicle of imperialist jingoism, inadequate care for the poor, persecution of homosexuals, and mistreatment of women. As a result, writes Mr. Hitchens, “we have been turned into a nation without heroes, without pride in our past. . . .” “If our ancestors had been like us,” he adds, “they would have lost at Trafalger and Waterloo, and given up on the attempt to colonize North America, because of the absence of safety nets, sexual equality and proper child care.” The new order has “brought to maturity a generation to whom the past was not just a foreign country, but a place of mystery which was easier to mock than understand.”
This was well in evidence in 1998, when the Japanese Emperor made a state visit to London: “[I]n a last dying twitch of remembrance, elderly survivors of Japanese prison camps held silent protests along the processional route of Emperor Akihito. . . .” This was denounced by the young as “deeply racist” and a sign of unhealthy obsession with the war.
In his one reference to immigration, Mr. Hitchens does concede, “There is no doubt that the arrival of a large number of immigrants from former imperial colonies has helped to confuse the teaching of history.” He regrets “the rush to apologize to our new multicultural citizens,” and seems to think that with a little effort, the new multi-cultis could be bred to British patriotism just like native-born whites.
Mr. Hitchens has a healthy appreciation of nationalism:
The nation-state, as many people forget, is one of the most reliable engines of unselfishness and human solidarity. If it breaks down, the feelings which would have found their home in it seek other places where they are welcome. People may become fanatical and even violent soccer fans, for example, but it is what the disappearance of patriotism makes people stop doing–defend national traditions and contribute to national greatness–that is infinitely worse.
The Church of England
In Mr. Hitchens’ view, the pitiful collapse of the Church of England–there are now as many active Muslim congregants as regular C of E churchgoers–is central to Britain’s decline. He write that the church not only taught morality but gave the British a common cultural and linguistic heritage.
Faith and the church have been butts of satire and contempt like all the other ancient institution, and “by the 1960s, eternal damnation, like most of the more worrying aspects of the Christian religion, had apparently fallen into disuse. Bishops . . . had begun to admit, rather coyly to start with, that they were not sure about the existence of God or the truth of their religion’s central beliefs.” It would not be long before “the Bishop of Durham, Dr. David Jenkins, would speak of the resurrection as ‘conjuring tricks with old bones,’ . . .”
This had dire consequences because “a world without God meant no punishment for sin, and therefore no sin. . . .” The church tried very hard to stay “relevant” but if no one believed in God or souls or sin, “how was it to become ‘relevant’ to the new age without becoming completely irrelevant to its purpose of saving souls?” As in virtually every institution, the rot started at the top, and “the Church, like the railways or the government, was more and more being run for the benefit of its own employees rather than for the mere churchgoers or the nation itself.” As a result, congregations that were perfectly content, had all manner of noisome changes foisted on them. Rather than slow the defection of worshipers, “modernization” has hastened it, but this has not slowed the pace of destructive innovation. As Mr. Hitchens explains, the church once understood it must be conservative:
“Thomas Cranmer [author of the 1662 Book of Prayer that was until recently in common use] and the great translators consciously built their books to last, just as the architects of church buildings had done, and continued to do. They believed that some ideas lay outside normal time and could therefore be expressed in a way that defied passing fashion. This belief survived until the late 20th century,” when it was done to death with trendy new liturgy, music, doctrine, prayers, and church decorations.
Mr. Hitchens explains why the old, majestic liturgy had to go: “The glories of the language were offensive to the modernizers because they reminded them of what they owed to the past, because they reinforced the bonds of tradition, but above all because they constantly reminded them of a view of religion which was not theirs. It did not offer salvation through the Overseas Development Agency, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Amnesty International and the Social Security budget. It offered it in an entirely non-political way, through the faith and deeds of the individual.” Mr. Hitchens points out that the old confessions vividly evoked the wretchedness of man caught in the toils of sin whereas the new versions “sound like the apologies offered by railway companies for late trains.”
Mr. Hitchens explains that “a man’s moral worth is now measured by the level of taxation he is willing to support, rather than by his faith or even his good works. Other tests–opposition to apartheid or General Pinochet–are valued more highly than personal adherence to the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.” As the church subsides into irrelevance, “many young children entirely deprived of a tradition passed on without thinking by twenty previous generations have no idea at all of what goes on in churches. . . “
Mr. Hitchens notes that nowhere has there been greater change than in British attitudes towards sex, which were always much more conservative than those on the continent. Now, there are no social sanctions against fornication, which has brought with it soaring rates of divorce, illegitimacy, abortion, and disease. “Now the entire country seemed to be obsessed,” Mr. Hitchens writes, “with staring at naked female chests, swearing and making dirty jokes. Like the pagans of old, unaffected by climate, the British were now dancing round a giant phallus. Unlike the pagans theirs was a sterile phallus, disarmed by condoms and pills–the first heathen sexual cult to be based around sterility rather than fertility.”
Mr. Hitchens notes that the sex revolution has changed our vocabularies, not least by dignifying youthful copulation as “sexual experimentation:” “What, by the way, are these ‘experiments’ and the other ‘experiments’ in drugtaking seeking to prove or disprove, which is not already known? It is interesting that this word is so frequently used for wrong actions taken by the young.” Likewise, the disappearance of social sanction means we no longer talk about “unmarried mothers” or “broken homes,” but instead of “one-parent families,” as if they were just as good as the other kind.
Wittingly or not, government promoted bastardy by lathering promiscuous mothers with uplift and benefits that remove the penalties for reckless procreation. Of course, the helpless “oneparent family” is the perfect client of the state. Completely dependent on the Social Security budget, its members have dismantled the last bulwark against serfdom. As Mr. Hitchens reminds us: “The greatest fortress of human liberty, proof against all earthly powers, is the family. . . . All serious tyrannies have sought to undermine or infiltrate it, socialist tyrannies most of all.”
Mr. Hitchens concedes that the lot of the “fallen woman” was a harsh one, but accepting illegitimacy only made it more common, and condemned millions of children to the impersonal cruelty of fatherlessness: “Shame and stigma, which once both defended respectable marriage and heaped misery on the poor bastard and his wretched mother, have disappeared. Instead, there is the slower, vaguer, more indirect misery of a society where fewer and fewer children have two parents, and where more and more women are married to the State.”
Even the left is now groping towards a realization that there is such a thing as depravity, and that a hereditary class of welfare recipients is not a blessing. However: “If you do not believe in sin, then you can hardly be expected to use up much energy fighting against it. And if you do believe in sin, then you are ‘judgmental,’ and automatically excluded from the debate.”
Interestingly, Mr. Hitchens calls all this “the Americanization of our sex lives,” claiming that “[Elvis] Presley dug beneath the fortifications of British sexual reserve, leaving them so weakened that John Lennon and Mick Jagger could knock them down completely.”
The destruction of the family was yet another cause and consequence of monolithic liberalism: “[The family’s] defeat during the last five decades has helped to produce the most conformist and least individualist generation in known history. Without a strong family, the growing child is much more easily influenced by his own age group, themselves under pressure from TV programmers, advertisers, teachers and fashion.”
A nation that now approves of sport sex of all kinds can hardly disapprove of homosexuals, whom Britons dare not criticize but must “sentimentalize . . . as modern heroes.” Mr. Hitchens notes an asymmetry: “Smoking and buggery can both kill you,” he observes, but smokers are foolish people who take dangerous risks while homosexuals are victims and martyrs. No one officially recommends “safer” smoking–low tar and nicotine. Complete renunciation is the only option for smokers, but “there is not even a hint of disapproval of anal sex or illegal drugs in official or semiofficial propaganda about AIDS.”
Much of what Mr. Hitchens opposes is the miasma of modernism common to all Western countries, but he has specifically British concerns. He thinks a small island is not a good place for automobiles, and that by supplanting an extensive train system cars have destroyed much of the countryside. He regrets the disappearance of regional accents. He is sorry that “specifically local or specifically British styles of architecture have given way to the international blandness of concrete and glass.” He also mourns the loss of British weights and measures and of the old currency system of shillings, florins, and crowns: “[I]t is an odd truth that this sort of measure, highly practical and tested as it is, rarely survives any sort of revolution. It requires deference and tradition to survive. Without it, the toe-counting simplicity of decimal and metric systems is all that is left.”
Now, of course, Britain is debating whether to join the European Monetary System and thereby lose not only the pound sterling but economic independence. For Mr. Hitchens, a false step means no return: “If we are what we used to be, then this is a last unrepeatable moment at which we can halt our extinction as a culture and a nation.”
What Mr. Hitchens is describing is nothing short of tragedy. Like all men of the West, the British are a denatured people, so weakened and bewildered they are unable to resist even what would be genuine abolition: displacement by aliens. What makes it tragedy is that the British have done this to themselves. Mr. Hitchens recalls that to Evelyn Waugh, having Labour in power in 1945 was “similar to living under foreign occupation.” As for the current state of decline:
“A real occupation would almost certainly have produced a resistance, the circulation of banned texts and the holding of secret religious services. But a county which ploughs under its own culture, without violence or open suppression, has no such resistance. The objects of the attack are unaware that they are under attack, and there are no martyrs, no persecution to bring resistance into being.”
The revolution has been non-violent–so far: “I cannot guarantee that it will not lead to bloodshed in the end, as revolutionary ideas so often do, but it has been restrained up till now. For this has been a very British revolution, perhaps the last thing we shall do that is British.”