The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens
The Abolition of Britain
by Peter Hitchens
Encounter. 332 pp. $22.95
Britain today presents a puzzling spectacle. Outwardly, materially, the country is prospering, and there is no particular call for change. The huge majority of the population continue to subscribe to inherited moral values and traditions; they also seem to appreciate as ever the great institutions of state that in the tests of war and peace down the centuries have guaranteed freedom under the law—the one thing that made Britain what it was, and an example to the rest of the world.
At the same time, however, the country is in the hands of a government that is single-mindedly recasting or scrapping these institutions of state. The ancient union among England, Wales, Scotland, and Ulster has been broken. Membership in the House of Lords now involves party patronage rather than hereditary principle. Among other novelties, proportional representation has been introduced in some elections and may be extended to others; it is now a criminal offense to use imperial weights and measures rather than the new metric system; and trial by jury may soon be restricted.
These changes across so many different fields, all introduced under the current Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, are dramatically hollowing out the laws, the morals and manners, and the entire culture developed over so long a period of time by the institutions of state. The overall “project,” as Blair likes to call it, is to decompose Britain into a social democracy on the European model. The country will then be ready to take its place in the continental system known as the European Union. At that point, it will become answerable to the institutions and laws of other people with other cultures.
All this, Peter Hitchens writes in The Abolition of Britain, is nothing less than a revolution, though one that has admittedly been a long time in the making. “I cannot guarantee,” he adds, “that it will not lead to bloodshed in the end.”
A Trotskyite in his youth, Hitchens has himself evolved into a Tory. He is now a columnist for the Daily Express, a once great and patriotic paper that has dwindled into a Blairite mouthpiece. That is piquant enough; more piquant still, he is the brother of Christopher Hitchens, the well-known journalist and champion of left-wing causes. The Abolition of Britain is Peter Hitchens’s cry from the heart. Written in prose that meets Orwell’s recommendation to be as clear as a pane of glass, it describes how a small and self-chosen group has imposed its views upon people who apparently have yet to comprehend that their laws and their freedom are at risk, and it pleads for a counterrevolution before it is too late.
Hitchens’s point of departure is the funeral in 1965 of Winston Churchill, the last prime minister to believe unquestioningly in the old order of Protestantism and the empire that had formed Britain and its institutions, as well as the national character. In 1940 Churchill rallied the nation against the threat to its independence posed by Nazi Germany. But victory in that conflict bred, in Hitchens’s view, a false myth of British superiority that turned out to be all the more wounding when it became plain that real power now lay with America. The consequence, at least in one portion of the elite, was a recoil from power itself and from the ideals that had accompanied it.
In common with a number of other commentators, Hitchens pinpoints the 1960’s as the crucial period of degeneration. From then on, no one, not even a conservative like Margaret Thatcher, ever again defended with Churchillian conviction the values once embodied in Protestantism and the empire. Those who ought to have known better hurried to make concessions and fudge their principles. There was no Edmund Burke to defend and rescue the old institutions. John Betjeman and Philip Larkin wrote elegies, but they were only poets.
Hitchens’s catalogue of horrors is familiar enough. One by one over the past 30 years, he writes, moral guidelines and injunctions once rooted in law have been construed as intolerable restrictions on liberty or “rights,” and junked accordingly. Slanted textbooks make children ashamed of simple patriotism, and twist the achievements of empire into accusatory examples of “racism.” Progressive teaching has produced millions of adults who are functionally illiterate and innumerate. With the Bible and the liturgy rendered into the language of welfare-state bureaucratese, Protestantism is quite without moral or intellectual influence. That other revolution of our times—the sexual one—has thoroughly overturned the usual human relationships and caused “behavior once defined as deviant . . . to appear mainstream.”
Hitchens is particularly good at digging into the record and identifying those responsible for the surrounding wreckage. A few of his culprits, like the liberal politician Roy Jenkins, or satirists like Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, are well-known. But others are for the most part relatively obscure and even insignificant: E.R. Dance and Lady Plowden, whose separate initiatives in the 60’s worked to undermine standards of excellence in the schools; the bishop who helped pave the way for defending pornography in the name of free speech; another who described the Resurrection as “conjuring with bones.” These were no Tom Paines, and at other times would have remained invisible and unheard, single-issue pamphleteers and busybodies. What unites them, and makes them revolutionaries, is their sense of their own absolute virtue and their ability to harness the machinery of state to their ends.
Another funeral—this one of Princess Diana in 1997—serves Hitchens as a symbolic marker of the new order. Capitalizing on the sadness of the event, Blair misrepresented this most privileged of women as the People’s Princess, and as a victim to boot. Bogus emotion swung the public against the royal family, simultaneously projecting Blair in ghostly outline as a future president of a populist British republic, if not of Europe itself.
The discontents described by Hitchens are hardly the exclusive property of Britain. In the developed world, they are universal, and Americans may well feel they hold the patent on them. But Hitchens is surely right that the Blair government is the first to place itself enthusiastically at the head of the revolution, to welcome the destruction of the past and to work toward widening the fissures still further. In Hitchens’s image, having done their part to rot the institutional timbers from within, the Blairites now propose to take a chainsaw to what remains.
In the end, Hitchens comes close to convincing himself that the revolution he has described is unstoppable and irreversible. The Tories, he supposes, “will never again be in office.” In another context, many a pundit used to talk in this same historically determined and defeatist language about Communism. In the final crisis, however, the Russian people overcame decades of fearsome pressure and indoctrination and chose independence.
In Britain a comparable parting of the ways may be in the offing. For Hitchens, the decisive crisis will take place when Britain once and for all has to face the question of whether or not to abandon sterling for the euro and thus surrender on European terms to the European Union—for him, nothing less than a choice between the familiar national life of the past and the future proposed by the Blairite elite. Although weakened by misleading arguments and poor leadership, will the British finally face this test as they faced the test of war in 1940? Or are they already no longer the people they once were, and has even their patriotism been drained of meaning?
Optimists have seen signs of hope in the recent mini-uprising against the Blair government over the price of fuel and the seemingly miraculous recovery of the Tories from their slump in the opinion polls. Hitchens’s book was of course written before these events, but they should somewhat dissipate his gloom. Nevertheless, as his far-reaching analysis valuably reminds us, the rot has penetrated so deeply that the future of the national idea in Britain remains an open question.