You are here

The Abolition of Britain

by Peter Hitchens

332 pp+xi, Encounter Books, San Francisco 2000 ISBN 1-893554-18-X (Second Edition)

Will there always be an England? Maybe not, says Peter Hitchens; indeed, the end may be upon us. In this book he presents a long-meditated account of the cultural revolution that has done away with much of what made Britain British and is mopping up what remains. He considers that revolution a human as well as national catastrophe. The past 40 years, in his view, have witnessed the collapse of a genuinely admirable way of life that had been centuries in the making, and its replacement by something sordid and brutal. With the cultural revolution essentially over, the Blair government has now turned to the institutional abolition of Britain, a process Hitchens describes as a “slow-motion coup d’etat” or “chainsaw massacre”. The final act would be the absorption of Britain into a European superstate, as issue he views as the last remaining line of battle for those who care about Britain.

Views like Hitchens’ have become all but unspeakable in public, presumably because they are extremely awkward for those who have made our world what it is. Once a publisher could be found for this book, however, it became a best-seller in Britain, proving that even in an age of spin inconvenient truths can find listeners. It deserves its audience. Formerly a Trotskyist, Hitchens stepped off the progressive bandwagon years ago and has since developed into a consistent and pessimistic reactionary. As such he has virtues that are much needed today. He feels little obligation to bow to current idols. He has a grasp of the concrete that comes from a stable point of comparison. And above all, he avoids the stupidity of adopting or pretending to adopt his opponents’ fundamental commitments and turns of argument, of establishing his respectability and presenting a front of optimism by saying nice things about feminism, tolerance or whatever. He is not afraid, for example, to reject openly the views now compulsory on sex, gender and homosexuality.

He offers, it is true, only glancing reference to the role of immigration and race in the abolition of Britain. He suggests no reason for the omission, but it is easy to think of possibilities. The issue is inflammatory and if raised could easily interfere with the reception of other things he has to say. The current racial state of affairs can be seen as a consequence of the other changes he discusses, and he could have thought it was not essential to deal with it directly. Or he may simply lack clear-cut views on the subject. Regardless of the reason, it seems ungrateful to complain that a man who says a great deal that is true and unfashionable does not deal with every issue.

What then has happened in Britain? Hitchens goes through the matter point by point and step by step, tracing the transformation since the ’50s in education, language, entertainment, sex, family life, religion, political institutions, crime and punishment, and the physical setting in which people live. He sums up the case:

[W]e allowed our patriotism to be turned into a joke, wise sexual restraint to be mocked as prudery, our families to be defamed as nests of violence, loathing and abuse, our literature to be tossed aside like so much garbage, and our church turned into a department of the Social Security system … We let our schools become nurseries of resentment and ignorance, and humiliated our universities by forcing them to take unqualified students in large numbers …

We lost our nerve and our pride. We thought there was something wrong with our own country, and so we scanned the world for novelties to import and adopt. We tore up every familiar thing in our landscape … and in the meantime we castrated our criminal law, because we no longer knew what was right and what was wrong …

We have abolished the very customs, manners, methods, standards and laws which have for centuries restrained us from the sort of barbaric behaviour that less happy lands suffer. We are about to break the ingenious and cunning constitutional bonds that have kept these islands at peace for centuries …

This country was different from others. It was a multinational state, though not a multicultural one. It was a profoundly Christian society, in which religion was part of the language, of the state and of daily life in a way quite unique in Europe. It was a hierarchical country, in which people understood authority and respected it without grovelling to it, for it was also a society of individuals, nonconformists, dissenters, troublemakers, grumblers—self-reliant, given to banding together in unions, friendly societies and clubs, believing in law, but devoted to fairness. It was an educated, literate country with a strong musical tradition. Through its great literature, its verse and its hymns it had obtained an idea of itself that was comforting and powerful. It believed in the family and the home, that great zone of private life in which the state has no business.

Now, in a generation, all this has been demolished, concreted over, reformed out of existence … “

How such things happened is a long story. Hitchens portrays the decisive events, from Dunkirk to Lady Chatterley to the Blair government, as well as the general trends that lay behind them. He shows the course of events to have been a complex but coherent process whereby the British people were cut off from their past and their historic culture and become raw material for a new order of things.

The breakdown has indeed been comprehensive. The sexual and feminist revolutions have radically weakened the most fundamental human ties. Television and other forms of electronic entertainment have separated the British people from reality and from each other. Things as various as the loss of empire, the reverses of the Second World War, and the abolition of capital punishment have brought traditional authorities down to the common level. Suburbs, supermarkets and motorways have weakened local social networks. The education system has been transformed, in general philosophy, in how history and literature are taught, and in expectations and discipline. It is now designed to promote a new form of society rather than pass on the inheritance of the past.

Such changes have gone along with a loss of faith by elites in British ways and institutions. Educational elites have turned on education, ecclesiastical elites have abandoned traditional Anglicanism, and most Tories no longer understand the loyalties and prepossessions that once defined their party. The rejection of Britain by its top people was comprehensive and profound, with roots in all aspects of modern thought and stretching back to the abortive English revolution of the 17th century.

When elites reject a social order, especially a hierarchical one, popular attachment can only keep it going so long. The collapse of faith in British ways became quite rapid from the early 20th century on. By the ’50s the old order was hollow, kept going only by habit and by memories of courage and common sacrifice during the Second World War. Its defense fell mainly to people treated as figures of fun, from Mary Whitehouse to retired colonels in Tunbridge Wells, and by the ’60s a few jokes and satirical sketches were enough to bring it down. Since then it has been the object of a campaign to destroy and blacken its memory; to speak well of it—as Hitchens has found by experience—is now considered a sign of psychological disturbance.

Hitchens tells the story well, and should be read, but what in the end is it all about? What explains the unity and irresistible power of the process that destroyed the old Britain? Why did elites—those who lost by the changes as well as those who gained—turn against the basic principles of their own society? However stupid and mendacious they may have been, academics did not intend to wreck education or churchmen the Church. Why did their actions promote that end so clearly and so steadily? Why is it that all things—war, peace, depression, prosperity, Labour and Tory governments—have worked together toward a common goal? And why is the new order in Britain so similar to that in other countries?

One is forced to conclude that particular events that seem decisive, the loss of empire or the 1997 election, were only occasions for changes that would have occurred in any case. Something more fundamental was at work. It appears, although Hitchens is not clear on the point and perhaps would not agree if asked, that the most basic of the changes was a decline in the sense that society expresses an order of things not reducible to human desire. Without such a sense, there can be no rooted loyalty, principled deference, or justified self-sacrifice, and social relations can only be a matter of what particular men want. The established church was once the embodiment of a faith that the social order is founded on something beyond the here and now. A final explanation of what has happened to Britain must therefore involve an explanation of the loss of religious faith and the decline and effective collapse of the church.

It is difficult to settle on such an explanation. Hitchens traces loss of faith to a variety of things, notably the pointless slaughter of the First World War, but it had obviously been in the works long before that. Many have traced it to the scientific revolution of the 17th century, or perhaps the late medieval nominalism that gave us Ockham’s Razor. Others like Guenon reach much farther back, and argue that loss of faith is simply an aspect of a downward cycle that began before the beginning of recorded history and is a necessary consequence of the nature of manifested being.

Such arguments have a great deal of force, but it is hard for most of us to see how to deal with trends that seem so huge and overwhelming. The line of thought can be put on a somewhat less grand plane, however: what if the things that created the world we love are the things that are destroying it? It is impossible to be a truly consistent reactionary. The old order that the reactionary takes as a standard was brought forth by the destruction of what came before it, and it was based on principles that led to later developments and thus to its own downfall. Anglicanism, commerce and empire were among the things that defined Britain. The first was revolutionary and the second and third antitraditional; all three contributed to the destruction of earlier and more organic arrangements. The list of examples could be lengthened. The grammar schools whose passing Hitchens regrets, for example, represented a movement toward rationalized education for a rationalized society. And beyond the particulars, Hitchens’ emphasis on Britain must come at the expense of more rooted loyalties to England and the other countries making up the United Kingdom.

Conservatism is necessary but insufficient. In social life as in art value lies less in explicit principles, which are partial and one-sided, than in particular traditions and concrete achievements that cannot be reduced to the principles they reflect. The defense of the concrete and particular that is the essence of conservatism is therefore a worthy cause. How to defend such things in a way that preserves their value is nonetheless a difficult question. A way of life cannot be self-contained but must have reference to something beyond itself. Rejecting principle and resisting change simply for the sake of attachment to things as they are can therefore lead to the hollowing out and eventual collapse of a tradition. That, in fact, is what has happened in Britain. On the other hand, radical principles taken literally destroy all particulars in the name of the abstract and so become antihuman and murderous. What men need is a loyalty to something that transcends the given, and so is not merely conservative, but is nevertheless sufficiently definite, concrete and personally engaging to give direction to life without being reducible to principles that can be stated explicitly and so fully possessed. What they need, in fact, is something very like a god.

One cannot get God just by deciding he is needed; we must wait on him. So what can politics be in the meantime? Hitchens has little vision for the future apart from the necessity of fighting for what remains of his civilization. There is enough in that struggle to sustain a man for a time, and it is hard to believe that effort devoted to something admirable will be truly lost. We must eventually go beyond that, however, and there is nothing established that can tell us how to do so. At present, therefore, it seems we must find our way alone or with small groups of friends. The time for large-scale movements and grand constructive politics has not yet arrived. In the meantime books likethis certainly have a role, to tell us where we are, where we have been, and how it all came about.

(The foregoing review was published in issue 23 of The Scorpion.)