Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Abolition of Britain, Peter Hitchens

This is a well-written, informative and rather weird book, originally published in 1999.  It is a lament for the decline of traditional British culture, written by one of Britain's most thoughtful and original ultra-conservative writers.  It is a serious book: there is none of the tedious angriness of Simon Heffer or the puerility of Richard Littlejohn.  Its message may be stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off, but it is stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off with source citations and footnotes.

The book begins with the conceit of a mourner at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997 being transported back to the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.  In a series of remarkable passages which are among the most poignant in the book, Hitchens writes:

"[S]he would be astonished by how strongly men outnumbered women, and by the dowdy and conservative fashions they wore....  Overhearing their conversation, she would notice the absence of swear-words, the edgy, plummy accents of the middle-class and the earthy tongue of the working-class Londoner....

She would be pulled up short... by the absence of heavy traffic, the smallness of lorries, the cumbersome designs of vans, by the slowness and the bulbous shape of most cars, by the speed and frequency of buses, which would seem unnaturally red because of the general absence of bright colour from the streetscape....

She would turn up her nose at the number of people smoking....  She might be shocked to hear homosexuals openly refered to as 'queers'....

She would find the generally accepted level of hygiene rather low, the slogans on the advertising billboards blatant and naive, the policemen astonishingly numerous yet far less menacing....  She would search long and hard for a public telephone....

London itself would seem extraordinarily dark and dirty even by daylight....  The colour brown... would seem to crop up in almost every aspect of urban life, from food to furniture....  She would rapidly notice that the past was smellier than the present, the air often reeking of breweries, cattlemarkets, cabbage and hot grease.

....She might be perturbed to see that most drivers, and most people working in jobs above the level of secretary, cleaner and shop assistant, were male....

She would realise that she had hardly seen a black or brown face all day....

....An off-licence would surprise her with its small selection of beer, cider... uninspiring wine, gin and whisky.  The pub it was usually attached to would not be welcoming...."

Remember, this is a world whose loss Hitchens mourns and which he would like to recreate.

Hitchens is being slightly misleading in choosing 1965 as his index year for the old Britain.  Modernity had already begun to assert itself long before then.  Church attendance had peaked in the 1930s.  The divorce laws had been reformed in 1937.  The education system had been reconstituted by the 1944 Education Act.  Legislation to legalise homosexual behaviour was before Parliament (though even the supporters of reform regarded gay sex with some distaste).  The Beatles had released Help! and Rubber Soul, and young Britons could listen to Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline.

To be fair, Hitchens is well aware that the old Britain was already on its last legs by the 1960s.  He points to the Second World War as a catalyst for the decline of traditional ideas about the family and relationships, not least because the country experienced an influx of 1.6 million well-paid GIs from a very different sexual culture while her own young men were away fighting in Monte Cassino and Tobruk.  In fact, Hitchens believes that the rot set in some time before then.  He writes: "The argument between Christianity and liberalism" - note the unexamined assumption - "had been quietly lost during the First World War".

Since 1997, of course, social attitudes have grown steadily more progressive.  A better milestone than Princess Di's funeral would perhaps have been the repeal of Section 28 in 2003, though Hitchens, as noted, was only writing in 1999.

Hitchens lambasts the modern teaching of history and English literature, and the postwar reforms to the education system.  He mourns the loss of patriotism and the empire, and argues that the old attitudes towards foreigners and people of colour weren't as crude and ignorant as they are often portrayed (being, for example, more gentle than those of whites in the American Deep South towards African Americans).  He castigates town planners and television, the satire boom and Grange Hill.  He writes a lot about family life and sex.  He does not like divorce, illegitimacy or the Pill.  He contrasts, with apparently genuine bafflement, public attitudes towards smoking and lung cancer with attitudes towards gay sex and HIV/AIDS (this particular chapter was apparently omitted from the book's first edition).

Hitchens is a religious man, and he laments the decline of Christianity in general and the Church of England in particular, which (like most conservatives) he thinks has become far too soft and cosy.  He notes that Anglicanism had important cultural and political functions because of its liturgy and architecture, its links with the monarchy, and the distinction that it marked from continental Catholicism.

The villain of the book is none other than the portly figure of Roy Jenkins, the Right Honourable the Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.  Jenkins was an important advocate for many of the social changes that Hitchens decries, particuarly during his tenure as Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967.  Identifying (and damning) Jenkins as the architect of modern British social mores is not an original move on Hitchens' part, but he does go further than most right-wing commentators in claiming that he was the most influential politician of postwar Britain, including Thatch.

Hitchens notes that the social changes of the postwar years were promoted by politicians, satirists and liberal reformers in declared opposition to "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".  But Hitchens points out that this old establishment was already moribund by the 1950s.  Its true value was as a symbol, like Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984, against which reformers could define and oppose their own agenda.  That agenda - thank goodness, one might think - has long since triumphed.  It was the suburban social revolutionaries who had put up Che posters in the 60s and 70s who "occupied the corner offices in the 1990s". 

Hitchens attacks the standard left-wing myth of the Second World War and the years that surrounded it: Britain had been hungry and improverished in the 1930s, and led by Conservatives who were too friendly towards Hitler and sold out to the Nazis at Munich.  Then came the great war against fascism, followed by the Atlee government and the birth of the modern civilised welfare state.  Hitchens points out that the Labour Party of the 1930s had been far from eager to take on the Nazis (though the British left had been remarkably friendly to Stalin's USSR), that parts of Britain were very prosperous by the late 30s, and that various elements of the welfare state were already in place.

There are still quite a few people in Britain who share Hitchens' worldview - more than might be imagined by urban-dwellers like myself who grew up after the 1960s.  To this extent, the tendentious myth of the liberal √©lite has an element of truth to it.  It is rare to find supporters of Hitchens' views in prominent positions in public life - though certain members of the royal family probably have some sympathy with them - and their best-known spokespeople are ageing and marginal figures like Peregrine Worsthorne and Roger Scruton.  The editors of the Daily Mail peddle a cheap, insipid caricature of such ideas in order to sell copies of their paper.  David Cameron has occasionally vaguely flirted with something like Hitchens' agenda by giving aid and comfort to the self-described Red Tory, Phillip Blond, but the influence of the ideas set out in this book on the contemporary Conservative Party is fairly minimal.  Most Hitchensian traditionalists are more likely to vote for UKIP (if ex-Conservatives) or the BNP (if ex-Labour).

The book is undoubtedly conservative - indeed, its conservatism is of an extreme, diehard variety.  The ghastly old neo-Nazi John Tyndall (a man whom Hitchens probably despised) said that he agreed with three quarters of it, while Polly Toynbee, the Marie Antoinette of the British left, called it "[m]ad, obnoxious, elegantly written incoherent nonsense".  But the book's analysis is not party political, or even left/right in the conventional sense.  There is little discussion of taxes, welfare, trade, industrial policy, trade unions or bankers, and Hitchens is surprisingly cool towards the Thatcher governments of the 1980s.  His is a social and cultural conservatism, which used to cut across party lines (and to some extent still does).  "Working-class socialists", he comments, "were likely to be less sympathetic to homosexuality, more opposed to abortion, [and] more likely to support stiff alcohol licensing laws... than middle-class Conservatives".

A progressive reader is unlikely to agree with much of the detail of Hitchens' argumentation, but at times it feels like the guy is not entirely wrong.  This is what he has to say, for example, about Thatcherite capitalism:

"In search of a guiding ideology, the Tories could come up with nothing better than the brute force of the market, whose inhuman logic of course ignores patriotism, morality, tradition and beauty, and elevates the businessman to the role of bishop."

This is far from being the language of liberalism, but the sentiment behind it rings true enough.  One does not have to want to return to a caricature of 1950s Britain, where children at primary school are caned and sleeping with another man is a police matter, to believe that Hitchens, in all the blindness of his masochistic nostalgia, has remembered something that most of today's Conservatives appear to have forgotten.