European Affairs

Mounting anxieties over the direction in which the nation is heading, and the threats to its national identity, have led to a proliferation of books with titles such as The Day Britain Died, After Britain and In Memory of England, which lament the passing of traditional British values and freedoms.

The Abolition of Britain, by journalist Peter Hitchens, is one of the more agonized of the genre, a prolonged scream of anguish for the passing of a much-loved way of life and the values and characteristics that make, or at least used to make, Britain unique. It is a well-written, well-argued, if sometimes slightly hysterical book that makes depressing reading for anyone who believes in the importance of history and traditional morality.

Mr. Hitchens, the brother of Washington journalist and TV personality Christopher Hitchens (who does not share all his views, but cannot repress "a twinge of fraternal solidarity"), argues that over the past 40 years or so Britain has been the victim of a silent coup d'état by leftist advocates of cultural and political correctness comparable to Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in China.

"This revolution, though well under way, is not complete. Still to come are the destruction or at least the serious diminishing of the monarchy, the reduction of the power of the House of Commons, the transformation of the practice of law, the end of the pre-eminence of privileged institutions like the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the disestablishment of the Church of England and the dissolution of the 1707 union of England with Scotland."

It would be easy to dismiss these arguments as the ranting of an ageing and embittered right-winger, were it not for the fact that much of what Mr. Hitchens describes is actually true.

He is quite correct, for instance, when he says that if the British people of 1965 had witnessed the emotional outpourings that followed the death of Princess Diana just over 30 years later, "they would have been shocked and, in many cases, actually disgusted."

Although perhaps half the country still felt much that way in 1997, "television, by taking the side of the new, emotional, victim-loving faction, made it seem as if the pro-Diana, anti-Windsor mood was universal and unchallenged, causing many people to wonder if they were personally flawed because they did not feel the sensations that TV was reporting and encouraging."

As the book points out, Mr. Blair was quick to exploit these events as part of his campaign to set himself up as a presidential figure, equal or superior to the monarch. Mr. Hitchens, however, is not just a Blair-hater. He attributes plenty of blame to Lady Thatcher for her part in undermining Britain's traditional institutions, including, ironically, the labor unions.

The ranting element is by no means absent. Mr. Hitchens holds forth against the influence of television, political satire, divorce and sexual licence - a tide that traditionalists have failed to stem elsewhere, too. These trends are part and parcel of life in all Western countries, and many others, in the Global Age, not just in Britain.

The kind of intellectual tyranny that Mr. Hitchens so rightly abhors, in which Shakespeare and Kipling are attacked for failing to respect today's feminist or other minority values, is equally pervasive in the United States. Much of what is happening in Britain, including the demonization of those with "politically incorrect" opinions has also been a major feature of Bill and Hillary Clinton's America.

But Mr. Hitchens is right in thinking that Britain is especially vulnerable. Britain's glorious military and imperial history offers a uniquely attractive target for the forces of political correctness, who regard it as excessively violent, racist and white-male-dominated. Mr. Blair's New Labor has certainly encouraged such assaults on the country's past.

Equally vulnerable to the forces of Mr. Hitchens's cultural revolution are the individual freedoms that Britons struggled so long and so hard to win. Rather than traditional British eccentricity, the revolution requires conformity of thinking and puts group rights above those of individuals.

Mr. Hitchens quotes a particularly telling letter to the London Times in 1993 by a BBC editor complaining that the culture offered to British children "is dominated by the values of the British Empire in its heyday." The problem is that if all those values are thrown out, the good with the bad, there is not much left of the British identity.

Even if the people who built the British Empire were sometimes racist by today's standards, they also had many admirable characteristics - the combination of steadfastness, modesty, self-control, honor, humor, courage under fire and a sense of fair play that for so long defined Britishness to the rest of the world. These are not old-fashioned values, to be swept away in an orgy of politically correct housecleaning, but fundamental qualities that will always bring out some of the best in human nature.

It is Mr. Blair's failure to see this that has made it so difficult for him to grasp the very concept of Britishness, which he has defined as: tolerance, openness and adaptability, self-improvement, strong communities and families and fair play, and an outward-looking approach to the world. None of those qualities, other than fair play, are uniquely or even especially British, as almost any foreigner could tell him.

Those who point this out, however, often go on to conclude that European economic and political integration is just as big a threat to Britishness as the cultural revolution going on inside the country. So does Mr. Hitchens, who writes darkly of "a new battle against German domination of Europe, advancing behind the smokescreen of European Union and armed with the weapons of supranational statism."

Not only is this is a misconception, but the negativism that lies behind it is just as dangerous to Britain's influence in the world as the destructive cultural deviations that Mr. Hitchens so rightly deplores. In the end, the truth is that most of Britain's friends on the Continent admire traditional British values and appreciate the contribution they can make to Europe. Those who are trying to suppress "Britishness" are not abroad but at home.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number I in the Winter of 2001.