Ed Driscoll

Nobody Mention the Culture War

At the Guardian (where else?) Tony Blair weighs in on the England he helped to create. His headline and subhead is a case of “one of these things is not like the other:”

Blaming a moral decline for the riots makes good headlines but bad policy

Talk of a general malaise is misguided. The country’s problems stem from too many dysfunctional households

But what makes “too many dysfunctional households” — or at the very least, helps to make more of them than would have existed otherwise?  Janet Daley of the London Telegraph knows. “The Left-liberal camp is in overdrive in its campaign to rewrite history (or, in its own vocabulary, to alter consciousness),” Daley writes, and you can include the equivocation by Tony Blair or the Guardian’s copy editor to the list, “you did not see thousands of jubilant thugs rampaging through the streets, destroying livelihoods and property for the sheer exultant joy of it.”

In contrast, Daley adds, “What real people know – and have known for quite a long time – is that the great tacit agreement which once held civic life together has been deliberately blown apart:”

There was a time within living memory when all reasonable grown-ups were considered to be on the same side. Parents, teachers, police, judges, politicians – decent citizens of every station and calling – formed an unspoken confederacy to uphold standards of behaviour within their own communities. But their shared values and expectations about human conduct were systematically undermined by a post-Sixties political ideology that preached wholesale disrespect for authority, and legitimised anti-social activity in the name of protest.

What real people saw on their television screens this fateful summer seemed to them to be the final vindication of their instinctive judgment: they may have been shocked but, on some level at least, they were not surprised that it had come to this. What else were these terrible events but the definitive disproof of a doctrine that had subverted adult authority in all its official and unofficial forms?

That doctrine goes back a long way. In fact, the politics of the Sixties were just a late incarnation of an 18th-century philosophy. We have Jean-Jacques Rousseau to thank for the basic principle that men are born good and will only behave badly if they are corrupted by authority and repressive institutions: that we need only liberate them from those false limitations and their natural moral instincts will come to the fore.

So hugely influential was this view in education and social policy that it almost succeeded in extinguishing the truths that arise from experience: people (especially young ones) will behave badly just because they can, because no one is stopping them, or has ever inculcated in them the conscientious discipline that would make them stop themselves.

The capacity for self-control, and the willingness to suppress one’s innate selfishness or cruelty, is something that adults must consciously instil in children and reinforce in other adults by their attitudes to them. The indispensable tools of social stigma and moral judgment that communities used to have at their disposal for this purpose have been stripped away, and the result – the fearless defiance of helpless authority – is what we saw in its terrifying logical conclusion on the streets. That is what real people know: that they were right all along.

When Mark Steyn’s new book came out, I described its literary stylings and doomsday forecast as a combination of Oswald Spengler*, the author of the influential Weimar-era tome, The Decline of the West mated to the riffing of the pioneering wordplay-obsessed comedian Mort Sahl. Tony Blair seems to want to get into the comedy game himself by adding John Cleese and a slight paraphrase of a classic episode of Fawlty Towers to the equation: nobody mention the culture war.

Speaking of Cleese, frequent readers of our humble little blog will recall that back in April, a post we wrote here quoting his dissatisfaction with  modern London— a London that he and the BBC played a bit of a role in remaking — drew 156 comments debating Cleese’s thoughts in the Telegraph, where he was quoted by journalist Ed (still no relation) West as saying:

David Cameron’s speech on immigration may not have gone down too well with the parliamentary Liberal Democrats, but I can think of at least one Lib Dem supporter who probably agreed with the PM on this one. In an interview with Seven magazine, the Lib Dem-supporting comedy legend John Cleese explained why he had moved from London to Bath:

Cleese also spoke about the shift in British attitudes away from a “middle-class culture” and the emergence of a “yob culture”.

He said: “There were disadvantages to the old culture, it was a bit stuffy and it was more sexist and more racist. But it was an educated and middle-class culture. Now it’s a yob culture. The values are so strange.”

(As I quipped back then, John Cleese morphed into Theodore Dalrymple so slowly, I hardly even noticed.)

In retrospect, that sounds very much like the prelude to this month’s riots; those values that are so strange that Cleese mentions above didn’t morph all by themselves. As Jonathan Last wrote in 2005 at the Weekly Standard, in an essay that in retrospect reads as if it’s the outline or the footnotes to After America:

At the beginning of the 20th century, the British Empire was an unopposed hyperpower (much as the United States has been since 1989). As historian Colin Cross observes: “In terms of influence it was the only world power.” The British people and their leaders accepted this fact. In the early 1930s, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin pronounced that “the British Empire stands firm, as a great force for good.” Historian William Manchester argues that “most of the crown’s subjects, abroad as well as at home, felt comfortable with imperialism.”

But after the conclusion of the first World War, Britain’s imperial psyche began to fracture. “After the survivors of the Western front came home,” Manchester writes, “Britons wanted nothing more to do with war; most of them hoped never again to lay their eyes on an Englishman in uniform, and they were losing their taste for Empire.” Winston Churchill despaired of this change. “The shadow of victory is disillusion,” he noted. “The reaction from extreme effort is prostration. The aftermath even of successful war is long and bitter.”

A deep desire to avoid conflict, even at the price of letting the Empire dissolve, permeated British society. In 1931, the House of Commons passed the Statute of Westminster, the first step toward independence for Britain’s dominions. In 1932, a poll found that 10.4 million Britons supported England’s unilateral disarmament, while only 870,000 opposed it. Historian Alistair Horne observes that, after World War I, it took just about 10 years for the “urge for national grandeur” to be replaced by “a deep longing simply to be left in peace.”

Why did it all crumble? Several interrelated reasons – among them the grisly fact that England had lost virtually an entire generation of future leaders in the trenches of Europe. But another important cause was the waning of confidence on the part of liberal British elites, whose pacifism evolved into anti-patriotism.

In 1933, the Oxford Union – a debating society and one of the strongholds of liberal elite opinion – held a debate on the resolution “this House will in no circumstances fight for king and country.” The resolution passed. Margot Asquith, one of England’s leading liberal lights, wrote that same year, quite sincerely: “There is only one way of preserving peace in the world, and getting rid of your enemy, and that is to come to some sort of agreement with him. . . . The greatest enemy of mankind today is hate.”

Churchill disdained the new liberalism, mocking one of his opponents as part of “that band of degenerate international intellectuals who regard the greatness of Britain and the stability and prosperity of the British Empire as a fatal obstacle. . . . ” So deep was this liberal loathing of empire that even as the first shots of World War II were being fired, Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, witnessed at a theater “a group of bespectacled intellectuals” who, to his shock, “remain[ed] firmly seated while ‘God Save the King’ was played.”

These elites could see evil only at home. The French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir did not believe that Germany was a “threat to peace,” but instead worried that the “panic that the Right was spreading” would drag France, Britain, and the rest of Europe into war. Stafford Cripps, a liberal Labor member of Parliament, feared not Hitler, but Churchill. Cripps wrote that after Churchill became prime minister he would “then introduce fascist measures and there will be no more general elections.”

In an important sense, the British Empire’s strength failed because its elite liberal citizens stopped believing in it.

And those elite liberals were waiting in the wings to transform England right after the war.

Finally, regarding Mark’s new book, James Delingpole of the London Telegraph tweets:

Reading Mark Steyn’s After America. Does anyone else realise this is it, the end, game over?

What say you, Tony? Because a century of unlimited expansion, the game’s over for the cradle to the grave bloated Bismarkian welfare state around the world.

* Not to be confused with Spengler’s more recent namesake, the pen name of David P. Goldman, who donned his Pajamas and became a fellow PJM Express blogger last week.