There is, Adam Smith once said, a deal of ruin in a nation—by which he meant that a country's economic capital and cultural heritage are too vast to squander easily or quickly. His remark should stand as a warning to old fogies who see in the modern world nothing but decline. Just as there is a biologically determined age at which babies acquire language, so there seems to be a biologically determined age at which the middle-aged start to lament the passing of the good old days.
Still, decline occurs—and along with everything else that moves faster in our century, it can happen much more quickly and completely today than Adam Smith could have imagined. Recently I went on a speaking tour to Germany, where the destruction wrought by Hitler (in power for a mere 12 years, after all) was, more than half a century after his death, everywhere obvious and inescapable. The Fuhrer brought about not only mass extermination and the physical ruination of his adopted country, but the total annihilation, once and for all, of a culture of world significance.
Germany's economic renaissance—itself now faltering—has not been an entirely satisfactory substitute for this loss. And the loss, we should remember, was not Germany's alone, but the whole world's. Visiting the small Hanseatic city of Schwerin (formerly in East Germany)—it escaped physical destruction by Hitler, the Allies, and the communists alike, and it still has its Schloss, art gallery, opera house, and charming domestic architecture—I was made aware that an entire highly civilized and cultivated way of life had passed from the earth, never to return. In the realm of culture, construction is always temporary and in need of constant maintenance, while destruction is permanent.
Something similar has happened—or is happening—to Britain. Of course, the process is more protracted; of course, thankfully, there is no Hitler to bring it about. Instead, England puts me in mind of the Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare metabolic disorder in which the afflicted person starts to eat—literally to eat—his own flesh.
History being a seamless robe, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when British cultural autophagy started. There never was (thank goodness) a golden age of such supreme cultural confidence that it banished all doubts about the value of the inherited cultural tradition. Far from it: as George Orwell long ago pointed out, the English are the one great nation whose intellectuals have been almost uniformly ashamed of their nationality. And every age has its iconoclasts, its grumblers that the country is going to what Mr. Mantalini, in Nicholas Nickleby, called "the demnition bow-wows." But what happens when no icons are left to destroy? The modern poet of despair and disenchantment, Philip Larkin, asked: "And what remains when disbelief has gone?" We in Britain are beginning to find out, and the answer is not pleasant to behold.
It is necessary to recall for a moment the extraordinary achievement of the population of what is—Henry V notwithstanding—an offshore and not altogether naturally hospitable island, to understand just what is being jettisoned as if it were nothing but a drag on progress. Commentators hardly allude to this achievement nowadays; they assume it to be in bad taste or politically retrograde to do so. In recalling British history, it is now as if Oliver Cromwell had said to his portraitist, Peter Lely, not "Paint me, warts and all," but "Paint only my warts."
Some of the achievements: English is now the language of the entire world, an instrument of marvelous subtlety and absorptive capacity, capable simultaneously of the greatest flights of poetry and the clearest expression of science and metaphysics. English literature is undoubtedly one of the greatest in human history, and it gave to the world its only truly universal poet and playwright. It was in the British Isles that freedom under the law first found both practical and theoretical expression. It was there that political opposition first became accepted as a normal fact of life that did not necessarily lead to the gallows or to bloody revolt. Constitutional government is essentially a British invention—extended as it was by the American Revolution. Another revolution, equally profound, started in Britain: the Industrial Revolution, which, for all its horrors, ultimately liberated much of mankind from naked want. In their public life, the British managed to create a secular ritual that commanded allegiance without demanding fanaticism—a subtle feat that required an instinctive understanding of life's exigencies. The concept of a gentleman is British and contains values that are universal: fair play, a sense of proportion, a certain ironic detachment, politeness, self-restraint, and modesty.
This extraordinary achievement is now equaled only by the levity with which modern Britain is destroying its legacy, not by accident but by design. It is not unusual, for example, to find British youths who, after 11 years of compulsory education, do not know who Shakespeare was. Mere absentmindedness or inadvertence on the part of their teachers? It seems not: when the publisher of a collection of literary classics recently offered to donate a set of these works (including those of Dickens and Shakespeare) to every secondary school in the nation, our educational authorities turned down the offer on the grounds that it would be elitist to accept it, and the literature was not "relevant" to pupils' lives.
Every tradition that ties Britain to its own particular history, with its own particular customs and its own particular culture, is being jettisoned with unseemly haste, in favor of a bland blueprint of what a modern liberal democratic state ought to be like, as judged from a purely abstract and a priori point of view—a point of view that turns out to be whimsically changeable, according to the fashions and enthusiasms of the moment.
Thus the government has decreed the abolition of the right of hereditary peers to vote in the House of Lords, even though there was no public pressure to do so, even though the peers had a vanishingly small ability to obstruct the purposes of the government, and even though the average citizen is incomparably more likely to suffer tyranny or bullying from agents of the democratic state—such as the Inland Revenue—than he is from a member of the aristocracy.
An immemorial tradition is to be swept away with no more thought or regret than a child expends on an insect that he willfully crushes underfoot—and swept away not despite its long usage, but because of it. The contrast between the present government's attitude toward British institutions and culture and that of the first postwar Labour government—which came into office on a truly radical reform platform in 1945 and really did dramatically (and, many would say, disastrously) transform British society by increasing the scope of the welfare state—could scarcely be greater. The postwar Labour government contained more members of genuinely working-class origin than the present government, but it reverenced—among many other traditional things—traditional liberal education, wishing merely to extend its benefits to everyone, a noble if somewhat utopian aim. So, too, its attitude toward the House of Lords was far from radical: it did not regard the process of reform as being synonymous with smashing everything in sight.
Not long after that government came to power, Rebecca West's The Meaning of Treason, a book about a 1946 treason trial, had occasion to predict, in its description of the accused's appeal to the House of Lords, what attitude the new government would take toward the Lords. "Then came the Lord Chancellor," she wrote, "superb in his white full-bottomed wig, its curls lying in rows on his shoulders, and wearing a long black silk gown with a train carried by an attendant. He carried between the forefinger and thumb of each hand his black velvet cap [which he donned on pronouncing the death sentence]. The ritual is not mere foolishness. The procession and the symbols are a mnemonic to the constitutional functions of the House of Lords, and are part of a complicated convention into which most of the legislative and judicial activities of Parliament fit conveniently enough, and which nobody would care to rewrite, in view of the trickiness of the procedure. It is fairly safe to say that this is not one of the features of English life which will be altered by the Labour Government." West, herself far from a conservative, had no trouble grasping the utility of constitutionalism's ancient pageantry, and she was quite correct that the left-wing era that had just dawned in British politics would leave it intact.
By contrast, the present lord chancellor, who has not hesitated to spend more than $1 million of public money on the luxurious refurbishment of his official chambers, has decided to abandon the robes of his office because he finds them uncomfortable and inconvenient. His reforming zeal amounts to mere egocentricity: he can see no merit in what causes him discomfort and remakes the world accordingly.
Today's philosopher-kings are sweeping away ancient principles of law as if they did not represent the accumulated wisdom of the past: as if they had discovered the philosopher's stone to turn the dross of the past into the pure gold of the future. Henceforth there are to be no fixed or inviolable principles of law at all—only an endlessly changing legal response to the fashionable causes of the moment. In this vein is the ever-increasing subservience of British courts to international European legal institutions, to which appointments are in many cases blatantly political. The European Court of Human Rights—which pronounces on British cases, among others—has recently admitted a judge from formerly Soviet Georgia, a country now entirely run by a mafia, in which a policeman pays for his position, scores of prisoners die each year from tuberculosis, and political opposition to the government (which came to power by coup) is hazardous. The treaties that commit us to the abandonment of several hundred years of legal history in favor of "justice" dispensed by jurists like this are binding and irreversible—unless we (like Hitler) learn to think of them as mere pieces of paper.
The response to the Stephen Lawrence case is another example of how the rule of law is to be supplanted by the rule of sentiment—and it is yet one more instance of what one might call the Dianafication of British public life, in which transitory popular enthusiasm trumps venerable tradition. Stephen Lawrence, a pleasant young black man, was brutally murdered in London in 1993, probably by a group of five young white thugs. The Metropolitan Police investigated the murder in a thoroughly incompetent fashion, failing in their most elementary duties. When the case finally came to trial, the evidence was so incomplete, and the case so badly presented by the prosecutors, that the suspects were acquitted. They had got away with murder.
The press alleged that the police failure stemmed from entrenched police racism. In fact, however, thousands of British crime victims of all races encounter police indifference, laziness, dishonesty, and incompetence daily: that is what we have come to expect of our police. In one generation, the connotations of the words "Scotland Yard" have changed from absolute probity and professionalism to bungling and corruption. But the reality inexorably followed the Gestalt switch, rather than the other way around. Liberals magnified instances of corruption and abuse of procedure until they came to seem typical. This perception led to the emasculation of the police by red tape, supposedly to protect citizens' rights from such abuses. Police demoralization—a not unnatural consequence of the 40 forms they now had to fill out after an arrest to ensure citizens' rights—soon turned into amoralization.
Popular outrage led to a public inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence affair, headed by a judge considered a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. By the time his report appeared, however, he had undergone a mysterious metamorphosis: the caterpillar of conservatism emerged as the butterfly of political correctness. Although he found absolutely no evidence that the police officers who had failed so signally to find the culprits were racists, he nevertheless castigated the police for their "institutionalized racism" and blamed that metaphysical entity for their failure. Further, he asserted, institutional racism permeated the whole of society. He therefore suggested a few remedies: among them, that "a racist incident" should be defined as "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person" and that the fundamental legal principle that no man should be tried twice for the same offense be abandoned for crimes that are racially motivated.
Pundits and politicians widely welcomed the report—demonstrating how tenuous in today's Britain is the hold of the traditional British concept of freedom under the law. It seems that we now prefer the principles of the Spanish Inquisition to those of the Common Law: if at first you don't find guilty, try, try again. Badgered by the press, the Home Secretary made the police promise to tackle racism at its root: in practice by doing even less to control crime than ever before, so that they could not be accused of racism. Not surprisingly, in the first month after the report's publication, the number of muggings in London jumped by a third.
Three days after the report came out, the staff of the Frantz Fanon Centre, a facility near my hospital for blacks with mental illness—it is named after the famous West Indian psychiatrist who taught that violence and killing were therapeutic for oppressed blacks—accused local government of institutionalized racism when the authorities turned down the center's demands for more funds. It had taken only three days for the phrase—previously never heard—to have burned its way into everyone's consciousness, surely a sign of extreme cultural fragility and lack of confidence. The crime of racism had become the crime of crimes: the accusation before which all are guilty, and which renders all other qualities nugatory.
When Prime Minister Blair came to power, he promised to "rebrand" Britain—as if the nation were a consumer product with sagging sales on the supermarket shelf. His election campaign slogan was "New Britain," as if he found nothing worth preserving from the past—as if, until his most fortunate advent, British history were nothing but a catalog of crime, folly, and disaster, empty of achievement.
Mr. Blair promised to change Britain's image, from stuffy, stifling formality to democratic, invigorating informality. Accordingly, he began his premiership by inviting pop stars to Downing Street, including the militantly coarse Noel Gallagher. He staged a conference of European leaders, not in any of the elegant locations that still exist in Britain, the land of Sheraton and Chippendale, but at the top of a tall, standard-issue office tower, so that the leaders might sit on new tubular steel chairs and contemplate the future. For a moment, the notion of Cool Britannia was all the rage, and British Airways dutifully removed the fuddy-duddy Union Jack from the tails of its aircraft, replacing it with a series of abstract designs that suggest that the company is run by LSD addicts—not perhaps an entirely happy thought for the passengers.
Far from being an old country, Britain would now present herself as a young, dynamic country, bursting with ideas and reaching fearlessly into the future: a future that would consist largely of fashion, soccer, and pop music, to judge from Mr. Blair's selection of modern British achievements to bolster his case. Change was welcome for change's sake, as being inherently good: and so, when Mr. Blair announced the devolution that may yet see the breakup of the United Kingdom into bitterly antagonistic statelets, the BBC dutifully followed by sending a memo to its staff advising caution about the use of the word "British," which could offend Welsh and Scottish listeners and viewers. Because so many of the opinion-forming class share Mr. Blair's ideas, their appalling superficiality and vulgarity all but escaped comment or criticism. What "British" will mean if Mr. Blair should ultimately decide to submerge the national identity in the European Union, ceding a portion of British sovereignty to Brussels bureaucrats, remains to be seen.
In this nation-dissolving spirit, Mr. Blair has decided to abandon the very idea of the national interest. Thus in the recent war against Serbia, he has been at pains to emphasize that no British national interests are at stake—a guarantee, he imagines, of the war's moral justification. After all, if we stand to gain nothing by it—neither territory nor access to oil—then clearly we must be acting on some kind of Kantian categorical imperative. The inescapable implication, of course, is that any future war to secure national interests would be ipso facto immoral, and that all past wars were both unnecessary and immoral, since we didn't fight them on behalf of all humanity. Mr. Blair's doctrine—that the New Britain needs new armed services, warriors on behalf of the moral equivalent of Esperanto—can't help but sap British military morale.
The institutions, traditions, and culture that have hitherto bound the nation together, however loosely and with whatever dissatisfactions, have thus come under concerted attack. By contrast, when I was a child, my teachers took me to the National Portrait Gallery in London, to see its likenesses of important British figures in the sciences, the arts, and politics. We children understood that these expeditions aimed to instill a respect for a tradition to which one was invited to contribute as best one could. We understood tradition as a spur to achievement, not a bar to it. And the idea that one should be rooted in no particular culture—that the cultural tradition of the place in which you were born should mean no more to you than the cultural tradition of Tierra del Fuego or of Baffin Island, especially when it was as grand as the British tradition undoubtedly was—would have seemed little more than a bizarre plot to deprive people of any serious culture whatever. Nowadays, though, any British teacher who took his pupils to the National Portrait Gallery might well face an accusation of racism. Disconnected snippets of misinformation about cultures from Algonkian to Zulu is what teachers now aspire to impart.
Far from being an imaginative entry into the life of others, the willful destruction of our own cultural tradition encloses us in a world of self-obsession. Consider an interview published in a pop-music magazine (of all places) with Mo Mowlem, a minister in the current British government: "I said the Queen should move out [of Buckingham Palace] because I wanted [the Royal Family] to have a modern palace and make themselves representative of where we are at, rather than something that was representative of the past." The past is dead, buried, and despised; it has nothing to do with us, nothing to teach us. Good riddance to it, then. "Where we are at" is by definition perfectly satisfactory, since it is we who are there and who represent (as a result of our own unaided efforts and illuminated by nothing other than our own light of reason) the acme of human achievement. As to the future, it, too, will have no connection to the past: it can take care of itself. In human life, there is no continuity, only a series of moments, a long now. MTV is life, and life is MTV. Let shifting sands be our foundation stone.
Mo Mowlem's philosophy of culture is hardly eccentric or unrepresentative of the opinion-forming class in Britain. Not long ago, the Guardian newspaper—practically the house organ of the British intelligentsia and cultural elite—ran a front-page fantasy about the fate of Buckingham Palace after the Royal Family has moved out. Old-fashioned radicals might have fantasized about throwing open the palace to the public to make its treasures equally available to all: why should the Queen alone be able to gaze upon the Vermeers and the Van Dycks? Not for the Guardian such traditional radicalism, though: in the current cultural climate, we are not into Vermeer and Van Dyck. Instead, let the palace be festooned with neon lights and turned into a casino and discotheque, the paper opined, since casinos and discotheques are where we are at. Out with the old, in with the new: for there is no such thing as intrinsic worth.
Every day brings a new act of vandalism against the past. Last week, the union representing most nurses in Britain's public hospitals announced that henceforth Florence Nightingale should be demoted as a symbol of British nursing. Never mind her heroic role in establishing the nursing profession worldwide, her sacrifices, her devotion, her indomitable force of character. The union's annual conference voted overwhelmingly that she "represented the negative and backward elements of nursing" and suggested that she be replaced iconographically by Mary Seacole, a Jamaican herbalist who also went to the Crimea to nurse British soldiers. After all, wasn't Mary Seacole more representative of multicultural Britain? Wasn't she the victim of Victorian prejudice? (In fact she was decorated by Queen Victoria herself.) By contrast, Florence Nightingale came from a white, moneyed, Protestant background, "unrepresentative of the ethnic mix in today's National Health Service," according to a union member. "All over Eastern Europe, statues of Lenin are being taken off their pedestals, dismantled, and pulled off to be cut up," the same member said. "It is in the same vein that the nursing profession must start to exorcise the myth of Florence Nightingale."
These remarks would be beneath contempt—even if one did not subscribe to the view of Florence Nightingale as a secular saint—were it not for the fact that they so perfectly capture the bad temper of the times. Not to be statistically representative of "where we are at" is sufficient to discredit any hero from the past. Seen in this light, Britain's traditional culture is but the ideological veil that concealed an unjust, undemocratic, exploitative, oppressive society. We study it only to reinvigorate our own grievances by finding their roots.
To be sure, British culture was never (until now) truly democratic—and certainly not demotic. But it is a gross distortion of the historical record to suggest that it was therefore closed, hermetically sealed to all but a small circle who belonged solely by virtue of their birth. On the contrary, British culture was both elitist and open: the two are not in contradiction. The spurning of British culture, the ideologically motivated separation of the British people from their past and their cultural inheritance, is thus based upon a deeply mistaken reading of British history. And it is having precisely the effect that Edmund Burke said it would. Society, he said, would collapse into "the dust and powder of individuality." A nation would be transformed into a rabble.
Powerfully symbolizing the total vacuity of Mr. Blair's new vision for Britain is a vast public construction project known as the Millennium Dome at Greenwich, costing at least $1.25 billion—by far the largest such project in the country devoted to "culture." No one knows—least of all those who decided to erect it—what this immense building, a monument to the new British culture of "where we are at," will contain. Though its name acknowledges that it is being built 2,000 years after Christ's birth, it naturally has no religious significance or meaning, since any such meaning would (allegedly) offend minorities. Fittingly, the logo for the project is a humanoid figure of no discernible sex, race, or features, with a massive body and a head the size of a pea. In the end, the Dome is likely to be a giant amusement arcade, with interactive exhibits that teach nothing and exemplify nothing. In it—the promoters have promised—condoms will be distributed to the public and cartoons shown to children, as if they had no opportunities to see them elsewhere. This, in the land of the British Museum.
Just how far the nation's disconnection from its literary and historical culture has gone was illustrated for me recently by a patient who arrived in my consulting room with the veins in his forearms inflamed and bruised by injections of heroin. "You wouldn't have to be Sherlock Holmes," I observed, "to guess what your problem is." There was not a flicker of recognition on his face. He had never heard of Sherlock Holmes.
He had heard of Noel Gallagher, of course.