Peter Hitchens’ The Abolition Of Britain

Speaking as a self-described Anglophile, one of the saddest images produced in recent months was of the statue of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square encased in a massive box, designed to protect it from the inevitable vandalism and abuse that would have been directed towards it had it remained uncovered. What has happened in England, that a statue of the nation’s saviour during World War II could become the object of such scorn? Nothing less than a cultural revolution, argues Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, who has chronicled the changes in The Abolition Of Britain, and in his journalism. This book, it should be said, initially appeared in 1999, when he wrote in the hope of thwarting changes he viewed as lethal to his country; in 2008, when asked to supply a new Preface, he was decidedly less optimistic: “The abolition of a great and famous nation is now virtually complete. It seems to me that all that remains to be done is to shovel the earth onto the coffin and turn away, hoping that others may possibly profit from our experience, and avoid our fate.” Surely, this is hyperbole – after all, Britain remains a nation visible on a map, holding elections and electing leaders. In what sense, then, has Britain been abolished?

What Hitchens charges in this book, across a series of essays covering topics as wide-ranging as corporal punishment and contraception, church attendance and education, suburban sprawl and pornography, is that the moral, spiritual and cultural norms that held sway in Britain for centuries, and which stamped – or perhaps created – the British people, have been abolished. Britain remains a nation on a map, but the British people have been detached from the very wellsprings of their identity: their unique history, literature, and religion, even the renewing beauties of their countryside. He does not allege that these changes were the product of “a central Red Guard command plotting the next step,” but contends that “a series of important coincidences have combined with the spirit of the age and the growth of a new type of middle class, mainly state-educated and state-employed,” have ushered into Britain an entirely new and untested culture, and one that is, in his judgment, crude, chaotic and selfish.

In Hitchens’ telling, there was no moment of decisive break, no October Revolution or storming of the Bastille – nothing so obvious could have been accomplished in the sensible Britain of the past – but a gradual death, precipitated by small and seemingly innocuous changes. Some of the changes Hitchens invokes will draw eye-rolls from younger audiences – must we really return to the knuckle-rapping disciplinary method? – but others are devastating, and speak to the loss of a common culture that has reduced so many young people to a perpetual pursuit of pleasure and entertainment. There is also, to be sure, a potentially dangerous consequence to the hollowing out of cultural traditions, and Hitchens was wise to this long before his more optimistic critics:

A nation is the sum of its memories, and when those memories are allowed to die, it is less of a nation. However, when a people cease to believe their national myths, and cease to know or respect their history, it does not follow that they become blandly smiling internationalists. Far from it. In many cases they become fervent local patriots, fanatical supporters of a football team and imbued with a truly xenophobic hatred of people and football supporters from another town. Unmoved by national poetry or song, they instead allow themselves to be moved, or manipulated, by the fashionable pieties of ‘protest’ music. Deprived of older loyalties, they seek tribal sensations by being part of a supposed ‘generation’, with its special fashions in clothes, hair, entertainment, drugs and thought. The nation-state, as many people forget, is one of the most reliable engines of unselfishness and human solidarity. If it breaks down, the feelings which would have found their home in it seek other places where they are welcome.

He is right, of course, and the resurgence of populist sentiment, not only in Britain but across the Western world, certainly has the potential to tip into something ugly and exclusionary, but Hitchens is also correct to point out that the loss of “national poetry or song” is a tragedy in itself. Here is the late Roger Scruton, making much the same point: “Thanks to cultural impoverishment, young people no longer have a repertoire of songs, poems, arguments or ideas with which to entertain one another in their cups. They drink to fill the moral vacuum generated by their culture.”

Britain, in other words, has become a nation without a common culture, and its most cosmopolitan cities – exactly those places where statues of Winston Churchill would most be endangered – are attractive to the wider world precisely because it has hollowed out its culture and declared itself open to the world. The marvel, to me, is not that it has happened – the changes Hitchens describes were always, inevitably, leading towards dissolution – but that it was allowed to happen. Thankfully, as I write, there are yet signs of resistance. In one of the more brazen attempts at cultural erasure, the BBC recently announced its intention to exclude both Vera Lynn’s “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule, Britannia!” from their traditional place at the annual Last Night of the Proms. The backlash from the British was swift and vociferous, and for a brief period, Dame Vera Lynn returned to the top spot on the British charts, and the BBC was forced to reverse its decision. The entire incident perfectly encapsulates, in miniature, the very process of cultural erasure Hitchens describes: a noisy, petulant and self-assured minority seeking to impose their vision of the good on a public that, should it bother to notice, would strenuously object. And note, also, the parallel between Vera Lynn and Winston Churchill: could you name two more iconic British voices from the Second World War, or two people more instrumental in rallying the British people in a moment of terrible darkness? I do not know yet whether Britain has been abolished, but I can say with confidence that a Britain that has no place for Churchill or Vera Lynn is Britain in name only. In the meantime, while the battle is still being decided, I advise you to keep smiling through – till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.