Britain and the Intellectuals

Britain and the Intellectuals

Mini Teaser: A sentiment seems to have prevailed among the scribbling classes that Britain is in a general state of decline--intellectually, socially, morally. It's just not so.

by Author(s): Ferdinand Mount

SOMETHING IS happening to Britain and the British. Or has happened. We are said to be passing through a transition, or a turning point, or even a transformation, nobody is quite sure which. Opinions in fact differ quite sharply as to what the "it" is that we are passing through.

Seasoned, even, dare I say, senior observers in the United States tend to identify what they see quite simply as decline. In the most obvious, palpable, undeniable sense, a decline in relative power must certainly play some part. This is not 1914, and Britain, though still one of the principal global trading powers and possessing the fourth- or fifth-largest economy in the world, is no longer Number 1. And it has to be admitted that a large part of what drew many foreign observers to this country was the thrill of reaching the center of affairs. For Norman Podhoretz, to visit or even to live in London was once to be in the modern Athens or Rome. Now, he tells us in a melancholy essay in Commentary--"The Last Time I Saw London" (January 2001)--that he no longer bothers to read British newspapers or keep up with the English literary world. To judge by the pop and rock stars and feminists whose images adorn the new wing of the National Portrait Gallery, he concludes, "the forces at work in the culture and polit ics of England in the second half of the 20th century had left a sorry--nay, tragic--wreckage behind."

Podhoretz summarizes the view of Britain held by Aleksa Djilas, a Belgrade commentator:

The country's culture has declined; its sense of itself and its purpose have descended from the heights they formerly occupied; it has pulled down the curtain on the demonstration it once put on of what a tiny island could accomplish by adhering religiously to a moral code of duty, honor, work, and national responsibility; and it looks not with pride but with shame at the power it once had.

An accusation of cultural decline from the former Yugoslavia--things must really be bad.

Nor apparently does the UK look much better when viewed from outside the metropolis. In a recent "Letter from Wales" in this journal (Fall 2000), Owen Harries (Welsh by birth and upbringing, Australian and American by residence) declares that, "Until quite recently, it used to be the case that Britain was a decent, civilized country with very good public services but an absolutely lousy economy.

Now it has changed to a country with a brilliant economy that is seriously and progressively sick in other respects." The country that was formerly a byword for lawfulness, civility and respect for property, he says, now leads the developed world in every crime except murder. Feckless habits have bred an underclass, the National Health Service is sadly decayed, the people are illiterate.

Such complaints are not limited to foreigners or expatriates. Homegrown laments, such as Peter Hitchens' The Abolition of Britain: From Lady Chatterley Lover to Tony Blair (1999), and Roger England: An Elegy (2000), also deplore the falling away in standards of civility, morality and manners. No longer do little old ladies cycle through the early morning mist to Holy Communion, as George Orwell (and following him John Major) had described when trying to catch the essence of England. These days, if little old ladies ventured forth at all, they would be scared stiff of being knocked off their bikes and assaulted by some drunken yobbo left over from the night before. And in any case, the church would probably have been closed down years ago.

Jeremiads of this sort come mostly from the Right. They differ from, and are a little difficult to reconcile with, the almost equally acerbic dismissal of Britain today that comes from another quarter--that of the leading generation of novelists now aged about fifty, notably Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. As I argued in the Times Literary Supplement last year, this group, Leftish if anything, follows earlier British writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Lawrence Durrell in finding Britain unbearably stodgy and unexciting.1 Peter Hitchens' brother Christopher, long resident in the United States, speaks for them in seeing "America as the great subject, the great canvass." Amis regards England as a back-water, "a little Switzerland"--though without its efficiency, if Owen Harries is to be believed.

Now I SIMPLY find all these images of unrelieved decline to be unrecognizable. Leaving aside for a moment the revival of the British economy in the Blair-Thatcher years--which is quite a lot to leave aside--one still has to wonder why foreigners are flooding into Britain from all over Europe, Asia and Africa, why house prices are almost the highest in the world, why race relations are so much more relaxed than in America, why the arts--but I have no wish to engage in a counter-catalogue of things that are better done, or less badly done than elsewhere. There are, after all, plenty of genuine horror stories, and I have spent large parts of my life trying to draw attention to them. Marc Champion's picture in the Wall Street Journal of March 9 of decaying and understaffed British hospitals and schools is a perfectly accurate representation of what some of us have complained about for a quarter century and more.

But overall recent decline? No, I cannot see it, and I do not believe that any careful observer who set out to be objective would see it either. Let me simply quote here my old, much lamented friend, the satirist Auberon Waugh, not normally thought of as a Pollyanna, to put it mildly. Waugh introduced a 1994 collection of his columns, The Way of the World, with these words:

There are many horrible things happening in the country, but by no means everything that happens is horrible. I would guess, in fact, that we are living in the happiest, most prosperous and carefree society in the history of Britain. Various conspiracies exist to pretend otherwise, of which the most interesting comes from the displaced intelligentsia, ranting against the standards of the new mass entertainment culture in all its undeniable ugliness and nastiness, as it replaces the humane bourgeois liberal culture of the last 150 years.

What I find so bizarre is the claim that Britain is somehow a less interesting, less vivacious country than it used to be at some unspecified era in the twentieth century. On the contrary, when I travel today to Washington or New York, to Paris or Frankfurt or Rome, it is, to borrow Mrs. Patrick Campbell's phrase, like exchanging the hurly-burly of the chaise longue for the deep peace of the marriage bed. There is a sedateness, a formality, occasionally even a ponderousness which has all but disappeared from British life--also, in the United States at least, a religiosity that vanished over here after the Second World War, if not after the First. Well, so much the worse for Britain, you may say, though I have my doubts about non-believing conservatives who recommend religion as a civilizing medicine for other people while unwilling to swallow it themselves.

Podhoretz in his essay is kind about my own efforts and describes them as an "optimistic" sort of excursion. I do not exactly deny that, though I meant my conclusions perhaps to be more open-ended about the future, anti-declinist rather than dogmatically progressive.

To put it another way, I do not mean to be dogmatically cheerful about Britain's future, but I am dogmatic about Britain's past, by which I mean the thirty-odd years after the war. About that past I am pessimistic, if this is not too Irish or Yiddish a way of putting it (the primary dictionary definitions of both "optimist" and "pessimist" do not, in fact, refer specifically to the future but more generally to the view one takes of any set of circumstances). Perhaps there is an age element here. I guess I must be about ten years younger than Podhoretz and Harries, about ten years older than Martin Amis and the Hitchenses. For my age group, the years between 1945 and 1980 were the years that mattered--the years of our growing up and our twenties and thirties. And regardless of whether we were personally happy or not during that period, they are not years to look back on with much satisfaction, as far as our country goes. For our seniors, distanced perhaps by geography or other preoccupations, those years may have seemed much like a continuation of the Britain they had known and been fond of when young. They may have had no uncomfortable sensations of a nation sliding or hollowing out. Our juniors, for their part, grew up into a Britain that was already discontented with itself; they have known little but turmoil and reform. It was our generation, I think, that experienced the humiliations of going downhill most copiously and directly.

At the end of the Second World War, I was barely six years old. But curiously my recollections of those first years after the war seem to be exactly the same as those of adults of all classes and ages at the time: namely, an overwhelming sensation of exhaustion, poverty and restriction. Almost everyone seems to have felt like this, from the highest to the lowest. King George VI wrote to his brother, "I have been suffering from an awful reaction from the strain of the war I suppose, and have felt very tired." Everyone was talking about shortages of everything--food, fuel, clothing. If you were in the government, you were talking about shortage of dollars. Our overseas investments had been snapped up by the Americans or dwindled into insignificance. We were bankrupt and we were down at heel. The then Manchester Guardian wrote in a survey of postwar London: "Shabbiness has descended deeply upon us.

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