I did not like this book as much as I expected. In part that’s because, as an American, a narrative of British decline resonates with me less deeply, simply because much of the culture, politics and daily life of Britain is not familiar to me. In part it’s because the book is written in a somewhat didactic, overly episodic, fragmented fashion. But mostly, I think, it’s because I’m weary of conservative jeremiads that don’t offer any constructive recommendations on what to do. After all, as my mother used to tell me, “if there’s no solution, there’s no problem.” Conservatives who bemoan how bad things have gotten (and they have gotten very much worse in Britain since this book was written, 1999, or even since it was re-issued with a new Introduction, 2008) need to offer real alternatives and solutions, or they might as well not bother.
In fairness, this was an early entry in a class of books that has only recently become common—the narrative and analysis of civilizational decline from a conservative perspective. Such books as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and Charles Chaput’s Strangers In A Strange Land emphasize a Christian perspective; others, such as Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, concern themselves with broader forms of decline. And those are the intellectually beefy books—there is an endless stew of sky-is-falling potboilers from popular author/entertainers like Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh. Few authors, though, offer any form of concrete and realistic approach (again, there are exceptions, including Dreher and Levin—but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule).
Ideally, what we need is authors who take as a given that most or all of Western civilization is damaged, destroyed, or zombified, and rather than narrating that set of problems, instead spend their time telling us what, specifically, is to be done. If I were writing a book (I’m not), I think the approach should be to analyze our society through historical comparison, through an explicit Toynbee-type “challenge and response” framework, realizing that this civilization is finished, but another civilization must necessarily follow it. This dialectic might, especially given modern wealth and technology, offer mechanisms to both seed a new civilization and to hasten the end of this one (for we might as well get on with it). Sure, it might be hundreds of years, as was true of all the civilizational turnings that Toynbee analyzed—but given the speed of modernity, maybe it can be compressed. And, after all, dying things should be killed quickly.
But I should talk about the book. Peter Hitchens, a famous British journalist, recognizes that Britain (or, as many conservatives refer to it, “The Place Great Britain Used To Be”) is dead. He wrote pre-Brexit, of course, but Brexit will not save Britain. None of the many decrepitudes and horrors that Hitchens chronicles are tied to the European Union, although the book was inspired by the EU, since Hitchens wrote originally with the goal of stopping monetary union, which never happened. Unsurprisingly, Hitchens did not even contemplate the possibility of Britain leaving the EU (and says explicitly that “no democratic process” could ever lead to that result). Therefore, he focuses exclusively on what has changed in Britain for the worse, as a result of what the British have done, to themselves. It is not clear to me why Ross Douthat recommended this (quite obscure) book as one of the books to “read in the Age of Trump,” even less why Douthat said of this book in December 2016 that “you will not find a . . . . clearer explanation for why so many Britons voted for Brexit.” I don’t think it at all explains Brexit; if British voters thought like Hitchens, there would have been many earlier and more dramatic domestic votes than Brexit, and there have not been. Maybe it’s true that Britons voted for Brexit hoping that could help restore their society, but if so, that’s a false hope, since their problems are of their own making, or of the making of their ruling class, which is still very much in control.
The book is arranged sub-topically, around the common theme, naturally. It is framed by the dramatic difference in English behavior and society in 1965, at the death of Churchill, and in 1999, at the death of Diana Windsor. Hitchens is very clear that there was nothing ideal about the England of the 1950s and early 1960s—it was poor, already on the downswing in confidence and verve, “rackety and disreputable.” But it was still recognizably England, with moral standards and a ruling class, across the political spectrum, that upheld those moral standards and the values that had made Britain great, and a great Empire. In subsequent chapters, Hitchens covers the destruction of education at all levels, which has both forgotten the past and turned education into a vehicle for vicious ideological indoctrination; the decline of community as shown by institutions and such less obvious things as building patterns of roads and towns; the theological and organizational decay of the established Church; the baleful effects of television on both children and adults, the latter as part of an organized program of undermining traditional values; degenerating sexual and quasi-sexual morals (such as views of bastardy); attacks by progressives and the state on the family at every level; the destruction of obscenity laws (led by Roy Jenkins, whom Hitchens repeatedly attacks) and the resulting degradation found on every corner and every newspaper; how AIDS and the diseases of smoking, each caused by specific identifiable and correctable behaviors, receive totally different treatment from the establishment (this chapter was apparently omitted from the 1999 edition as “too controversial”); and how the British have lost their love of liberty and “taken a chainsaw” to their ancient constitution (including as a result of perceived security threats). Each chapter gives solid statistical/analytical, as well as anecdotal, evidence in support of the author’s claims, and each chapter is well-written, if in an acerbic, somewhat hyperbolic manner.
Throughout, Hitchens gives many interesting insights. For example, he repeatedly notes the “extraordinarily subversive power of comedy,” to which a democratic government that is the target has no adequate response, even when (as is the norm) the “comedy” is wholly mendacious. I think this is true, but only up to a point, and perhaps much less true in today’s fragmented media era, where people consume the news, or comedy, they select, rather than being a captive audience to one of a handful of BBC channels. For example, I am constantly breathlessly informed by the entire news media, every Sunday, how savagely and successfully Saturday Night Live skewered Donald Trump the night before. (Treating the show as “news” allows the media to wholly drop the already-long-gone pretense of objectivity and to broaden its desired political impact, since few people actually watch SNL.) But does anyone think that this is anything but preaching to the choir? Is there a single person on the planet who watches SNL and has his mind changed about Donald Trump in the slightest way? I doubt it. Mostly such “comedy” harms its viewers, because it makes them more insular and even more unable to understand how Trump became President—which is why Trump became President.
Hitchens also does a good job of reminding us that much of what passes for known history is false. For example, at mid-century the slogan of the South African Communist Party was “Workers of the World United for a White South Africa!,” though now you would think that the white Left was always opposed to apartheid, rather than active participants. And more relevantly to his core thesis, Hitchens notes that most Britons were disgusted or appalled by the spectacle surrounding Diana Windsor’s death, although the saturation media coverage and Tony Blair’s use of soppy (and unjustified) emotion gave the opposite impression, making the majority who didn’t care or thought little of Diana feel isolated and in the minority.
Reading the book has its moments of bitter humor, when the reader realizes that its biggest flaw is that we have long since left behind the mostly comparatively mild examples that Hitchens gives. His “bad new days” are now, largely, the “good old days,” or at least the “not so bad old days.” For example, Hitchens complains of bad language and sexual content on the BBC—as of 1999. Today I read an article on the BBC website, castigating as “prudish” and stupid those (supposedly few) viewers who have dared to raise their voices against a current TV series, Versailles, which among things features explicit gay orgies, along with plenty of pornographic normal sex. Similarly, if you had described the Rotherham scandal (where the authorities actively and aggressively covered up the organized rape of hundreds of young girls over decades by Muslim men because they thought doing otherwise might get them accused of racism, with the authorities never punished in any way, and light sentences given to a handful of the hundreds of rapists), I doubt if Hitchens would have believed things could ever happen. But things can always get worse, and will always get worse, until one day, it stops.
Such a society cannot be saved. Not solely because people are presented programming like Versailles, for most viewers will simply ignore gay orgies, retching slightly, but knowing they are not allowed to say anything, and exposure to explicit sex in entertainment is mostly a symptom of erosion of moral fiber, rather than a cause. And not solely because crimes that in the past would have led to justified vigilante justice are instead ignored. But because the cumulative effect of the different types of decay Hitchens shows, together with the subsequent slide even further, demonstrates the irretrievability of moral virtue, and, even more importantly demonstrates that the ruling class is rotten. Such decline is not retrievable.
Hitchens makes quite a few statements and arguments that to an American may not seem “conservative.” For example, he repeatedly criticizes Margaret Thatcher, a saint to most American conservatives, for not really being conservative. “When the Thatcher government brought [endless strikes] to an end, it introduced a new type of destabilization, as its policies wiped out millions of traditional jobs. Mrs. Thatcher’s carelessness with traditions and institutions looked like necessary radicalism. But it helped to weaken the foundations of everything that had seemed permanent before.” “The apparent rebirth of Conservatism in 1979 was a false dawn because the Thatcherite movement was not interested in morals or culture. It believed mainly in the cleansing power of the market, which has much to be said for it but which has no answers to many fundamental questions—and which cannot operate properly unless honesty and stability are enforced through both ethics and law.” He also ignores issues critical to American conservatives, such as the right to armed self-defense, and really doesn’t talk about crime nearly at all (surprising, given its huge increase in Britain over the past few decades). In fact, in a mild manner, Hitchens attacks Americans for being part of the ruination of Britain, as cultural values that work in the very different country of America were imported to Britain, where they don’t work, by actual Americans during World War Two and by cultural and media imports thereafter.
The Abolition of Britain is a lament, and it has value as a historical analysis and exegesis. But the time for laments is over. It is a time for choosing (to coin a phrase). Will we identify courses of action and take them? Will they be courses of aggressive action? Or will they be courses of inaction, either because action is pointless or because passive defense is more effective? The old world is gone; we did not really need Hitchens to tell us that, but he has done a good job doing so. The current world is an abomination, still, for a time, given shape by a decayed and collapsing moral framework and able to continue apparent forward movement through its unprecedented wealth, which it is nonetheless consuming faster than it is replacing. The new world is aborning; we, or our children, or our children’s children, will help to mold it. Books like this may serve some function to them, but the new world is its own thing, not a copy of the old—which limits the value of laments.