Whatever happened to Britain? I realize a map of Europe still shows it sitting off the north coast of France. But what happened to the land of Kipling, Drake and Horatio Nelson, and for that matter Edward Coke and William Blackstone?
This melancholy thought was underlined for me the other day by a Raffles story. Raffles, for those of you not familiar with second-rate vaguely seedy Victorian crime writing, was a “gentleman thief” created by Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law E.W. Hornung, whose escapades are narrated by his faithful sidekick “Bunny.” (No cheap shots about public schools please.)
One might find the stories morally as well as aesthetically disagreeable. But they are permeated by a special kind of Britishness, an assurance of cultural strength and resilience so profound that elegant misconduct by a superficially respectable member of the elite merely added spice and depth to British life. This atmosphere of effortless excellence lingers as late as, say, the mid-20th-century’s The Avengers or James Bond. But it was dissipating fast even then, and seems to me to be all but gone today.
This feeling has been growing on me since I had a chance to walk around London two years ago. The evocative magic of Marble Arch, the Albert Memorial, Trafalgar Square and Big Ben remain. I was inspired, even transported, just to be there, gazing at statues of real historical heroes from Wellington to “Monty”. But I was also brought almost to tears by the powerfully peculiar sensation of walking among ruins that had not fallen down.
After Rome fell, one could see the broken buildings, the toppled columns, the shattered facades, and sense that something great had been destroyed. But at least the Romans, even in their terminal decay, insisted that barbarians take the trouble to knock the place down. Somehow Britain succumbed to dry rot instead. London remains the heart of a great empire, but what happened to the body? Where are the limbs, the brains, the blood?
I am tempted to blame the Labour Party, whose rise to power starting in the 1930s seems to coincide with Britain’s tumble from insouciant magnificence into shabby ruin. But it would be unfair for two reasons. First, in the period of Labour ascendancy the Conservatives have generally been no better, accepting decline if not actively promoting it and, despite Mrs. Thatcher’s efforts, deceiving voters with the shadow but not substance of a real alternative.
The revelation that the current Labour Party deliberately allowed mass immigration precisely to alter the character of the electorate so as to rub the noses of Tories in multiculturalism is exactly the sort of thing I mean. Of course there was a small outcry among the usual suspects. But the Parliamentary Conservative party didn’t have the guts to make a major issue out of it and, one suspects, they didn’t so much lack the courage of their convictions as suffer a massive deficit in both areas.
When Bertold Brecht suggested dissolving the electorate and electing a new one in the 1950s, it was considered the height of villainous communist arrogance and social engineering. When Labour was caught doing it 50 years later, no one really cared enough about the old one to object.
Thus my second reason for not concentrating too much on the Labour Party is that the persistent habit of electing socialists who seem ashamed of their country is more likely to be a symptom than a cause of decay. It reflects on voters and citizens more than on politicians.
I am not inclined to list the sort of yobbish behaviour now too evidently on display as a cause of the decline. Possibly it is not even a symptom. There has always been a drunken, rowdy side to the British character that was, I think, part of the strength of the Empire. Upper-class twits may have commanded the regiments, but rough-edged Cockneys and Highlanders and Ulstermen formed the infantry squares and furnished the redoubtable sergeant-majors who made the redcoats what they were. The distressing impression I have formed, however, is that somehow all the mortar has been washed away, leaving the building blocks scattered in a disorganized fashion.
It may seem absurd, and offensive, that such a small foggy island should have played such a large role for so long. It may be particularly offensive that Britons had cultural habits that let Britannia rule the waves when her population was smaller even than that of various European rivals, let alone those enormous portions of the globe whose combined resources could not fend off a “butcher and bolt” expedition or even a gunboat.
On the other hand, recall that one of the most famous gunboat incidents involved the Royal Navy shelling the palace of the sultan of Zanzibar until he agreed to end the slave trade… and then billing him for the expended ammunition. This episode reminds us that when Britannia ruled the waves the British were a mighty force for good in the world even if they were at times insufferable about it. And the critical problem seems not to be that foreigners resented this special quality of Britishness, but that somehow the inhabitants of Albion themselves began to do so.
For many years the British, broadly speaking, were convinced that they would somehow find a way through any difficulty. That conviction was not itself the foundation of their success; the British really did a lot of things much better than other people, from creating wealth to tolerating dissent to fighting. But when it disappeared, when it started to seem somehow gauche to think Britain was different from other cultures and should be, it all went to wrack and ruin.
Now it may also be argued that, for all this decline and despite the Labour Party underfunding and overstretching their military in a way not even our governments can match, Britain remains the second-most-powerful country in the world. After the United States, no one can project force like the British and, moreover, no one else is as likely to do it for generally good motives.
I should also note the argument by Niall Ferguson in his book Empire that what finally broke Britain as a world power was throwing everything the Empire had left into the struggle against Hitler which, in his view, justified everything about the Empire including its less attractive features. And undoubtedly World War II took a lot out of Britain. But so, surely, did the long struggle against France from the 17th century through the final defeat of Napoleon, which only inspired Britons to new greatness.
For that reason I find the contrast between Britain just a century ago and Britain today both sad and scary. Nobody conquered them. Nobody took away that special feel and the extraordinary results it generated. They just seem to have gotten bored and demoralized and tossed it aside. As far as I can see they did it to themselves.
If that’s true, the same thing could happen to us. In fact I think it is. So next time you’re in London ask yourself: As recently as the 1940s it inspired the inhabitants to sing that there’d always be an England. And now it’s only true geographically. It’s enough to make Nelson jump off his column.
John Robson is a writer and broadcaster living in Ottawa, Canada.