This book is the final part of a trilogy, the two previous volumes being The Victorians and After the Victorians. In his preface A N Wilson writes that in 1940 Britain still had an empire, a vast industrial base at home, an unspoilt landscape, a rail network, a national Church and a class system. Within a decade of the end of WWII all these had faded or vanished entirely. Through this preamble he repeats the lament, “Today, my Britain, the England of my mother and my father, no longer exists.”
So is this book, a detailed description of the events that highlighted the decades since the Coronation in 1953 to the present day, simply an exercise in nostalgia? No; for Wilson is both too complicated and too modern in his outlook for so straightforward a response. As a well-educated son – Rugby and Oxford – of the comfortable middle classes, a distinguished biographer and man of letters and an able journalist, his deepest instincts are those of an old-fashioned conservative. He loves the prose of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, English village life, country railway stations and high culture. One senses that the imaginative landscape in which he is most at home is the Victorian and post-Victorian period: “Compare the England of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy and George Meredith with that of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis” he asks rhetorically. Here he has my sympathies.
Yet a freethinking progressive and liberal also struggles for Wilson’s soul. Having flirted with Anglicanism and the Catholic Church, he now prefers to be a cultivated agnostic, making waspish comments about the Church of England, applauding the liberalisation of laws against homosexuality, abortion and divorce, hating censorship and in favour of women’s liberation. This divide makes his book an uneasy and contradictory read; at places it is facile, gossipy, going into long and irrelevant detail of society scandals; at others it is reflective, making intelligent arguments, witty discriminations and amusing throw-away remarks, such as, “F R Leavis was the nearest thing modern Cambridge produced to Savonarola.”
But to illustrate how the author can be simply ridiculous: page 128 is blank – and entirely black. Is this because of the death of the monarch, the start of a world war, the dropping of the H-bomb? No, it is Wilson’s way of informing the reader that he has a secret he won’t divulge: the ‘names’ (given to him, he says, by a taxi driver who witnessed them) of a Front Bench Minister and a member of the Royal Family who were deeply and embarrassingly implicated in the Profumo scandal of the early 1960s.
As a lively narrative of the post-war, social history of Britain this is an entertaining work; as a serious study of the last half century it can be discounted. There is too much personal malice at work, when the Grub Street journalist paying off old scores gets the upper hand. For instance, Wilson describes Michael Portillo, former MP and contender for the Tory leadership during John Major’s premiership, as “the most personable of the bastards… a blubber-lipped bisexual” and informs us that Anthony Eden, who took over the premiership when Churchill resigned, was “the only male British prime minister known to have varnished his finger nails.” He notes the loss of deference in British society since the war, and the consequent rise of yobbishness, with a certain anxiety, without recognising that he, as an articulate member of the mocking class, has frequently contributed to it.
At the heart of the book is Wilson’s statement: “At the time of the Queen’s coronation, it still made a sort of sense to speak of Britain as a Christian country. At some stage it became post-Christian, and by the end of our times it was not Christian in itself at all.” Yet I, rather than Wilson, single out this comment; he does not place it at the heart, for his book is actually ‘heart-less’ i.e. he has no belief in fundamental positions that might be necessary for a healthy civilization. Everything for him is a "symptom" rather than a "cause": the bankruptcy at the end of WWII; the mass immigration of the 1960s (and the 1990s); the affluence of the youth culture; the satire of Private Eye and Beyond the Fringe. Rather than Christianity he would argue, fashionably, that the struggle lay between "Apollo" i.e. reason, control and order, which was in charge up to the War, and "Dionysus" – madness, drugs, uncontrolled appetites – that has subsequently been in control.
It is this wish to be fashionable and not "fuddy-duddy" that makes Wilson’s views often so facile. “Just as Luther… rescued the Germans from formal religion” he opines; at another place he vaunts Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch as a “liberating” book; the “punitive divorce laws” of the 1950s are placed on the same level as “dreadful cookery” and bad wine. A large-scale economic recession – the credit crunch – has occurred since this book was published. In a recent newspaper article (The Daily Mail, October 2008) Wilson hopes Britain might face it by a return to the spirit of the Blitz and of rationing, when people shared a common mythology alongside thrift, austerity and cheerfulness. Yet, as he makes clear in this work, there is no common mythology at work anymore; the symbol of Britannia is no longer on the coinage. Whether this is a good thing or a bad, he declines to answer.
Francis Phillips is a regular reviewer for MercatorNet.