Britain and the Intellectuals

By Mount, Ferdinand | The National Interest, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Britain and the Intellectuals


Mount, Ferdinand, The National Interest


In Thrall to the Bad Old Days

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. …

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