Peter Hitchens’ The Abolition of Britain
Before you can even begin to argue about what’s good about change and what’s not, it’s first worth elucidating what has actually changed. For that, you need someone properly conservative, not a ‘conservative-leaning’ person who’s absorbed the central assumptions of liberal society yet differs on superficial aspects. Those types are incapable of seeing the changes, let alone commenting on them in a non-banal way.
Peter Hitchens is properly conservative. He’s not messing about – he laments the adoption of the metric system, whose questioning wouldn’t even occur to most official ‘conservatives’ in Britain today. For all the things you might disagree with Hitchens on, you’re glad that he is a puritanical curmudgeon. What other kind of person would have the drive to simply point out societal change regarding the death penalty abolishment’s effect on our understanding of human nature, the effect of television on family and community life, how at the foundation, culture has been flipped upside down, and the prevailing economic debates are red herrings?
He would no doubt take a dim view of central aspects of my worldview – that of the primacy of property rights, justice, and my opposition to the nation-state (even though I’m not a revolutionary). He uses the word ‘libertarian’ as a pejorative. He doesn’t believe that rights exist. He sees the market-friendly ‘ideology’ epitomized by Margaret Thatcher as utopian and as much of a religion replacement as communism (Hitchens was a radical communist in his youth). So great, let’s dig in!
Given that The Abolition of Britain is merely chronicling the drastic change in societal values in a short space of time, there isn’t much to quarrel with on face value. You could, without contradiction, love this book as a piece of history, and celebrate all the changes that Hitchens laments. His late brother Christopher, a cultural revolutionary, new atheist guru, and part neocon, might have been one of them, though I’m not aware of any of his writings responding to this book.
Plus, for the most part, it’s about culture more than economics. Hitchens recognizes that the debate hasn’t been around ownership for decades: The Overton window accepts that markets more or less work and state-ownership doesn’t, though favoring state ownership of the railways is another counterintuitive position the author takes. It’s always been about the relationship between the people and its institutions – the decline of traditional marriage, the shunning of deference, and the fact that religion is all but destroyed in Britain.
The author’s setpiece that begins the book is a comparison between the British public’s behavior around the funerals of Winston Churchill and Lady Diana. Britain was still a comparatively conservative place in 1965 – solemnity and deference despite one’s potential misgivings were unquestioned. Compare that to the pressure for public displays of grief and despair (most un-British behavior in the first place) at the death of the Princess, who for Hitchens made a mockery of the role. Pressure from the media and even the Prime Minister compelled the Queen to prostrate herself before the public.
It’s only the sourest of right-wingers who don’t want any change whatsoever. For example, Peter Hitchens might be the most conservative person I know of – he wants to bring back school whippings. But he’s in favor of change, as long as it’s mulled over and considered at length. He thinks the liberation of women and the abolition of anti-gay laws, even though he’s a Puritan, were good. Change is inevitable, but the right-wing will always make the case for the old traditions.
The author is careful to nuance the debate over ‘bad behavior’ – drug-taking, single motherhood, sex before marriage – he is a Christian after all. The standard Christian view balances condemnation with forgiveness. You hate the sin, not the sinner. His reaction therefore to attitudinal changes around these topics is yes, we should care for and forgive those who have fallen off the wagon, and offer them the support that they deserve.
What society says, however, is that there isn’t anything terribly problematic about the initial acts to begin with. That merely not shunning these people from society is not enough – they must be embraced if not celebrated. Drug-addiction is to be seen not as a moral failing but an illness. Getting pregnant out of wedlock isn’t a mistake at all; who really needs a parenting partner anyway? These are the things that will tickle readers’ assumptions, especially in Britain, which is a generation ahead as far as the cultural revolution is concerned.
You might agree with the basic historical facts of the matter here, and celebrate it. Isn’t it good that we’ve outgrown our outdated stiff upper lip attitude? Isn’t it better for our mental health now that we’re more able to talk about our emotions? For me, this isn’t obvious, and it doesn’t need to be. I’m just glad the change is being cast under a critical eye.
On the important matters, however, every self-respecting liberal ought to agree: More than anything else, the First World War irrevocably changed the Western world for the worse. Quite apart from decimating Britain as an international force, it fundamentally discombobulated the culture, and we have never recovered.
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