If I am pessimistic about the future of liberty, it is because I am pessimistic about the strength of the English-speaking nations, which have, in profound ways, surrendered to forces at odds with their inheritance. “Declinism” is in the air, but some of us apocalyptic types are way beyond that. The United States is facing nothing so amiable and genteel as Continental-style “decline,” but something more like sliding off a cliff.
In the days when I used to write for Fleet Street, a lot of readers and several of my editors accused me of being anti-British. I’m not. I’m extremely pro-British and, for that very reason, the present state of the United Kingdom is bound to cause distress. So, before I get to the bad stuff, let me just lay out the good. Insofar as the world functions at all, it’s due to the Britannic inheritance. Three-sevenths of the G7 economies are nations of British descent. Two-fifths of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are—and, by the way, it should be three-fifths: The rap against the Security Council is that it’s the Second World War victory parade preserved in aspic, but, if it were, Canada would have a greater claim to be there than either France or China. The reason Canada isn’t is because a third Anglosphere nation and a second realm of King George VI would have made too obvious a truth usually left unstated—that the Anglosphere was the all but lone defender of civilization and of liberty. In broader geopolitical terms, the key regional powers in almost every corner of the globe are British-derived—from Australia to South Africa to India—and, even among the lesser players, as a general rule you’re better off for having been exposed to British rule than not: Why is Haiti Haiti and Barbados Barbados?
And of course the pre-eminent power of the age derives its political character from eighteenth-century British subjects who took English ideas a little further than the mother country was willing to go. In his
sequel to Churchill’s great work, The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Andrew Roberts writes:
Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no-one will bother to make a distinction between the British Empire–led and the American Republic–led periods of English-speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries. It will be recognized that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common—and enough that separated them from everyone else—that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately.
If you step back for a moment, this seems obvious. There is a distinction between the “English-speaking peoples” and the rest of “the West,” and at key moments in human history that distinction has proved critical.
Continental Europe has given us plenty of nice paintings and agreeable symphonies, French wine and Italian actresses and whatnot, but, for all our fetishization of multiculturalism, you can’t help noticing that when it comes to the notion of a political West—one with a sustained commitment to liberty and democracy—the historical record looks a lot more unicultural and, indeed (given that most of these liberal democracies other than America share the same head of state), uniregal. The entire political class of Portugal, Spain, and Greece spent their childhoods living under dictatorships. So did Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel. We forget how rare on this earth is peaceful constitutional evolution, and rarer still outside the Anglosphere.
Decline starts with the money. It always does. As Jonathan Swift put it:
A baited banker thus desponds,
From his own hand foresees his fall,
They have his soul, who have his bonds;
’Tis like the writing on the wall.
Today the people who have America’s bonds are not the people one would wish to have one’s soul. As Madhav Nalapat has suggested, Beijing believes a half-millennium Western interregnum is about to come to an end, and the world will return to Chinese dominance. I think they’re wrong on the latter, but right on the former. Within a decade, the United States will be spending more of the federal budget on its interest payments than on its military.
According to the cbo’s 2010 long-term budget outlook, by 2020 the U.S. government will be paying between 15 and 20 percent of its revenues in debt interest—whereas defense spending will be down to between 14 and 16 percent. America will be spending more on debt interest than China, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, India, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Spain, Turkey, and Israel spend on their militaries combined. The superpower will have advanced from a nation of aircraft carriers to a nation of debt carriers.
What does that mean? In 2009, the United States spent about $665 billion on its military, the Chinese about $99 billion. If Beijing continues to buy American debt at the rate it has in recent years, then within a half-decade or so U.S. interest payments on that debt will be covering the entire cost of the Chinese military. This year, the Pentagon issued an alarming report to Congress on Beijing’s massive military build-up, including new missiles, upgraded bombers, and an aircraft-carrier R&D program intended to challenge American dominance in the Pacific. What the report didn’t mention is who’s paying for it. Answer: Mr. and Mrs. America.
Within the next five years, the People’s Liberation Army, which is the largest employer on the planet, bigger even than the U.S. Department of Community-Organizer Grant Applications, will be entirely funded by U.S. taxpayers. When they take Taiwan, suburban families in Connecticut and small businesses in Idaho will have paid for it. The existential questions for America loom now, not decades hence. What we face is not merely the decline and fall of a powerful nation but the collapse of the highly specific cultural tradition that built the modern world. It starts with the money—it always does. But the money is only the symptom. We wouldn’t be this broke if we hadn’t squandered our inheritance in a more profound sense.
Britain’s decline also began with the money. The U.S. “Lend-Lease” program to the United Kingdom ended with the war in September 1946. London paid off the final installment of its debt in December 2006, and the Economic Secretary, Ed Balls, sent with the check a faintly surreal accompanying note thanking Washington for its support during the war. They have our soul who have our bonds: Britain and the world were more fortunate in who had London’s bonds than America is seventy years later. For that reason, in terms of global order, the transition from Britannia ruling the waves to the American era, from the old lion to its transatlantic progeny, was one of the smoothest transfers of power in history—so smooth that most of us aren’t quite sure when it took place. Andrew Roberts likes to pinpoint it to the middle of 1943: One month, the British had more men under arms than the Americans; the next month, the Americans had more men under arms than the British.
The baton of global leadership had been passed. And, if it didn’t seem that way at the time, that’s because it was as near a seamless transition as could be devised—although it was hardly “devised” at all, at least not by London. Yet we live with the benefits of that transition to this day. To take a minor but not inconsequential example, one of the critical links in the post-9/11 Afghan campaign was the British Indian Ocean Territory. As its name would suggest, it’s a British dependency, but it has a U.S. military base—just one of many pinpricks on the map where the Royal Navy’s Pax Britannica evolved into Washington’s Pax Americana with nary a thought: From U.S. naval bases in Bermuda to the Anzus alliance down under to Norad in Cheyenne Mountain, London’s military ties with its empire were assumed, effortlessly, by the United States, and life and global order went on.
One of my favorite lines from the Declaration of Independence never made it into the final text. They were Thomas Jefferson’s parting words to his fellow British subjects across the ocean: “We might have been a free and great people together.” But in the end, when it mattered, they were a free and great people together. Britain was eclipsed by its transatlantic offspring, by a nation with the same language, the same legal inheritance, and the same commitment to liberty.
It’s not likely to go that way next time round. And “next time round” is already under way. We are coming to the end of a two-century Anglosphere dominance, and of a world whose order and prosperity many people think of as part of a broad, general trend but which, in fact, derive from a very particular cultural inheritance and may well not survive it. To point out how English the world is is, of course, a frightfully un-English thing to do. No true Englishman would ever do such a ghastly and vulgar thing. You need some sinister rootless colonial oik like me to do it. But there’s a difference between genial self-effacement and contempt for one’s own inheritance.
Not so long ago, Geert Wilders, the Dutch parliamentarian and soi-disant Islamophobe, flew into London and promptly got shipped back to the Netherlands as a threat to public order. After the British Government had reconsidered its stupidity, he was permitted to return and give his speech at the House of Lords—and, as foreigners often do, he quoted Winston Churchill, under the touchingly naive assumption that this would endear him to the natives. Whereas, of course, to almost all members of Britain’s governing elite, quoting Churchill approvingly only confirms that you’re an extremist lunatic. I had the honor a couple of years back of visiting President Bush in the White House and seeing the bust of Churchill on display in the Oval Office. When Barack Obama moved in, he ordered Churchill’s bust be removed and returned to the British. Its present whereabouts are unclear. But, given what Sir Winston had to say about Islam in his book on the Sudanese campaign, the bust was almost certainly arrested at Heathrow and deported as a threat to public order.
Somewhere along the way a quintessentially British sense of self-deprecation curdled into a psychologically unhealthy self-loathing. A typical foot-of-the-page news item from The Daily Telegraph:
A leading college at Cambridge University has renamed its controversial colonial-themed Empire Ball after accusations that it was “distasteful.” The £136-a-head Emmanuel College ball was advertised as a celebration of “the Victorian commonwealth and all of its decadences.
Students were urged to “party like it’s 1899” and organisers promised a trip through the Indian Raj, Australia, the West Indies, and 19th century Hong Kong.
But anti-fascist groups said the theme was “distasteful and insensitive” because of the British Empire’s historical association with slavery, repression and exploitation.
The Empire Ball Committee, led by presidents Richard Hilton and Jenny Unwin, has announced the word “empire” will be removed from all promotional material.
The way things are going in Britain, it would make more sense to remove the word “balls.”
It’s interesting to learn that “anti-fascism” now means attacking the British Empire, which stood alone against fascism in that critical year between the fall of France and Germany’s invasion of Russia. And it’s even sadder to have to point out the most obvious fatuity in those “anti-fascist groups” litany of evil—“the British Empire’s association with slavery.” The British Empire’s principal association with slavery is that it abolished it. Before William Wilberforce, the British Parliament, and the brave men of the Royal Navy took up the issue, slavery was an institution regarded by all cultures around the planet as as permanent a feature of life as the earth and sky. Britain expunged it from most of the globe.
It is pathetic but unsurprising how ignorant all these brave “anti-fascists” are. But there is a lesson here not just for Britain but for the rest of us, too: When a society loses its memory, it descends inevitably into dementia. As I always try to tell my American neighbors, national decline is at least partly psychological—and therefore what matters is accepting the psychology of decline. Thus, Hayek’s greatest insight in The Road to Serfdom, which he wrote with an immigrant’s eye on the Britain of 1944:
There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which the British people justly prided themselves and in which they were generally agreed to excel.
The virtues possessed by Anglo-Saxons in a higher degree than most other people, excepting only a few of the smaller nations, like the Swiss and the Dutch, were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one’s neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.
Within little more than half a century, almost every item on the list had been abandoned, from “independence and self-reliance” (some 40 percent of Britons receive state handouts) to “a healthy suspicion of power and
authority”—the reflex response now to almost any passing inconvenience is to demand the government “do something.” American exceptionalism would have to be awfully exceptional to suffer a similar expansion of government without a similar descent, in enough of the citizenry, into chronic dependency.
What happened? Britain, in John Foster Dulles’s famous postwar assessment, had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Actually, Britain didn’t so much “lose” the Empire: it evolved peacefully into the modern Commonwealth, which is more agreeable than the way these things usually go. Nor is it clear that modern Britain wants a role, of any kind. Rather than losing an empire, it seems to have lost its point.
This has consequences. To go back to Cambridge University’s now non-imperial Empire Ball, if the cream of British education so willingly prostrates itself before ahistorical balderdash, what then of the school system’s more typical charges? In cutting off two generations of students from their cultural inheritance, the British state has engaged in what we will one day come to see as a form of child abuse, one that puts a huge question mark over the future. Why be surprised that legions of British Muslims sign up for the Taliban? These are young men who went to school in Luton and West Bromwich and learned nothing of their country of nominal citizenship other than that it’s responsible for racism, imperialism, colonialism, and all the other bad -isms of the world. If that’s all you knew of Britain, why would you feel any allegiance to Queen and country? And what if you don’t have Islam to turn to? The transformation of the British people is, in its own malign way, a remarkable achievement. Raised in schools that teach them nothing, they nevertheless pick up the gist of the matter, which is that their society is a racket founded on various historical injustices. The virtues Hayek admired? Ha! Strictly for suckers.
When William Beveridge laid out his blueprint for the modern British welfare state in 1942, his goal was the “abolition of want,” to be accomplished by “cooperation between the State and the individual.” In attempting to insulate the citizenry from the vicissitudes of fate, Sir William succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Want has been all but abolished. Today, fewer and fewer Britons want to work, want to marry, want to raise children, want to lead a life of any purpose or dignity. Churchill called his book The History of the English-Speaking Peoples—not the English-Speaking Nations. The extraordinary role played by those nations in the creation and maintenance of the modern world derived from their human capital.
What happens when, as a matter of state policy, you debauch your human capital? The United Kingdom has the highest drug use in Europe, the highest incidence of sexually transmitted disease, the highest number of single mothers; marriage is all but defunct, except for toffs, upscale gays, and Muslims. For Americans, the quickest way to understand modern Britain is to look at what lbj’s Great Society did to the black family and imagine it applied to the general population. One-fifth of British children are raised in homes in which no adult works. Just under 900,000 people have been off sick for over a decade, claiming “sick benefits,” week in, week out, for ten years and counting. “Indolence,” as Machiavelli understood, is the greatest enemy of a free society, but rarely has any state embraced this oldest temptation as literally as Britain. There is almost nothing you can’t get the government to pay for.
Plucked at random from The Daily Mail: A man of twenty-one with learning disabilities has been granted taxpayers’ money to fly to Amsterdam and have sex with a prostitute. Why not? His social worker says sex is a “human right” and that his client, being a virgin, is entitled to the support of the state in claiming said right. Fortunately, a £520 million program was set up by Her Majesty’s Government to “empower those with disabilities.” “He’s planning to do more than just have his end away,” explained the social worker.
“The girls in Amsterdam are far more protected than those on U.K. streets. Let him have some fun—I’d want to. Wouldn’t you prefer that we can control this, guide him, educate him, support him to understand the process and ultimately end up satisfying his needs in a secure, licensed place where his happiness and growth as a person is the most important thing? Refusing to offer him this service would be a violation of his human rights.”
And so a Dutch prostitute is able to boast that among her clients is the British Government. Talk about outsourcing: given the reputation of English womanhood, you’d have thought this would be the one job that wouldn’t have to be shipped overseas. But, as Dutch hookers no doubt say, lie back and think of England—and the check they’ll be mailing you.
After Big Government, after global retreat, after the loss of liberty, there is only remorseless civic disintegration. The statistics speak for themselves. The number of indictable offences per thousand people was 2.4 in 1900, climbed gradually to 9.7 in 1954, and then rocketed to 109.4 by 1992. And that official increase understates the reality: Many crimes have been decriminalized (shoplifting, for example), and most crime goes unreported, and most reported crime goes uninvestigated, and most investigated crime goes unsolved, and almost all solved crime merits derisory punishment. Yet the law-breaking is merely a symptom of a larger rupture. At a gathering like this one, John O’Sullivan, recalling his own hometown, said that when his grandmother ran a pub in the Liverpool docklands in the years around the First World War, there was only one occasion when someone swore in her presence. And he subsequently apologized.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But viewed from 2010 England the day before yesterday is an alternative universe—or a lost civilization. Last year, the “Secretary of State for Children” (both an Orwellian and Huxleyite office) announced that 20,000 “problem families” would be put under twenty-four-hour cctv supervision in their homes. As the Daily Express reported, “They will be monitored to ensure that children attend school, go to bed on time and eat proper meals.” Orwell’s government “telescreen” in every home is close to being a reality, although even he would have dismissed as too obviously absurd a nanny state that literally polices your bedtime.
For its worshippers, Big Government becomes a kind of religion: the state as church. After the London Tube bombings, Gordon Brown began mulling over the creation of what he called a “British equivalent of the U.S. Fourth of July,” a new national holiday to bolster British identity. The Labour Party think-tank, the Fabian Society, proposed that the new “British Day” should be July 5th, the day the National Health Service was created. Because the essence of contemporary British identity is waiting two years for a hip operation. A national holiday every July 5th: They can call it Dependence Day.
Does the fate of the other senior Anglophone power hold broader lessons for the United States? It’s not so hard to picture a paternalist technocrat of the Michael Bloomberg school covering New York in cctv ostensibly for terrorism but also to monitor your transfats. Permanence is the illusion of every age. But you cannot wage a sustained ideological assault on your own civilization without profound consequence. Without serious course correction, we will see the end of the Anglo-American era, and the eclipse of the powers that built the modern world. Even as America’s spendaholic government outspends not only America’s ability to pay for itself but, by some measures, the world’s; even as it follows Britain into the dank pit of transgenerational dependency, a failed education system, and unsustainable entitlements; even as it makes less and less and mortgages its future to its rivals for cheap Chinese trinkets, most Americans assume that simply because they’re American they will be insulated from the consequences. There, too, are lessons from the old country. Cecil Rhodes distilled the assumptions of generations when he said that to be born a British subject was to win first prize in the lottery of life. On the eve of the Great War, in his play Heartbreak House, Bernard Shaw turned the thought around to taunt a British ruling class too smug and self-absorbed to see what was coming. “Do you think,” he wrote, “the laws of God will be suspended in favor of England because you were born in it?”
In our time, to be born a citizen of the United States is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and, as Britons did, too many Americans assume it will always be so. Do you think the laws of God will be suspended in favor of America because you were born in it? Great convulsions lie ahead, and at the end of it we may be in a post-Anglosphere world.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 5, on page 13
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