The Auld Sod
Over to England to join a conference on anti-Americanism. Good conference: thought-provoking ideas from a roomful of conservatives, including some personal favorites: Roger Kimball, NR's own John O'Sullivan, Paul Hollander, and others. Some of the contributions, including mine, will probably be printed up in a forthcoming issue of that excellent magazine The New Criterion. They will be printed up somewhere, in any case, and when that happens, I'll let you know. In the meantime, some impressions of the Auld Sod from a native son.
It was the first time I'd been back in England for four years. That's not enough time for anything to change very dramatically, of course; but it's enough time for memories to fade, so that certain things are striking to the eye and ear. I had forgotten the narrowness of the roads and the smallness of the cars, the beauty of the countryside (the conference was at Tunbridge Wells, an old town in rural Kent), the cheery stoicism of the middle classes and the truculent swagger of the lower ones, the layer of gentle irony with which almost every utterance is coated.
A thing I notice on every visit is how much the actual phonetics of English speech have changed since my childhood. The honking, braying upper-class voice has disappeared, or at least no longer dares display itself in public. So, on the other hand, have a lot of the old regional dialects. There has been a sort of regression to the mean, the mean in this case being a modified cockney accent, complete with dropped h's, glottal stops, "hard" l's, and tortured vowels. The simple vowel [u], as in "you," for example, has become a diphthong: "yiuuuw." The diphthong [ou], as in "no," has mutated into something truly weird, a triphthong or a tetraphthong: "naiouwww."
I don't mind any of this, as if there were any point in minding it. I observe with cool detachment. I'm not sure I ever loved England, though I certainly tried. Anyway, we couldn't get on together and I'm glad I left. After passing through a number of phases of rejection, guilt, Judas complex, and occasional loathing, I find that now we are just friends, who don't mind spending half an hour in each other's company once in a while, all passion spent.
English politics is mostly trivial, since the country just isn't important any more, but the political scene still has some color and flavor to it. The current sensation is the revelation that the famously colorless and boring John Major, the country's last Conservative Prime Minister (1990-1997), had a sex affair with a government colleague back in the 1980s, when he was a junior government minister.* The lady in question, who seems like a really nasty piece of work,** has just revealed all in some published diaries, and the country is trying to get its mind round the concept of John Major having any kind of sex life at all, let alone an extramarital affair. There is much hilarity, with jokes about "last of the gray-hot lovers" flying around. The satirical magazine Private Eye published a mock diary of Major's, in which he comes downstairs to find his wife in tears at the breakfast table, a copy of the Times in front of her. Supposing she is upset from reading about the affair, Major tries to soothe her, but it turns out her tears are of mirth: "'It says here you were a sexual athlete, John,' she said, holding her sides and starting to cry again."
It doesn't help that Major, when Prime Minister, was the author of a campaign called "back to basics" — an attempt to promote traditional morality, family values, and so on.*** Nor does it help that the story of this affair came out just a few days before the Conservative Party's annual conference. Now the Tories have to go over their prepared speeches cutting out all references to morality, values, etc., for fear of the laughs they would raise.
The Conservative Party is in a bad way altogether, in fact. The current leader, Iain Duncan Smith ("Duncan Smith" is his last name), is a decent and capable man, but has been unable to inspire any interest among the electorate. The party as a whole is floundering, never having managed to square the circle of how to present conservative values in a feminized society drenched in sentimental hedonism. I heard a radio discussion between representatives of the three main parties. The Conservative lady was very much on the defensive: "We do care … we are a compassionate party … we are very much concerned with those left behind in society …" The Labour (Clintonite-Left) and Liberal (Naderite-Left) representatives were scathing. "You say you have programs to help the disadvantaged, but how will you fund them? You still talk about cutting taxes. How can you help people without spending money?" The poor woman was reduced to talking about "reducing waste in government programs," a thing which of course no-one believes can ever be done, and which no-one ever got elected on, anywhere.
British and American politics move in rough synchronization, the large trends of one being picked up by the other. Britain's leftist parties brought the nation to the edge of ruin in the late 1970s, so the people elected a radical conservative, Margaret Thatcher. A year and a half later, the same thing happened in the U.S. Then, in the early 1990s, America's leftist parties made their peace with big business and learned to hide their government-expanding, national-sovereignty-eroding schemes behind a mask of "compassion," so that a pain-feeling, tear-squeezing, internationalist charlatan could get elected. Four years later, Britain's leftists pulled off the same stunt.
There are key differences, though. That exchange on the radio reminded me how fortunate we are in the U.S.A. to have large, vigorous blocks of conservative voters, fired up about some one particular issue — the gun lobby, the anti-abortion lobby, Christian conservatives, Tenth Amendment enthusiasts, immigration restrictionists, opponents of race quotas. Without these activists to see him safe home, George Bush would have gone down in 2000 mumbling ineffectually about reducing government waste, like that doomed Tory on the radio. There is no gun lobby in Britain, there are no anti-abortion campaigners, no significant Christian groups, no Rush Limbaugh, no NRO. There is only the near-universal conviction that huge numbers of citizens, being too feeble-spirited to care for themselves, need to have their lives lived for them, and that the best people to organize this puppet-show are government officials, and that the more of these officials there are, and the more revenue the government raises, the happier and more secure everyone will be, and the more stuff they will have.
There was a revealing little glimpse of the country's ever-feebler attachment to democracy when the United Nations issued a report criticizing England and Wales for permitting parents to physically chastise their children. (In Scotland, which has a different legal system, spanking is already illegal.) Instead of telling the U.N. busybody to go have relations with a flying Lifesaver, as the spokesman of a confident and psychologically healthy nation would, the British minister charged with responding to this sinister little impertinence merely whimpered that the government was doing its best, that more certainly needed to be done, that progress was being made … It is easy, and pleasant, to imagine how Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher would have reacted. But there are no Churchills or Thatchers in Britain today, and any such person who showed up would never be permitted to rise in any current political party.
Speaking of Thatcher, I heard the most plausible explanation yet of Tony Blair's support for war against Iraq, in defiance of large sections ofhis party. "He's looking for a Falklands factor," said my informant, who is wise in the ways of British politics. "Look back at the Thatcher governments. They only really got going after '82. That victory in the Falklands gave her the energy and authority to push through her domestic programs and turn the country round. Tony's hoping that a win against Iraq will do the same for him." This sounds quite plausible to me, though I speak as a person desperate for any rationalization that will help ward off the idea that Blair might actually be sincere about something.
And any time I find myself falling into a belief in Blair's sincerity, I can arrest the slide by looking over to Northern Ireland, where his policy has been one of ruthless duplicity. Sinn Féin, the main terrorist-front party, apparently has "moles" operating in the office of the Northern Ireland Secretary. Last week the police raided Sinn Féin's parliamentary offices, and arrested a person who seems to have been intercepting communications not only between London and Belfast, but even between London and Washington. The White House is said to be furious. All this sort of thing was supposed to have been ended by the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which Bill Clinton threw his weight behind. A great many other things were supposed to have been ended by that agreement, too, including the intimidation, torture, and murder of Sinn Féin's political opponents by the terrorist gangsters that SF fronts for. The people of Ulster had Blair's word that all those things would stop, and that the terrorist militias would be disarmed. It was all lies. The intimidation and murder go on, the arms dumps are unmolested, and Blair does nothing. As the indispensable Kevin Myers puts it: "Sinn Féin knows that as far as the British government is concerned, the peace process is Plan A. No other plan exists. The IRA can therefore do what it likes." No-one in Ulster believes a word out of Tony Blair's mouth; they have learned from bitter experience not to.
My four days on the Auld Sod was spent in agreeable, quite expensive surroundings. Tunbridge Wells is "stockbroker belt," as Londoners say. I stayed the whole time in a very pleasant hotel, with cheerful, efficient staff and a good kitchen (The Spa Hotel — highly recommended). I was on expenses, and in that mildly irresponsible frame of mind that paid-up jaunts away from home put you in. I enjoyed my stay. I know my old country, though. I know there are places — a lot of them — not like Tunbridge Wells at all: the kinds of places Theodore Dalrymple) writes about. I know, also, that Britain has serious structural problems in her health-care and education systems, and even in her constitutional arrangements.
Still, mixing with the English, listening to their ready wit and good-natured grumbling, I can't believe they have altogether lost their attachment to the ancient liberties. All England needs is a strong, confident Conservative party to show the way back to democracy, to personal and national independence under fair laws. I have a feeling that the inspiration for change this time will flow from West to East. A clear victory by George W. Bush against America's enemies will give him a "Falklands factor" — the energy and authority to tackle America's own structural problems, to enact tort law and immigration reform, to appoint Supreme Court justices who actually believe in the Constitution, to roll back taxation, PC social engineering, and racial guilt-mongering. The political transformation that follows will, I believe, then be wafted across the Atlantic — the New World, not for the first time, redressing the balance of the Old.
* Major's father was a vaudeville performer. Major himself made a career in finance. The joke was, that he had run away from the circus to join a bank.
** I have to report that she was the Member of Parliament for South Derbyshire. And I note in passing that Mark Steyn, in a Daily Telegraph column about the business, referred to her as a "Jewess." I had had a vague idea that this was one of those words we aren't supposed to use any more, like "Negro." Isn't that right? Is Mark out of line here? Or is it, perhaps, OK in England but not in the States? Or what? Can someone Jewish and female please enlighten me about the acceptability or otherwise of "Jewess"? If not, I shall just have to include it in my next book and see what the copy editor says.
*** "Back to basics" is now remembered mainly for an incident involving the government minister who had been given the job of promoting it. A diligent newspaper reporter discovered that this man had shared a hotel room with a colleague, also male, on an official trip to France, and that the room in question had only one bed. Asked to explain himself, the minister protested that hotels in France are very expensive while government expense allowances are very stingy, and that "nothing had happened." One of the London tabloids printed this self-vindication under the headline Back to Back to Basics.