Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why Old Britain's Time is Up

. Sunday, April 15, 2007

by Michael Elliott, Time Magazine, April 12, 2007

There's stiff competition — the handling of mad cow disease, the royal family's years of dysfunction — but it is hard to think of anything in modern times that has held Britain up to such, and such richly deserved, international contempt as the case of the 15 captured mariners in the Shatt al Arab. There was the original sin; messing about in lightly armed little boats in a waterway contested by Iran — a bit like poking a mad dog in the eye without being prepared to clobber it with a big stick if it bites. There has been the miserable, cringe-making behavior of the sailors and marines when in captivity. (As Max Hastings, distinguished military historian and journalist, said in the Daily Mail: Yes, the 15 had a very unpleasant and frightening ordeal, but if they were not ready for such a risk they should have worked at Tesco rather than in the armed forces.) And there has been the extraordinary, pantomimical flip-flop by Britain's Defence Secretary, Des Browne, on whether the sailors and marines could sell their stories (yes they could; oops, no they couldn't) to a media that has itself bounced from treating the 15 as plucky heroes one minute, the next sniveling weeds, and the next money-grubbing yobs. Government, armed forces, media — all have seemed to epitomize a society that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

How did Britain get like this? How did a society whose professed virtues were once those of duty, honor and discretion become a place of in-it-for-myself, let-it-all-hang-out emoting? Step forward those two women whose influence, combined — though one suspects they loathed each other — shaped a nation: Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana.

Thatcher first. Her political party may have been called Conservative, but she was in truth one of the most radical leaders Britain has ever had. Thatcher could not abide the cozy and mildly corrupt arrangements that — as she saw it — had condemned post-1945 Britain to a managed decline, and was determined to blow them up. As one of her more waspish M.P.s once said, Thatcher could not see an institution without "hitting it with her handbag." But she never understood that once you removed the need to show deference to any institution — the BBC, the labor unions, the professions — you had undermined them all. If deference to the established order was so bad, why show it (for example) to the monarchy? Moreover — really for the first time in British politics — Thatcher placed market values, not abstract ones of duty and honor, at the heart of a social definition of success. In the 1980s, if you didn't make money (loadsamoney ... ), if you didn't cash in on your talents or luck, then you were worse than an idiot — you were somehow letting the side down.

Diana's contribution was just as subversive of the old Britain. In her later life — through the hugs, the tears, the riveting BBC interview of 1995 — and even more in her death, the Princess of Wales turned traditional British values on their head. It was all right to cry! It was bad to suffer in silence, repress your emotions, say, "Steady on, old girl," and generally act in a tight spot like Trevor Howard on the train platform at the end of Brief Encounter. In today's remake, Howard would be bawling like a baby; or — as we now know — like a young squaddie.

Taken together, Thatcherite and Dianist thought has given us the recent horrors: a situation in which not even members of the armed forces — hell, not even the leaders of the armed forces — seem comfortable framing military obligation in terms of duty and honor, and in which the media's badge of heroism is conferred on those who are merely victims (only for it to be ripped off again when the victims behave less like heroes than heels). It is a sad and miserable tale.

But here's the uncomfortable truth. Britain needed both Thatcher and Diana. Its old institutions were indeed rotten; its disdain for trade, for market values, was indeed debilitating, and condemned generations of Britons to stunted life chances. Britain's traditional masculine values of the stiff upper lip and "mustn't grumble" did indeed breed emotional cripples, unable to appreciate the heights — or handle the depths — of human experience.

A Britain in which those captured at sea would have just given name, rank and number; would only have been men; would have done no more in captivity than suck on a pipe while dressed in a peacoat; would have just muttered, "Hello sir, glad to be back," when released, was not in most ways a better place than the insanely meritocratic, undeferential, deinstitutionalized Britain that Thatcher and Princess Diana unleashed. Every so often, however, Britons should be allowed to look back at that older nation — and mourn its passing.


Kipling said...

I'd suspect that the forces of emotional over expression and materialism long pre-date either Mrs T or Diana. Harold Wilson was just as materialistic as Mrs T and lacking in much deference to any institution save the TUC, though as a commenter on another post mentioned he, like all PMs, eventually came to appreciate the abilities and dedication of Her Majesty.

Swinging London was not known for its reserve or grace. It was only in the 1980s that anti-traditonal these forces became apparent, yet the Victorian social conensus really collapsed in the 1960s. Perhaps the real lesson is that social and political change should be as Burkean as possible. This is hard when a country is faced with a grave economic crisis, as in 1979.
The interesting contrast is that Canada, America and Australia have not been so gravely impacted by this collapse of spiritual values (not necessarily religious as many of the architects of the Victorian conensus were secular and/or humanistic). I can't imagine Canadians giving up so easily or co-operating so readily.

Celestial Fundie said...

Excellent thoughts.

The behaviour of the captives is thoroughly disappointing.

Younghusband said...

Entirely agree. It's no wonder that Her Majesty held a secret royal summit in which the told Prince William: "Don't rush down the aisle - we don't want another Diana."

Matt Bondy said...

First, excellent and insightful post.

Second, the point about Burkean change is well taken and worthy of pointed reflection.

The shift in values that has taken place since WWII is, as you say, Monarchist, not entirely regretable. But that the shift has seen generally neglected such virtues as discretion and quiet courage is more than merely a point of nostalgia - it is a point of serious concern. And I firmly believe that, though the pendulum has swung too far, it is absolutely within the capacity of ordinary Britons, and Western citizens everywhere, to strike a more balanced and handsome equilibrium in their values.

Dundonald said...

While it is tempting to start writing the obituary of ‘Old Britain’, it must be pointed out that when one looks at contemporary Britain through the prism of the mainstream media, it is inevitable that a sense of despair comes to the fore.

The protracted saga of the Royal Navy’s “Mr Bean and the frightened fifteen” has certainly inflicted severe damage on the nation’s credibility, but one must not lose sight of the fact that the real Britain lives on in the shadows. It may be censored, stifled, intimidated and regulated into the background, but the fighting sprit lives on.

I urge you to read this article from Michael Yon’s blog for a brief sojourn into the world of the real British soldier. It may, if only temporarily, offer some respite for the weeping soul at Britannia’s interminable decline.

Sir Walter Scott said...

Nothing wrong with the stiff-upper-lip: self-control is central to be a civilized human-being.

Those Diana-taught emotional highs and depths of experience are, I believe, some of the most superficial and egotistical ever to pass through the brains or hearts of humans. There is nothing profound in the kind of dreary, somnolent, vapid, self-regarding ecstasies common and encouraged nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Thatcher, eh? As a British conservative, I hear a lot of this Thatcher-was-a-radical-iconoclast-not-a-Tory business and it is extremely tiresome. Free markets and weaker unions are not shibboleths for the destruction of social conservatism.

Anyone who claims that Mrs T was not a social conservative because she believed in lower taxes is in an advanced state of dementia. Coming from Canadians and Australians it is particularly impertinent - the free-marketeers of Melbourne and Montreal who identify with the reddest of Red-State America tend to be republicans and Fifty-First-Staters who have no more reverence for the symbols of the past and our shared heritage than the crypto-socialists of the Canadian and Australian left. They are the would-be citizens of the culture-blind Great Free Republic of Money. In the case of the Montrealers this has been true for at least the last 150 years, since all that Annexation Manifesto and Goldwin Smith and so forth.

Did Mrs Thatcher advocate the abolition of the monarchy? The emasculation of the House of Lords? The bulldozing of the Palace of Westminster to make way for some sort of concrete beehive to put Parliament in, eh Ms Clarke? Did she decide that the Falklands were too expensive to liberate and present a balance-sheet to Parliament saying that kicking out the argies would cost £150,000 per islander and that she proposed to use the money instead to fund a tax-break for for high wage-earners?

Nope. Hayek and his Austrian School were conservatives. Do not pander to the agenda of the liberal left by suggesting that Mrs T Had Some Good Ideas But I Concede That She Could Have Carried Them Out More Gently. We owe her eternal gratitude and vocal support for her legacy, nothing less, and to compare her to that gushing imbecile Diana Spencer just beggars belief.


The Monarchist said...

I hear you, Cato. The piece (written by an American I believe) makes some good points, but I think we need to be mindful of what Dundonald alluded to, and separate out modern media Britain from Old Tory Britain, which still exists in some form, but is experiencing its "decade of darkness" where not enough of the right noises are coming from the top anymore.

I also take some exception to the notion that the Old Guard suffered its own kind of debilitating emotional issues, which I take the author to mean snobbery and the entrenched limitations on social mobility and the like, as if this were as equally deplorable as the Dianification experience. While this might be true to some extent, the old virtues of loyalty, duty, honour...were pervasive in society, and this came by way of example from the top. Stuffiness and stiffness had their drawbacks, most notably on the fields of the Great War where more innovation and flexibility would have been appreciated, but they were the backbone of gentlemen society, which on the whole was a much more virtuous social ecology than what we have today.

Anonymous said...

In addition to speaking ill of the dead, that article is a ridiculous attack on Margaret Thatcher. Iconoclast? She tried to scrape the barnacles off Great Britain's hull. For that she has to suffer the indignity of Time (of all publications) pushing the failures of Blairite New Britain on her?

Anyone who can look at the sorry state of Britain today and ascribe its ills to sad little Diana or the Iron Lady is in dire need of a proctological excapitalization.


The Monarchist said...

"Proctological excapitalization". Did anyone say you have a way with words, Burton? If not, I'm saying it now.

It has never been the habit of T.M. to speak ill of Royalty or the Baroness Thatcher, the Iron Lady of world-wide England, and we certainly are not going to start now.

Although the author makes some good points and writes an interesting piece, there is of course a level of absurdity in the assertion that the current ills of Great Britain emanate from two influential ladies.

I think we should chalk up this latest sniffle as having just as much to do with the brilliance of Iranian propaganda, than the lamentable behaviour of willing or unwilling pawns.

What irks me greatly being a former naval officer, and having conducted similar naval landing boarding parties myself, is how a warship was not in a position to come to the immediate aid of its sailors. The Captain is ultimately responsible for the safety of his ship and crew, and I firmly believe he should have been fired for letting down his men.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it should have been "excapitation". Does anyone know the proper name for this procedure? I'm not a doctor.


dave said...

It would be refreshing if the author had a gun pointed at his head and was forced to beg for his life, no doubt quivering in fear and sobbing his heart out.

Grow a pair, you are the real coward.

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St. Paddy's Day: Edmund Burke, the greatest Irishman who ever lived
Not Amused: The Bunkum of Timothy Garton Ash
Hero Harry: Rave Reviews across the Commonwealth
Patriot Prince: Prince Harry fought for us all, Charles Moore
William F. Buckley, RIP: He had a Tory gratitude for the pleasures of life
Their Lordships' Duty: The House of Lords can influence the Lisbon Treaty debate
Knights of Oz: Revive Sirs or I'll have your guts for garters
Peter Hitchens: People love the Queen...and the BBC hates us for it
Our Greatest Monarch: Paul Johnson says Henry V was our greatest monarch
Princess Diana Inquest: A Dirty Raincoat Show for the World
Malcom Turnbull: 'Queen's death will spark republican vote'
Duke of York: The Royals are not "stuffed dummies". They should have their say
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Peter Hitchens: Get rid of the monarchy and you will get rid of a guardian of liberty
Honouring Sir Edmund Hillary
The Queen versus an E.U. President
Going Solo: Prince William earns his Wings
James C. Bennett: The Third Anglosphere Century
Knights of Oz: Revive Sirs or I'll have your guts for garters
Princess Diana Inquest: A Dirty Raincoat Show for the World
Malcom Turnbull: 'Queen's death will spark republican vote'
Future Peer: The life and times of Lady Victoria Beckham
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Peter Hitchens: Get rid of the monarchy and you will get rid of a guardian of liberty


New York Times: Ever Backwards into the Royal Future
Peter Hitchens: People love the Queen...and the BBC hates us for it
Christopher Hitchens: An Anglosphere Future
Andrew Cusack: Republicanism is a traitor's game
Courageous Patrician: Rt Hon Ian Douglas Smith (1919-2007)
The Last Rhodesian: What began with Rhodes and ended with Ian?
Gentleman Journalist: The Lord Baron W.F. Deedes, 1913-2007
Not Amused: Blair's sinister campaign to undermine the Queen
Loyal Subject: Queen Elizabeth: A stranger in her own country
Reverence Deference: Bowing and Scraping Back in Tradition
Rex Murphy: Kennedy, Churchill, Lincoln - The rousing bon mot is no more
Gerald Warner: Don't shed a tear for Diana cult in its death throes
The End of Grandeur: Rich, chincy Canada puts Strathmore on the blocks
Confessions of a Republican Leftie: "The Queen charmed the pants off me"
The King's Own Calgary Regiment: Cpl. Nathan Hornburg is laid to rest
The Royal Gurkha Rifles: Prince William grieves the death of Major Roberts
Queensland Mounted Rifles: Trooper David Pearce, 41, killed in Afghanistan
The Order of Canada: 100 investitures later, Canada's highest honour turns 40
Prince Edward on Prince Edward Island: Troop's link to monarchy important
HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN: Unveils the UK Armed Forces Memorial
Great Britain: "A rotten borough with a banana monarchy" - by Europhile
Peers of the Realm: The decline and fall of the House of Lords - Charles A. Coulombe
Remembering 'Smithy': An obituary tour de force by Andrew Cusack here, here and here.
NOT AMUSED: Her Majesty The Queen in Right of Quebec not invited to Quebec's tercentenary