Keep Calm and Carry On

Today, I read a book review of a monograph entitled The English and their History by Robert Tombs that was written by Peter Hitchens, the Tory brother of the late Christopher:

I have no opinion on the book in question, which I have not read yet. What peaked my interest was Hitchens’ dismal impression of modern England, which he seems to believe is little better than the Soviet Union, circa 1990.

The final paragraph of the review sums up Hitchens’ lack of faith in the future of England:

As for the European Union, the recent crises over Greece and mass migration have for the first time made an English secession a genuine possibility, with our neighbors in Scotland and Ireland conceivably choosing to stay behind as we turn again to the open sea. Older English people look back fondly on 1940, when we supposedly stood alone. In fact we were a major industrial and exporting power with a global navy, more or less self-­sufficient, nationally cohesive and bolstered by the tribute of a still-great empire. Now all of that is gone. Is it possible that, after a thousand astonishing years, our island story has finally come to a full stop? Will the next great history of our nation and people be written in Chinese?

I know conservatives as a whole are always of the opinion that life was better in the “good old days,” but I find it hard to believe that elderly English people are really yearning for the halcyon days of 1940, when bombs were regularly raining down on major English cities, children were being evacuated to the countryside, food rationing was the “new normal,” and Europe as a whole was cannibalizing itself on the altar of fascism and lethal antisemitism. As scary as ISIS is, they have yet to drop 100 long tons of explosives on British industrial centers, as Germany did during the Blitz. I also suspect that most elderly English people are glad their country swapped their ocean-going navy for the NHS, especially as they go to obtain their medications and cancer treatments.

One of the peculiar things about Tories like Hitchens is that they miss the British Empire, but then complain about non-white immigration into England, as if the two had nothing to do with each other. Part of the justification for imperialism was the assertion that European nations were going to help “civilize” the darker-skinned races of the world, and part of this process involved “natives” adopting the “mother country” as their own. For example, there’s a scene in the black and white edition of “Tintin in the Congo” in which our young hero teaches a geography class to a group of Congolese school children, proclaiming, “My dear friends, today I’m going to talk to you about your country: Belgium!” Photographs from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee show British troops from Africa, India, Asia, and Britain itself, impressing upon the viewer that the British Empire is a multicultural affair. I can also recall seeing a poster from imperial France that proclaimed “Three Races, One Flag,” the three races being Europeans, Africans, and Asians under the French tricolor. If you tell your imperial subjects for over a hundred years to think of Belgium, England, or France as your “mother,” should it come as a shock that these “children” will one day start showing up to meet their “mother”?

For better or worse, European colonialism and imperialism created cultural and economic ties between Africa, Asia, and the Americas that would not have existed otherwise, which is why so many immigrants from the developing world chose to go to their former colonizing country, rather than a country that they would have a more neutral historical relationship with, like the US or Canada. Hitchens wants the benefits and glories of empire without the inevitable consequences.

Hitchens says:

The longevity of English institutions and customs is not merely picturesque, but also a living record of safety, prosperity, strength, civil peace, and political and economic stability. Laws grew thick and strong, like a great forest, and men sheltered contentedly beneath them.

This quote assumes that “English institutions and customs” somehow spontaneously appeared in the form we know them today at some point in the distant past, like Athena emerging out of the skull of Zeus, as it were. Conveniently missing are the struggles that helped create these “institutions and customs,” starting with the rebel barons who forced the creation of the Magna Carta. Indeed, England’s violent shift from Catholicism to Protestantism was a massive break with the “tradition,” but Hitchens seems unaware of it, with his wistful look back at the days when one could speak openly of “Protestant martyrs” as real English heroes.

Hitchens’ final sentence about the next great history of England possibly being written in Chinese is also curious, revealing his fear of future Asian dominance. From a global historical perspective, China was the most advanced country in the world for most of recorded history, including during those periods when Hitchens seems to think England was at its best. Alfred the Great was certainly a great king for a variety of reasons, but the level of culture present in England during his reign was considerably lower than what was going on in China at the same time:

To be fair to Albert, he had to spend a lot of time fighting off Viking invasions, and his success in this area is one reason why he’s known as “the Great.” But in comparing the state of culture between ninth century England and China, there’s no contest; Tang era China wins on every metric. If ninth century England could happily evolve in its own way in spite of China’s very large developmental lead, and eventually surpass it in the nineteenth century, there’s no reason to think that twenty-first England is going to be swallowed up by China either. I know it’s popular to obsess about China’s new found economic and military assertiveness in the West, but in terms of human development, soft power, and governance practices, England still comes out ahead of China.

Like many embittered reactionaries, Hitchens thinks that if his country doesn’t conform to his exact vision of how it ought to be, then it ought not exist at all. Contemporary England has its problems (what country doesn’t?), but it’s nowhere near as bad as, say, Afghanistan or Syria. The only reason the past seems “safer” is that we know how the events in questions ended, whereas the present is fraught with uncertainties and confusion. Perhaps Hitchens should heed the famous World War II motivational poster of “Keep Calm and Carry On.”