This weekend I will be in London, and I’m feeling some trepidation about visiting the great city. I’ve enjoyed other visits to regional British cities in recent years, but London is said to have changed so dramatically that I’m not sure I want to see it.
It is hard to express the pain the thought of England’s possible destruction through immigration gives me. I have friends in Britain and lived there for a period of time, and I think that for any American it remains the “mother country” in many ways.
The last time I was in England, I picked up a paperback at the airport entitled A World To Build, the first half of Austerity Britain 1945-51 by David Kynaston. It is a well-acclaimed social history relying in particular on first-hand reports of life in post-war Britain from the eclectic (and ominously named) Mass-Observation project. The early chapters paint a picture of a Britain that had reached a broad consensus that it was time to adopt wide ranging, centrally-planned, socialistic policies to address persistent poverty and social inequality. The changes were kicked of with the amazing phenomenon of the Tory loss in the general elections only two and a half months after V-E Day.
I was particularly struck by some almost poetic passages listing the many things that have utterly changed:
Britain in 1945. No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, no duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every high street, red telephone boxes…. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every day Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle, hung out to dry….Abortion illegal, homosexual relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere….Heavy coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margarine rationed…. Make do and mend. (p. 18)
Britain in 1945. A land of orderly queues, hat-doffing men walking on the outside, seats given up to the elderly, no swearing in front of women and children, censored books, censored films, censored plays, infinite repression of desires. Divorce for most an unthinkable social disgrace, marriage too often a lifetime sentence…. Children in the street ticked off by strangers, children at home rarely consulted, children stopping being children when they left school at 14 and got a job…. A land of hierarchical social assumptions, of accent and dress as giveaways to class, of Irish jokes and casually derogatory references to Jews and niggers…. A pride in Britain, which had stood alone, a pride even in ‘Made in Britain’. A deep satisfaction with our own idiosyncratic, non-metric units of distance, weight, temperature, money…. A sense of history, however nugatory the knowledge of that history. A land in which authority was respected? Or rather, accepted? Yes, perhaps the latter, co-existing with the necessary safety valve of copious everyday grumbling. A land of domestic hobbies and domestic pets…. A deeply conservative land. (p. 58-9)
Reading the book one is imaginatively placed in the physical, everyday life of Great Britain over 60 years ago, and feels the warmth of that life and the many virtues of British civilization, along with the shabby environment and lack of social and economic opportunity that left so many people convinced that Britain needed, in the words of our Democratic presidential contender, “Change.” While many of the items in the above lists are negative (or so seen by the author, though a traditionalist will think several of them very positive), reading them gave me a poignant sense of how much has been lost. Compared to losing one’s nationhood, the discomforts of British life in 1945 seem of little consequence.
In many ways, Britain was much more conservative than the United States – nearly all white, an ancient history, a functioning class system. And yet there was a malaise, a dissatisfaction, rendering people ready to turn over their fate to powerful would-be social engineers. There was also, already, an influential left-wing intelligentsia. In the United States, there was more optimism and more opportunity, more religious belief and general contempt for Communism, but also a simmering racial problem and a sense, I think, of wanting to escape the heavy burden of being “leader of the free world” in the nuclear era.
Victorious in war, Britain immediately began to transform itself into a modern welfare state, complete with mass immigration. Why has this had to take place in every major Western country? While it is difficult to make comparisons, I believe Americans are finally catching up with Britain and Europe in giving up the idea of free enterprise and personal responsibility, and expecting government to create prosperity, security, health, and happiness for them. It is a tragic loss for our national character.
As dreary and frustrating as life in Britain may have seemed to many in 1945, it is hard to imagine that people there are happier today. How did everything hollow out? One can imagine that the morality of sexuality and the family, for instance, might have been much the same in 1845 and 1945, but somehow by 1945 it had become brittle, with people lacking the will to continue enforcing it. And why did the existence of slums or of a downtrodden working class or of a pampered elite necessarily persuade people to accept socialism? Why did even Churchill lack the will to prevent mass immigration into Britain? It seems that the temptation is often too great for a people to give up social restrictions once they are freed from the immediate negative consequences brought by more liberal policies. And it seems people are always susceptible to being taken in by utopian social engineering projects, even when it means giving up their freedom and identity.
It is easy to long for the past, but we also need to look at it critically, since it is likely the origins of our current crisis were hiding in plain sight. I hope to find signs of life in London this weekend.