joker123 Tony Blair » Jonathan Foreman

Jeremy Corbyn and the End of the West (Commentary Magazine December 2015)

Essays/Book Reviews, Latest Articles Comments Off on Jeremy Corbyn and the End of the West (Commentary Magazine December 2015)

The Portents of Labour’s Extreme New Leader

In October 2015, the American novelist Jonathan Franzen gave a talk in London in which he expressed pleasure that Jeremy Corbyn had just been elected leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party. To his evident surprise, Franzen’s endorsement was met with only scattered applause and then an embarrassed silence. 

Most of Franzen’s audience were the same sort of people likely to attend a Franzen talk in New York: Upper-middle-class bien-pensant Guardian readers who revile the name Thatcher the way a New York Times home-delivery subscriber reviles the name Reagan. For them, as for most Labour members of Parliament, the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn offers little to celebrate. Indeed, it looks a lot like a disaster—a bizarre and potentially devastating epilogue to the shocking rout of the Labour Party at the May 2015 general election.

Franzen probably imagined Corbyn as a kind of British Bernie Sanders, a supposedly lovable old coot-crank leftie willing to speak truth to power—and so assumed that any British metropolitan liberal audience would be packed with his fans. In fact, for all the obvious parallels between the two men, Corbyn is a very different kind of politician working in a very different system and for very different goals. Sanders may call himself a socialist, but he is relatively mainstream next to Corbyn, an oddball and an extremist even in the eyes of many British socialists.

It may seem extraordinary that a party most observers and pollsters were sure would be brought back to power in 2015—and that has long enjoyed the unofficial support of much of the UK’s media, marketing, and arts establishments—now looks to be on the verge of disintegration. But even if no one a year ago could have predicted the takeover of the party by an uncharismatic extreme-left backbencher with a fondness for terrorists and anti-Semites, the Labour Party might well be collapsing due to economic and social changes that have exposed its own glaring internal contradictions.The first stage of Labour’s meltdown was its unexpected defeat at the general election in May 2015. The experts and the polls had all predicted a hung Parliament and the formation of a coalition government led by Labour’s then-leader, Ed Milliband. But Labour lost 26 seats, was wiped out by nationalists in its former heartland of Scotland, and won less than 30 percent of the popular vote. The Liberal Democrats, the third party with whom Milliband had hoped to form a coalition, did far worse. Meanwhile the populist, anti-EU, anti-mass immigration, UK Independence Party (UKIP) won only one seat in the House of Commons but scored votes from some 3 million people—and took many more voters from Labour than from the Tories.

Milliband’s complacency about and ignorance of the concerns of ordinary working-class people played a major role in the defeat. So did his failure to contest the charge that Labour’s spendthrift ways under Tony Blair had made the 2008 financial crisis and recession much worse. Perhaps even more devastating was the widespread fear in England that Milliband would make a deal with Scottish nationalists that would require concessions such as getting rid of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. He had promised that he would never do this, but much of the public seemed to doubt the word of a man so ambitious to be prime minister that he had stabbed his own brother in the back. (David Milliband was set to take over the leadership of the party in 2010 when his younger brother, Ed, decided to challenge him from the left with the help of the party’s trade unionists.)

In the old industrial heartlands of the North and Midlands, Labour seemed at last to be paying a price for policies on immigration and social issues anathematic to many in the old British working class. As a workers’ party as well as a socialist party, and one that draws on a Methodist as well as a Marxist tradition, Labour has always had to accommodate some relatively conservative, traditional, and even reactionary social and political attitudes prevalent among the working classes (among them affection for the monarchy). Today the cultural divisions within the party between middle class activists, chattering class liberals, ethnic minority leaders, and the old working class can no longer be papered over.

With the ascension of Tony Blair to the leadership of the party in 1994, Labour began to pursue certain policies practically designed to alienate and drive out traditional working-class Labour voters and replace them not only with ordinary Britons who had grown tired of the nearly two-decade rule of the Tories but also with upper-middle-class opinion leaders attracted to multiculturalism and other fashionable enthusiasms.

One can even make a kind of quasi-Marxian argument that as the Labour Party has become more bourgeois over the decades, the more it has engaged in what amounts to conscious or unconscious class warfare against the working class it is supposed to represent. One of the first blows it struck was the abolition of the “grammar schools” (selective high schools similar to those of New York City) on the grounds that they were a manifestation of “elitism,” even though these schools gave millions of bright working-class children a chance to go to top universities. Then there was “slum clearance,” which resulted in the breakup and dispersal of strong working-class communities as residents were rehoused in high-rise tower blocks that might have been designed to encourage social breakdown and predation by teenage criminals. But the ultimate act of Labour anti-proletarianism came after the Party was recovering from the defection of working-class voters to Thatcherism and its gospel of opportunity and aspiration. This was the opening of the UK’s borders to mass immigration on an unprecedented scale by Tony Blair’s New Labour. Arguably this represented an attempt to break the indigenous working class both economically and culturally; inevitably, it was accompanied by a demonization of the unhappy indigenous working class as xenophobic and racist.

In the 2015 general election, many classic working-class Labour voters apparently couldn’t bring themselves to betray their tribe and vote Tory—but were comfortable voting for UKIP. This proved disastrous for Labour, which had once been able to count on the support of some two-thirds of working-class voters. But these cultural changes made it impossible for Labour to hold on to its old base in the same numbers. And its new base—the “ethnic” (read: Muslim) vote, a unionized public sector that is no longer expanding, and the middle-class liberals and leftists who populate the creative industries and the universities—is simply not large enough.

Labour should have won the election in 2015; it lost because of its own internal contradictions. Out of the recriminations and chaos that followed the defeat, there emerged Jeremy Corbyn.


To understand who Corbyn is and what he stands for, it helps to be familiar with the fictional character Dave Spart, a signature creation of the satirical magazine Private Eye. Spart is a parody of a left-wing activist with a beard and staring eyes and a predilection for hyperbole, clueless self-pity, and Marxist jargon, which spews forth from his column, “The Alternative Eye.” (He’s like a far-left version of Ed Anger, the fictional right-wing lunatic whose column graced the pages of the Weekly World News supermarket tabloid for decades.) A typical Spart column starts with a line like “The right-wing press have utterly, totally, and predictably unleashed a barrage of sickening hypocrisy and deliberate smears against the activities of a totally peaceful group of anarchists, i.e., myself and my colleagues.”

The column has given birth to the term spartist—which is used in the UK to refer to a type of humorless person or argument from the extreme left. There are thousands of real-life spartists to be found in the lesser reaches of academia, in Britain’s much-reduced trade-union movement, and in the public sector. For such activists, demonstrations and protests are a kind of super hobby, almost a way of life.

The 66-year-old Corbyn is the Ur-Spartist. He has always preferred marches and protests and speeches to more practical forms of politics. He was a member of Parliament for 32 years without ever holding any sort of post that would have moved him from the backbenches of the House of Commons to the front. During those three-plus decades, he has voted against his own party more than 500 times. Corbyn only escaped being “deselected” by Tony Blair—the process by which a person in Parliament can be removed from standing for his seat by his own party—because he was deemed harmless.

Many of Corbyn’s obsessions concern foreign policy. He is a bitter enemy of U.S. “imperialism,” a longtime champion of Third World revolutionary movements, and a sympathizer with any regime or organization, no matter how brutal or tyrannical, that claims to be battling American and Western hegemony. Corbyn was first elected to Parliament in 1983, and many of his critics in the Labour Party say he has never modified the views he picked up from his friends in the Trotskyite left as a young activist.

This is not entirely true, because Corbyn, like so much of the British left, has adapted to the post–Cold War world by embracing new enemies of the West and its values—in particular, those whom Christopher Hitchens labeled “Islamofascists.”

One of the qualities that sets spartists like Corbyn apart from their American counterparts is an almost erotic attraction to Islamism. They are fascinated rather than repelled by its call to violent jihad against the West. This is more than anti-Americanism or a desire to win support in Britain’s ghettoized Muslim communities. It is the newest expression of the cultural and national self-loathing that is such a strong characteristic of much progressive opinion in Anglo-Saxon countries—and which underlies much of the multiculturalist ideology that governs this body of opinion.

As a result, many on the British left today seem to have an astonishing ability to overlook, excuse, or even celebrate reactionary and atavistic beliefs and practices ranging from the murder of blaspheming authors to female genital mutilation. Corbyn has long been at the forefront of this tendency, not least in his capacity as longtime chair of Britain’s Stop the War Coalition. STWC is a pressure group that was founded to oppose not the war in Iraq but the war in Afghanistan. It was set up on September 21, 2001, by the Socialist Workers’ Party, with the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain as junior partners. STWC supported the “legitimate struggle” of the Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led coalition; declines to condemn Russian intervention in Syria and Ukraine; actively opposed the efforts of democrats, liberals, and civil-society activists against the Hussein, Assad, Gaddafi, and Iranian regimes; and has a soft spot for the Taliban.

Corbyn’s career-long anti-militarism goes well beyond the enthusiasm for unilateral nuclear disarmament that was widespread in and so damaging to the Labour Party in the 1980s, and which he still advocates today. He has called for the United Kingdom to leave NATO, argued against the admission to the alliance of Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, and more recently blamed the Ukrainian crisis on NATO provocation. In 2012, he apparently endorsed the scrapping of Britain’s armed forces in the manner of Costa Rica (which has a police force but no military).

As so often with the anti-Western left, however, Corbyn’s dislike of violence and military solutions mostly applies only to America and its allies. His pacifism—and his progressive beliefs in general—tend to evaporate when he considers a particular corner of the Middle East.

Indeed, Corbyn is an enthusiastic backer of some of the most violent, oppressive, and bigoted regimes and movements in the world. Only three weeks after an IRA bombing at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 came close to killing Prime Minister Thatcher and wiping out her entire cabinet, Corbyn invited IRA leader Gerry Adams and two convicted terrorist bombers to the House of Commons. Neil Kinnock, then the leader of Labour and himself very much a man of the left, was appalled.

Corbyn is also an ardent supporter of the Chavistas who have wrecked Venezuela and thrown dissidents in prison. It goes almost without saying that he sees no evil in the Castro-family dictatorship in Cuba, and for a progressive he seems oddly untroubled by the reactionary attitudes of Vladimir Putin’s repressive, militarist kleptocracy in Russia.

Then we come to his relationship with Palestinian extremists and terrorists. A longtime patron of Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Committee, Corbyn described it as his “honor and pleasure” to host “our friends” from Hamas and Hezbollah in the House of Commons. If that weren’t enough, he also invited Raed Salah to tea at the House of Commons, even though the Palestinian activist whom Corbyn called “an honored citizen…who represents his people very well” has promoted the blood libel that Jews drink the blood of non-Jewish children. These events prompted a condemnation by Sadiq Khan MP, the Labour candidate for London’s mayoralty and a Muslim of Pakistani origin, who said that Corbyn’s support for Arab extremists could fuel anti-Semitic attacks in the UK.

That was no unrepresentative error. As Britain’s Jewish Chronicle also pointed out this year, Corbyn attended meetings of a pro-Palestinian organization called Deir Yassin Remembered. The group is run by the notorious Holocaust denier Paul Eisen. He is also a public supporter of the Reverend Stephen Sizer, a Church of England vicar notorious for promoting material on social media suggesting 9/11 was a Jewish plot.

Corbyn’s defense has been to say that he meets a lot of people who are concerned about the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with their views. The obvious flaw of this dishonest argument is that Corbyn doesn’t make a habit of meeting either pro-Zionists or the Arab dissidents or Muslim liberals who are fighting against tyranny, terrorism, misogyny, and cruelty. And it was all too telling when, in an effort to clear the air, Corbyn addressed the Labour Friends of Israel without ever using the word Israel. It may not be the case that Corbyn himself is an anti-Semite—of course he denies being one—but he is certainly comfortable spending lots of quality time with them.

How could such a person become the leader of one of the world’s most august political parties? It took a set of peculiar circumstances. In the first place, he only received the requisite number of nominations from his fellow MPs to make it possible for him to stand for leader after the resignation of Ed Milliband because some foolish centrists thought his inclusion in the contest would “broaden the debate” and make it more interesting. They had not thought through the implications of a new election system that Milliband had put in place. An experiment in direct democracy, the new system shifted power from the MPs to the members in the country.

The party’s membership had shrunk over the years (as has that of the Tory Party), and so to boost its numbers, Milliband and his people decided to shift to a system in which new members could obtain a temporary membership in the party and take part in the vote for only £3 ($5). More than 100,000 did so. They included thousands of hard-left radicals who regard the Labour Party as a pro-capitalist sell-out. (They also included some Tories, encouraged by columnists like the Telegraph’s Toby Young, who urged his readers to vote for Corbyn in order to make Labour unelectable.) The result was a landslide for Corbyn.

Labour’s leadership was outplayed. The failure was in part generational. There is hardly anyone left in Labour who took part in or even remembers the bitter internal struggle in the late ’40s to find and exclude Communist and pro-Soviet infiltrators—one of the last great Labour anti-Communists, Denis Healey, died this October. (This was so successful that the British Trotskyite movement largely abandoned any attempt to gain power in Westminster, choosing instead to focus on infiltrating the education system in order to change the entire culture.) By the time Corbyn took over, most of Labour’s “modernizers”—those who had participated in the takeover of the party leadership by Tony Blair and his rival and successor Gordon Brown—had never encountered real Stalinists or Trotskyists and lacked the fortitude and ruthless skill to do battle with them.

Unfortunately for the centrists and modernizers, many of Corbyn’s people received their political education in extreme-left political circles, so brutal internal politics and fondness for purges and excommunications are (as Eliza Doolittle said) “mother’s milk” to them. For example: Corbyn’s right-hand men, John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone, were closely linked to a Trotskyite group called the Workers Revolutionary Party. The WRP was a deeply sinister political cult that included among its promoters not only the radical actors Vanessa and Corin Redgrave but also the directors of Britain’s National Theatre. Its creepy leader Gerry Healy was notorious for beating and raping female members of his party and took money from Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

Most people in British politics, and especially most British liberals, had fallen prey to the comforting delusion that the far left had disappeared—or that what remained of it was simply a grumpy element of Labour’s base rather than a devoted and deadly enemy of the center-left looking for an opportunity to go to war. As Nick Cohen, the author of What’s Left: How the Left Lost Its Way, has pointed out, this complacent assumption enabled the centrists to act as if they had no enemies to the left. Now they know otherwise.

Another reason for the seemingly irresistible rise of Corbyn and his comrades is what you might call Blair Derangement Syndrome. It is hard for Americans and other foreigners to understand what a toxic figure the former prime minister has become in his own country. Not only is he execrated in the UK more than George W. Bush is in the U.S., Blair is especially hated by his own party and on the left generally. It is a hatred that is unreasoning and fervid in almost exact proportion to the adoration he once enjoyed, and it feels like the kind of loathing that grows out of betrayed love. Those in the Labour Party who can’t stand Blair have accordingly rejected many if not all of the changes he wrought and the positions he took. And so, having eschewed Blairism, they were surprised when they lost two elections in a row to David Cameron—who, though a Tory, is basically Blair’s heir.  

Blair is detested not because he has used his time after leaving office to pursue wealth and glamour and has become a kind of fixer for corrupt Central Asian tyrants and other unsavory characters. Rather, it is because he managed to win three general elections in a row by moving his party to the center. Those victories and 12 years in office forced the left to embrace the compromises of governance without having much to show for it. This, more than Blair’s enthusiasm for liberal interventionism or his role in the Iraq war or even his unwavering support of Israel during the 2008 Gaza war, drove the party first to select the more leftist of the two Milliband brothers and now hand the reins to Corbyn.

As I write, Corbyn has been Leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition (a position with no equivalent in the United States) for a mere 10 weeks—and those 10 weeks have been disastrous both in terms of the polls and party unity. Corbyn’s own front bench has been on the verge of rebellion. Before the vote on the UK’s joining the air campaign in Syria, some senior members apparently threatened to resign from their shadow cabinet positions unless Corbyn moderated his staunch opposition to any British military action against ISIS in Syria. (It worked: Rather than face open revolt, Corbyn allowed a free vote instead of a “whipped” one, and 66 Labour MPs proceeded to vote for air strikes). Any notion that Corbyn’s elevation would prompt him to moderate his views quickly dissipated once he began recruiting his team. His shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is one of the only people in Parliament as extreme as he. While serving as a London councillor in the 1980s, McDonnell lambasted Neil Kinnock, the relatively hard-left Labour leader defeated by Margaret Thatcher, as a “scab.” A fervent supporter of the IRA during the Northern Ireland troubles, McDonnell endorsed “the ballot, the bullet, and the bomb” and once half-joked that any MP who refused to meet with the “Provisionals” running the terror war against Great Britain should be “kneecapped” (the traditional Provo punishment involving the shattering of someone’s knee with a shotgun blast). Recently he made the headlines by waving a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book at George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Nick Cohen has written of Corbyn and his circle: “These are not decent, well-meaning men who want to take Labour back to its roots…they are genuine extremists from a foul tradition, which has never before played a significant role in Labour Party history.”
During Corbyn’s first week as leader, he refused to sing the national anthem at a service commemorating the Battle of Britain, presumably because as a diehard anti-monarchist, he disagrees with the lyric “God save our Queen.” Soon after he declared that as a staunch opponent of Britain’s nuclear arsenal, he would not push the button even if the country were attacked.

He expressed unease at the assassination by drone strike of the infamous British ISIS terrorist “Jihadi John.” Corbyn said it would have been “far better” had the beheader been arrested and tried in court. (He did not say how he envisaged Jihadi John ever being subject to arrest, let alone concede that such a thing could happen only due to military action against ISIS, which he opposes).

Corbyn’s reaction to the Paris attacks prompted fury from the right and despair in his own party. He seemed oddly unmoved and certainly not provoked to any sort of anger by the horror. Indeed, he lost his chance to score some easy points against Prime Minister Cameron’s posturing. Cameron, trying to play tough in the wake of military and policing cuts, announced that British security forces would now “shoot to kill” in the event of a terrorist attack in the UK—as if the normal procedure would be to shoot to wound. Any normal Labour leader of the last seven decades would have taken the prime minister to task for empty rhetoric while reminding the public of Labour’s traditional hard stance against terrorism in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Instead, Corbyn bleated that he was “not happy” with a shoot-to-kill policy. It was “quite dangerous,” he declared. “And I think can often be counterproductive.”

While there is no question that Labour has suffered a titanic meltdown, and that Corbyn’s triumph may mean the end of Labour as we know it, it’s not yet clear whether Corbyn is truly as electorally toxic as the mainstream media and political class believe him to be. What some observers within Labour fear is that Corbyn could indeed become prime minister after having transformed the party into a very different organization and having shifted the balance of British politics far to the left.

They concede that there is little chance of Corbyn’s ever winning over the 2–3 million swing voters of “middle England” who have decided recent elections. But they worry that in a rerun of the leadership election, Corbyn might be able to recruit a million or more new, young voters who have no memory of the Cold War, let alone Labour’s failures in the 1970s, and who think that he is offering something fresh and new.

It might not only be naive young people who would vote for Corbyn despite his apparent lack of parliamentary or leadership skills. In Britain, there is a growing disdain for, and distrust of, slick professional politicians—and for good reason. It’s not hard to seem sincere or refreshingly possessed of genuine political convictions if you’re going up against someone like David Cameron, who even more than Tony Blair can exude cynicism, smugness, and a branding executive’s patronizing contempt for the public. The fact that Corbyn is relatively old and unglamorous might also play in his favor; the British public is tired of glib, photogenic, boyish men. Corbyn and McDonnell are “an authentic alternative to the focus-group-obsessed poll-driven policies of the Blair days,” Cohen writes—but it is an authenticity based in “authentic far-left prejudices and hypocrisies.” Those prejudices and hypocrisies could sound a death knell for Britain’s historic role in advancing the Western idea—an idea that is, in large measure, this country’s greatest achievement.

The Battle of Britain (Weekly Standard March 12, 2001)

Essays/Book Reviews, Old Articles/Archive Comments Off on The Battle of Britain (Weekly Standard March 12, 2001)

Is the Sun Setting on the United Kingdom?

The Abolition of Britain – From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana, by Peter Hitchens

A few years ago, I was hiking up to an observatory in Georgetown on the Malaysian island of Penang. On the steep, winding road to the top, I fell into conversation with a well-dressed middle-aged man, a Malaysian Chinese, who told me about the problems his daughter faced getting into university because of the regime’s nastily racist program that favored ethnic Malays and penalized the ethnic Chinese minority. It was unfair, unjust. “You’re British,” he said. “You should do something about this.”

It was touching and not a little sad that he thought British influence still counted for so much, and that he automatically associated the concept of fair play with the former colonial power. From a historical point of view, he wasn’t entirely mistaken: Over the centuries, many people — African slaves in agony in the Middle Passage, Hindu widows being burned alive, Indian travelers strangled by religious lunatics, Belgian civilians brutalized by Wilhelmine soldiery, and Jews being kicked to death by Nazi brownshirts — have all wanted the British to do something about it, and eventually they did.

But then Britain and its prestige are perceived differently abroad than at home these days — especially by the political class. When Peter Hitchens, the former Trotskyite who is now Britain’s most forthright conservative pundit, laments the “abolition of Britain,” he isn’t talking just about the Blair government’s formal destruction of the United Kingdom as a unitary state or even the modernizing Kulturkampf against such vestiges of the imperialist, racist, class-ridden past as the breeches worn by the Lord Chancellor and the popular Royal Tournament show of military pageantry.

He’s also talking about the long-term shift in national self-perception that allowed all this to happen — a shift, strangely enough, that accelerated as Britain left the strikebound malaise of the late 1970s for the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s. Essentially, the British seem to have reacted, rather belatedly, to the loss of empire with an orgy of self-contempt. Pushed along by a middle-class minority who passionately desire the submersion of Britain in a European superstate, this peculiar self-loathing has made the British particularly vulnerable to a virulent form of PC multiculturalism and to the idea that Britain’s institutions and traditions are, at best, outmoded and absurd.

“We allowed our patriotism to be turned into a joke, wise sexual restraint to be mocked as prudery, our families to be defamed as nests of violence, loathing, and abuse, our literature to be tossed aside as so much garbage, and our church turned into a department of the Social Security system,” Hitchens writes in his concluding chapter.

We let our schools become nurseries of resentment and ignorance, and humiliated our universities by forcing them to take unqualified students in large numbers. . . . We abandoned a coinage which. . . . spoke of tradition and authority. . . . We tore up every familiar thing in our landscape, adopted a means of transport wholly unfitted to our small crowded island, demolished the hearts of hundreds of handsome towns and cities, and in the meantime we castrated our criminal law, because we no longer knew what was right or wrong.

Some of these changes were organic and others artificial (though Hitchens, to the detriment of his argument, rarely distinguishes the two). Some were initiated by Labour governments, but a surprising number were the work of Conservative administrations.

So, for instance, the foreign office under Margaret Thatcher pursued a relentless policy of post-imperial betrayal, beginning with hints to the Argentines that Britain no longer cared about the Falkland Islands and culminating in the selling of the people of Hong Kong to Communist China — after first removing their right to reside in the United Kingdom, so they’d have no leverage and nowhere to run.

And so, for another instance, the Tories under John Major took the country deeper into the European Union — while reciting the mantra that further integration into the emerging superstate was the only way Britain could hope to exert any influence, now that it was merely a “fourth-rate power.” (This phrase is always delivered in tones of such gloomy satisfaction, no one notices that such a “rating” ignores factors like economic strength, nuclear deterrents, seats on the U.N. Security Council, and cultural influence.)

But Tory surrenders of sovereignty pale beside the changes instituted by the “New Labour” government of Tony Blair. For the most part, the British population has been an unenthusiastic but oddly resigned witness to even more revolutionary changes. (Though the drive to abolish British currency and replace it with the Euro provoked a surprisingly vocal opposition.) The most important of these changes are the constitutional “reforms” carried out merely because the need for such changes was self-evident to the London media elite that calls the tune in British society.

The fact that the United Kingdom seemed to work — despite the oddness and antiquity and irrationalism of its constitutional arrangements — was declared irrelevant. Sure, it provided reasonable prosperity, liberty, and security at least as effectively as systems in use in the Continent (or across the Atlantic). Sure it proved less vulnerable to economic and political storms than, say, the modern German state since 1870 or the various republics, empires, and monarchies that have ruled France since 1789. But that’s all ancient history. The key thing is that nothing about the old United Kingdom conforms to what the new British elite conceives of as “modernity.”

The idea that there might be risks in sudden, radical constitutional change, that for a constitution to be effective it needs legitimacy and the emotional allegiance of the people, is not one that Britain’s hyper-rationalist but parochial reformers have given much thought to, despite the warnings flashed from Yugoslavia. For the new public-sector middle class and the metropolitan media elite, a single idea is paramount: Britain is a musty, provincial place “held back” by dated, irrational institutions and a culture that wrongly venerates a history that is essentially a record of shame and oppression.

In its mildest form, this idea is manifested in the culturalist theory of British decline that influenced Thatcher as much as Blair: the idea that postwar economic failure is inextricably linked to the persistence in Britain of a culture of deference. Better policy might well have been found by asking instead how a pair of small islands off the coast of Europe managed to become the world’s most powerful nation for a century and a half, producing a fair number of the world’s best scientists, poets, admirals, and statesmen. But those old successes were dismissed. As the newly elected Tony Blair put it in 1997 — so memorably and tellingly, in marketing-man’s jargon — Britain desperately needs to be “rebranded” as a “young country.”

That the Blair government has been able to tear so much down in so short a time with so little effective opposition is one of the most fascinating mysteries of modern politics. After all, it’s rare for a perfectly viable system of government to be dismantled in a time of peace and prosperity. Peter Hitchens understands that Britain came to this pass because of a series of social and cultural changes, some of them inevitable results of postwar exhaustion and impoverishment, but many more of them the products of cultural and class warfare.

Unfortunately his Abolition of Britain is arranged in such a scattershot way that it conveys no real sense of either the chronology or the interplay of the various factors that broke British morale and allowed a resentful section of the population, without previous experience of power and responsibility, to make a revolution. Still, The Abolition of Britain is an entertaining and moving read that helps explain why certain key strata of the British middle classes are such enthusiasts for eliminating the things that make Britain unique. It offers a key to such mysteries as how the British state could actually prosecute merchants for using non-metric measures, jail a farmer for defending himself against brutal robbers, and arrest a man for the “racist” act of flying a flag above a pub.

There are so many effective anecdotes in Hitchens’s book that it is difficult to pick one as particularly telling. So, for symbolic concision, how about the abolition of the flag? It was in 1997, the year of Blair’s election, that British Airways removed the Union Jack flag from the tails of its aircraft and replaced it with “ethnic” designs that it hoped foreign customers would find more sympathetic.

The airline’s then-CEO, Robert Ayling, apparently feared that foreigners associated the British national flag with skinheads, soccer hooligans, and imperialism. This was not based, of course, on any polling of Africans or Asians or Europeans. But Ayling did know that the Union Jack is associated with skinheads and soccer hooligans and imperialism by the media folk and the professional middle classes who now control Britain. These are people far too well-educated and sophisticated to have any truck with anything as atavistic as national pride and who simply cannot conceive that anyone would see a Union Jack as a symbol of something positive. (Britain is not in fact a flag-waving country; its inhabitants have long been embarrassed by the kind of loud patriotism associated with their continental neighbors or the United States. But there’s a difference between this kind of reticence and actual hostility to the flag.)

Kipling once asked, “What do they know of England who only England know?” The Blairite elite, for all their vacations in French or Tuscan villages, have much less experience of the outside world than the imperial elite they replaced. It’s why they don’t know that the French, whom they worship, are utterly unembarrassed by the traditional pageantry being scourged in Britain and would not dream of deconcessioning the tricoleur. Have the Blairites never seen the Communist deputies saluting, as mounted republican guardsmen in breastplates and horsehair plumes lead the Bastille Day parade, just in front of the tanks? Apparently not, which is another reason no one in the new ruling elite even questions the assumption that Britain is an embarrassingly Ruritanian society, long overdue for a thorough house-cleaning.

Still less do they doubt that a country properly cleansed of cringe-inducing vestiges of a quaint, elitist past like the changing of the guard, Oxbridge, red telephone boxes, hereditary peers, and the monarchy will be both more efficient and more popular with foreign tourists. For them it is an article of faith that new is better.

Alas for Peter Hitchens, impassioned, perceptive, and courageous though he is, the opposite is also an article of faith: For him, all change is bad. Hitchens actually laments the advent of central heating and double glazing, because families are no longer brought together by having to huddle around a single hearth. When he contrasts the Britain of Princess Diana’s funeral with the Britain of Churchill’s funeral, his case that everything has gotten worse includes the “crazed over-use of private cars” and “the disappearance of hats and the decline of coats.”

Indeed, if you were going to be harsh you might almost subtitle this book “A compendious diatribe of everything I hate about Britain today, with minor, aesthetic irritations given the same weight as the destruction of the constitution.” There’s a silly chapter in which Hitchens bemoans the famous trial of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which made it all but impossible for the British government to ban books on the grounds of obscenity. Then there’s his notion that the “American Occupation” of Britain from 1941 to 1945 introduced adultery to British womanhood — a claim that would have amused Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

But the most bizarrely wrong chapter is the one that blames the satirical television and wireless programs of the late 1950s and early 1960s for destroying national unity. The idea that a culture that survived Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift could be brought down by Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett is preposterous. And if comedy “made an entire class too ridiculous to rule,” then P. G. Wodehouse and perhaps even Charles Dickens are also to blame.

Of course many things are worse in Britain than they were during the 1950s, the decade that Hitchens takes as his paradigm for the real, lost Britain. Even people of the Left look with disgust upon Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” with its ubiquitous youth culture awash with drugs, its government by glib marketing men, its increasing corruption, the ever-spreading coarseness, and the startling ubiquity of violent crime (you’re now much, much more likely to be mugged or burgled in London than in New York).

But is it so terrible that the food is better, that there are sidewalk cafes, that middle- and even working-class people can afford to travel, that the state plays a smaller role in the nation’s economic life (though a far greater one in other realms)? Some of Hitchens’s nostalgia fixes on things that were not especially British, or not laudably so — like censorship, or the prosecution and blackmailing of homosexuals. Other things Hitchens sees as quintessentially British were, in fact, freakish phenomena of the postwar decades. In particular, the placidity and gentleness in those years was an artificial state, the result of exhaustion and wartime discipline.

Hitchens should know that for centuries European and other visitors were struck by the amazing pugnaciousness of the English and by their quick sentimentality. (Two enjoyable recent books, Jeremy Paxman’s The English and Paul Langford’s Englishness Identified, take up this topic.) From the eighteenth century on, Britons were seen even by their many European admirers as terrifyingly violent. That’s why small numbers of them were able to defeat large numbers of foreigners either on the continent or the battlefields of empire. The British soccer hooligan is a mere return to form. So, too, the Victorians were famous for their weeping: They kept emotional reserve for important moments, like when they were about to be tortured by Fuzzy Wuzzies.

It’s a shame The Abolition of Britain includes so much cranky fogeyism (including nostalgia for the flogging of teenage criminals). It’s a shame, because at its best this book combines superb reporting (especially about the hijacking of education by frustrated leftists) with a heartbreaking analysis of one of the strangest revolutions in history. And in many ways it is the most important of the torrent of books that have dealt with the crisis of British identity.

What Hitchens understands is that bourgeois New Labour is far more revolutionary than any government before — although, ironically, it learned just how easy it is to defy tradition and make radical constitutional changes from Margaret Thatcher, who abolished the Greater London Council merely because it was dominated by her political enemies. Hitchens rightly sees the New Labour “project” as a kind of politically correct Thatcherism with a punitive cultural agenda aimed at certain class enemies. The House of Commons’s vote to abolish fox hunting is a perfect example: an interference in British liberty enacted by our urban middle-class rulers in order to kick toffs in the teeth — one that will put thousands of rural working-class people out of work. When Labour was dominated by cloth-capped, working-class socialists, ownership of the means of production may have been at issue, but the party never threatened the structure of the kingdom. Tony Blair heads the least socialist, least redistributive Labour government ever. Yet at the same time he has used the legally unchecked powers of a House of Commons majority to enact the most revolutionary changes in the British constitution since the Civil War of the 1640s.

It still isn’t clear whether the Blair government sees its steady stream of attacks on the old order’s structure and accouterments as a clever and harmless way of distracting its genuinely socialist members and supporters from their fiscal conservatism, or whether they actually know that traditions and rituals are rather more important than marginal tax rates when it comes to destroying the old United Kingdom they despise.

Because the reforms, enacted swiftly and without serious debate, were intended mostly to proclaim the new government’s difference from the Tories, they followed no consistent theory. Scotland and Wales got separate parliaments but continue to send MPs to Westminster where they make laws for the English (some 80 percent of the population) who do not have their own separate parliament.

Of course, it never occurred to the Blairites — who see themselves as technocrats above primitive feelings of attachment to nation or any community other than their own cosmopolitan class — that by tossing bones to the Welsh and Scots nationalist minorities they might awaken the long slumbering beast of English nationalism. These people have lived so long under the protection of an inclusive British nationalism, they couldn’t imagine that English nationalism, fed by growing submission to Europe and the unfair favoring of Scotland, will of necessity be racial and resentful. When a few old souls mentioned the danger of awakening nationalisms after centuries of peace and comity, they were laughed at by the Blairites. Now you see all over England the red cross of St. George, a symbol from the medieval past that spontaneously appeared in the hands of soccer fans and on the dashboards of London taxicabs. It’s enough to make Hitchens warn of “interesting times” ahead — in the scary sense of “interesting.” As he says, “When a people cease to believe their national myths and cease to know or respect their history, it does not follow that they become blandly smiling internationalists. Far from it.”

Of course, you can detect in the Blair generation’s discomfort with Britain’s past an element of envy and insecurity. It cannot be easy for middle-aged Britons to look back on the achievements of their fathers and grandfathers (who defeated Hitler and the Kaiser), or, worse still, those of their great grandfathers (who brought peace and prosperity to millions around the globe), without wishing to denigrate those achievements.

But if you want to understand why a significant chunk of the British population loathes Britain and wants to undo it, you have to look beyond generational resentment to class. An acquaintance of mine was on his way to a party for the fiftieth anniversary of VE day in 1995 when he bumped into Jon Snow, a well-known British broadcaster and fairly typical figure of the new British establishment. He asked Snow if he too were going to a VE celebration. Snow sneered back that he was going to “an anti-VE day party.” Not for him any of that jingoistic nostalgia for World War II.

As Orwell pointed out, the English intelligentsia has always been severed from the common culture of the country. But in the 1930s, the intellectuals were joined in their alienation by a significant number of mandarins, upper- and upper-middle-class civil servants, who responded to democratization and the simultaneous decline of British influence by deciding that their country would be better off ruled by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

The modern equivalent is to transfer one’s allegiance to the “European ideal,” which means, in practice, rule by the smooth bureaucrats of Brussels. For the remnants of the mandarin class, there’s something comforting in the idea that Britain and Europe can be run by a sophisticated international elite — made up of chaps not unlike themselves.

“Europe” also solves a status problem for the new public-sector middle class. Unlike the treacherous mandarins, these people have not lost position; they never had it. They therefore define themselves as being more “civilized” than the country-house toffs above them and the bigoted proles below. And they take to an extreme the retarditaire notion that everything is done better on the Continent. The basic idea is that if you are the kind of person sophisticated enough to appreciate wine and cappuccino — rather than beer and tea — then, of course, you must favor the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to Brussels.

There are good reasons for Americans to study Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain. It won’t be a good thing for America if British PC multiculturalists manage to discredit the parent culture of the United States. More important, however, is the lesson about the fragility of culture that Americans should take from this book. In his famous essay “England, Your England,” George Orwell wrote, “It needs some very great disaster, such as prolonged subjugation by a foreign enemy, to destroy a national culture.” But reading Hitchens you soon realize that Orwell was wrong: A culture can be destroyed from the inside, as well.


In Defense of Tony Blair, Peace Envoy ( May 28, 2015)

Comment/OpEd, Latest Articles Comments Off on In Defense of Tony Blair, Peace Envoy ( May 28, 2015)

The former prime minister worked hard on the Middle East. But it was an impossible job.

LONDON — You don’t have to be a devoted fan of Tony Blair to see that the mockery he has received concerning his resignation as Middle East peace envoy is unfair.

Much of the criticism he received during his eight years as Special Envoy for the International Quartet (comprising the US, the UN, the EU, and Russia) was disingenuous and overtly biased. That certainly included a June 2014 open letter to the Guardian whose signatories included George Galloway, conspiracy-theorist Baroness Tonge, and several other luminaries of the UK’s anti-Israel lobby.

Both that criticism and more recent derision (like the tweet sent on Blair’s resignation by a former British diplomat saying “Good news at last from the middle east!”) is informed by prejudice against a leader who in recent years has become one of the most reviled public figures in the UK and its media, and by ignorance of the realities of the region and the role he was supposed to play in it.

As the Quartet’s envoy, Blair’s task was to work for Palestinian economic empowerment, the theory being that economic development, along with money poured into political institutions, would make a Palestinian state more viable, and less likely to fall under the domination of Hamas or another extremist organization.

Blair successfully pushed for fewer Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, (though there are still a great many and no Israeli government will get rid of them altogether, short of a larger peace agreement). He helped make it much easier for Palestinian businesspeople to use the Allenby crossing to and from Jordan.

Blair could come across as imperious and entitled in his dealings with local politicians on both sides, but he clearly understood that quiet, consistent work would achieve more on the ground than the kind of grandstanding that is all too common when Europeans try to get involved in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

As the Middle East commentator Tom Gross says, “Blair had the right idea much more than he is given credit for. He wanted to build peace from the ground up rather than just make grand gestures or take part in photo-ops”

Blair quickly saw the vital need for improvements in governance and institution-building in a Palestine that still lacks the attributes of modern statehood found even in much poorer but less dysfunctional unrecognized countries like the Somaliland Republic and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The effective sacking of reformist Palestinan Prime Minister Salam Fayyad by President Mahmoud Abbas in 2013, however, killed off any serious effort by the Palestinian authority to deal with corruption as well as damaging what was left of the peace of process.

Still, in the years since Blair took up the position in 2007, the rate of Israeli settlement-building went down, as did terror attacks on Israel mounted from the West Bank.

So, arguably, Blair’s performance in the post has actually been not bad, especially given the fact that it is actually an impossible job, and given that, it has only been a part-time occupation (undertaken for no salary).

The rest of former prime minister’s time was apparently taken up by his (controversial) business activities, by the requirements of running or fundraising for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and by the commitments inherent in living the international celebrity/politician/philanthropist/socialite lifestyle.

It is an impossible job because there can be little progress even on minor issues, let alone a broader peace settlement, unless the Israeli and the two Palestinian leaderships want it.

For both Netanyahu and Abbas, the current situation probably feels livable for the time being, especially given the chaos and economic ruination in neighboring countries. There may not be peace in the Western European sense in the Holy Land , but it’s certainly peaceful compared to Aleppo or Ramadi.

Ramallah is visibly prosperous and the Palestinian leadership has hugely enriched itself in the now traditional way through corruption and by the diversion of the billions in aid that the international community has provided the West Bank and Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel feels relatively secure from terrorist attacks coming from the West Bank, is presumably taking comfort from Hezbollah’s bloody involvement in the Syrian civil war, but is deeply concerned by the Iranian nuclear program and President Barack Obama’s courting of Tehran. That’s not a situation that necessarily offers much leverage to someone in Blair’s position, even if that person were better equipped personally for the job, perhaps with the charisma and prestige of Bill Clinton.

* * *

To the extent that he has always lacked gravitas and often comes across more as a capable performer than a man of profound conviction, Blair was a rather unlikely candidate for the job. He was never able to overcome the impression that he had taken it partly because he did not know what to do after leaving Downing Street at the age of 54, and partly to restore a reputation that at least at in the UK seemed to be as bad as a politician’s can be short of an accusation of child molestation.

Indeed Blair’s unpopularity in the UK, especially among the political and media class, is such that Britons wrongly assume that he is equally disliked abroad. In fact, when Blair left office he was a figure of high repute in the United States, in Eastern Europe and much of Asia. In some places, like Kurdistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, he was and is considered a liberator and hero: his photograph graces mantelpieces and children are named after him.

His subsequent PR work for Central Asian autocrats certainly disillusioned those who had admired the way Blair had put the promotion of democracy and “liberal interventionism” at the heart of British foreign policy.

Still, it was rather odd than anyone would expected the Israelis or the Palestinians to pay much heed to any former British prime minister — both groups feel they have ample historical reason to be distrustful of the Brits. Indeed the fact that a Briton sought, and was given, the post looks like yet another manifestation of the peculiar delusion that there is a South Asian level of affection and respect for Britain to be found in the parts of the Middle East it once ruled.

Moreover, for the envoy to enjoy real influence, he would have to have the full backing and engagement of the Quartet, and access to some of the carrots and sticks in their possession. Even if the former were available, the latter would require the full-time commitment of an unusually adroit and powerful individual.

Those who criticize Blair’s performance in this post tend to miss the fact that Middle East has changed profoundly in the last few years. Even the phrase “Middle East Peace,” if used in the traditional way to refer exclusively to the Israel and its conflicts with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours, has become brutally absurd. It is now about Syria and ISIS, not to mention Yemen, Iraq, Iran and — a cartographical stretch but not a geopolitical one — Libya.

After all, at least 210,000 people have been killed during the four years of Syrian civil war — more than double the toll of those who died in six decades of Arab Israeli conflict. Some 60,000 more have been killed in Iraq since the ISIS invasion, and the Libyan civil war took at least 10,000 lives in just eight months, more than both Intifadas, both Gaza Wars and the Israel-Hezbollah war put together. Moreover, as these wars continue to roil and to spill over into countries like Yemen, they are creating a gigantic refugee crisis in the middle east that will affect the region for decades to come.

So Blair could be forgiven for thinking that he had been working in a backwater on an issue whose relative importance has massively diminished.

Blair must also have been all too aware his Quartet employers had much bigger foreign policy fish to fry. All of them would be remiss if they were not concentrating on Ukraine, the crisis in the EU highlighted by Greece’s default, tension in the South China Sea, nuclear proliferation in the Gulf, and the bloody increase in Islamist guerilla violence in Mali, Nigeria and Kenyaamong other challenges. .

This is not to say that the Israel-Palestinian conflict has no objective importance. But the competition for urgent global attention is now so much more intense. It would be surprising if someone like Blair, who likes to be at the center of things, hadn’t recognized this a while ago, and is getting out while there’s still a chance for him to play in the big leagues. Who knows, maybe he has an eye on the Labour party as it lies adrift.

* * *

It will be interesting to see what Tony Blair does now, if he will throw himself even more forcefully into moneymaking by means that are likely to earn him yet more opprobrium. If he does do that it will be sad, given that Blair is hardly the demon he is often made out to be in the UK.

Indeed the fact that he is so loathed by people on both sides of the British party spectrum makes you wonder if there isn’t some complicated psychology at play, if Blair-hatred isn’t a kind of British self-loathing.

This is especially true in party politics. After all, it is no secret that Prime Minister David Cameron and his circle consciously modeled themselves on Blair and have aped (and even exceeded) his use of modern branding and marketing techniques; or that some in the Labour party are now desperately trying to rediscover the Blairite values that made it an election winner.

Blair of course remains the only Labour leader to have won a British general election in 40 years, yet after 2007 he went from being perceived as the savior of the Labour movement to a hate figure on the level of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Emmanuel Goldstein.

On the other hand, it’s hard to warm to what Blair has become today. His reaction to what is in essence a forced exile from his own country has not been attractive. Although he’s hardly the first former premier to be excited by the company and amorality of what once was called the jet-set, Blair has pursued wealth and glamour with extraordinary intensity.

Perhaps he is as disillusioned with politics as his former supporters are with him, and has become a ruthless cynic. It would help explain the Clintonesque sleaze of his PR efforts for the kleptocrats of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, the strange cultish nature of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and the business relations with sinister Russian and Gulf billionaires. But it would not explain his taking — or giving up — the job of Middle East Peace Envoy. Blair worked hard at it for eight years, but it was an inherently hopeless and thankless task.

Jonathan Foreman, the author of Aiding And Abetting: Foreign Aid Failures And The 0.7% Deception, is a commentator in London.