The Spectator, February 4, 2012: Is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee a cause for jubilation? Certainly her reign has been a personal triumph: her iron sense of duty, gracefully performed, has been exemplary, if not an example often followed. For 60 years she has exercised a self-control that most of us find difficult even for 60 minutes; her recent state visit to Ireland put all our public figures of the past decades in the shade.
Not that that is very difficult, for there is no disguising that her reign has been an era of continuous and continuing decline. Of course, not even accelerating levels of British incompetence have been able to arrest the march of technical progress, and, in raw physical terms, life in these islands has improved greatly. It is now even possible to find passable food almost everywhere, even in the provinces.
But in relative terms, Britain has declined. When she came to the throne, the British car industry was the second largest in the world; now there is no major British-owned car company. In the land of the industrial revolution, foreign ownership and management is the sine qua non of industrial success. Though we invented the railway, others must build them for us; though we invented nuclear power, we cannot by our unaided efforts build a nuclear power station. Even in football, our clubs are foreign-owned and the players foreign. The British are too undisciplined to be good at what they are most (regrettably and childishly) interested in.
What have the last 60 years done for our villages, towns and cities? British architects, devoid of scruple as of talent or aesthetic sense, have waged war on beauty and triumphed in the struggle. It is as though they personally resented the achievements of the past. Hardly a town exists that has not been ruined by the hacks of modernism and the blindness of the town-planners. It is lucky for them that there is no justice in the world.
But it is in intangibles that the decline has been most marked. In 1952, Britain was among the best-ordered countries in the western world, and now it is the worst. The recent outbreak of mass criminality can have surprised only the wilfully blind. The British are now among the least self-disciplined people in the world: it is as though they had undergone a gestalt switch, so that what they previously decried they now honour, and vice versa. They are the fattest people in Europe: the characteristic smell of Britain is re-used fat. They treat the country as their personal rubbish tip — there is more litter here than anywhere else comparable — and they drink brutishly. They take more drugs than anyone else. They consume without discrimination and dress abominably because they have no self-respect or respect for others, an absence that is often evident in the way they work, no small matter in a service economy. They favour the uncouth over the refined and the stupid over the intelligent; their vulgarity, like their drunkenness, is not unselfconscious but militant. They mutilate rather than beautify themselves; they care for nothing except their odious entertainments, and their popular music is a paean to their hatred of life. They are individualistic without individualism. A consumer society without taste is a horrible thing to behold.
In the wake of the conviction of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, an editorial in the Guardian referred to the ‘hard lives etched on the faces’ of the accused. By hard lives, it meant not the kind of materially difficult lives that coal miners once lived, but lives lived in a brutal and fundamentally stupid culture: such faces not being biological, but biographical and cultural artefacts. You look for them in vain in pictures of even the poor at the beginning of our monarch’s reign. When you compare the faces and manner of dress in the football crowds from that era — or of footballers, for that matter — when football was a much more proletarian game than it is now, with the faces and manner of dress now, you see only human retrogression. And in no other country do you see so many horrible faces, like those of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, as in Britain.
Britain is now, what it was not at the beginning of the Queen’s reign, a corrupt country. On the Pelion of inefficiency has been piled the Ossa of careerism. For this Lady Thatcher must take a large part of the blame, for it was her fatuous belief in the wonders of management that gave the new nomenklatura its first lease of life. She made £400,000 salaries (and over) possible in the public service. The ideology of management was something that Blair creatively developed, as the Soviets used to say with regard to Marxist theory, to the point that we now cannot even run a public examination system with any probity.
The revelation that schools regularly deceive Ofsted inspectors was only too emblematic of what the British state now is: a hall of distorting mirrors. Schools, it seems, resort to all manner of subterfuges on the day of inspections in order to appear better than they are. And this corruption is not a malfunction of Ofsted; it is its main purpose. It is instituted to deceive the public into thinking that the government — that shepherd of the carnivorous sheep that constitute its flock — cares about educational standards. How else can one explain the fact that Ofsted warns schools of its impending inspections? Such a warning is a virtual incitement to deception; at the very least, it is a indication that the inspectors want to be deceived. It is by such means that standards can fall in reality while they rise in the virtual world of the government statement.
Wherever one looks in the public service, which is increasingly the means by which a nomenklatura enriches itself personally at the expense of the taxpayer, one finds the same kind of deception, the same attempt to manipulate appearance at the expense of reality, the same demand that employees, from the lowest to the highest, assent to propositions that they know or suspect to be false, in order to destroy their own probity.
Sixty years later, the most popular female singer was Amy Winehouse, the stupidly tattooed militant vulgarian of disgraceful conduct. Like the British people, of whom she was emblematic, she behaved abominably without being interesting. The first singer died prematurely of cancer; the second of gross overindulgence, in her own vomit. QED.
Kathleen Ferrier: The Keel Row, a traditional Tyneside folk song evoking the life and work of the keelmen of Newcastle upon Tyne who manned the shallow-draughted boats that carried coal from the banks of the river to the waiting colliers.
The Keel Row is the trot march of the Royal Horse Artillery, of which Rudyard Kipling wrote: "The man who has never heard the 'Keel Row' rising high and shrill above the sound of the regiment...has something yet to hear and understand".