Friday, April 27, 2012

The Decline of Britain

By Theodore Dalrymple

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.

Kathleen Ferrier
In 1952, when the Queen came to the throne, the most popular female singer in the country, indeed the second most popular woman in the realm after the Queen herself, was Kathleen Ferrier, whom the great conductor, Bruno Walter, called one of the two greatest influences on his whole musical life, the other being none other than Gustav Mahler. To listen to her performance, when she knew that she was dying, of ‘Der Abschied’, from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, under Walter’s baton in the year of the Queen’s accession, has been rightly called unbearably moving.

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".


  1. A good article, and a sad article. I agree with much of what you say, except that I think the Royals have to share some of the blame along with the other members of the London Establishment who, after all, set the agenda (selfishly in their own interests) that ruined the country. As the Italians are fond of saying - a fish rots from its head.

    It’s only a couple of weeks ago that a UK Conservative MP boasted about how the Queen had arranged his selection as a Candidate after the selection Committee had turned him down. I think most people fail to realize just how much the Royals actually interfere with government behind the scenes. It is this climate of privilege rather than merit, that a hereditary structure justifies, that has set so bad an example.

    Ironically the country has never been in worse shape though the Royals have never been richer. So no, I don’t think there is much to celebrate about the Queen’s 60 years on the throne.

    1. "the Royals have to share some of the blame"

      The article refers only to the Queen, who seems remarkably blameless.

      "though the Royals have never been richer."

      How so?

      The royal yacht's gone, an expense that could no longer be maintained.

      And the Queen is now obliged to pay taxes, which is bizarre indeed since taxes are collected in the name of the crown.

      "I don’t think there is much to celebrate about the Queen’s 60 years on the throne"

      The author does not propose celebrating the Queen's 60 years on the throne. He applauds her "iron sense of duty, gracefully performed" and her exemplary self-discipline. I see nothing in that to disagree with.

    2. Canspeccy - You queried my comment about the royal wealth. May I refer you to a recent headline in the Independent - “Royal 'cuts' could make Charles the richest king in British history “ - It’s URL is:

    3. The article you refer to doesn't make a lot of sense. But what is says is that the Queen will have the 210 million sterling in revenue for the crown estates to cover the expenses of the monarchy of 38 million plus 180 million for security, leaving a deficit of eight million.

      Well at least the Queen won't have to pay any tax because she'll be losing money.

      While there is to be a change in the method of financing the monarchy, there is nothing in the new arrangement to justify the claim that the Queen will become fabulously wealthy.

      The monarchy is simply an institution, which like Parliament, the University of Oxford or Guys hospital has to be financed in some way or other. To regard the income that finances the monarchy as being the Queen's to dispose of according to her personal whim is daft.

    4. What the article actually says is that for the first time in circa 300 years, the monarchy will have its main source of funding completely independent of parliamentary (i.e. democratic) control.

    5. Dalrymple's article has nothing whatever to do with the British Constitution or details concerning who funds the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace or other security measures, such as those required on public occasions, when the Queen must drive amidst large crowds in a flimsy horse-drawn carriage. So I don't see any relevance in the point you are raising.

      However, that the monarch has resources to pay her own way does not seem in anyway extraordinary, and indeed it seems fitting to the dignity of the Monarchy that the Queen will no longer be obliged, like some welfare case, to justify her own budget to the satisfaction of bureaucrats and MP's.

      What you have failed to establish is that the Queen is free to spend vast amounts of money solely for her personal gratification. And according to the figures you cite, the income from the Royal estate of which she has gained control will not cover all the expenses of the Monarchy, which means that the Monarchy will have to operate on a tighter budget than before.

      It is interesting, though, that people protest at the Queen receiving the revenue of a Royal estate, yet are unaware that all real property in Britain is the property of the Queen.

      If you own the freehold of a piece of real estate in Britain, it means only that you have the use of it rent free. But it does not mean that the Crown may not expropriate it at any time for any reason. In such an event, compensation is normally paid, though in theory it need not be.

      Needless to say, it would be politically impossible for the Queen to expropriate anyone's property on a whim, but Parliament, acting in the Queen's name can, and may well do so, at any time.

  2. Look at UK institutions, whether Cadburys or MI6 or the monarchy.

    They get infiltrated by 'the bad guys'.

    But, back in 1952, or 1852, there was no golden age.

    1. No one was claiming that 1952 was a golden age. It is a fact, though, that in 1952 the murder rate in the UK was about 50 per year, now it is a dozen times higher. That, I would say, is a fairly good index of the decline in standards of conduct generally.

      Cadbury's were not infiltrated. They went public back in the 60's, I believe, most likely because of a shortage of management competence within the family.

      Since then the company has been managed like any public company, in the interests of maximizing shareholder value, which meant accepting a takeover bid from Kraft.

      The Kraft takeover was the logical consequence of synergy between the companies. Cadbury's had a distribution network with strong representation in Asian markets, that is now being used to promote Kraft brands, while Kraft's distribution network is used to promote Cadbury products where Kraft have a strong presence, particularly North America.

      If this kind of development is bad, it is a consequence of globalization, which all liberals such as Roderick Russell favor.

      And in what way has the monarchy been infiltrated? It seems to be running just fine and doing what it is supposed to do perfectly well. True some members of the royal family have behaved badly, but the Royals, as Roderick Russell calls them, are not the monarchy, and it is the monarch alone who is of any constitutional significance.