Outsiders tend to look upon the United Kingdom as a stiff, traditional little country whose grey-haired old Queen has just celebrated 60 years on the throne and where men in bowler hats will say, “Evening, sir,” as they pass you in the street. But this view of the UK as a more faithful creature of history and habit than most other nations is misplaced. In truth, traditional institutions in Britain are in disarray. They’re dizzy with confusion, bereft of purpose. They are falling like flies. And the striking thing is that they are being done in not by revolution or by sentient reform but by their own moral and physical exhaustion. Traditionalism in Britain is committing voluntary euthanasia.
The speed with which longstanding institutions are disappearing is alarming. This time last year, a Brit could have opened up the News of the World on a Sunday morning and perused that 168-year-old newspaper’s salacious stories about celebs and its mocking of Members of Parliament. That had been a tradition amongst less well-off communities in particular for the better part of two centuries. Tucking into that paper after you had tucked into your Sunday breakfast was a staple of working-class life.
In 1946, when the paper was already 103 years old, Geroge Orwell described an idyllic homely scene: “It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose and open the News of the World.”
Not anymore, you don’t. The paper is no more, snuffed out last year by its final proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, in response to a campaign of shrill liberal fury following revelations that some of the paper’s hacks had hacked into people’s phones.
This time last year, you could have used the words “husband” and “wife” without a second thought, without having to worry that you might be causing offense to someone somewhere. Indeed, you could have read Orwell’s words “The wife is already asleep” and known exactly whom he meant (“her indoors”) and what he meant (thank God she’s drifted off). Not now. Even wives, one half of that most traditional of all institutions, marriage, are disappearing. Husbands, too. Linguistically, at least.
As part of the drive towards institutionalizing same-sex marriage—which is being spearheaded not by radical gays but by our posh, foppish Conservative prime minister, David Cameron—words such as “husband” and “wife” and “father” and “mother” are being airbrushed from much official government documentation. So welfare and immigration forms will shortly be scrubbed clean of any mention of the w-word or the h-word, in favor of more “neutral” terms such as “spouse” or “partner” because, as the Daily Telegraph reports, the government believes that once same-sex marriage is legalized “it would be confusing to refer to husbands and wives.”
Fathers are already disappearing. At the end of May, the National Health Service, the largest employer in Britain—and the fifth largest in the world—took the decision to excise the six-letter f-word from a pamphlet on rearing children that it has been giving to mothers- and fathers-to-be for the past 14 years. The pamphlet will no longer refer to fathers following a complaint from one person—yes, that is all it takes to airbrush people from history in modern Britain—who was concerned that such terminology is “not inclusive of people in same-sex relationships.” From now on the pamphlet will refer to mothers and “partners.” Dads are so 20th century.
This time last year one could have said the words “I live in the United Kingdom” without flinching. But even that’s no longer possible. The very thing that glues England, Wales, and Scotland together—the Union, forged by the Acts of Union of 1707—is fraying. Following a tense exchange of words over the future of Scotland between Cameron, who leads the government in Westminster, and Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and first minister in Scotland’s regional parliament, there will now be a referendum on Scottish independence in Fall 2014. Never mind losing a tabloid newspaper or words like “husband” and “father,” the UK might soon lose one of its countries, a huge chunk of its territory and its peoples, whose union with England and Wales was the founding moment of the United Kingdom.
The most remarkable thing about this possible splitting of Scotland from the kingdom is that it came about not through a war of independence pursued by modern-day Bravehearts or even through a proper sit-down between Salmond and Cameron to discuss the future of the Union but rather by way of a game of grouchy one-upmanship between those two leaders. The Conservatives might rule in Westminster, but they have largely given up on Scotland because their support there has plummeted to a record low in recent years. They were the largest party in Scotland as recently as the 1950s, but today they have just one MP there. As a political observer quipped after Beijing loaned two pandas to the Edinburgh Zoo earlier this year, “There are now more pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs.”
Because of its flailing fortunes north of the border, the Conservative Party has become increasingly cavalier about Scotland, with many of its supporters no longer bothered about holding the Union together. That is pretty remarkable for a party whose original full title was the Conservative and Unionist Party because its raison d’ être was to conserve the Union.
For his part, the SNP’s Alex Salmond is rushing into a referendum not because there is a groundswell of public enthusiasm in Scotland for independence—opinion polls suggest around 33 percent of Scots support the idea—but just to get one over on Cameron and the rest of the suits “down south.” Salmond and Cameron come across less like serious politicians discussing the 305-year-long union of their nations and more like blokes in a pub drunkenly challenging each other to an arm wrestle. Only the prize isn’t a bag of pork scratchings, it’s the Act of Union.
Other institutions are fraying too. The House of Lords, long the means through which the unelected aristocracy kept an eye on the elected members of the House of Commons, seems to be in a permanent state of rebranding. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister in Cameron’s coalition government, is planning to bring to a head 15 years of non-stop reform of the Lords with his plan to have 80 percent of that House elected, with more emphasis on expertise than aristocratic breeding. If he gets his way, he will achieve the remarkable feat of making the undemocratic Lords even worse than it currently is: an elected second chamber, in which each member would serve for a mind-boggling 15 years after being elected, would be even more meddlesome in the political process than the current Lords is, potentially creating a profound conflict of democratic legitimacy where neither House will be sure which is the true representative of the public’s will.
Even the monarchy, the institution which makes most non-Brits think of our nation as having remained on one long, uninterrupted continuum from 1066, is not immune to the shoulder-shrugging attitude to tradition that is rife in Britain today. As the Spectator recently lamented, the House of Windsor is “in a spin,” now looking “less and less like a monarchy, and more and more like a PR operation.”
The monarchy’s advisers, and Her Majesty’s government (as it is still anachronistically known), are on a mission to “make the monarchy seem less aristocratic,” says the Spectator. Which is a bit like trying to make an apple pie taste less like apple. The very essence of the monarchy, the thing it represents and is meant to protect, aristocratic values, is being drained out of it by PR men who want to “celebrify” it, make it less a House of Windsor and more a posher House of Kardashian.
A perusal of the past year, then, shows that things that have existed for hundreds, even thousands of years can shrivel up, be demoted or madeover in the space of a few months in modern Britain. Both working-class institutions like the News of the World (patronized by over seven million people a week) and upper-class institutions like the Lords, as well as cross-class institutions such as marriage, are being chucked into the dustbin of history or else hollowed out.
What’s going on here? In the absence of either revolutionary or serious reform-based movements in the 21st-century UK, what on earth is driving this itchy desire amongst politicians and other leaders to turn their backs on tradition and constantly meddle in ancient institutions?
I think George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was on to something when in February he referred to the coalition government’s plans to institutionalize same-sex marriage as “cultural vandalism.” That’s the best description we have of the weird allergy to traditionalism that afflicts the modern British elite.
Both the right and the left get it spectacularly wrong when they try to explain institutional overhaul in modern Britain. The right fantasizes that it is all the work of a tiny cabal of “cultural Marxists,” ignoring the role played by their own political bedfellows in the abandonment of tradition. And the left excitably claims that all these big shifts—especially the destruction of the News of the World and the overhaul of marriage to include same-sex couples—are wonderful, revolt-like moments, which they played a part in bringing about, like modern-day Martin Luther Kings. The right’s self-denial and the left’s self-flattery blind them to what is new and weird about institutional decay today.
The British right frequently ventures into conspiracy-theory territory when it tries to explain the crisis of traditionalism. So Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail columnist and author of The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle Over God, Truth and Power, claims with a straight face that the usurpers of Britain’s core institutions and values are “the far Left,” who are “attacking us from within.” Apparently these “cultural Marxists” decided some time in the 1960s to conquer and colonize Western institutions—especially universities and the media—and Phillips says they have been remarkably successful, becoming a “collective fifth column, turning all the core values of society upside down and inside out.”
This has been the main refrain of the political right since the 1960s, in which they externalize their own failure to uphold traditionalism, to defend institutions and standards, by inventing a fairytale about an army of lefty agitators taking over society. Here the weakness of the right, its moral and political discombobulation, its alienation from its own traditions, is written out of the story in favor of blowing out of all proportion the bogeyman of cultural Marxism.
No one on the right ever stops to ask why, even if it were true that far leftists had invaded the institutions, they managed to do so with such ease. Where were the gatekeepers? Where were the guardians of traditionalism? The cultural Marxism conspiracy theory doesn’t add up, as can be seen in modern Britain: it is Cameron, a Conservative, who is denuding marriage of its ancient meaning; it was Murdoch, a right-winger, who folded the 168-year-old News of the World; it is the Windsors, even Elizabeth herself, who are inviting PR men to make them over, to make them “relevant.” These institutions weren’t dented or destroyed by cliques of super-clever leftists but by their own internal and profound crises of moral legitimacy.
If anything, the left is even more deluded than the right. It mistakes institutional rot for political revolt, imagining that Cameron’s and others’ constant spinning and rebranding of traditional institutions is a Good Thing, and possibly the left’s own doing. This was most clear during the closure of the News of the World last year, when Labour Party leader Ed Miliband claimed that “people power” had seen off that apparently rancid tabloid title. This was the very opposite of the truth. Only tiny numbers of time-rich liberal journalists and Twitterati got hot under the collar about the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, while “the people” were indifferent about the whole thing. And it was Murdoch himself, friend and fan of the right, rather than any anti-tabloid revolt, who forced the closure of the paper.
The day after the paper printed its last edition, I argued in my magazine spiked that what this sordid episode really revealed was that “right-wing sections of political and public life have lost the capacity or the willingness to withstand pressure,” and I’m standing by that.
On same-sex marriage, too, the left fantasizes that this is a victory in some mythical struggle for gay equality. But by far the most notable thing about the push for gay marriage in Britain has been the absence of public agitation. There have been no marches, no street fights, no demonstrations at Parliament or anywhere else. That’s because this is a supply-led rather than demand-driven initiative: the same-sex marriage meme amongst the chattering classes has its origins not in gay people’s agitation for the right to get hitched but in the elite’s own inability to defend traditional marriage, alongside its desire to appear ostentatiously modern by actively altering an institution like traditional marriage.
“We are upholding the values of the open society,” said Deputy PM Clegg. What is really going on here is that members of the elite who feel increasingly estranged from their forebears, from the architects of tradition and custom in Britain, have little compunction about jettisoning those traditions, casually brushing them aside to make a public display of their own “openness” and “relevance.” It is the elevation of public-relations needs over the gains and creations of history.
Of course, there is much in modern Britain that is stuffy and which could do with being reformed—consciously reformed, I mean, not casually done away with. If I had my way, the monarchy would go, the Lords too, and there is even room for asking whether marriage should be denationalized, turned from a state affair into a private matter for individuals and communities (including gay ones). But you need to have public engagement and debate, a battle of ideas, in order to do reform properly, to replace what might be old and archaic with something you think will be better and more enlightened. The problem with the current elite’s elbowing of tradition into the gutter is that it is grounded in nothing except shallow PR concerns. It is cultural vandalism, and real, still vital institutions that mean a great deal to ordinary people are dying off as a result: tabloid newspapers, the traditional ideal of marriage, the Union, the royals—an entire way of life dimly remembered in the words of Orwell.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com).