The Abolition of Britain
Cover of The Abolition of Britain, revised UK edition
|Subject||Politics of the United Kingdom|
|Genre||United Kingdom politics|
|1 August 1999|
The Abolition of Britain is the first book by conservative journalist Peter Hitchens. Originally published in 1999, it charts and examines a period of perceived moral and cultural reform between the 1960s and the New Labour general election win in 1997. Hitchens asserts that the reforms facilitated vast and radical constitutional change under Tony Blair's new government that amounted to a "slow motion coup d'état". The book was cited by Gillian Bowditch in The Times as being a major modern work to dissect "the decline in British morals and manners over the past 50 years", and identified by Andrew Marr in The Observer as "the most sustained, internally logical and powerful attack on Tony Blair and all his works".
Hitchens's later book The Broken Compass explored the same themes, applied to socio-political events and culture in the 2000s (decade).
The Abolition of Britain is a conservative polemic against the changes in the United Kingdom since the mid-1960s. It contrasts the funerals of Winston Churchill (1965) and Diana, Princess of Wales (1997), using these two related but dissimilar events, three decades apart, to illustrate the enormous cultural changes that took place in the intervening period. His argument is that Britain underwent a "cultural revolution", comparable to that of China in the 1960s. He describes and criticises the growing strength of such forces as multiculturalism, which still had a liberal consensus behind it at the time the book was written. He argues that English schools had largely ceased to teach the history of the country, criticising the preference for methodology, or the literature of Britain's past.
Other changes gain Hitchens' attention, from the passivity and conformism resulting from the watching of television to the Church of England's rejection of its traditional liturgy and scripture. Sex education, he argues, is a form of propaganda against Christian sexual morality. The sexual revolution brought about by the first contraceptive pills was the result not of accidental discovery, but of research deliberately pursued by moral revolutionaries. He describes the efforts made to provide respectability for unmarried motherhood, not least the campaign to replace the expression "unmarried mother" with "single parent", thus lumping together those who had children out of wedlock with widowers, widows or deserted wives and husbands, and so deflecting disapproval. Hitchens sees the British establishment as being morally weak in their failure to resist the emerging drug culture, when they could easily have done so in the mid-1960s. He cites as one example the prosecution of Mick Jagger and the subsequent intervention of The Times in Jagger's defence in 1967 ("Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?") after his (temporary) conviction.
One chapter analyses the use of TV and radio soap operas to spread liberal cultural and moral propaganda, and refers to several instances where this intention has been openly expressed by the editors and authors of such programmes. In another, he attacks the development of "anti-establishment" comedy since the staging of Beyond the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960. For Hitchens, the development of television, citing with approval a critical letter by T. S. Eliot to The Times in 1950, was something which should have led to a greater public debate than it did. In particular, Hitchens criticises the easy capture of the Conservative Party by lobbyists for commercial TV, which removed the BBC's monopoly power to defend cultural standards. He argues that the introduction of colour television, which made even the bad programmes look good, greatly increased the influence of TV over the public mind.
He identifies the then Labour politician Roy Jenkins as a highly-effective campaigner for "cultural revolution". He describes the Chatterley trial, describing what he calls "myths" about it, and argues that the defence of literary merit (from the 1959 Jenkins backed Obscene Publications Act) eventually came to be used to allow the publications of books and periodicals which had none at all. He examines Jenkins' use of cross-party alliances and, what he sees as, supposed Private Members' Bills to achieve his programme. These legislative changes had not been mentioned in the 1964 or 1966 election manifestos, and Hitchens develops his argument by drawing on proposals Jenkins had made in the last chapter of his short book The Labour Case (1959). He cites warnings made by those who opposed the abolition of capital punishment, and claims that those warnings have largely proved to be true. For Hitchens this is an example of the political elite working against the desires of the public. Hitchens' view is sustained, in the case of capital punishment, by the liberal historian Dominic Sandbrook, in his history of the period White Heat using contemporaneous opinion poll data. Hitchens went on to explore this issue in more detail in A Brief History of Crime.
A chapter in The Abolition of Britain on the contrast between the public health policies on lung cancer and the public health policies on AIDS was left out of the first edition of the book, after Hitchens was advised that airing thoughts critical of homosexual acts would bring such criticism on it that it would distract attention from the book's main message. It was reinstated in the paperback and American editions, with an explanatory preface. Hitchens elaborated that the morality of homosexuality itself was tangential to his main argument. He wrote that British society's unwillingness to criticize sexual promiscuity among gay, bisexual, and straight men alike despite the ill after-effects stands in direct hypocritical contrast to government action against drug use.
Hitchens argues that damaging moral and cultural effects on Britain occurred from the presence of huge numbers of U.S. troops during World War II. He also laments the cultural impact of American usage of the English language in Britain itself. For Hitchens, the major failing of the Thatcher governments was the absence of a decidedly conservative stance over cultural and moral matters.
The book received considerable attention in the British media upon its publication, and was also reviewed in a number of US newspapers.
The book's reception in Britain was mixed. In a scathing review in The Guardian, Polly Toynbee mocked the book. She noted that the author "evokes the Britain of my own childhood, of the 50s and 60s, with a deadly accurate pen", but because of this factor, the book is "a joyful read for liberals. Most of it is given over to eulogies about the past that have precisely the opposite effect of the one intended". Other British reviewers were more positive in their assessments. Mary Kenny in the Catholic Herald considered it "a series of knowledgeable and perceptive linked essays in the tradition of George Orwell". John Colvin, writing in the New Statesman thought the "barren times" in which we live "have found their ideal chronicler" who "in this clear and uninhibited work, reminds us of the tyranny of the new" and that "it is difficult to contradict his belief that a great nation seems almost to have vanished, its traditions mocked and enfeebled".
In The Spectator, John Redwood wrote that he was "exhilarated" by the book, and that Hitchens had written with "passion and flair". Redwood added that Hitchens was at his best when "exposing the way in which our educational system and cultural standards have been systematically undermined". Also writing in The Spectator, Peregrine Worsthorne was more circumspect: "after eloquently telling the tale of how successive British parliamentary governments, Tory as much as Labour, have 'abolished' old Britain, Hitchens reaches the wholly illogical conclusion that that same British democracy alone is quite capable of putting the clock back". He also stated that Hitchens was wrong to hold Eurosceptic views.
Alan Cowell, in a mostly critical review in The New York Times, stated "in the 1950s and 60s, Britain was a gentler, more deferential place; the churches were better attended; children did give up their bus seats to adults; and a generation was nurtured on a history of wartime victory and imperial grandeur that had yet to be derided as myth or oppression". However, Cowell questioned the "Canute-like subtext" of the book that "the destructive forces of television, McDonald's and American popular culture could have been held back". In The Weekly Standard, another US publication, Jonathan Foreman wrote that "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". However, Foreman added that the book suffered from "cranky fogeyism", and he was particularly critical of both the chapter analysing the Chatterley trial and the premise that satirical television and radio programmes of the late 1950s and early 1960s contributed towards destroying British national unity.
The book was first published in Britain by Quartet Books in 1999 (ISBN 0-7043-8117-6), and then in a revised edition the following year. The volume was published in North America by Encounter Books in 2000 (ISBN 1-893554-18-X). It was reissued in the UK by Continuum in 2008, with a new introduction by the author (ISBN 1847065228). The book is subtitled "From Lady Chatterley to Tony Blair" in its British editions and "From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana" in its US editions. Hitchens has commented that it proved extremely difficult to get The Abolition of Britain published and into bookshops.
- Hitchens, Peter (2000). The Abolition of Britain. Quartet Books; New edition (1 April 2000). ISBN 0-7043-8140-0.
- Hitchens 2000, p. 343
- Gillian Bowditch: Why we all miss the kind, strong male
- 1999 Andrew Marr review of The Abolition of Britain
- Roy Jenkins, The Labour Case, Harmonsdworth: Penguin, 1959, p135-140
- Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, London: Little, Brown, 2006, p.321 ISBN 978-0316724524
- Polly Toynbee, "How Hague loses the plot – and the battle over Europe", The Guardian 25 August 1999
- Mary Kenny, "The anti-conservative culture", Catholic Herald, 27 August 1999
- John Colvin, "Beast in view", New Statesman, 27 September 1999
- "Presenting the past as another place" review in The Spectator, 11 September 1999 by John Redwood
- Peregrine Worsthorne, "As I Was Saying: Only a federal Europe can stop the abolition of Britain", The Spectator, 3 September 1999
- "Will There Always Be One?" New York Times review by Alan Cowell
- "The Battle of Britain – Is the sun setting on the United Kingdom?" review in The Weekly Standard (US) 12 March 2001 by Jonathan Foreman
- Hitchens refers to this at the end of this article
- "Cool Britannia" - 4 November 2002. Geoff Metcalf interviews Peter Hitchens on The Abolition of Britain.
- Additional reviews
- Short book review from the Ulster perspective by David Kerr at Ulsternation, a web based forum for political debate
- "Conquered Without a Shot" review in Spearhead (magazine) by John Tyndall (politician), founder of the BNP
- "The Brainwashed Land of Hope and Glory" review by Alistair McConnachie of the SOVEREIGNTY monthly journal
- Brothers Peter and Christopher Hitchens debate The Abolition of Britain
- Booknotes interview with Hitchens on The Abolition of Britain, 31 December 2000.