Britain is a socialist country

Several eons ago the great Peter Robinson asked me a question which I still haven’t answered, viz:

Why don’t the Tories seize the moment?  Why don’t they put Europe to a vote of the British people, then campaign for full independence, seeking to reclaim British sovereignty, free the country of smothering regulations, and re-ignite economic growth?  Has British democracy ceased to function?  If Cameron refuses to seize the moment, why doesn’t the party topple him?  Why doesn’t Hague–or someone–led a tidy insurrection, replacing him?

There are lots of possible answers to this, some optimistic, some pessimistic. But here’s one. It concerns one of the most charming, civilized and impossibly erudite men it has ever been my privilege to know: the late critic and man of letters John Gross.

If you’re unfamiliar with the life and letters of this remarkable chap – known, probably correctly, as “the best read man in Britain” – do glance at some of the heartfelt tributes he received on his death in January this year. They ranged from this one in the Wall Street Journal from Roger Kimball to this in the Guardian from Victoria Glendinning to this in the New York Times.

John’s memorial service was a starry affair – Martin Amis, Lord Weidenfeld, Barry Humphries, David Pryce-Jones, Lady Antonia Fraser – but what fascinated me most apart from its delightful electicism (operatic tenors; stage-female-impersonators; actors; hacks; authors…) was the discovery that a good 80 per cent of those present clearly had no idea whatsoever of John’s political leanings.

John was pro-Israel; violently anti Big Government and the Nanny State in all its manifestations; he hated political correctness; he despised “liberalism” (in the US sense of the word, though he would certainly have considered himself a classical liberal); he was conservative through and through.

Yet when intimations of these facts slipped out during the memorial service tributes, you could see the astonishment in – and indeed hear the gasps from – many of the actors and writers and critics he had worked with during his 60 year career. And you could almost read the thought bubbles over these literary and thespian bien-pensants’ heads: “How could such a nice man hold such repellant political views?”

But besides being famously nice John was famously not stupid. As he confided to me once in one of our many chats about politics (he knew his dirty secret was safe with me), “Britain is a socialist country” and, social chameleon that he was, John saw absolutely no point in courting unnecessary opprobrium by showing his true colors to those on the other side of the political divide.

Which is a long and roundabout way of saying that in Britain, Gramsci won the culture war decades ago. In academe, in journalism, in literature, in the theatre, in the visual arts, in the BBC-dominated broadcast media the default position is so unquestioningly, entrenchedly, knee-jerk left-wing that unless you are prepared to stick your neck out and make a career of being hated the only sensible path for those of a right-wing persuasion is to do as John did and spend your whole life keeping schtum.

Britain, in other words, is a country where red-blooded Conservatism – apart from a brief glorious period under Margaret Thatcher – just doesn’t get you very far.

David Cameron knows this. At least he thinks he knows it. Being much more of a politician than he is a conservative he will take whatever stance he considers necessary for staying in power. His calculations have told him that he can safely abandon those on the right because they have nowhere else to go and that the more he carries on like the Heir to [socialist-lite] Blair the better his chances of survival. And hey, his lack of principles haven’t worked so badly for him so far: for lookee who’s British Prime Minister at the moment.

I personally think he’s wrong and that even if Britain is instinctively soft-socialist the mood is shifting very rapidly in a way that will not be to Cameron’s benefit.

But that’s for another post another day.

  1. Fredösphere

    I can’t help but think that the squishy wet wing of the Conservative Party (or, for that matter, the neo-Stalinist wing of the Labor Party, etc. etc.) would have less power if y’all switched to a system of open primaries for choosing candidates for Parliament. In that system, a politician’s network of well-connected friends counts for nothing if he cannot connect with the voters. I suspect conservative voters in the UK experience much more hold-your-nose voting that we do in the US.

  2. Leigh

    Right on.

    John Derbyshire put it in 2003:

    There is essentially no conservative movement in [Britain, France, and Germany]…. There are no Second Amendment lobbies, no Club for Growth, no anti-abortion crusaders, no Christian Coalition, no Rush Limbaugh, no Sean Hannity. (I do not say these things don’t exist in Britain, France, or Germany. I do say that they have no political influence whatsoever.)

    Also, the dominant political mood since Blair came off his pedestal has been a kind of cynical apathy (greater than in the U.S.).  In over a decade there I don’t think I ever heard an ordinary British citizen say anything remotely positive or enthusiastic about the EU.  I also never heard anyone indicate that they thought they ought to do anything about their country giving up its sovereignty.

    That apathy seems to be turning into anger.  Who knows how that will turn out?

  3. David John

    Them tea-tipplers need a tea-party.

  4. James Of England
    Fredösphere: I can’t help but think that the squishy wet wing of the Conservative Party (or, for that matter, the neo-Stalinist wing of the Labor Party, etc. etc.) would have less power if y’all switched to a system of open primaries for choosing candidates for Parliament. In that system, a politician’s network of well-connected friends counts for nothing if he cannot connect with the voters. I suspect conservative voters in the UK experience much more hold-your-nose voting that we do in the US. · Nov 6 at 1:13pm

    I agree that primaries are vital, but campaign finance regulations are almost as important. Because of the lack of money in campaigns, we have no NRA, no Brady campaign (aside from government funded “charities”), no NARAL, no National Right To Life Committee, no NumbersUSA or Cato Institute. It is literally impossible to find out your MP’s view on many issues unless you’re  able to book an interview in person.

    Since the funding is by party rather than by individual, with state provided advertising slots, it is much harder to run on an individual platform.

  5. raycon and lindacon

    The parliamentary system is by definition party politics.  The individual MP matters far less than does his party’s success.

    America’s founders deliberately fashioned a system less party oriented, and indeed, many of the founders hoped to avoid political parties altogether.  We know the outcome of that desire.  At the moment, we here in America are following in the socialist footsteps of the UK.  I believe the current McRomney v. Cain race is the very definition of that movement.  The other candidates range from right to left across the spectrum, but anyone plying the middle ground will get rolled over by the parties, Republican and Democrat alike.

    To paraphrase the great Ronald Reagan, this is the time for choosing.  We haven’t yet committed to socialism, nor have we rejected it.  Cain / McRomney.  Time to choose.

  6. Mafuta Kizola

    Look at the bright side, at least the chance of a mention of ”Thatcher” spoiling your date are slightly lower than in Scotland.

  7. David Williamson

    Very true, although at the moment when I return to England I am struck by how much better the Government there is, compared to Mr Obama’s. It’a all relative.

    In my more pessimistic moments (usually after I read Mr Steyn) I can see the US going towards socialism while the Republicans look in vain for their next Reagan. In my more optimistic moments (usually when I spend some time outside the cities) I think that can’t possibly happen.

    I guess we will find out in 2012.

  8. James Gawron

    James, I regret to tell you that conservatism never gets you very far.  If you mean by getting far, mouthing ideological tautologies, never applying anything forcefully in the world, and then being rewarded for this spinelessness by a conspiracy of parasites, no conservatism won’t work.  In fact you must be a liberal for such a scheme to work.

    Maggie Thatcher was the anithesis of the scheme.  James you and England must channel Maggie Thatcher.  Hey wait a minute isn’t she still around?  Why James why don’t you go and ask her what England should do.

    As I recall when I had pestered my father with a long stream of questions and he had enough, he would look at me and say, “I don’t know the answer, why don’t you go ask someone who does!” 

  9. Larry Koler

    I was deeply disappointed to hear Mrs. Thatcher defend government control of health care and that she thought we Americans should get in step with such “progress”.

    What happened to people’s ability to think rationally on the issue of government controlled health care? This is more than a thin end of a wedge, more than a camel’s snout under the tent — it is easy for any thinking person to see that conservatives in the UK need to fight every instance of nationalistic fever. Mark Steyn claims that it is this “socialized medicine” that ends up running or affecting every debate in Parliament.

  10. Leigh
    David Williamson: Very true, although at the moment when I return to England I am struck by how much better the Government there is, compared to Mr Obama’s. It’a all relative.

    It certainly is. On the flip side, I can’t help but be struck by how much better the Republicans are than the Tories.  Really.  We have people in positions of influence who are willing to say and do things that no one comparable in Britain (or really Europe) will fight for.  We criticize Republican politicians a lot, and we should.  But sometimes I compare and am thankful.  We are still fighting battles that have mostly been given up elsewhere.

  11. Leigh
    David John: Them tea-tipplers need a tea-party. · Nov 6 at 2:47pm

    Agreed, but the theoretical “British Tea Party” would probably have to take its name and inspiration from some other historical event…

  12. tabula rasa

    James:  I’m so glad you’re with us.  I regularly read four terrific commentators on current British society:  Melanie Phillips, Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple), Roger Scruton, and David Pryce-Jones.  You’re now on my list (I hope you like the company).

    Nearly all my ancestors were English (with a touch of Welsh thrown in), and I’ve always been an Anglophile (love nineteenth century English literature and my great hero is Winston Churchill).  That’s why it hurts even me (who has never set foot in the land of my heritage) to see the UK fall deeper and deeper into the slough of despond that is welfare state.

    Thanks for keeping those of us who really care about the Anglosphere well-informed on what’s really happening.

  13. James Gawron
    Larry Koler: I was deeply disappointed to hear Mrs. Thatcher defend government control of health care and that she thought we Americans should get in step with such “progress”.

    Uh Oh.  The overmedication of the elderly is a problem in England too.  I hope someone wasn’t spiking Mrs. Thatcher’s punch.  Well James I must apologize, if I’ve steered you wrong.  Shakespeare’s seven ages of man should be checked on, especially the last one.

    Maybe we do need to channel Mrs. Thatcher, the real one, the one that wouldn’t give them the satisfaction on an issue like this.  Maybe like scrooge Cameron will go to sleep one night and the ghost of Thatcher & Reagan will appear.  If they cannot convince him then he shall get a visit from the ghost of the future England.  That will shock him back on course. 

  14. Anon

    Of course Britain is a socialist country, and so is the United States. The rules and regulations promulgated by unelected bureaucracies, the great number of non-tax paying workers, and generous social safety nets, are unambiguous evidence that we both are so.

    As for Gross’ perspectives, political and otherwise, the opening lines of the Sabatini novel Scarmouche fit him like a glove: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad”  It’s a survivalist’s perspective.

    RIP 

  15. David Williamson
    Leigh

     On the flip side, I can’t help but be struck by how much better the Republicans are than the Tories.  Really.  We have people in positions of influence who are willing to say and do things that no one comparable in Britain (or really Europe) will fight for.  

    Help me out here – who are these Republicans? Mr Ryan (not running for President). Mr Rubio (not running for President). Mr West (not running for President). I’m sure there are others; they just don’t spring to mind. 

    If there were impressive Republicans running for President, Mr Cain would be at 1% and Mr Romney would be at 2%.

    Impressive Tories? Mr Hannan (not running for Prime Minister). Mr Gove (education secretary). Mr Johnson (Mayor of London). Mrs Mensch (hot – oh, sorry, may be sexual harassment, and a violation of Ricochet CoC). And 111 more.

  16. Leigh
    David Williamson

    Help me out here – who are these Republicans? Mr Ryan (not running for President). Mr Rubio (not running for President). Mr West (not running for President). I’m sure there are others, they just don’t spring to mind. 

    Well, I did say “in positions of influence”, not “running for president”… 

    Paul Ryan is a good example; he for one makes arguments you simply don’t hear in mainstream British political discourse. Senator DeMint’s voice is worth something. And then there are governors — Scott Walker?  Bobby Jindal?  Or the Spartanburg County sheriff who urged his citizens to arm themselves in self-defense.

    Really, I’d take almost any Republican I can immediately think of over David Cameron, given the choice.  Including Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, and Olympia Snowe.  On issues such as gun control, government healthcare, abortion, gay marriage, and “global warming”, many — usually most — Republicans are still fighting on ground the British Conservatives have effectively surrendered (or, on some social issues, are fighting on the other side). 

  17. Leigh
    David Williamson

    Impressive Tories? Mr Hannan (not running for Prime Minister). Mr Gove (education secretary). Mr Johnson (Mayor of London). Mrs Mensch (hot – oh, sorry, may be sexual harassment, and a violation of Ricochet CoC). And 111 more. · Nov 6 at 8:07pm

    Edited on Nov 06 at 08:30 pm

    Agreed, but are these people more or less conservative than their US counterparts?  They’re dealing with a completely different set of issues.

    That reflects more on the overall political scene than on the individual people, but that was kind of my original point.

    Sort of off topic, what British leaders are overwhelmingly better at is debate.  About two minutes of William Hague in Parliament (even saying things he doesn’t believe about Europe) is enough to make one want to send the whole presidential field back to school to learn how to talk.

  18. Cal Lawton

    Oh James, you’re so cute — don’t you know Britain is a Muslim country?

  19. Larry Koler

    J of E: Churchill’s a more difficult person to predict — whether he would have done what Attlee and Bevan did in the post war period is very questionable. He spoke eloquently and often against socialism, calling it the “philosophy of envy.” Really, it was the rush to socialist ideas (and Communist influence) after WWI that caused him to leave the Liberals and go back to the Conservatives.

    But, I take your broader point that what he and Lloyd George started with the miners Health Act was the start of the welfare system. But, remember, that this was not based on a new idea of socialism so much as Churchill’s noblesse oblige. 

    Europe has this big problem with elites doing all the thinking about big ideas — and the rest just fall in line. We are lucky in this country that the commonest man wrestles with big ideas. Our Founding Fathers were so very prescient about not allowing foreign titles to be used here — this is how the elites of Europe co-opted people.

  20. Steve MacDonald

    James,

    Britain is Socialist and will remain so until an economic meltdown forces fundamental change. This may or may not happen. Complaint is useless; it is what it is. Those who think that the Govt. there is superior to that found in the USA, need to visit more places in the USA…….although I admit that the country as a whole is heading that way with reckless abandon.

    The one area where Britain has achieved unquestionable global superiority is in the quality of the London Cabbie. Every one knows every nook and cranny of the city, and after I don’t know how many fares – I have never been ripped off. However, a driver told me a few months ago that even this was changing – with Govt. trying to lower the standards of the exam to be more inclusive + upping the number of liscenses to ensure to one makes a quid.    

    As I have said previously, Go East Young Man, and return after la deluge.  

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