The photographs on the jacket of Our Times provide a pointed reminder that the British past is not just another country but another continent.
The newly crowned Queen looks self-conscious yet confident in Cecil Beaton’s celebrated photograph of 1953, holding the scepter and orb of state in steady hands, her slender frame enveloped in ermine and brocade, on her head the crown of the monarchs of England, set there by the Archbishop of Canterbury during a rite harking back to King Edgar. Behind her is a receding prospect of fanes and flags, numinous light pouring through the medieval tracery to pick out the arches of Westminster Abbey studded with the banners of Britain’s hereditary peerage.
The photograph beneath shows the Queen in her 80’s—still elegant and dignified but wrinkled, weary, and wary-looking, haunted, perhaps, by what Britain has become while she looked on, nominally in charge but actually almost helpless.
Our Times is the concluding part of a trilogy, following The Victorians (2002) and After the Victorians (2005). It is an entertaining, evenhanded, unsentimental, usually compelling popular history that combines solid research and skillful storytelling with apropos anecdotes, catty animadversions, and some audacious assertions.
The Coronation, with its near-mystical mélange of young woman and redolent racial symbols, inspired polemics about how splendiferous things would be under Good Queen Bess the Second. The preeminent example of this short-lived genre, Philip Gibbs’ New Elizabethans (1953), expresses the view that the Hakluyts, Drakes, and Shakespeares of the future were even then being born in hygienic hospitals, educated in new, comprehensive schools with big windows to let in the light of truth, and employed for life in state-of-the-art factories. Nothing, Gibbs and others intimated, could prevent a new Anglo-Saxon Protestant upsurge of innovation and derring-do. Instead, as Wilson notes, Elizabeth’s reign has been the one “in which Britain effectively stopped being British.”
He cites multifarious causes and effects—mass immigration, loss of religious faith, neglect of traditions, a decline in deference, the European Union, “tinkering with the constitution,” globalization, family breakdown, “worship of things and products,” devolution, and “the virtual dissolution” of the Church of England. A pivotal political development was the Suez debacle of 1956, when the United Kingdom’s powerlessness vis-à-vis the United States was made shockingly plain.
Wilson sees the Britain of 1953 as an “awful place” in many ways and acknowledges subsequent improvements in technology, medicine, personal freedom, wealth, and choice. But he rues the profounder, subtler changes—“For T.S. Eliot, we had Andrew Motion; for Winston Churchill, we had Jacqui Smith.”
Our Times commences with an ingenious discussion of The Lord of the Rings, with Tolkien’s great vistas of passing grandeur colliding with a new literature of “perky, cheeky chappies” like Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and John Braine. This new literature stemmed from the fact that, somehow, many Britons had simply stopped believing in the moral worth of their civilization and country. All institutions, traditions, and conventions had become attainted or ludicrous. The growing influence of Foucault and his followers was accompanied by a bombardment of criticism and ridicule, emanating from Royal Commissions as much as Monty Python. Aristocracy, aesthetics, patriotism, conservatism, even old buildings—all were exposed as mere prejudices, and prejudices had caused history’s wars, persecuted inoffensive homosexuals, and kept women in the kitchen. Even those bastions supposed to be most supportive of “tribal magic” were overthrown by a mood of sullenness mixed with satire. Arthur Ramsey, the archbishop of Canterbury who, as bishop of Durham, had stood beside the young Queen as she intoned her oaths into the enchanted hush of the abbey, said after his retirement, “I hate the Church of England . . . it would not be a grief to me to wake up and find that the English establishment was no more.”
But the die had been cast long before 1953, as scientific determinism and “open society” ideologies edged out faith and custom. There is a certain shambling inevitability about Wilson’s unfolding narrative of politicians, economists, academics, cultural arbiters, and technocrats—many intelligent, many sincere—slouching toward Gomorrah more or less at the mercy of what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events.” None was ever fully in command, or realized what was happening, even after it had happened. Wilson concludes, “Attempts to draw up an order of prime ministerial incompetence during the period . . . would be invidious.” Even Churchill did nothing; he was typified in his redundancy by his 1954 decision that, although it mattered hugely, it was “too soon” to take action on immigration. But he had at least been a great man, whereas Eden was merely “the only male British Prime Minister known to have varnished his fingernails . . . and the best-looking person of either sex to occupy that office during our period.” Wilson heaps up whole Alps of bitchy and scornful commentary and aside. Liberalizing home secretary Roy Jenkins was “puffed-up, pompous and vacuous.” The “stubborn and weirdly disengaged” Heath’s chancellor Anthony Barber reminds Wilson of “a man playing the vicar in a suburban amateur dramatics society.” Lord Mountbatten was “an elderly popinjay, with his offensively arrogant manners and his fondness for naval ratings.” Wilson even accuses Mountbatten of allowing a million people to die during India’s partition because he was more interested in attending the Queen’s wedding than in attending to his viceregal responsibilities. It is passing strange that there should have been such mismanagement during the era that saw the arrival of the career politician.
Wilson exonerates the Queen of blame, although he feels she could have exerted influence in relation to the Church of England and the ennoblement of “scoundrels” by prime ministers. He hopes for more political courage from the Prince of Wales, almost the only person for whom Wilson has no barbed remark.
Wilson is excellent in describing how churches emptied, communities came apart, and crime skyrocketed because too few people in authority felt sure enough to make a stand, and those who did (and do) were (and are) undermined by others in authority, and by “events.” This disintegration has had a massive psychic effect on Great Britain. Our prosperity has always had an aftertaste of angst; Wilson likens today’s Britain to a banquet during which a sudden silence descends, giving diners the dyspeptic feeling that all is not well.
Intuiting this, recent governments have tried clumsily to promote new “values” derived from the philosophies à la mode—secularism, human rights, classlessness, internationalism, and relativism. They have also tried, halfheartedly, to control the more exuberant manifestations of social alienation—the muggings, drive-by shootings, and race riots of the inner cities, and, more recently, terrorist acts emanating not from Helmand madrasas but Yorkshire schools. When these proved largely intractable, the authorities turned their attention to the middle classes’ smoking, drinking, eating, and driving habits, or gun ownership, or white-collar crime, or “offensive” sentiments. The period under discussion has accordingly seen the rise in Britain of anarcho-tyranny—the bipolar state as incompetent as it is intrusive.
Wilson is highly respected for his knowledge of 19th-century literature, but rather laughed at for his highly public theological tergiversations (Anglican ordinand, Roman Catholic, Anglican, atheist, and, as of April last year, Anglican) and feuds (in his new book, he renews an old grudge against his literary rival Bevis Hillier). He often writes for effect in Our Times—and sometimes misfires. For example, he compares the launch of the First Crusade in 1095 with—drum roll—Keith Joseph speaking on monetarism to Preston Conservatives. There is evidence of hastiness. Wilson writes “diffusing” when he means “defusing” and “disciplines” for “disciples.” He alludes to “the greatest historian of Berlin” without vouchsafing his identity, and once puts “married clergy” when he means “celibate clergy.”
Serious cavils include stating that intelligence agencies precipitated the Iraq war, whereas As Any Fule Kno it had more to do with politicians who wished the world to conform to their postmodern pattern book. He finds Blair “essentially conservative,” and even compares him with Burke for reforming rather than revolutionizing the House of Lords. He has a camp fixation with Princess Diana—whom he considers also “essentially conservative” for her role in “democratizing” the monarchy. After acknowledging that mass immigration has been, and will probably continue to be, problematic, he claims that Enoch Powell was motivated mostly by “the desire to cut a dash,” that his plans to stop immigration would have been “cruel and brutal,” and even implies that Powell was deranged. It seems ungracious so to dismiss one of the very few politicians of the period who really wanted to do something for his country (although, as we know, he never did). And of course, like most conservatives, Wilson is much more interested in describing than prescribing; there are no positive suggestions as to how we might even yet recover from the bumbling leechcraft that has brought a self-confident nation-state to teeter on the cusp of dissolution.
Our Times will be of considerable utility to anyone seeking to gain a rounded view of the past 50 years in Britain, and to understand how, through mistakes more than malice, Britain has arrived in such strange and disconcerting circumstances. A half-century hence, the book will be an interesting period piece for the inconceivable country of 2060, a record of how early-21st-century people of taste reacted to decades of quietly revolutionary events—reacted, but failed ever to respond.
[Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, by A.N. Wilson (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 496 pp., $30.00]