The Decline of Britain: An International Tragedy

I urge everyone to read this transcript of a heartbreaking lecture given recently at Hillsdale College by Anthony Daniels, better known by his stodgy nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.

A retired physician and psychiatrist, Daniels reflects on his time working in an inner-city prison and hospital in England. He weaves together, in a single lecture, all the persistent themes of his writing: that Britain is a wrecked society, in an advanced state of moral and social decay; that this decay is a top-down phenomenon, precipitated by a mad political and academic elite; that the replacement of civil society with an all-powerful managerial state has left people incapable of functioning as free individuals; etc.

We are treated to tragic anecdotes such as the following, which describes Daniels’s frequent interaction with the British underclass:

In the course of my duties, I would often go to patients’ homes. Everyone lived in households with a shifting cast of members, rather than in families. If there was an adult male resident, he was generally a bird of passage with a residence of his own somewhere else. He came and went as his fancy took him. To ask a child who his father was had become an almost indelicate question. Sometimes the child would reply, “Do you mean my father at the moment?” Others would simply shake their heads, being unwilling to talk about the monster who had begot them and whom they wished at all costs to forget.

And:

By a mixture of ideology and fiscal and social policies, the family has been systematically fractured and destroyed in England, at least in the lowest part of the society that, unfortunately, needs family solidarity the most.

Daniels is among the most able chroniclers of British decline. (He is, I believe, surpassed only by Peter Hitchens, who now describes himself as an “obituarist” of his own country.) Perceptive readers will notice that Daniels’s diagnosis applies to the United States as well. In my estimation, the U.S. is about ten years or so behind Britain in these social pathologies.

The parallels, stated very broadly, are these: the toxic blend of self-pity and self-worship that now defines our youth, particularly the underclass; an arrogant, sheltered intellectual class that despises those for whom it claims to speak; an increasingly chaotic and fractionalized society that can only be held together by an increasingly powerful government; the erosion of the rule of law and its replacement with emotional identity politics; etc.

Most people don’t realize how far gone Britain is. The average American, I’m sad to say, still believes that England is a land of tea and manners. Their knowledge of that society is confined to what they see on Downton Abbey and other mass-market offerings. The royal family grins at them from the covers of supermarket tabloids and all seems well in merry old England.

The fault isn’t entirely theirs. While British newspapers cover American affairs assiduously, it is possible to thumb through the New York Times or the Washington Post for a week straight without reading even one substantive story on U.K. politics. British commentators are constantly chiming in on the U.S.—The Daily Telegraph, for which I’ve written, has a cast of columnists and bloggers well versed in American goings-on—while most American pundits know very nearly nothing of British politics. I cannot think of one prominent American columnist who writes consistently about Britain.

It’s difficult for me to articulate how sad I think this is. Britain is one of the most amazing societies in human history. It has bequeathed us traditions of law, politics, and culture whose importance we aren’t likely to overstate. To see it reduced to its present condition is a bit like watching an articulate relative succumb to dementia before your eyes. You know that behind the sad, decrepit features was once a blazing intellect. And you know that you will never get it back.

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