2001 June/Bishop Williamson Letter

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

Prodded by a venerable American priest who admires the Society of St. Pius X but finds it rather anti-American, I just read a recently appeared book castigating my own country: “The Abolition of Britain” by Peter Hitchens. To console Fr. Pablo, and to take the heat for at least one month off the dear United States of America, let us take a good look at Hitchens’ devastating criticism of modern Britain. But then to console and enlighten Catholics, especially in England, let us see how his perspective on our poor country needs to be corrected and completed by a Catholic understanding of History. For I love my homeland as none of us can love any other, and I love the U.S.A. as the land where Providence has brought me to work, but I measure both countries by Catholicism, and not the reverse.

A journalist from Oxford, Peter Hitchens has not only the good reporter’s familiarity with the contemporary scene, but also a deep and patriotic sense of the last three centuries of British history, enough to give him a clear view of the degradation of that scene. His book has been a surprise best-seller in Britain, no doubt because it gives voice to the deep concern of many Britons at the turn our country is taking. As Hitchens sees it, “A great civilization, whose greatest possession is liberty, is on the edge of extinction and we have very little time to save it” (p. Xl).

In this respect a decisive event for Hitchens was the 1997 General Election in Britain which brought to power the Labour Party with Tony Blair at their head, much as the USA 1992 election brought in the Democrats and Clinton. Of that 1997 Election Hitchens says that it was “a historic choice between two utterly different ideas of Britain, a choice that had little to do with economics and even politics, and everything to do with what kind of people we are” (Hitchens’s italics). In other words, that election was merely the political manifestation of the cultural sea-change of modern times. In place of the old Britain’s crumbling patriotism, faith, morality and literature, came the new Britain personified by Tony Blair, whom Hitchens quotes as saying about himself, “I am a modern man. I am part of the rock and roll generation-the Beatles, colour TV, that’s the generation I come from” (p.1).

That is why, after the introduction devoted to Tony Blair (“A Modern Man”), nearly all of Hitchens’ book deals with cultural issues: the re-writing of British history-books, education, the countryside, the (Anglican) Church, television, satire, unwed mothers, the debasement of language, family and divorce, pornography, soap operas, contraception, homosexuality, the death penalty and the turn to Europe. Hitchens’ conclusion is named “Chainsaw Massacre” after the American film, to suggest how the new Britons have, as it were, taken chainsaws to cut down the entire forest of noble trees that made up the old Britain.

However, Hitchens is rather more anxious for the future than he is nostalgic for the past, so he is angry at the present degradation of Britain with a sharpness giving rise to hundreds of quotable quotes. Alas, there is room here for only a handful of them:-On the 1997 election: “The two Britains which faced each other…were utterly alien to one another and unfairly matched. One was old and dying, treasuring values and ideas which stretched back into a misty past. One was new and hardly born, clinging just as fiercely to its new values of classlessness, anti-racism, sexual inclusiveness and licence, contempt for the nation-state, dislike of deference, scorn for restraint and incomprehension for the web of traditions and prejudices which were revered by the other side”.

The English countryside, source of national identity and consolation, “has largely disappeared, digested by urban sprawl, leveled by new roads… English rural, urban and suburban life has been strangely denatured. People live in places, but are not of them. Communal activities… have died away. Front gardens… are increasingly concreted over and turned into car parks”.

Children between two and three, watching up to 18 hours of TV a week with little to no adult supervision, have been “abandoned in a way only the late 20th century could invent… it is frightening to think what kind of adolescents, what kind of adults, they will become and almost unbearable to imagine what kind of parents they will be” (my italics). On television: “In this medium, a conservative message will always look foolish” (like a grandfather in a T-shirt).

On the “millennium generation”, shown by a November 1998 survey to be less Conservative than ever: “This does not record a mere change in political loyalty, which is not specially important in itself. It shows that, for the first time this century, the young are not inheriting prejudices, opinions, values, morals and habits from their parents. The continuity that once ensured that most people followed their parents in such things, has been broken. The post revolutionary generation, whose families have often disintegrated and are usually weak, whose schools do not uphold authority or tradition, whose religious experience and understanding often do not exist, has also grown up with several immensely strong outside influences, all of them radical enemies of existing culture. The same generation has had little chance to develop its own critical, personal imagination through reading, and so has been a blank page on which the revolutionaries have been able to scrawl their own slogans”.

On a country which ploughs under its own culture without violence or open suppression: “The objects of attack are unaware that they are under attack, and there are no martyrs or persecution to bring resistance into being”. Elsewhere: “What an achievement -the power of totalitarianism without the need to imprison, torture or exile”. On State “protection” of the unmarried: “It is in fact a theft of privileges from the married”. On modern old age: “The old have become unpersons, long before they die”. On modern youngmen: “They failed to grow up because they no longer needed to. The old disciplines of marriage, fatherhood and work had gone”.

These quotes and many others demonstrate Hitchens’ admirable grasp of the symptoms of the new Britain’s malady. A number of American readers may recognize the same symptoms in the U.S.A., but let anyone who thinks I am anti-American believe that I am delighted for a change to point them out in my own country. The problem is international. However, in Great Britain, what are Peter Hitchens’ diagnosis and proposals for a cure? By way of diagnosis, he says two profound things, each in several places in his book, but neither is profound enough to give him, apparently, any idea of a cure.

Firstly, he says that the leaders of the old Britain had ceased to believe in the old values, and this was why the new Britain has swept all before it: “On almost all fronts there has been no coherent, organized resistance to the cultural revolution. The other side has lost its nerve, and no longer really believes in itself” (my italics). On the death penalty: “Once again… the reactionaries lost because they did not really believe in their case”. But the deeper question, why the old leaders ceased to believe in the old values, Hitchens does not ask, let alone answer. He merely quotes a key Labour politician from the 1960’s declaring, more or less, that the old values are “puritanical restriction, petty-minded disapproval, hypocrisy and a dreary, ugly pattern of life”. Where the purpose of discipline is lost, pleasure is always there to take over. But why was the old purpose lost?

The second profound truth that Hitchens tells concerning today’s cultural radicals is that they are the distant but direct descendants of England’s religious radicals of the 17th century, the Puritans. He says that Britain’s cultural revolution of the last 30 years represents “a long-buried radical strain” in England climbing out of its tomb and finishing “a revolution which first threatened this country during England’s Civil War (1640’s), was defeated by the royalist Restoration (1660) and headed off by the historic compromise of 1688 (the “Glorious Whig Revolution”). It rose again in the aftermath of the French and American Revolutions but was defeated by Church, King, law, patriotism and tradition”, those noble trees that the revolutionaries are at last cutting down.

But, Mr. Hitchens, that Whig Revolution of 1688 which you glorify as the basis of three glorious British centuries, was, more than half, the achievement of the same radicals you hate! You have no cure for new Britain’s poisoning because you more than half believe in swallowing the poison yourself! Take your diagnosis one century further back! For where do you think those Puritans came from? You think the Reformation rendered England a service by cutting her off from all those unhappy and unreliable peoples on the European continent. But Protestantism so split Catholic England that Elizabeth I, to stamp out Catholicism, established the semi-Catholic Anglican Church, which the pure Protestants, or Puritans, naturally found too Catholic by half. Hence the Civil War of the 1640’s. But Cromwell’s triumph in turn caused the anti-Puritan reaction of the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, which, when King James II converted to Catholicism, had to be again de-throned by the Puritans mutated into Whigs, in their so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (compare the Puritans of America’s New England mutating into rationalists and materialists).

Thus Hitchens is right that today’s cultural revolution is the final triumph of a centuries-old crusade to cut down everything noble in England. He is right that 1688 still partly embodied that nobility, which sort of lasted for another 300 years. He is right that its believers have finally lost belief in it, that Whiggery is at last dead. Where he is wrong, what he cannot see, is that Whigs were semi-revolutionaries from the very beginning, who sooner or later were bound to have no way of standing up to full-blooded revolutionaries. And that is why Peter Hitchens has no remedy for Tony Blair, who is presently polled to win Britain’s up-coming General Election.

Who does have a remedy? Only that Church which England abandoned at the Reformation, the Catholic Church, and not as semi-revolutionized by Vatican II! And this Church can only be presented to men in her full saving force by Catholics whose minds and hearts are not contaminated by Whiggery, nor half-seduced by the modern world. Dear readers, let us lead Catholic, and not semi-Catholic, lives, despite all our surroundings, so that the Whigs and radicals around us are bound to see the only answer to all of their real problems. And let us ask the Mother of God, for her month of May, to obtain mercy for the remains of what was once her dowry, dear England.