LONDON–I don’t know what it is exactly, but ever since I arrived here, I’ve had the sinking feeling that in England, the reasoned liberalism of, say, Bentham and Mill has given way roundly to the ideology of modern-day liberalism.
Sure, in some respects–in their preservation of certain customs, habits and manners–the British remain quite conservative. A walk through the financial district of the City of London reveals staid dress habits; a conversation with an elderly couple strolling through Hyde Park will touch on the ignoble lives of the members of the House of Windsor.
But when I consider the snippets of conversations heard on the streets and in the cafes, reflect on the articles in local periodicals, and view the content of television news and entertainment, another kind of society is revealed. Somewhere along the way, England seems to have rushed headlong into the world of animal rights, environmental activism, political correctness, and other liberal nostrums. I could be wrong, but barely a week into my English sojourn and I’ve already picked up troubling signs of widespread, left-wing nonsense in British public life.
For example: Taking bus No. 10 the other day to King’s Cross (where I am taking courses in journalism at a local university), I noticed a strange stone and bronze sculpture titled “Animals in War” at Brook Gate on the edge of Hyde Park. This 58-foot wide monstrosity, which cost British taxpayers £1.4 million (almost US$ 2.7 million!), was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and unveiled in November of 2004. The memorial is “a tribute to all the animals that served, suffered, and died in the wars and conflicts of the 20th century.”
Don’t get me wrong. I like dogs and horses as much as the next fellow. But this memorial not only seems a little silly, but it actually offends the sensibilities by implying that there is a kind of moral equivalence between human beings and animals. (Peter Singer, call your office!) Was this necessary or even appropriate? What hare-brained public official approved the disbursement of funds for this piece of political propaganda passing itself off as art?
And speaking of lame public officials in England, what is one to make of David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party? Pundits praise him as the fresh new face of British conservatism. (Even the eccentric, royalist and, at times, reactionary The Spectator, came out in his support.) But since assuming leadership of the Party in December of 2005, Cameron’s words and actions have not inspired much confidence among other traditionalist (read: Burkean) conservatives.
Formerly, as an MP for Witney, Cameron was as wishy-washy as you could get–giving mixed messages regarding smoking bans, the Iraq war, the environment, and gay rights. As a rising star within the Party, that was bad enough.
But now, as Conservative Party leader, Cameron has made high-profile efforts to try to make his “blue party” more appealing to young people and moderate voters. Cameron’s April visit to a Norwegian glacier, for example, accompanied by the World Wildlife Fund, was certainly a disappointment to traditional British conservatives who grimaced as Cameron later told the press: “Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing the world,” and that British voters should “vote blue but go green.”
In my own academic life, there are also troubling signs. Even though I am taking classes at a business-oriented university with long ties to the City of London’s financial institutions, already three of the four assigned readings for the first week have been either alarmist screeds about capitalism and globalization, or simplistic jeremiads against the role of the U.S. in foreign affairs (read: Iraq) or international environmental efforts (read: Kyoto).
And discussions in and out of class–whether with British students or fellow Americans–have also been characterized by, on the one hand, an offensively self-righteous attitude towards the U.S. in general, the G.O.P., and our current president, or, on the other hand, by angry criticism of mergers and acquisitions, derivatives, hedge funds, and practically every other innovative product that the financial markets–especially those in the U.S.–have given the world. The students furthering these arguments, I sadly remind myself, will be the financial journalists and foreign affairs editors of the future.
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I will be accused of using selective examples to build an (admittedly) weak case against England’s current social and political climate. Granted, these are but a few, minor examples–insufficiently analyzed–of things I have noticed while here for barely a week. But a dearth of examples does not refute my basic contention that Britain is now, well, Left.
A British sociologist taught me to collect data while walking through a city. There is data everywhere, she said–in sounds and smells, signposts, advertisements, and people’s clothes. I’ve tried to keep this in mind this week and, based on what I’ve observed, I cannot escape the feeling that this country and its people have been crippled–almost without their awareness–by modern-day liberalism. Watch the BBC and count the number of off-hand remarks made by program hosts about God, the Church, British history, and even Shakespeare. Go shopping at Tesco and notice that one of the most popular teas for sale is organic, “fair-trade certified,” and boasts a box covered with pictures of smiling children in developing countries.
No, this is not the England I dreamt of knowing. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the England eulogized by Roger Scruton, evoked by Anthony Daniels or criticized by Douglas Murray. I came in search of an England that was secure, strong and proud, but found one that is insecure, soft and weak; I wanted to learn of an English society that was ancient, principled and instinctively conservative, but found one that is postmodern, relativist and liberal. I suppose I will just have to look for the ghosts of England’s past in the nooks and crannies, shadowy passageways, and forgotten lanes of this magnificent city.
Alvino-Mario Fantini is Europe correspondent for Brainwash. He is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union.