Sir Roy Strong, writing in his new book, The Spirit of Britain, complains that the "English have an identity crisis. Whereas in the 18th century, everyone cohered to create something with which all could identify, now we are more concerned with accommodating a lot of minorities." Paul Johnson has spoken recently of a "countryside stricken, starved and angry . . . a feeling in many villages and farms that they were under enemy occupation", of how urban radicals had focused their hatred on rural activities "which represent to them upper-class privilege . . . to be consigned to the dustbin of history". Ralf Dahrendorf, asking "what ever happened to liberty?" in a recent issue of the NS (6 September), notes the word's curious absence in the rhetoric of the Blair-Schroder Third Way project, with its authoritarian emphasis on compulsion. He remarked on the Blair government's insistence, through mandatory withdrawal of benefits, on attempting to coerce people into working, on its use of Singaporean-style nomenklatura and its compulsory savings policy.
These strictures are not isolated but widespread and growing. Their equivalents in Germany have resulted in a significant fall in support for the ruling SPD. The disaffected British, meanwhile, now lead the Americans in consumer complaints. They grapple with the problem of a disenfranchised underclass, sprung from an alienated and ill-educated generation, further scarred by huge increases in pre-teenage pregnancies. And they are subjected to increasingly infantile television, radio and newspapers, condemned by their own practitioners. Only recently, for example, Radio 4 chose to define the entire British aerial campaign against Germany with a six-hour description of an imaginary 600-bomber raid, to whose hideous failure an excess of former public-school boys as pilots made its contribution.
These are, in short, barren times, and in Peter Hitchens, a former Trotskyist-turned-Tory polemicist, they have found their ideal chronicler. That The Abolition of Britain has been disparaged by Gerald Kaufman and the egregious Polly Toynbee is to his credit. It is certainly difficult to disagree with him that many people in Britain sense the emergence of a "new dark age in which chaos and violence creep upon the middle class"; difficult not to think of what might have been "had we not trashed our culture, forgotten our history, abandoned our civility and abolished family life" under both Labour and Thatcherite governments.
And it is difficult to contradict Hitchens's belief that a great nation seems almost to have vanished, its traditions mocked and enfeebled. Most of its people, indifferent to impending dishonour in Ulster, are either ashamed or ignorant of their heroic past - their poets forgotten, Christianity neglected, the language itself abused, towns and villages unpoliced, the institutions savaged as "racist", the monarchy derided, our transport, health and education systems ludicrously inappropriate to the scale of the island.
What is more, our beloved landscape has been hacked and torn by incompetent planners for financial gain. So Britain drifts sightlessly - with a controlled second chamber - into George Orwell's Airship One, part of a European superstate unable even to decide its own economic, military or political policies. De Gaulle once rejected our application to join the European Economic Community because "an England which joined the Community would no longer be England and therefore would have no value to that Community". The general's comment is worth remark.
Hitchens, in this clear and uninhibited work, reminds us of the tyranny of the "new" and reminds me personally of these cherished lines from Dryden: "All, all of a piece throughout;/Thy chase had a beast in view;/Thy wars brought nothing about;/Thy lovers were all untrue./'Tis well an old age is out,/And time to begin a new."
John Colvin is a military historian and a former British ambassador