This article ran as the "Capitol Ideas" column in the May 2008 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
"Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England."
-- Doctor Johnson to Boswell, 1763
I would update that by saying that there is nothing that an American in England looks forward to so much as the motorway that leads him to Heathrow. That would be the M25. But you have to worry whenever you take it because the traffic can be so bad that you may miss your flight. If you think freeway traffic is bad here, try the M25 on a bad day.
I go to England fairly often as I have family there -- a brother, two sisters, and my 95-year-old mother. Otherwise I doubt if I would go back. The first thing an American will notice is how expensive it is. Most things are double the U.S. price. Gasoline is three times higher -- now $10 a gallon. And still the roads are clogged. (All prices in this article have been converted to dollars at $2 to the pound.)
The country is far richer than it used to be, London is booming and one of the most expensive cities in the world. One reason is that Tony Blair, prime minister for ten years, knew better than to reverse Margaret Thatcher's key reform -- the reduction of tax rates on capital and income. The new (and still unelected) prime minister, Gordon Brown, seems to have less sense.
The March budget decreed that non-domiciled residents -- who are not taxed on their world-wide income (as they are in the U.S.) -- will be required to pay an annual tax or fee of $60,000 for that privilege. The Sunday Times raised the alarm. The new tax could be high enough to make the "non-doms" pack their bags and leave. It didn't take long. On the day I returned to the U.S. the Financial Times reported that the head of a London "buy-out firm" called Terra Firma was considering whether to "flee the country."
Another tax change: Under the Blair regime, tax rate on capital gains started at 40 percent but went down to 10 percent for assets held for four years. Now, that rate has been increased to 18 percent.
The London newspapers seem much improved. The Internet threatens the hacks' livelihood, so they are working harder. The Financial Times is no longer hostile to markets and is actually worth reading (if you don't mind forking over $3 for a copy). On non-doms, the associate editor of the Times, Anatole Kaletsky, relayed some much needed wisdom:
If Mr. Brown now argues that Britain's system of taxing foreigners must be reformed because it is an international anomaly, he had better acknowledge that Britain's international financial dominance is an unstable anomaly, too....Britain's unique tax system and its success as a financial center are two sides of the same coin.
The new Treasury Minister Alistair Darling -- like Gordon Brown and several other cabinet members he is Scottish; and for some reason Scotland receives far more per capita from the Treasury than England does -- has been hearing about other unintended consequences. Kaletsky added:
The Greek shipping industry is planning to move en masse back to Athens; pharmaceutical companies are preparing to shift expansion plans to Switzerland and New Jersey; aerospace engineers are moving back to France, Germany and Italy, and the museum world is facing demands for the return of artworks loaned by non-doms. Even Moscow is expected to benefit from the exodus as Russian businessmen wind down their offshore operations and de-list their companies from the London Stock Exchange.
If Gordon Brown continues yielding to pressure from the left, he probably won't win the next election. I would say he certainly won't, except that the Tories under their new leader David Cameron seem driven by a single idea: Do nothing to merit accusations of mean-spiritedness toward the poor. As an old Etonian, he is susceptible to such pressure. Lamely, the Conservatives have sought to reassure opinion leaders at the BBC and elsewhere that on no account will they do anything irresponsible, such as promising to cut taxes if they come to power. They will maintain social spending levels, too.
So the truth is that the forces of political competition in Britain have largely been neutralized -- by the Tories themselves.
THE SAME CULTURE WAR that is being waged in the United States is already much further advanced in Britain. Over there, the forces of resistance are negligible, so the cultural revolution has almost completely triumphed. Here there is still a real contest.
The ruling-class embrace of semi-capitalism has brought about the rise in prosperity, but this has been accompanied by mounting social chaos. One of the main indicators is the rise of family breakdown (or non-formation) and out-of-wedlock childbearing. The key enabler of this change has been the transfer of tens of billions of pounds to fatherless households. Only a society wealthy enough to collect and redistribute revenue on this scale can sustain widespread illegitimacy. Without the tolerance of wealth-creation, redistribution on this scale would not have been possible. Traditional families and moral standards were undermined in consequence.
Melanie Phillips, a Daily Mail columnist and a refugee from the left (formerly she was with the Guardian newspaper), wrote recently that the "overclass" has "deliberately and wickedly created over the years a legal and welfare engine of mass fatherlessness and child abandonment, resulting in a degraded and dependent underclass and a lengthening toll of human wreckage."
A couple of sensational crime stories were in the headlines when I was there, illuminating this "welfare engine of mass fatherlessness." The rot beneath the surface became conspicuous.
One involved a 15-year-old girl named Scarlett whose hippie mother had taken her to the drug infested beaches of Goa, a former Portuguese colony on the coast of India. The mother then headed off to other Indian beaches with her other children, leaving Scarlett behind. A few days later the young girl was raped and murdered on the Goan beach.
The amazing part of the story was that the mother had nine children by five men, lives in two trailers in Devon, and receives government "benefit" (welfare) for each child, adding up to about $50,000 a year. Having saved about $14,000, she was able to take eight of her children on a six-month holiday to India, and return, sadly, with seven of them.
The mother was shocked to find that the Goan police seemed to be protecting the guilty parties, but then (when the tabloids got hold of the story and ran with it) was even more shocked to find that, instead of being regarded sympathetically, a few residual bluenoses and moralists in England viewed her conduct with some opprobrium.
The second case involved a nine-year-old girl called Shannon who was reported missing by her mother and then found, 24 days later, hiding in the house of one of her numerous step relatives. She may have wanted to escape from the chaos at home, but one of her step-relations was charged with kidnapping. Shannon's mother, it turned out, had seven children by five different men. The shocking detail in her case was that she referred to Shannon and another of her children, born a year earlier, as "twins." She actually thought that they were twins because they had the same father.
The truth is that decades of intervention by social engineers who either do not understand the importance of fatherhood and family, or, more likely, think they ought to be undermined, is reducing British society to something barely recognizable.
As for Scarlett's mother, her "whole lifestyle has been one from which the words responsibility or judgment have been excluded," Melanie Phillips commented. People have been increasingly encouraged to think "they have an absolute right to live exactly as they want without anyone passing judgment on them." Further, "our deeply irresponsible overclass has put rocket fuel behind the exponential growth [of broken family life] through tax and welfare incentives."
TO DISCUSS THESE and related matters I had lunch one day with Peter Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist and in my view one of the best journalists in England. He is the younger brother of Christopher Hitchens and disagrees with him about almost everything. (His review of Christopher's anti-God book is available online along with many other excellent columns and articles.) We met at a small sandwich place off Kensington High Street.
The newspapers were saying that there are almost two million single mothers in Britain, while an additional three million people claim "incapacity benefit." They have become such a drain that the government is threatening to resort to a truly draconian measure: incapacity claimants may actually have to demonstrate that they are incapacitated. Hard hearted! The Guardian will no doubt launch a crusade asking why the government is picking on the handicapped.
Couples sometimes deliberately split up to receive welfare that tops market wages. One in five children grow up in households where one or both parents are paid for being out of work, even as workers pour in from Poland because so many jobs go unfilled. About $56 million in "child benefit" is now sent every year to Polish families who continue to live in Poland after the head of household moved to take a job in Britain.
Hitchens had some rough figures showing that almost all of the country's income-tax revenues are now consumed by these "social protection" transfers. The problem arose, he said, when a new law "allowed single mothers to go straight to the state" for support -- no questions asked. He thinks that the Conservatives will not try to do anything about it because they support no principle that can differentiate them from Labour on the issue.
He told me of an occasion in 2001 when Tony Blair gave a speech, urging that "no party should ever again attempt to lead this country by proposing to cut Britain's schools, hospitals, [or] public services. Never again a return to the agenda of the 1980s." Few journalists were on hand so Hitchens took the opportunity to ask Blair if he did not think it odd to be setting not just Labour's agenda but the Conservatives' as well. Not odd at all, Blair replied. It was essential.
Anyway, the Tories since then have obeyed Blair's edict.
"We may have had it," Peter Hitchens told me, reflecting on how things have deteriorated since 2001. "I think this country has more or less had it."
Government education is also falling apart, he said, and in ways that will sound all too familiar here. In Britain, 93 percent of children attend state schools. Some teachers face harassment, even physical attack by boys from broken homes. Often, teachers have to acquire the skills of social workers before they can teach anything. Amazingly, a new survey showed that 17 out of the top 20 schools in Britain, judged by exam results, are fee-paying. Further, almost all the best performing schools are single sex -- boys or girls, not co-ed.
The continuing egalitarian obsession has actually put the children of non-rich parents at a disadvantage greater than it was in the old days. When I was growing up in Britain, the state schools still worked well; the brighter students could advance to schools where they could get into Oxford or Cambridge and so on. Today these universities bend over backwards to admit as many state-educated students as possible, but the competition is so fierce that fully 50 percent of their places are now taken by students from the small minority of fee-paying schools.
Some effective state schools survive, but markets rule one way or the other. If you try to qualify your child for admission to one of these schools by moving nearby, you will probably pay in housing what you avoid in school fees. House prices in the "catchment areas" for these schools tend to be sky high. As for those fees, Winchester (second in the league tables) charges $53,000 a year. (Westminster is top, Eton third.)
Even the private schools, Hitchens said, have revolutionized instruction in some subjects. English history, for example, has been rewritten in ways that reflect the new determination to abolish Britain. The goal is the "overthrow of the past," and the removal "of rival or alternative moral and cultural forces and structures." That is how Hitchens put it in his excellent book The Abolition of Britain (available from Encounter Books). Pointing out that in 1967 the Reith Lectures (BBC) blamed most of society's problems on the traditional family, Hitchens has compared the ongoing revolution in Britain with Mao's "concentrated efforts to bury China's past." The British version may have been more effective, however, because undeclared, and achieved by democracy, stealth, and consent rather than tyranny and coercion.
Parliament, when I was in England, voted not to hold a referendum on the new European "constitution." So the people will not be able vote it down -- as happened in France and the Netherlands. Yet the Labour Party had won the 2005 general election on a manifesto promising such a referendum. A former French president described the background in these words: "Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly." That is what is happening.
THE UNDERLYING PROBLEM in England, I believe, is the decline in Christianity. It is a Europe-wide phenomenon. Churchgoing in Britain is dwindling away, both among Catholics and Protestants. Rome has contributed to this decline by appointing weak bishops, believing that this will bolster ecumenism (a substitute for conversion). Church schools are funded by the state. Recently the Catholic bishop of Lancaster stuck his neck out and said these schools weren't teaching proper Catholic doctrine; sex-ed amounted to "throwing condoms at children" increasing teen pregnancy, and so on. He was soon called to testify before a parliamentary committee whose chairman said:
"It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked."
He reminded us that "this is taxpayers' money."
That is exactly the outlook of the political classes, but normally it is left unspoken. Parliament can tolerate religion, even fund it, as long as people don't really believe it. The bishop spoke out only because parents pressed him, it appears, and I won't be surprised to learn that Rome reacts by urging the bishop not to jeopardize funding in future.
The decline of Christianity is something the intelligentsia has long sought, but the rise of Islam may be its most momentous consequence. And that is feared, not relished. Witness the Archbishop of Canterbury's lame gesture of appeasement, calling for the partial recognition of Sharia law. One faith is moving into the spiritual vacuum left by the other. These, perhaps, are the most important underlying forces at work in Britain today. And rising prosperity is probably the most important cause of Christian decline. People will not think much about the next life when they have so many opportunities to indulge their appetites in this.
One night, on the BBC, there was a touching film called "White Girl," apparently based on a true story. It showed one of these sad, broken families moving into public housing in a part of Bradford now controlled by Pakistani Muslims. (Bradford is a large northern town, once the center of the wool trade, and now one of the largest Islamic communities in Britain. I went there myself on a brief visit recently.)
The daughter of this chaotic family -- the "white girl" -- meets the neighbors and goes with them to the mosque. She tells her surprised mother: "When I pray it's like everything's not all bad and f***ed up, like somewhere there's a place that I feel safe." Muslim propaganda? Maybe. But also believable.
The great unanswered question is whether the welfare state that has so de-moralized family life in Britain will likewise undermine the Muslims. At present they seem to be flourishing. Peter Hitchens accepts that the Muslim rise and Christian decline are but the opposite poles of a single phenomenon. Possibly, the corrosive effects of welfare will undermine the Muslims as well. He described seeing young Muslim men tearing about in souped-up cars on his own visit to Bradford.
Possibly, also, the greater morale that Muslims now seem to enjoy will preserve their families intact. My impression is that their men have not yet been cuckolded by the state -- certainly not in the mosque, and perhaps not in the home either. It's hard to say. I don't know of any good reporting that has yet been done on these crucial developments in Britain.