Part of me feels that those who have helped to bring the country down — venal politicians, false educators, degraders of the media, thieving privatisers of the public domain — need to be fought to a standstill, here on this battlefield, by those with the energy, strength and clarity of mind to do so. For no one wants to believe that the country of his birth, language, upbringing and way of thinking cannot be redeemed.
But the thousands, and tens of thousands, leaving Britain — another million and more will be gone in the next five years, the largest category of them the young, the skilled, the professional — are not wrong. The country’s dilapidation has gone too far. Britain has been impoverished by the mismanagement of the national economy, the running down of manufacturing, and the voraciousness of free-market ethics.
‘Greed is good’, said the Daily Telegraph in October 2006. ‘Without the City’s enterprise, ambition and, yes, greed, the country would be considerably worse off’, its editorial declared. Today, too late, we have learned that such crudity does not serve.
Now, Britain has passed out of the hands — one hopes forever — of ‘New Labour’, the party’s grand Nonconformist moral inheritance ravaged by Blairism and Mandelsonisation. But what is the overarching ‘New Conservative’ project? Mr Cameron has declared it to be the creation of a ‘big society with big citizens’. There has been no idea so vacuous in the history of political thought. It cannot check the strides of those heading for the doors.
Yet is it not ‘treason’, as vox pop sometimes asserts, to leave this unholy mess behind? It might be considered so, if there had remained a nation towards which to feel patriotic. It might be treason to leave if there was a real nation to betray. In the era of the ‘global market’, with its flux of capital, goods and labour, there isn’t. And most, whether they are staying, leaving, or merely thinking of going, know it. British citizenship signifies less today than at any time in its history.
And what history? How much knowledge of it is being transmitted in Britain’s failing schools? ‘The past, once destroyed,’ said Simone Weil, ‘never returns. Its destruction is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.’ That crime, an unpardonable crime, has been committed here.
Britain is also an increasingly tough place for young people, let down by the education system, harmed by familial breakdown, with shrinking opportunity and an infernal housing situation. But it is not a happy land in which to grow old either. In 1927, André Maurois wrote that ‘in all countries old age is a virtue in a public man, but especially in England’. Can that be said now? Of course not.
Britain’s way of life, like the way of life of all nations, was an organic and particular creation. It had its own ecology, as does the natural world. But in the last few decades, and at accelerating pace, a great unravelling has taken place in Britain, a free country degraded by its freedoms. And ‘business as usual’ will serve the British national interest no more than Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers have served the world economy, or BP’s practices have served the people of Louisiana and Florida. The difference between freedom and licence has been unlearned.
The country’s broadly shared values rested, among other things, on convention, on common law and custom, on a sense of community despite social inequality, on respect for public service and on a belief in the work ethic. They have not survived the self-degrading moral and market free-for-all which has been unleashed upon the land. It has reduced the citizen to a mere customer and consumer, and has invited so many free-loaders — from duck-house parliamentary cheats to fiddlers of the welfare system, indigenous and incomers alike — to take liberties with this battered country rather than to fulfil their obligations to it.
Moreover, the truth about these matters is not in the exclusive possession of either left or right, but lies between them: you cannot strengthen ‘social cohesion’ while privatising public institutions which hold civil society together, or by slashing public provision in order to pay for the harms caused to the polity and the economy by unbridled private interest.
As for the corrupted House of Commons, it no longer possesses the moral authority to lay down the law for others. Many, including leading figures in the new government, should have been driven from public life. For fraud and theft? No. For striking an irreparable blow at Britain’s vulnerable democratic system. In May, Jack Straw told the Times of his ‘relief’ that the ‘poisonous depression of the expenses scandal’ was now ‘in the past’. In the past? It is of the present, and its impact will be long-lasting. But his is the type of insouciance, or disconnectedness from public sentiment, which has helped to wreck the reputation of parliament.
Now the country has been promised a ‘smaller state’, ‘less regulation’, more personal ‘choice’ and the rest of the free market fandango. But it is not a politics capable of restoring Britain to itself, not capable of rescuing it from further dissolution.
For the greater the scope of unregulated moral freedom, of laissez-faire, and of individual rights, the greater the need to manage the chaotic outcomes of their abuse. It applies as much to the City as to the streets. This is a philosophical not a party point. Burke knew it. ‘Liberty,’ he declared in 1774, ‘cannot exist without order and virtue.’ But, today, the concept of order offends the libertarian, while the concept of virtue offends the ‘non-judgmentalist’ and the ‘anti-moraliser’.
In a country that does not know what it once was, or where it is going next, the re-branded and ‘modernised’ mainstream parties — which once represented values as well as interests — have also lost their way (and their memberships) on the ‘centre ground’; Labour no longer represents labour, Conservatives do not wish to conserve, and Liberal Democrats appear to have no principles at all. The parties have become indistinct, inviting the advance of extremism. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is a moral void too.
Yet it is not anger which marks the national mood but a confused dismay at the country’s coarsened, directionless condition. Although I say it with regret, it is therefore better to go, if you can. Moreover, those who overvalue Britain’s significance and present reputation, and disparage other nations, are making an embarrassing mistake. There is no utopia on earth, and other free and too-free societies are not in good shape. But few have squandered their inheritance as rapidly as Britain, few have been so self-harming.
Those who have the talent and stamina carefully to record, and to analyse, the travails of this country in philosophical spirit, as a warning to future generations of how the work of ages can be so swiftly undone, might well stay. But if you would live and die somewhat happier than you can here, and if you have the possibility of springing the trap, then I would say to you — after much thought, and some doubt as to whether it should be said at all — ‘Leave!’
David Selbourne is a political philosopher and theorist. This article is an edited version of his speech for a Spectator debate on the motion, ‘Too late to save Britain. It’s time to leave.’