‘Our societies have been sustained by the silent majority and by the institutional structures that survived from a more self-confident past. Now these structures too are falling apart’
Sometimes the best new ideas are actually quite old. Last May, Standpoint was launched: a monthly transatlantic magazine dedicated to defending and celebrating Western civilisation. What could be less of a novelty than Western civilisation? The Guardian denounced us, the BBC tried to ignore us and even those who welcomed us were sceptical that such a highbrow title could survive on the newsstand. That was before the recession began to bite.
A year later, however, we are flourishing. Why? The answer is that Western civilisation is still threatened, perhaps more so today than ever before. The external threats are more visible – Somali pirates, Islamist terrorists, nuclear-armed rogue states – but the internal ones are at least as dangerous. Along with a collapse in confidence in the free-market economy is a more insidious disintegration of Western values, traditions and beliefs. The intellectual and political elites have enthusiastically connived in this process, blaming the West for all the world’s ills. Those who should be the secular priests of our civilisation have long since lost their faith in everything it stands for – they are “hollow men”, in Eliot’s resonant phrase – but our societies have been sustained by the silent majority and by the institutional structures that survived from a more self-confident past. Now these structures too are falling apart and the no longer silent majority realises that it has been betrayed by its leaders.
So where do we go from here? Back to a politics that reaffirms values rooted in classical, Judaeo-Christian and Enlightenment thought. We need a nation state, proud of its identity and history, independent and sovereign, free and democratic, living under the rule of law and capable of protecting its way of life. We need limited government, lower taxes, fewer subsidies and a smaller state: not just because these things are good in themselves, but because the ever more absolute power now concentrated in the hands of our elite is corrupting them. The gentleman in Whitehall never did know best. And his boss isn’t much of a gentleman at all.
We also need to inculcate a sense of belonging, especially among those who have come to live among us. We cannot do that until we stop apologising and start listening to voices such as those of Lionel Shriver and David Coleman in this month’s Dialogue, who urge our rulers not to make us strangers in our own homelands.
The global recession appears to have induced a collective loss of nerve: the prosperity generated by free economies is now a cause for yet more self-flagellation. Fairness is essential, but only in the sense of fair play, of playing by the rules. There is nothing fair about enforced equality of outcome. In order to make extremes of poverty in our midst unacceptable, we must make extremes of wealth acceptable again.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the free world are failing to deter the tyrants. Here, to take just one example of many, is what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran had to say on 15 April in response to President Obama’s policy of the “unclenched fist”: “You [the West] yourselves know that you are today in a position of weakness. Your hands are empty…” How else should a despot interpret the abject failure of the West to stand up for its values, its interests and its friends – never mind the victims of persecution?
Britain could be playing an important part in stiffening resistance to the dictators, as it did after Margaret Thatcher came to office 30 years ago. Then, as now, the economy was in free-fall. But then, too, the trade unions made it all but impossible to administer the necessary medicine, as Nigel Lawson recalls in this issue. That did not prevent her from defying conventional realpolitik and encouraging Ronald Reagan to resist the Soviet Union. The Falklands War seemed even more hazardous, but it proved by deeds as well as words that the British worm had finally turned. Having defeated syndicalism at home and communism abroad, Mrs Thatcher helped to persuade President George H.W. Bush to win the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, the first time that the US had directly confronted a dictator since Vietnam. Just as in the two world wars, Britain proved that it could make a difference: indeed, all the difference.