George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton

Moderation Nation: Why Hitler Couldn’t be British and The Solidarity of Stupidity

Introduction of Death By Civilisation

'The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.' Ralph Waldo Emerson

Moderation Nation
Britain is a nation of moderates. We have never had a true revolution. Not a proper one. A revolution is a furious multitude of the great unwashed storming the palace of the rich and powerful, or throwing secret police files from the rooftops of Stasi Headquarters. It’s sudden, violent and dramatic. This is not the British way. We’ve had a few civil wars. The Wars of the Roses were mainly toffs and barons charging at each other with private armies. The English Civil War was exactly that: Civil. There were brutal battles, but at the end, the King was not cap- tured, and lynched by an angry mob. He was politely decapitated in Whitehall – famously allowed to wear two shirts to stop his shivering looking like nerves. How British to be deferential and nice to the King, even when you’re about to cut off his head. This great decapitation was done by an act of Parliament, of course, which made it all okay. And then it was all undone by another act of Parliament a decade later. But it was still all okay.

So why no proper revolution? A notable historian called Peter Sibley has a theory. I should point out that this man is not notable for being an historian. He was Captain of Bath Rugby Club in the 1960s. Many years later, he ended up being my history teacher at Monkton Combe School. But his thoughts on the subject of Britain’s lack of revolution are still compelling. He puts forward the Drizzle Theory. At key moments in British history, he argues, it has drizzled. It’s a convincing idea. A fine rain really puts a dampener on things, even a rioting rabble.

Sibley’s case rests mainly on events on 10 April 1848 when Europe was rife with revolutionary fervour. The reformist mass-movement of the day, the Chartists, had gathered in Westminster with their petitions for electoral reform. Incendiary speechmakers were on hand to whip the crowd into a frenzy to ensure their demands were heard. The Prime Minister, aka the Duke of Wellington, was so worried by the scale of the demonstration that he had hidden cannon on Westminster Bridge, Mr Sibley told me, and stocked up on grapeshot to turn a marauding mass into a bloody mess at his command. The stage was set for a revolution.

By Klobetime via Flickr
Events seemed to be coming to a head. The petition was delivered. The crowd became restless. Could this be the moment when the proletariat poured into the Palace of Westminster and declared a new republic based on universal suffrage?

Perhaps it might have done. But it didn’t. Because it rained. Everyone ran for cover. You can’t rage against the machine when you’re struggling to put up an umbrella. And so the revolution had been delayed. Rain stopped play pending further inspection. An early tea was taken. And then, being Britain, everyone left early to beat the traffic. Another revolution avoided.

In Britain, moderation normally wins. Whether it is due to rain, or the feeling of regularly being rained on or our national embarrassment at rather pushily having the word ‘Great’ in the title of our nation is hard to prove. We do not have revolutions.

Nor do we tend to elect extremists. Most of our political leaders are moderates who fall over themselves to appeal to as many people as possible, posing as your mate in the pub claiming to understand you. And now every election has tiresome pictures of a brainy Oxbridge-type in a bad suit trying to look at home in the Wetherspoons pub nearest his constituency home. It’s truly toe-curling.

Why Hitler Couldn’t Be British
And yet we are moderates. So we would rather have an uncomfortable policy-wonk sipping a pint of bitter talking about Child Tax Credit than a steely uniformed idealist standing up and telling us how to ruthlessly pursue our national destiny. That kind of rhetoric doesn’t play in Brit- ain. Playing a parody of an academic in a sketch, Stephen Fry asks a genuinely good question: ‘If Hitler had been British, would we, under similar circumstances, have been moved, charged up, fired up by his inflammatory speeches, or would we simply have laughed?’ One suspects we would have done the latter. In P. G. Wodehouse, we read how Bertie Wooster and his friends do not find Roderick Spode and his fascist Blackshorts inspiring, inflammatory or even dangerous but rather laughable and, worst of all, embar- rassing. The British would just like people to be nice. Or at least decent, which is a frostier, stand-offish variation of nice.

In our quest to be civilised, we have erected numerous institutions to bring about some kind of niceness or decency. We browbeat our Government into passing laws to make us play nicely. The Media delights in telling us when people aren’t being nice so we can all tut or tweet them insults. We ask our Academies to explain why we were born with various genetic dispositions of not-niceness – and how

we can fix them. The much-reviled City claims it’s trying to generate the cash to pay for all of the above and so there’s a limit to how nice they can be. And, on the rare occasions we ask the Church anything, we are generally given a nice Jesus encouraging us to be nice.

All of the above can work well together to produce some moments when we all burst with pride. From the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics until about half way through the closing ceremony, the nation felt a rare moment of pride as the benefits of institutions came together. On the licence-fee funded, non-profit BBC, we watched a superbly-run Olympic games with British ath- letes romping home with an embarrassment of medals thanks to some state funding, some private sponsorship, the appliance of sport science and some grim determination. And when Clare Balding interviewed them afterwards, they weren’t just decent. They were nice. The institutions were firing on all cylinders.

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Well, Don’t.
And yet a year earlier, Britain was not nice. It certainly was not a nation ‘at ease with itself’. There were riots, originally caused by opaque procedures following a police shooting in Tottenham. Soon there were real angry mobs in a number of cities.

But they were not idealistic readers of Robespierre. They were not trying to smash the system. They were content with smashing the window of Currys Digital to make off with a flat screen TV. These events were isolated, but gave the nation a nasty scare for a week or so. The institutions that were supposed to prevent this sort of thing stared at each other in stupefied amazement. How did that happen?

The police were blamed for inciting the event and han- dling it poorly; the politicians were blamed for failing to provide jobs and services; the city was blamed for the financial downturn. The riots petered out. Questions were asked. The media got bored, moved on and then imploded with the collapse of the News of The World, links to the police and politicians, and there were more concerns that our institutions were corrupt or compromised. And then the BBC imploded. Again.

Why Are You Telling Me This?
All of the above brings me to the book you currently hold in your hands. On first inspection, it appears to be a ragbag selection of articles on anything and everything. A closer inspection may reveal the same conclusion. But as the writer of these articles I have noticed that whenever I approach a subject, I come back to same question again and again. The question is this: Why are we so convinced that institutions will save us, when they are more likely to enslave us?

It seems alarmist to say such a thing, especially in a nice, moderate place like Britain. But the world is a graveyard of collapsed empires that believed themselves to be every bit as sophisticated and civilised are we do today. The world has been dominated by the most unlikely of tribes: The Egyptians, The Greeks, The Mongols, The Italians, The Turks, The Spanish, The Portuguese, The Dutch, the self- effacing Brits, The Germans and Japanese, briefly, and The Americans. But the problem with great, sprawling empires is that they often collapse under the weight of their own civilisation.

An archaeologist will get out his trowel to show you a palace that’s been left as a ruin. An anthropologist will find entire cities that have been deserted. But why? Occasion- ally, the weather or a new disease is to blame. But normally it’s an ossified system that is unable to cope with being blindsided by change. Institutions that were created to bring about greatness became robust, but then hardened, became brittle and shattered into a thousand pieces. Mighty leaders proved to have feet of clay, toppling over and taking every- one down with them.

The collapse of a society always seems unthinkable, and yet history tells us it happens to all civilisations and empires.

Unhappy Easter
Let us look at the example of Easter Island, the story of a people who built nearly four hundred astonishingly large stone statues. How could a sophisticated society commit collective suicide by eating all the food and chopping down all the trees?

By Nicolas de Camaret via Flickr
If we’re being kind, maybe we’d put the blame on finite natural resources, or evil Westerners, but this does not explain how a population should suddenly fall from 15,000 to 2000 in a brutal bloodbath.

The theory is that the islanders were not one single happy tribe living in perfect harmony, but a group of competitive clans who occupied various sections of the Island. It almost feels like one of those board-games designed by a bespecta- cled German. Each clan on Easter Island had a greater share of one of the resources they needed to build these large statues: rock, for the statues themselves; wood, for the statues’ movement and mounting; and food, to feed the people involved. Their shared goals of ‘Let’s see who can build the biggest statue’ got them trading with each other.

But the soil became exhausted (it was never that great in the first place) and all the trees had been cut down (these things didn’t grow very fast with the rough soil and indifferent climate). For years, anthropologists were reluctant to believe that humans, especially lovely Polynesians could have turned on each other in their quest to continue build- ing their statues that served no actual purpose. Surely they would have realised that building statues to show off to each other was so self-destructive that it would have been stopped before there was a resources melt-down? Surely they weren’t so stupid as to cut down all their trees – which would mean the end of statue production, fuel for fires and cooking, material for canoes and any possible means of escape from the Island in wooden boats?

Sadly, the Easter Islanders proved themselves to be no different from the rest of humanity. They really were that stupid.

The Solidarity of Stupidity
A revolution happened, but it was too late. Statue building stopped. They turned on their own gods when they failed to deliver more wood and food and went around tipping over their own, and possibly each other’s, statues. There was in-fighting, starvation and cannibalism. There is evidence in many societies that people resort to cannibalism before the food runs out. When anthropologists had the bright idea of asking modern Easter Islanders what they thought hap- pened to their ancestors, they were quick to confirm tales of cannibalism. The worst taunt you could say to an enemy on the island apparently was ‘The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth’. Not nice. But revealing.

However grim the tale of Easter Island is, their collective idiocy is not all that surprising. If you were to drop one of them into Northern Europe in 1917, they would be appalled. If you were to explain to them why millions of men were mechanically mowing each other down with machine guns, they wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Verdun is perfectly nice town, but not a place worth fighting over – at least not with anything more than fisticuffs. And yet armed, immovable, unstoppable European states converged in a way that made it seem worth the lives of 300,000 French and German soldiers. The twentieth century is sadly littered with such examples. Millions of bodies.

Bad Parenting
The problem is that if you predict such calamity, or even warn against such dangers, you will be laughed at. Let us take an example from the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Israelites are in the desert and about to enter the Promised Land. Moses warned them about what might happen in the future in that land. He tells them not to imitate the religions of people they find there – because they might end up sacrificing their children to these gods in a fire. Not metaphorically. Literally. Look it up in Deuteronomy 18.

Imagine hearing this warning. You’d look at Moses, and then your children and say ‘I don’t think this one is aimed at me. In fact, I can’t see who it is aimed at. What kind of maniac is going to sacrifice their own children to anything or anyone?’ And yet turn on a few pages and the Israelites did turn to these gods and took part in child sacrifice. Moses had sounded insane, but knew what religious system humans were capable of creating when they got together. And so he issued the warning – but his warnings fell on deaf, complacent ears.

Seriously, Why Are You Telling Me This?
I am not claiming to be Moses, or any kind of voice in the wilderness. I am not a prophet or a son of a prophet. I am, in fact, the son of a dairy farmer. But if you don’t believe the son of a farmer, or Moses, listen to the words of Walter Bagehot who wrote, ‘The whole history of civilisation is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards.’

And this is my overall point throughout the book. Institutions get in the way and if you don’t stop them, change them, challenge them or pull them down in good time, they will ruin society. And so this book is divided into five sections, each containing articles about a great institution or collection thereof; The Media; The Economy; The State; Academia; and The Church.

I don’t expect anyone to listen or take me seriously. That’s fine. I am used to being ignored: I have children. I under- stand that the articles in this book may appear to be the writings of a madman. But it may just be that this madman is slightly less mad than everyone else.

To read the rest, buy the book here.

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