Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Vive La Reine!

Peter Hitchens writes:

I have spent the past two weeks in the United States, not working but travelling on my own account, revisiting some favourite places and coming up for air. It remains an exhilarating and beautiful place, wrongly sneered at by too many British people who simply haven't experienced enough of it to know how good it can be, and how much worse off we would be if it weren't there. But it is also a foreign country, not some kind of special friend - but a foreign country to which we have unique access because we speak a similar language. Only fluent French or German speakers could ever know as much about those countries as any British visitor can swiftly learn about the USA - if he wants to.

Rather than re-immerse myself in the small-scale squalor of British politics, which seems even less appealing or interesting than it was when I set out, I thought I would muse a little on what an English person experiences in the great republic, and what it means (or might mean) for us.

It is now many years since I lived in Bethesda, Maryland, an idyllic suburban settlement just North-West of Washington DC. I still remember with a faint smile English acquaintances and colleagues gulping in dismay when I said I was going to live 'in Washington' (the distinction between DC and Maryland was a mystery to them, so I didn't trouble them with it). Several - having read sketchy reports about Washington being the USA's murder capital, as it then indeed was - thought I would swiftly be murdered, mugged or just gunned down by some firearm-crazy person. Others imagined a howling wasteland of vast distances, given this idea by the fact that my house number had four digits instead of the two or three more usually found in Britain.

As it happens, my road (many miles from the national capital's drug-infested crime zones) was shorter than most English suburban equivalents, overhung with huge trees and wonderfully intimate and neighbourly. The American system of house numbering is a sort of postcode, and only the final two digits tell you anything about the length of the street. Children ran in and out of everyone's houses. Parents patrolled the street in the evening to slow down or stop the (rare) cars that drove through. We hung a Union Flag on the pole which was fitted as standard over our front door (my landlord had said I could fly anything there except the Confederate Stars and Bars, which I didn't want to display anyway), to the often-expressed pleasure of everyone else on the road. One of my neighbours took my education in hand and insisted I went with him to a football game (Baseball was on strike most of the time I was there, or he'd have taken me to that too). Doors and cars were left unlocked, Democrats and Republicans mixed happily, I never saw or heard a gun there or within miles. Our local ambulance service (which was well-equipped and excellent) was run by volunteers, financed by contributions from thousands of us, and by a spectacular annual lobster feast - and free of charge to those who needed it. A dozen preconceptions died within minutes.

The only sad truth was that Montgomery County, the lush district where we lived, was almost entirely white, whereas Prince George's County, a few miles to the East and more or less as peaceful and prosperous, was almost wholly black, reflecting a more or less voluntary racial division that nobody likes to talk about but which persists despite fifty years of civil rights.

There are dozens of other things that don't quite fit the English prejudice. Where I lived, and in many other US cities, public transport was if anything better than in Britain, especially the clean, safe, spacious and well-designed Washington Metro. Manners were almost always better than they were here. There is intelligent broadcasting, not on the BBC but on doggedly liberal radio stations financed by subscription and contributions (we helped raise money for our local station, despite its politics, because of the way it upheld standards of language and debate, which is roughly what I do for the BBC, though a bit more voluntary). There was also free medical provision for the truly poor, while private medicine as then and is now in a crisis not wholly unlike that which grips the NHS, with the insurance companies pressing hospitals and doctors to keep costs down.

Other paradoxes in this supposedly 'right-wing' country were the pervasive political correctness in broadcasting journalism and education, the gigantic welfare state created mainly by Lyndon Johnson, and the laborious efforts to make Spanish an official language, far more costly than it would have been to insist that everyone spoke English.

But what I found most fascinating was the feeling that, despite all this, you really were much more on your own, for better or worse. Oddly enough this would come home to me when I took trips across the Canadian border, the only frontier in the world which exists to separate two different ideas about how to be free. I was both reassured and somehow constrained by the sight of St Edward's Crown on Canadian police badges (and also by the evocative little signs by Ontario main roads, with the same crown and the legend 'The King's Highway', a haunting phrase which is now of course being removed on the pretext that it might upset bilingual fanatics, though why they can't just have every other sign saying 'Le Chemin du Roi', or 'Chemin Royal' I do not know. Plenty of French Canadians seem to me to be closet royalists, far from keen on the 1789 revolution).

Up there, I thought, I was a little safer from the consequences of my own (or other people's folly) and a little less free to fail or succeed on my own. The idea that authority proceeds from the Crown, and the Crown's authority ultimately flows from a benevolent God, still persists in Canada. I suspect this is at the root of the idea that the state has duties towards its citizens, which produces things unknown in the USA, such as a comprehensive national health system and a state broadcasting network. Which do I like more? The more I think about it, the more I can't make up my mind.

In the USA, authority is supposed to be vested in the free people, and if you want to have a relationship with God then you must have it directly. This also has something to do with the issue of guns. Though I believe Canadian gun law is much less restrictive than Britain's, it isn't as relaxed as the USA's. I've written at length about gun laws in my 2003 book A Brief History of Crime. I argued that it's clearly demonstrable that restricting the ownership of guns by law-abiding people doesn't actually make anyone any safer, and in some cases may actually put them at risk of becoming victims. If that is so, then the desire of the state to restrict gun ownership (which disarms everyone except criminals) needs another explanation. This was of course misrepresented by my opponents, and will be again now. But the survival of personal gun ownership in the USA seems to me to be a sign that it is a more grown-up society, both permitting and requiring more responsibility from individuals than we do. The only gun owner I knew personally when I lived in Washington was a (female) prosecutor who was allowed to carry a gun in her handbag in Virginia, a remarkably peaceful state, but had to leave it behind when she went into the risky parts of Washington DC (which certainly do exist), where guns are denied to the law-abiding but owned by thousands of drug gangsters (who exist, by the way, not because drugs are illegal but because people stupidly take and buy illegal drugs). Her husband, a magazine editor, kept a squirrel gun by his desk as he worked in his suburban home, surrounded by dense woodland. This could be disconcerting for visitors as he would sometimes seize the firearm in mid-conversation, and blast at a nearby rodent through the open window. He never seemed to hit anything at all.

Here's another example of how America treats its people as being more responsible for their actions and lives than we do, and what that can mean in practice. On a visit to Alabama to write about the reintroduction of chain gangs I asked one shackled convict, clearing weeds from beside a motorway, what he was in prison for. The answer - writing cheques without the cash to back them. Now, if that got you put on a chain gang in Britain, we wouldn't have enough chains to go round.

The USA still more or less believes in punishment for people who commit crimes, and those who break the law can find themselves flung into a grim world of the lost, quite terrifying and implacable. I shudder for any innocent person who drops through that trap door, though it seems to me that Britain's penal system is fast becoming as savage, but without being punitive towards the criminals themselves. If the USA ever abandons its Bill of Rights and becomes the authoritarian state which Dick Cheney and his accomplice George W. Bush seemed intent on creating, then it could rapidly become a very frightening place. I'm never sure how deeply rooted the old English principles of presumed innocence and Habeas Corpus actually are in the USA, and there are incidents - Lincoln's suspension of Habeas Corpus, Woodrow Wilson's imprisonment of objectors to World War One, the 1920s Palmer raids, Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans - which suggest that lawful liberty is quite fragile there in difficult times (not that we have much to boast about these days).

There's another thing I always love about being in the USA - that unmistakable symptom of a society of genuinely free men, the continuing use of miles, yards, feet and inches, ounces, pounds and pints, not to mention quarts and gallons. And the temperatures still in flexible Fahrenheit, where the difference between being dead and alive (or between a warm spring day and a cold one) is a lot more than two degrees.

Arriving back in the vast liberal prison reception area that is Heathrow, with its officious 'UK Border' (which it isn't, as it is controlled by the EU) and its metres and litres, makes the heart sink. And yet I remember long ago how I used to experience a comforting feeling of homecoming when I stepped off the Channel steamer at Newhaven or Folkestone, and was embraced by the quiet, green, unconquered smallness and individuality of England.

One could comment much on this, but I only want to add that the French Canadians are not "closet" monarchists. They are ardent monarchists. Their Fleur de Lys is the quintessential French monarchist symbol, reviled by republicans to this day. And in any case, they were ceded to Britain in 1763, so the Revolution of 1789 is no part of their heritage.

"Her Majesty remains at the head of the State, the living symbol of the roots and continuity of the values we hold in common and those that are our permanent ideals ... She is the one entrusted with the conscience of the nation."

That appeared in the Autumn 2002 edition of
Canadian Monarchist News. Its author was an historian and former Cultural Advisor at Rideau Hall. His name was Fr Jacques Monet SJ.

So far from the Revolution and its Terror is Quebec that in May 2008, the Assembly there voted unanimously to keep the Crucifix that hangs above the Speaker's Chair. And below the Royal Coat of Arms.


  1. There's another thing I always love about being in the USA - that unmistakable symptom of a society of genuinely free men, the continuing use of miles, yards, feet and inches, ounces, pounds and pints, not to mention quarts and gallons.

    You do realise that this sentence is a load of horsecock, don't you?

  2. Not at all. If a country still has its own old, pre-Napoleonic system of weights and measures, then that proves that it can.

    Once upon a time, everywhere did, by authority of national or local custom, thereby asserting both the authority of the nation or locality, and the authority of custom itself.

    All the nastiest regimes have therefore always hated such systems.

    And they still do.

  3. The same way that they hate national currencies.

  4. Exactly.

    And they are going to look very stupid when all those European currencies come back by popular demand. Beginning with the Deutschmark. This time next year, at the latest.

    The Irish Republic, I reckon, will revert to sterling, accepted on a one-for-one basis there into the 1980s.

  5. Is this a serious prediction, David? The Deutschmark will be back in use by this time next year at the latest?

  6. By the end of next year, certainly. If it isn't, then there will be riots in the streets.

    The sheer force of German popular demand brought back grammar schools in the East when the Wall came down. Do not underestimate it.

  7. It's your blog, obviously, but it would be great if you could write a longer post explaining the background to this prediction. What are the economic and political factors which make the readoption of the Deutschmark by Germany within a year, inevitable? What is the process you envisage taking place to make this happen?

  8. I probably will as the situation develops. Which it is certainly doing, I'm told.

    No one outside the Political Class in Germany ever wanted rid of Deutschmark. And that was before the Euro fell apart...

  9. All the nastiest regimes have therefore always hated such systems.
    Which is why the only other country not to metricate is Burma.

    Btw, afaik Germany is still on the euro (no riots yet)