A novelist and disgruntled observer of modern Britain concludes his historical trilogy—following The Victorians (2003) and After the Victorians (2005)—with a stylishly grumpy survey of Britain’s “decline” in the past half century.
From the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952 until today, Britain, asserts Wilson (Winnie and Wolf, 2008, etc.), has “effectively stopped being British.” The Empire was dismantled after World War II, the class system equalized, the national Church and railroad system adulterated, the townscapes spoiled, the London skyline disfigured, homegrown industry exported and unchecked immigration run amuck. American money and culture, along with pressure by the European Union, have ruined what social scientist Karl Popper called the shared “tribal magic.” Although it was Britain that stood up against the Nazi invaders in WWII, it was America and the Soviet Union that “accomplished the business” of peace, leaving Britain bankrupt and powerless. Wilson moves chronologically through the age, dividing his survey by the political leaders who held sway at the time, including the “decaying” Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, under whom Britain was humiliated in the Suez crisis of 1956; Harold Macmillan, who defined Britain’s future especially regarding immigration and the eschewing of railroads in favor of the car; Harold Wilson and his colorful liberals, mired in Rhodesia and Ireland; Margaret Thatcher, whose appeal to voters the author likens to that of fans of the Sex Pistols (“a cry of rage”); Tony Blair, who oversaw the rise of New Labour; and Gordon Brown, who is apparently “cursed with the one quality which makes public life unendurable: bad luck.” Wilson then pursues popular currents in terms of their assault on “the core of Britishness.” Though heavy on Britishisms, the book shows the author as a deeply committed watcher of our time, offering even American readers a great deal to ruminate over.
By turns sardonic, rueful, engaging and cantankerous.