Downhill All the Way

An adroit new history of the British Empire in the post-Victorian era

The late Christopher Hill—arguably not A. N. Wilson's beau ideal as a historian—once told me a small joke in his mildly stuttering style. It seemed that the fifth or sixth husband of Barbara Hutton had been interviewed on his nuptial night, and when asked how he felt at being the latest to possess the celebrated Woolworth heiress, had replied, "Well, I know what I have g-got to d-do, but I am not quite sure how I am going to make it i-i-i-interesting."

Some of the same apprehensiveness may descend upon anyone who undertakes to write about the eclipse of British power in the first half of the twentieth century. The basic outlines—or, if you prefer, the essential holds and grapples and maneuvers—are tolerably well known. Death of the Old Queen in 1901; a nasty and expensive war in South Africa presaging a deadly rivalry with her vicious grandson, the Kaiser; a "Great War" that bled the country white; two decades of stupidity and drift marked by fatuities such as the restoration of the gold standard and the myopic placation of unappeasable dictators; another cataclysmic war, which caused the reluctant surrender of global supremacy to the United States. Honor partly rescued by titanic standing of Winston Churchill and unexpectedly long reign of a second Elizabeth; both these wasting assets subject to sharply diminishing returns.

Wilson does not depart very much from this well-beaten track. Indeed, he more than once cites, and actually rather lamely concludes with, Dean Acheson's much quoted remark that Britain had "lost an empire and not yet found a role." That fairly banal observation, made at West Point in 1962, might have been overlooked if it had not so infuriated Churchill. It is also outside the ostensible scope of Wilson's book, which closes with the early 1950s and suggests that a trilogy (including it and its predecessor, The Victorians) may be in train.

I must say that I hope so. Wilson does indeed know how to make it interesting. He manages this by an adroit alternation between the macrocosmic and the microcosmic. At one point he takes us on a tour of the great British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in 1924, with lavishly exotic pavilions provided by India and Malaya and a sturdy sculpture, in pure Canadian butter, of the Prince of Wales. (It is easy to forget that Britain ended the First World War with more territories under its control than it had enjoyed in 1914.) Then we are shown the 1936 funeral of the first Communist member of Parliament, an Indian Parsee named Shapurji Saklatvala; the precincts of the crematorium were still decked with red flags when the next customer's cortege arrived—containing the coffin of Rudyard Kipling. By that time the loyal and butter-sculpted Prince of Wales had mutated into the willful and mutinous King Edward VIII, whose sexual thrall to the Baltimore divorcee Wallis Simpson was to provoke the first ever abdication. (Wilson relates the last words of old King George V, father to this impetuous boy, and expresses the usual doubt that he ever asked, "How is the empire?" as he lay dying. He does not canvass the idea that the expiring monarch actually inquired, "How's the vampire?": an allusion to the designing woman who had already undermined the throne.) And he has no patience with the well-attested view that young Edward was "a selfish sybarite, a Nazi sympathizer," saying that "history" has a "babyish" need to believe this, when (as he does not mention) it was the conclusion reluctantly arrived at by the eminent royal historian Philip Ziegler.

No matter. Wilson may also be unfair to E. M. Forster, but he writes in the spirit of Forster's old maxim "Only connect." In particular, and in a very clever way, he allows us to see all the prefigurations of that rising American influence, which, slowly accreting, was to burst upon the post-1945 British as if it had come as a complete surprise. The first female to take her seat in the House of Commons (Nancy Astor) was an American. Winston Churchill's influential mother was an American. Kipling's wife was an American. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the former from the English music hall and the latter from the Deep South, are imaginatively represented by Wilson as a duo based on Henry James's Anglo-American ambiguities. And it made little difference that atom-splitting, radar, and television were British discoveries, since like jazz and cinema the main uptake of all the big ideas was on the American side of the Atlantic. (The British abandoned television broadcasts as soon as the Second World War began, thus conducting the propaganda fight largely on radio: a medium dominated by an Irish-American named William Joyce, or "Lord Haw Haw," who transmitted from Hitler's Berlin.) There is a wider Hibernian subtext to the story. The two British teak-heads responsible for the Amritsar massacre, in April of 1919, and therefore for the moral end of the British dominion in India, were General Reginald Dyer and Governor Michael O'Dwyer. Both were Irish-Protestant Unionists. It was the Orange Unionists who defended them in Parliament, at a time when Ireland itself was terrorized by the Black and Tans, and it was Sir Henry Wilson—leader of the 1914 Ulster mutiny—who pronounced that if Ireland was lost, then the whole imperial game was up. Reading this book, I was suddenly put in mind of its illustrious forerunner, George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England. Like Dangerfield, A. N. Wilson can grasp the encapsulating anecdote and the numinous coincidence, and capture the manner in which tragedy gibbers happily over the shoulders of the group photographed on the well-kept lawn.

Ninety-two years on, and liberals, conservatives, and Marxists can all reckon August of 1914 as the month from which everything measurable is—to annex the title of Leonard Woolf's autobiography—downhill all the way. As often as Wilson counsels us against the fallacy of scanning the past through the reversed telescope of the present, he is unable to free himself from this crucial—and just—conclusion. The mechanization of warfare, the glorification of the state, the mass mobilization of peoples, the advantage given to demagogues, and the permission to engage in genocide under the color of warfare: all this would have raised the eyebrows of the most self-confident Victorian imperialist.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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