Seeds of England

There was always something of the Englishman in Lee Kuan Yew. During his Cambridge education, he had ample opportunity to examine British society. In the decades that followed, he proved how well he learned from his observations when he built up Singapore. He refused to give into an anti-colonial mania of purging British influences and instead took inspiration, from the Westminster system to the civil service – all backed up with Chinese cultural attitudes toward meritocracy. With his passing, it remains to be seen whether these influences will remain in Singapore. Regardless, the extent to which the British inheritance endured beyond the Empire is remarkable. Yet from his country, Lee Kuan Yew watched as many of the traits he admired disappeared in Britain itself. With his usual merciless analysis, he placed the blame squarely on the welfare state and moral decline.

Lee Kuan Yew at St. John's College, Cambridge.

Lee Kuan Yew at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

Lee Kuan Yew is a contradiction. A Singaporean of Chinese descent, his critique of liberalism was in a sense uniquely English. At a time when Britain and much of its diaspora became the most enthusiastic supporters of liberalism and democratic modernity, his worldview has a spark of something aristocratic…dare we say, imperial? He does not fall into the postmodern philosophizing of the French, the quiet conservatism of the Germans, or the pious resistance of the Catholic countries. Instead, his critique was delivered with wit, candor, and the occasional stinging barb. Rather than bemoaning the changing times, he kept a stiff upper lip. He did not shut himself off from modernity, but sought to reshape and improve it. So what might we call this tradition, which nurtured such English sentiments in a child of the anti-colonial era? What is this unique expression of Reaction?

The British Empire was not the child of grand designs. As one author wrote long ago, when the Empire was still a lived reality and not a topic of history books ignored by modern education:

“The British Empire…is a typical British product. It is the result of gradual, almost fortuitous development, and not of deliberate planning. Its constitution is difficult to describe in terms of political theory, but it is a living political association in full working order.”

This seems to be a striking pattern in the history of English civilization. From the slow unification of the UK itself to a preference for the market system in modern times, the Anglosphere has harnessed its taste for personal liberty and benefited from what we might call an antifragile approach to social and political life.

It is a curious fact that there has never been in Great Britain any dynamic popular urge towards Empire building….even in the expansionist, Imperialist era of the last century, new lands were added to the domains of the Crown often reluctantly and with halting steps; and always there was opposition from the little Englanders, who raised powerful voices and powerful influences against the building of an Empire. In this century, following a brief period when the Empire was a cult and its prophet was Kipling, there has been among all but a few lack of knowledge and lack of interest. The Empire was taken for granted.”

No great crusades to be seen here. Britain’s scattered, varied, global scope of rule stemmed largely from the fact that its decision to start ruling seems to have come after it woke up one morning and realized that things might have gotten a little out of hand. I would put forward that as with England’s Empire, so too with its Reaction. The essence of the Anglosphere is one of exit and searching for new frontiers, and little surprise that it did not die with the advent of Social Progress. From across the Anglosphere we have had artists, poets, authors, and philosophers who have imagined a different future for English and Western civilization. The idea that modernity could not be wrested from the firm grasp of the Whig and the Jacobin was entirely foreign to these thinkers.

Lewis' The Crowd. The small figures in the grids remind one of modern skyscrapers - not a common site in 1915 when this was exhibited.

The Crowd, by Wyndham Lewis. The small figures in the grids remind one of modern skyscrapers – not a common site in 1915 when this was exhibited.

T. S. Eliot made his mark as a poet who turned modernity against the moderns. This “Classicist in literature, Royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” believed that human nature was nowhere so pliable as the Enlightenment had imagined, and thus tradition was the result of generations of trial and error. In these sentiments he echoed men like Charles Maurras from across the Channel, who stated that it was necessary to “bring freedom downstairs to the people and restore authority at the top”. Eliot’s fellow American, Ezra Pound, was even more enthusiastic in his belief that there was a future beyond modernity. With his ally Percy Wyndham Lewis, he engendered a futurist art in Britain which attacked what it saw as a decadent and naively liberal literary establishment, epitomized in the Bloomsbury group. From elsewhere in the British realms, Roy Campbell came out of South Africa and began a career as a writer, defending the classical and Christian traditions through his poetry. He would end up going to Spain during the Civil War, and dying a Catholic after the faith captured his heart there. Closer to our day, we have thinkers such as Roger Scruton, who is renowned for his work on how the death of aesthetic beauty has mirrored a broader cultural dissolution.

Portrait of T. S. Eliot, by Wyndham Lewis

Portrait of T. S. Eliot, by Wyndham Lewis

These very few examples are given to show a general trend. Insofar as we can talk about an English expression of Reaction, it is as much a patchwork as the Empire itself once was. The eclectic mix includes High Tory futurists, Nietzschean-minded Catholics, aristocrats and populists, traditional colonials and techno-commercialist capitalists. Its lineage includes Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets and Yeats’ Second Coming. But there is something of a cohesive entity behind them. There is a shared suspicion that perhaps the baser elements of English civilization triumphed over the loftier ones. There exists an embrace of the future combined with a typically Anglospheric willingness to set out and discover the future for oneself. The English reactionary is pragmatic, appreciating that which has passed the tests of time.

Lee Kuan Yew possessed all these things. He may not be an English reactionary, but there was something recognizably English in his Reaction. Whatever the essence of this mindset is, our own Henry Dampier sees it in neoreaction:

“This is my tentative suggestion: if neoreaction is not English, then it’s incoherent, because most of its values are at least implicitly English…Considering that the cultural ailment afflicting the rest of the world has its roots in London, Washington D.C., and New York, the correction ought to be focused on those cities, also. For most of us, it isn’t a choice. We can’t suddenly decide to be Chinese, Swiss, Italians, Germans, Austrians, or Russians, especially if our roots are here. We want to believe, perhaps, that we have a choice in these matters, but there is no choice, because it was already made before we were born. We can no more elect to stop being English any more than we can elect to become frogs or wombats.”

It remains to be seen where exactly the English spirit of Reaction will make itself manifest. If I had to guess, I’d say that the reactionary mindset will become most apparent among those forced to make their exit, following in the footsteps of their ancestors. Across Africa, the diaspora lives on as a tiny, often-urbanized minority. Cape Town has remained an astoundingly English city in temperament. One need only go to its Victoria gardens or the Rhodes memorial to see that England left its mark. If a charter city is ever established here or elsewhere, the cosmopolitan Anglos will likely be drawn to it, bringing their cultural pragmatism with them to a project with little room for error. Australia has recently had something of a resurgence in its Anglospheric roots, with the government of Tony Abbott, a monarchist and cultural conservative. As the Asian powers increase their influence, perhaps we will see Australia and New Zealand become more aware of just how much they differ from their neighbours.

Of all countries, America has retained and grown the independent streak of the earliest English pioneers of the New World. The question is to what extent the melting pot has eliminated any identification with the heritage which bred that streak. In Canada, the Anglophone elite was without a doubt the Laurentian Consensus – the Anglo-Protestant liberal elite of Ontario. However, this consensus also established the progressive ideology which has undone its former hegemony. Anglophone Canada will remain a large majority of the country, but its conflicts with French or Aboriginal cultures begin to fall away as China, India, and other Asian powers make their presence felt north of the 49th. Finally, there is also the huge British expat population, many of whom have seen first-hand what measures places like Dubai and Singapore must use to properly govern a multiethnic and multicultural society.

Finally, I’d note that the vast majority of these groups – aside from those actually from the UK – would likely never think of themselves as “English”. American, Canadian, Australian, and South African identity has swept away the earlier British one for generations now. Nevertheless, the cultural inheritance remains. Each part of the English cultural and ethnic diaspora has adapted the mother country’s customs to its own environment. Yet many have retained a similar sense of pragmatism, ordered liberty, and remarkable adaptability. Those with such a mindset cannot long tolerate the ideological rigidity and praise of victimhood which are all too common in our day. Like their ancestors before them, they will leave it to its fate and set sail for greener pastures.

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

– Tennyson

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One Comment

  1. “We have no consensus of what ‘art’ is or where it is going. Progressive or retarded? Who knows? The Florence dealer Moretti showed a Vivarini Madonna between a pair of splashy Gerhard Richters.” –

    Pretty funny article on the Frieze Art Fair at the Spectator. Modernism may be on the way out.

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