No more retreat: the right finds its moral nerve

It became clear last week that the mantle of the late Mary Whitehouse has wafted onto the shoulders of Bishop Nazir-Ali of Rochester. Just as she did, he is now standing as a lonely champion of western, particularly Christian, civilisation. Just as she did in her Edna Everage glasses, he with his lavish mutton-chop whiskers cuts a distinctly comic figure.

By a curious coincidence last week, when she was remembered in a television biopic, he published an article on Britain’s morals for Standpoint, a new intellectual magazine, which was also reminiscent of her. He argued that the loss of Christian influence in British life had led to all kinds of social breakdown and had created a moral vacuum that radical Islam threatened to fill.

Though his style is infinitely more sophisticated, his substance is much like hers. “The enemies of the West,” she said in 1965, “saw that Britain was the kingpin of western civilisation: she had proved herself unbeatable on the field of battle because of her faith and her character. If Britain was to be destroyed, those things must be undercut.” Last week Nazir-Ali suggested that the Marxist-inspired cultural wars of the 1960s sought to bring about political revolution through sexual and social revolution. Churches and liberal theologians all but capitulated, and their failure created the “moral and spiritual vacuum” that is so vulnerable to our enemies.

What has now, suddenly, changed is that the bishop has not been derided as Whitehouse was. His article hit front pages and was taken seriously. What has also changed is that Whitehouse’s television portrait, while comically absurd, was kinder and more ambivalent about her than would once have been conceivable. In a year when the legacy of 1968 and the permissive society has been much reviewed and revised, these are perhaps small signs of a wider change. Increasingly people find themselves admitting with embarrassment that Whitehouse was not entirely wrong. Most people, I think, share her fear, despite the lack of clear evidence, that TV and film violence probably brutalise people and inure them to cruelty, happy-slapping, knife crime and all the rest. Although few people indeed now share her (and the bishop’s) curious horror of homosexuality, even the sexually permissive are disturbed by the hypersexualisation of children’s lives and by Britain’s rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases.

While the Labour party, traditionally the champion of liberal permissiveness, has the lowest approval rating ever, the Conservative party now has one of the highest, despite saying things about social degeneration in broken Britain that would have been unmentionable only recently and wholly unacceptable from Conservatives. We are likely to have before long a Conservative government run by a clutch of clever young family-minded, morally conservative toffs; a couple of years ago, that idea would have been laughable. Perhaps it’s true that the tide of 1960s liberalism is beginning to turn. It may be that we have arrived at a defining moment.

The magazine Standpoint certainly seems to think so. (I should declare an interest, as a contributor.) At a launch party for the right-of-centre great and good, the editor, Daniel Johnson, spoke with an almost triumphalist passion about the imperative to defend western civilisation against moral cowardice and intellectual confusion and against adversaries who don’t share our values. I thought I sensed unease among his guests, even though almost all of us must have broadly agreed with him. British conservatives tend to be embarrassed by self-celebration, even in the face of attack. It might in part explain their unwillingness to stand up against the noisy, thoughtless iconoclasm of the 1960s, and the cultural damage it has done. Perhaps they are preparing to do so now.

Nazir-Ali is unlikely to be leading them. His open disapproval of homosexuality brands whatever else he talks about with the stamp of ignorant intolerance. What is more, his indirect appeal for a return to Christian faith as the cure for our social ills is irritating. One does not have to be a practising Christian to subscribe to a post-Christian morality, and to hold it dear. The other serious problem is the way he talks of Islam. He is right that anyone with a public voice should speak out against Islamist extremism, but he must know that people do not listen carefully and often hear Islam instead of Islamist extremism, and he will be seen to be calling for a Christian revival to oppose Islam in general.

However, there is, I think, a reason why Islamist extremism is relevant to this defining moment, if it is one. After 9/11, but in this country even more so after the 7/7 attacks by British-born terrorists, liberal and libertarian conservatives began to think again. These British extremists despised us for our decadence, and we were forced to admit they had a point. For a long time Britain and its institutions have been suffering a loss of nerve and will that amounts to a national moral funk. We have let standards fall in almost everything. From the lies and finaglings about expenses in the House of Commons, to the failures of standards in schools and hospitals, from the sleazy behaviour of public figures such as John Prescott and Cherie Blair to the vomiting of drunken girls on streets, from the sordid confessions of chat shows to the public humiliation of Big Brother, something has collapsed.

Our government’s unwillingness to look after our armed services is a startling example of this. Our soldiers have been sent into danger without proper body armour, with dodgy planes and inadequate tanks, and third-rate treatment in Third World hospitals at home if they are wounded. This is terrifying decadence: for if we lack the will to defend ourselves, or rather to defend those who are there to defend us, we are showing to the world’s beasts of prey the soft underbelly of decadence.

The one good thing, if there could be one, about Islamists’ murderous contempt is that at last it made us understand all this. I don’t think Nazir-Ali, even with a church militant behind him, can put his finger in the dyke of this impending disaster. However, he is at least, like Whitehouse, willing to say the unsayable; that is often a necessary driver of change.