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Artillery Row

A time for restoration

An interview with David Starkey

Recent years have witnessed increasingly vocal recognition of Tony Blair’s changes to the British constitution as having robbed the UK government of true control over its affairs. Yet for noted historian and broadcaster David Starkey, recognition is not enough. “We are in urgent need of restoration” he stressed recently, boldly calling for “the reversal of all that Blair has put in place.” 

Here, in a recent interview, Starkey reiterates his assertion that under Blair we have been through a quiet revolution, explains why the restoration is a potential life saver for Britain, and how Blair’s contempt for tradition, disrespect for history, and misunderstanding of culture and the constitution, “left us with a series of absolutely intractable and unsolvable problems.”

The Critic — The King’s Coronation and Queen Elizabeth’s passing brought to light the uniting power of tradition. Britain’s streets were deserted. Many Britons who care very little for the monarchy, were glued to their screens.

David Starkey — Yes, you saw everyone coming together, but there was a great problem with the coronation which was that it wasn’t traditional enough for me. The fact that for the first time since 1689 Parliament wasn’t present — we have a parliamentary monarchy, the king is the head of parliament, he is the first of the three states of parliament so I thought that was worrying.

TC — Speaking of unity, King Charles would be wise to follow his mother’s shining example of uncompromising impartiality, and not go down the progressive path. Were you troubled when he entertained the idea of investigating the role of the monarchy in slavery? 

DS — That was a mistake. You cannot appease the gods of anti-racism — every gesture towards them is seized and turned against you, you cannot win. There’s the wonderful, very naughty limerick about the young lady of Niger, who went for a ride on a tiger and if you remember, they returned from the ride with the young lady inside and the smile on the face of the tiger. Racism is like that, you end up inside with the smile on the face of the anti-racist who of course wants to destroy the institution. 

TC Racism is called out whenever anyone raises concerns regarding any issue, let alone the highly charged matter of immigration policy. Sarah Spencer, an academic who influenced the government on immigration matters after 1997, has recently stated that there was no policy for integration, her words were  “we just believed the migrants would integrate.” 

DS — Blair’s policies were rooted in ignorance. In Britain at the moment government has broken down and is unable to correct its own problems. In other words there’s not a collapse of government but a collapse of politics — a fundamental dysfunctioning of our constitution. We are very sick and the question is why. How, what was traditionally the best governed country in the world, has come to this? The country that actually pioneered responsible limited government, that provides all those conditions which Friedrich Hayek acclaims as being the basis for freedom and capitalism, is actually falling apart.

TC How have we got to this point? 

DS — I would denounce the thirteen years of Tory misrule which post-2015 has been absolutely disastrous, it has been a time of squandered goodwill, of squandered political capital and above all, squandered enormous majority. Back in 2019 I look back on that evening when the election was announced with deep personal shame. I was at the Oxford and Cambridge club with a group of very agreeable young friends, and we were taken for fools, so I do not in any way exonerate the Conservative party from blame, on the contrary, it has deep blame, this is why our current position is so deadly and so dangerous. The real responsibility is indeed partly with the Tories, because in 2010 and still more so in 2015 and in 2019, they commanded an overwhelming majority but did nothing to reverse what Blair had done.

The fundamental thing is that Blair, because of his misunderstanding of history, of culture, of the constitution, has left us with a series of absolutely intractable and unsolvable problems. Changes that Blair introduced are not simply incoherent, they actually make it unable to function, this is the key thing we’ve got to understand — they’re deeply rooted — why didn’t they think that large numbers of immigrants were a problem?Why did they think that there was no need to bother with integration? The answer is terribly simple if you’re a Blairite you take it for granted that we are all people of goodwill, we all want to get along with each other, we are all basically reasonable, you’ve only got to explain things clearly to people and they understand that there are no real problems — as it says in the Bible, the lion will lie down with the lamb and the lamb cuddles up to the lion and the lion puts a friendly paw around the lamb and controls its appetite, well you and I know that is not so — that it is the deepest, most profound of follies.

TC The economist Thomas Sowell argues that regardless of one’s view on the matter, immigration cannot be considered as a single, all encompassing entity. He points to a profound difference in how people from different cultures view every aspect of life, from family and work to democracy. This is not presented as a negative of positive reflection on the issue, but as a fact of life that many politicians fail to take into account. 

DS — Exactly, we are products of time and place, and the succession of time and place. With Blair there is no recognition of that. Look at the invasion of Iraq folly, there is no notion of what you did after you conquered the place because of course they all want freedom and democracy, all the girls want to wear mini skirts, drink lots of Coca Cola and watch Friends. Underneath they’re just the same as we are — but they’re not, this is the catastrophe of course with immigration here that so many of them are different, and are determined to remain different. 

It’s very important to look at different family structures, one of the reasons that in Britain and particularly in England we’ve been able to have the rule of law, the notion of individual responsibility, is paradoxically because our family structures have always been relatively weak, that you’re not a member of an extended family group and you don’t see it as a matter of honour to defend everybody else in that family group, you recognise that if one of your cousins or indeed even a son or a daughter does wrong, they bear responsibility for it. That is not true in most of the world. We are importing people who have different values, different senses of right and wrong. There is the possibility of assimilation of course but not if there is no pressure to do so, not if there’s no proper teaching of the language, if people are not engaged in gainful employment. 

There are people who convert or just become secular … But the problem of course, what has happened in Britain, France and most other Western countries, what we’ve tended to do here — and people like Trevor Phillips and many others say that too — we’ve allowed ghettos to develop in which there is all the social pressures to remain exactly as they are …

In Britain and I would expect in France, the Muslim vote is going to become increasingly problematic — the whole issues that we’ve seen of the weekly demonstrations in favour of Palestine and so on, the immense tensions within the Labour Party which Starmer is barely keeping a lid on, these are all very clear pointers to the future 

TC This is a new kind of politics altogether

DS — It goes back to what Blair did, again going back to the belief that fundamentally we’re all really the same and we’re all of goodwill and just worrying about fuddy duddy old differences, and that of course … leads to a profound contempt for history, history is merely seen as ashes — something that is dead now. 

But culture is embedded in history and historical experience. There is a quote going back to the end of the 14th century — the beginnings of England, Englishness, and English as a language (remember English is a very new language it’s only 600 years old ), the phrase goes; “just as each year from the dead Earth new corn springs, so from old books new learning comes”. You might say that books are the dreariest of things but the truth is that it was the old books of the classical world that enabled the world of Greece and Rome, that extraordinary rebirth of culture in the late Middle Ages.

TC You said earlier that Blair is a modernist and modernism is fundamentally rooted in a contempt of the past

DS — Contempt and the desire to break with it absolutely, and that was really what Blair tried to do. At a personal level there is nothing more shocking than appointing Blair for the order of the Garter. That is a pollution and I use that word deliberately, it is a pollution of an honourable order to have somebody as contemptuous of history strutting in his feathers and his purple, and his tassels, it’s to treat the past simply as a dressing up box.

TC You call for Britain to reverse everything that Blair has put in place. Can you expand on  this? 

DS — Blair is responsible for the irretrievable financial mess — we have a burden of welfare which is absolutely unsustainable … I mean the absurdity of giving old age pensioners like me … a free television license. Why? 

More than 40 per cent of the population does not pay income tax. People don’t realise that. How did the Labour government end in 2010? With the Chief Secretary of the Treasury leaving a note to his Conservative successor saying, “I’m sorry there’s no money left”. That position has only gotten worse and worse. We have before us the terrible example of Argentina — once a rich country … and because of Peronism it is a ruined country.

There is the issue of unity and devolution of course. If you have a notion that we were a profoundly unitary state, even with adding in Scotland and Wales and Ireland, the idea was that there was a high measure of cultural difference. Remember the first internationals [were] played between England and Scotland in the late 19th century. But there’s a deep sense of the fundamental political unity of the country — that the political union between England and Scotland is a parliamentary union. Then Blair creates devolution which leaves us with a completely unresolved conflict between a unitary and a federal Constitution. It’s [an] absurdity, totally incoherent…

What Blair did was to behave as a calculated vandal. The changes that were introduced under Blair to our constitution weren’t reform — they were vandalistic. That is to say that they left us with a series of absolutely contradictory measures. The British constitution is just the English constitution enlarged — the basis of it is this idea when it’s put in a very abstract way we call it the sovereignty of parliament. The parliament of the 15th century is extraordinary, we just had a state opening of parliament there is the king presiding, there’s a meeting in the House of Lords, you get the bishops and the peers, you get the judges sitting in the middle and you get a gaggle of the House of Commons there, and together with the Commons voting and the Lords voting and the King giving his assent, you get what’s called an Act of Parliament. 

Why does that Act of Parliament bind you? If something has been passed by an Act of Parliament we are obliged, we may dislike it, we may campaign against it but whilst it’s law we are obliged to to obey it. It is important people understand that everyone in England is represented in Parliament, either by himself if he’s a peer or an MP, a bishop or by their representative, in other words our idea of lawmaking is that everybody is involved in it, and that’s been true for hundreds of years. 

Blair deliberately disregards that. He has no regard for Parliament or the British constitution — he thinks on the contrary, that because everybody is the same there should be a one size fits all constitution, which looks vaguely like a cross between the European Union and the Constitution of the United States.

I think that all of these issues are revealed with staggering clarity in what’s going on in the debate over Rwanda. The government makes a decision [but] because of what Blair did, because of the Supreme Court, because of the incorporation of universalist doctrines of Human Rights, the answer is it can’t. Even more profound is that what Parliament can do has gotten less and less. Area after area we have hived out to the specialist committees of experts, this huge network of regulatory bodies, layer after layer of regulation. You don’t just have huge government departments, every government department has got four or five major quangos sitting under it which either duplicate or override its work. 

TCThis is why so many voters have opted out altogether, believing that their vote makes no difference

DS Yes, this profound sense of disillusionment, in a sense [it] makes no difference who you vote for because the machine pushes in one direction. It is the single one tendency that matters … The lawyers, experts, human rights law and the devolved assemblies all push in a liberal, woke direction. There is also the tremendous disappointment of Brexit … disappointment because we cast off the chains of Europe but it turns out that the chains of Europe weren’t the things that were stopping us doing things. Our political system is tied down by things which are not political. This is all Blair’s work. We inherited a revolution and we failed to reverse that revolution.

TC Enter the restoration.

DS I constantly go on about the restoration. We are the only country in the 17th century which actually reversed the revolution, the Puritan Revolution which in many ways was very Blairite. In 1660 we got rid of it — we had a restoration and this is what we should be doing now. The first thing that any conservative government must do is repeal the entirety of the constitutional legislation of New Labor. You can’t legislate against woke but what you can do is destroy its constitutional props — the rule of experts lawyers for example, this is how the stuff is enforced, break the power of the human rights lawyers, of the endless committees of experts. Do that and you can free politics once more.

There was a golden opportunity in 2019 but it was missed. Until we have a politician who understands the importance of a constitution nothing will change. Every schoolboy used to know this, by the way — if the constitution of a country is sick there’s nothing you can do about it, you’re finished…

Civilisation is fragile. our sort of political system is infinitely fragile. There’s a real sense of this fragile structure fraying of the beams and the foundations that support it are worn and … have been deliberately damaged…

What we have at the moment is not sustainable and gets less sustainable by the minute. That’s why I call for a restoration — a deliberate reversal — and until that happens, I’m sorry it’s bye-bye Britain.

Some answers have been edited for brevity.

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