When 30 years ago I resurrected Flashman, the bully in Thomas Hughes’s Victorian novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, political correctness hadn’t been heard of, and no exception was taken to my adopted hero’s character, behaviour, attitude to women and subject races (indeed, any races, including his own) and general awfulness.
On the contrary, it soon became evident that these were his main attractions. He was politically incorrect with a vengeance.
Gloriously politically incorrect: Flashman, the rogue ‘hero’ of Fraser’s novels
Through the Seventies and Eighties I led him on his disgraceful way, toadying, lying, cheating, running away, treating women as chattels, abusing inferiors of all colours, with only one redeeming virtue – the unsparing honesty with which he admitted to his faults, and even gloried in them.
And no one minded, or if they did, they didn’t tell me. In all the many thousands of readers’ letters I received, not one objected.
In the Nineties, a change began to take place. Reviewers and interviewers started describing Flashman (and me) as politically incorrect, which we are, though by no means in the same way.
This is fine by me. Flashman is my bread and butter, and if he wasn’t an elitist, racist, sexist swine, I’d be selling bootlaces at street corners instead of being a successful popular writer.
But what I notice with amusement is that many commentators now draw attention to Flashy’s (and my) political incorrectness in order to make a point of distancing themselves from it.
It’s not that they dislike the books. But where once the non-PC thing could pass unremarked, they now feel they must warn readers that some may find Flashman offensive, and that his views are certainly not those of the interviewer or reviewer, God forbid.
I find the disclaimers alarming. They are almost a knee-jerk reaction and often rather a nervous one, as if the writer were saying: “Look, I’m not a racist or sexist. I hold the right views and I’m in line with modern enlightened thought, honestly.”
They won’t risk saying anything to which the PC lobby could take exception. And it is this that alarms me – the fear evident in so many sincere and honest folk of being thought out of step.
I first came across this in the United States, where the cancer has gone much deeper. As a screenwriter [at which Fraser was almost as successful as he was with the 12 Flashman novels; his best-known work was scripting the Three Musketeers films] I once put forward a script for a film called The Lone Ranger, in which I used a piece of Western history which had never been shown on screen and was as spectacular as it was shocking – and true.
The whisky traders of the American plains used to build little stockades, from which they passed out their ghastly rot-gut liquor through a small hatch to the Indians, who paid by shoving furs back though the hatch.
George MacDonald Fraser: Wrote a devastating denunciation of the forces he believed had destroyed Britain
The result was that frenzied, drunken Indians who had run out of furs were besieging the stockade, while the traders sat snug inside and did not emerge until the Indians had either gone away or passed out.
Political correctness stormed onto the scene, red in tooth and claw. The word came down from on high that the scene would offend “Native Americans”.
Their ancestors may have got pieeyed on moonshine but they didn’t want to know it, and it must not be shown on screen. Damn history. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen because we don’t like the look of it.
I think little of people who will deny their history because it doesn’t present the picture they would like.
My forebears from the Highlands of Scotland were a fairly primitive, treacherous, blood-thirsty bunch and, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, would have been none the worse for washing. Fine, let them be so depicted, if any film maker feels like it; better that than insulting, inaccurate drivel like Braveheart.
The philosophy of political correctness is now firmly entrenched over here, too, and at its core is a refusal to look the truth squarely in the face, unpalatable as it may be.
Political correctness is about denial, usually in the weasel circumlocutory jargon which distorts and evades and seldom stands up to honest analysis.
It comes in many guises, some of them so effective that the PC can be difficult to detect. The silly euphemisms, apparently harmless, but forever dripping to wear away common sense – the naivete of the phrase “a caring force for the future” on Remembrance poppy trays, which suggests that the army is some kind of peace corps, when in fact its true function is killing.
The continual attempt to soften and sanitise the harsh realities of life in the name of liberalism, in an effort to suppress truths unwelcome to the PC mind; the social engineering which plays down Christianity, demanding equal status for alien religions.
The selective distortions of history, so beloved by New Labour, denigrating Britain’s past with such propaganda as hopelessly unbalanced accounts of the slave trade, laying all the blame on the white races, but carefully censoring the truth that not a slave could have come out of Africa without the active assistance of black slavers, and that the trade was only finally suppressed by the Royal Navy virtually single-handed.
In schools, the waging of war against examinations as “elitist” exercises which will undermine the confidence of those who fail – what an intelligent way to prepare children for real life in which competition and failure are inevitable, since both are what life, if not liberal lunacy, is about.
PC also demands that “stress”, which used to be coped with by less sensitive generations, should now be compensated by huge cash payments lavished on griping incompetents who can’t do their jobs, and on policemen and firemen “traumatised” by the normal hazards of work which their predecessors took for granted.
Furthermore, it makes grieving part of the national culture, as it was on such a nauseating scale when large areas were carpeted in rotting vegetation in “mourning” for the Princess of Wales; and it insists that anyone suffering ordinary hardship should be regarded as a “victim” – and, of course, be paid for it.
That PC should have become acceptable in Britain is a glaring symptom of the country’s decline.
No generation has seen their country so altered, so turned upside down, as children like me born in the 20 years between the two world wars. In our adult lives Britain’s entire national spirit, its philosophy, values and standards, have changed beyond belief.
Probably no country on earth has experienced such a revolution in thought and outlook and behaviour in so short a space.
Other lands have known what seem to be greater upheavals, the result of wars and revolutions, but these do not compare with the experience of a country which passed in less than a lifetime from being the mightiest empire in history, governing a quarter of mankind, to being a feeble little offshore island whose so-called leaders have lost the will and the courage, indeed the ability, to govern at all.
This is not a lament for past imperial glory, though I regret its inevitable passing, nor is it the raging of a die-hard Conservative.
I loathe all political parties, which I regard as inventions of the devil. My favourite prime minister was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, not because he was on the Right, but because he spent a year in office without, on his own admission, doing a damned thing.
This would not commend him to New Labour, who count all time lost when they’re not wrecking the country.
I am deeply concerned for the United Kingdom and its future. I look at the old country as it was in my youth and as it is today and, to use a fine Scots word, I am scunnered.
I know that some things are wonderfully better than they used to be: the new miracles of surgery, public attitudes to the disabled, the health and well-being of children, intelligent concern for the environment, the massive strides in science and technology.
Yes, there are material blessings and benefits innumerable which were unknown in our youth.
But much has deteriorated. The United Kingdom has begun to look more like a Third World country, shabby, littered, ugly, run down, without purpose or direction, misruled by a typical Third World government, corrupt, incompetent and undemocratic.
My generation has seen the decay of ordinary morality, standards of decency, sportsmanship, politeness, respect for the law, family values, politics and education and religion, the very character of the British.
Oh how Blimpish this must sound to modern ears, how out of date, how blind to “the need for change and the novelty of a new age”. But don’t worry about me. It’s the present generation with their permissive society, their anything-goes philosophy, and their generally laid-back, inyerface attitude I feel sorry for.
They regard themselves as a completely liberated society when in fact they are less free than any generation since the Middle Ages.
Indeed, there may never have been such an enslaved generation, in thrall to hang-ups, taboos, restrictions and oppressions unknown to their ancestors (to say nothing of being neck-deep in debt, thanks to a moneylender’s economy).
We were freer by far 50 years ago – yes, even with conscription, censorship, direction of labour, rationing, and shortages of everything that nowadays is regarded as essential to enjoyment.
We still had liberty beyond modern understanding because we had other freedoms, the really important ones, that are denied to the youth of today.
We could say what we liked; they can’t. We were not subject to the aggressive pressure of specialinterest minority groups; they are. We had no worries about race or sexual orientation; they have. We could, and did, differ from fashionable opinion with impunity, and would have laughed PC to scorn, had our society been weak and stupid enough to let it exist.
We had available to us an education system, public and private, that was the envy of the world. We had little reason to fear being mugged or raped (killed in war, maybe, but that was an acceptable hazard).
Our children could play in street and country in safety. We had few problems with bullies because society knew how to deal with bullying and was not afraid to punish it in ways that would send today’s progressives into hysterics.
We did not know the stifling tyranny of a liberal establishment, determined to impose its views, and beginning to resemble George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
Above all, we knew who we were and we lived in the knowledge that certain values and standards held true, and that our country, with all its faults and need for reforms, was sound at heart.
Not any more. I find it difficult to identify a time when the country was as badly governed as it has been in the past 50 years.
We have had the two worst Prime Ministers in our history – Edward Heath (who dragooned us into the Common Market) and Tony Blair. The harm these two have done to Britain is incalculable and almost certainly irreparable.
Whether the public can be blamed for letting them pursue their ruinous policies is debatable.
Short of assassination there is little people can do when their political masters have forgotten the true meaning of the democracy of which they are forever prating, are determined to have their own way at all costs and hold public opinion in contempt.
I feel I speak not just for myself but for the huge majority of my generation who think as I do but whose voices are so often lost in the clamour.
We are yesterday’s people, the over-the-hill gang. (Yes, the old people – not the senior citizens or the time-challenged, but the old people.) Those of ultra-liberal views may take consolation from this – that my kind won’t be around much longer, and then they can get on with wrecking civilisation in peace.
But they should beware. There may well be more who think like me than the liberal Left establishment likes to think. When my views were first published in book form in 2002, I was not surprised that almost all the reviewers were unfavourable. I had expected that my old-fashioned views would get a fairly hostile reception, but the bitterness did astonish me.
I had not realised how offensive the plain truth can be to the politically correct, how enraged they can be by its mere expression, and how deeply they detest the values and standards respected 50 years ago and which dinosaurs like me still believe in, God help us.
But the readers’ reactions to the book were the exact opposite of critical opinion. I have never received such wholehearted and generous support.
For the first time in 30 years as a professional writer I had to fall back on a printed card thanking readers for writing, apologising because I could not reply personally to them all.
Most of the letters came from the older generation, but by no means all. I was made aware that among the middle-aged and people in their 20s and 30s there is a groundswell of anger and frustration at the damage done to Britain by so-called reformers and dishonest politicians who hardly bother to conceal their contempt for the public’s wishes.
Plainly many thought they were alone in some reactionary minority. They had been led to think that they were voices muttering to themselves in the wilderness.
Well, you are not. There are more of you out there than you realise – very many more, perhaps even a majority.
• Edited extract from The Light’s On At Signpost by George MacDonald Fraser (published by Harper Collins)