London, England, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
A Rolls Royce Silver Wraith swept up in front of Lieutenant Commander Archibald Stephenson’s Knightsbridge apartment building.
He recognized it as a 1939 model, the last the company produced before the War left little room for luxury cars in the nation’s life.
They’d had the fight of their lives just getting enough calories across the ocean to avoid a famine. Archie was part of that, officering a frigate shepherding convoys past the U-boats.
The chauffeur stepped out to open his door for him, and Archie proceeded inside, settling in the back before the car drove off.
The last time he saw Lord Birkhead was at his father’s funeral, two weeks earlier. After paying his respects Birkhead suggested the meeting. Archibald thought vaguely that it might have been more than a social call, but he couldn’t imagine what Birkhead could have to say to him.
The car spirited Stephenson to Birkhead’s mansion, where the Old Man met him and conversed politely with him over a dinner of smoked salmon and pheasant, delicacies quite hard to come by until recently.
The meeting was awkward, much more so than Stephenson had expected. He had given orders while the torpedoes ran, but he felt like a child in Birkhead’s presence. Part of it was the age difference, he supposed, part of it how far back their acquaintance went, but that couldn’t have been all of what he felt; something about the personal manner of the crisp, donnish older man would probably have had that effect on him regardless.
Archie also felt that something was being held back, something important, that he sensed they were just now getting to when the talk turned toward Stephenson’s future.
“I’m thinking of staying in the Navy,” he said when asked of his plans in so many words.
“I think that’s admirable,” Birkhead said. “And appropriate. The world isn’t done with war, or war with it.
“The Red Army’s sitting on half of Europe. The Bolsheviks are in control of Warsaw, Budapest and Prague, and even sharing control of Vienna and Berlin. They’ve all but drawn a curtain of iron on the lands and peoples behind it, while outside their sphere, there are Communists prepared to go over to them, in Italy, in France, in Greece – where we barely stopped them by force of arms in ’44, and the fight still goes on.
“It might not be very long until we’re looking at Russians across the Channel – or even over the Channel and over here, with all those red flags flying over London. At the end of this ‘victory’ the country feels like it’s under enemy occupation. Who would have pictured that, even five years ago?”
Archie certainly hadn’t.
“The British Empire has been the bulwark of civilization for more than two centuries now. Even Hitler appreciated this.” He closed his eyes, as if fighting back a memory. “There have been so many mistakes, so many mistakes. We should have been allies, not adversaries. But German arrogance on the one side, the socialists and their machinations on the other . . . it’s no use lamenting it now.
“The Empire’s back is broken, no two ways about it. You can forget the old schemes for keeping it going in some form. Canada will incline toward Washington far more than it will to London in the years to come, and Australia and New Zealand can hardly avoid doing the same. And our hold on our other colonies is fainter even than that, in the absence of comparable ties of blood and culture. Our sway in Africa and Asia will disappear even more completely.
“You can forget, too, the notion of a Second Industrial Revolution making the British economy the envy of the world that it was in the era of the Crystal Palace. We have our scientific wizards, in electronics and jets and atomics, but a handful of theoreticians and inventors are no match for the resources of the Americans and Soviets, who are not short on scientists of ability themselves.
“Besides, where they might have been propping us up, the Americans are doing everything they can to encourage the process.”
Archie didn’t care much for the Yanks – overpaid, oversexed and over here as the phrase went – but this was news to him. “Surely they’re not going as far as that . . .”
“If you were privy to what we know, then you would realize they already have. Their aid comes with conditions, always has, and most of those have to do with our opening up the Empire to American business. They claim ‘democratic’ idealism, but it’s greed, pure and simple.
“This is only to be expected, of course. Their elite are no aristocracy, just tradesmen with pretensions, and as a people they’ve always been out for what they can get now. They have no penchant for ruling, no sense of responsibility, no patience. They speak of the future but are incapable of ever taking the long view. Could you picture Americans ruling India for any length of time?
“Still, in contrast with the Soviets, who represent a truly degenerate principle, it is possible to see the Americans as simply immature – and likely to learn better and grow into their proper role if given the chance, a Rome to our Athens. In any event, there is no question of our not working with them. We are too dependent on their material support, and much as it galls me to admit it, no one else can even hope to hold the line against the Soviets.”
“There is European Union,” Archie said weakly.
“True,” Birkhead allowed. “But the French have been even more thoroughly shattered than ourselves, and Germany is even more completely broken than the French – spiritually as well as materially, which is bad enough, given that much of the country is now under Communist control.
“A European Union built around these pieces will have very poor prospects for becoming a real, independent power in the world barring exceptional laxness on the part of the two superpowers dominating the world, exceptional luck – or exceptional vision. In short, the practical options are limited in every direction.
“Now, as you know Archie, your father and I were good friends – and more,” Birkhead said. “We were also both members of a very select group of responsible persons concerned with the governance of the Empire.”
They’d both been in government, of course, but somehow Birkhead didn’t sound like he was talking about the civil service.
“You sound like you’re talking about some secret society,” Archibald said.
Birkhead smiled. “I suppose that, despite the phrase’s melodramatic connotations, the description fits.
“You attended proper schools. You read your Plato, of course?”
Stephenson hesitated, all the more uncertain because of how that question followed Birkhead’s earlier statement.
“Of course,” he said.
“’In the present day it is not to be supposed that a youth can think in Latin,’” he recited. “Coleridge said that almost a century and a half ago, contrasting the knowledge of the Classical languages in his time with his understanding of how matters stood in the fifteenth century.
“The situation has naturally worsened in that regard. Which is a pity, of course, but it is not really the issue here. What does matter is whether you recall Plato’s ideas.”
Archie smiled sheepishly. “Not as well as you sir, I’m sure,” he said.
“In Plato’s most important work, The Republic, he laid out a description of what he believed to be the most perfect type of society. It was an aristocracy, literally rule by the best, who for him were those most capable of apprehending the Idea of the Good.
“Alas, many of the details of his particular model for producing such elites are inapplicable in our situation. He was insufficiently attentive to the value of property, his appreciation of breeding real but a bit too abstract. But the essence of the conception – that, that is something that is not merely practicable, but indispensable, even if it can only be practiced in secret in these times.
“We were members of such a group, one that is all the more important for the recent changes, rather than less. The term ‘philosopher-king’ is common knowledge, but it is well to remember that Plato’s philosopher-kings were themselves derived from a broader class, the Guardians, and it is after these that we have named ourselves . . .”