John wrote a column about England and where it’s going. He’s not sure it’s a happy place.
Where has Britain gone? After almost a week travelling the country, I fear it is sliding into the twilight. How is it losing its identity and why is the country, much like Canada, somehow adrift?
British history is inspiring. I am delighted to be visiting the birthplaces, tombs and monuments of heroes, from Alfred the Great to Stephen Langton, Edward Coke and Horatio Nelson, who helped lay the foundations of liberty under law, defended it in its hour of need, or both. Yet I have a poignant sense, amid these relics of giants, that the British have lost their history and with it their sense of purpose.
Britain is by no means a ruin. It is friendly, prosperous, and mostly courteous, despite pervasively outrageous prices that bring to mind Tony Blair’s “rip-off Britain” jibe. I feel at home here, partly because my personal heritage lies in the British Isles and partly because my cultural and political heritage does. But I also feel, for similar reasons, a familiar sense of disquiet at a culture torn loose from its moorings, a nation with a great future behind it.
Many Britons too are uneasy. Both UKIP on the right and the Scottish National Party on the left reflect a feeling that the centre can’t be bothered trying to hold. And the last Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, famously worried that without a sense of what it meant to be British, the country might crumble.
Familiar feeling, eh? But what could be the elusive common thread of Britishness in a dynamic and open society? Any effort to define, let alone provide, a national identity seems to risk excluding some worthy people. But if you try, as with Canadian multiculturalism, to define an identity as a lack of identity, it has a peculiar capacity to inspire neither enthusiasm nor belief. So allow me to offer the traditional answer: Britain is a land of liberty.
Yes, liberty. In 1649 poet John Milton called London “the mansion-house of liberty.” In the 1760s the great legal commentator William Blackstone called Britain, “A land, perhaps the only one in the universe, in which political or civil liberty is the very end and scope of the constitution.” Land of Hope and Glory calls Britain “mother of the free,” where “Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,/ Have ruled thee well and long;/ By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,/ Thine Empire shall be strong.”
If such sentiments seem peculiarly American, it’s because the United States is a mighty child of this mother. And it was this free Britain that became Great Britain, a cultural, economic and military powerhouse whose minimal government didn’t impair citizens’ freedom of contract or association or dare attempt to take away their weapons.
Again, I say yes, weapons. The British Bill of Rights specifically affirms the right to bear arms (regrettably only Protestants at that point). It was freedom that made Britain powerful, admired, respected, hated and imitated. As U.S. president John Quincy Adams reminded Congress in his first State of the Union, “liberty is power.” And it was as freedom ebbed away that Britain’s greatness began to fade.
I should not paint too bleak a picture. When an acquaintance wailed to Adam Smith that Britain was ruined after the defeat at Saratoga, Smith calmly replied, “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Indeed.
Nearly a decade ago, the BBC did a poll asking what ought to be Britain’s National Day and the winning answer was June 15, the day Magna Carta was sealed. But it is one thing to build a monument, and another to live up to it. On the 200th anniversary of American independence, the United States government was given a magnificent gold replica of Magna Carta by a British government busy smothering liberty in red tape at home while surrendering much effective control over British law to the unelected European Union.
How can it have come to this, and so quickly? I realize Britons were exhausted by two world wars. But I place more blame on 20th-century state promises of security from cradle to grave and “A Land Fit for Heroes.” As Ben Franklin long ago warned would happen, governments since have delivered neither. Britons today are overtaxed, overregulated, under constant surveillance, their heritage largely forgotten and its fruits withered.
In their hearts, Britons still cherish freedom. But to restore it in practice they must summon the same courage reflected in those monuments and epitaphs, and the sense that they are part of a continuing story.
It is also true of Canadians, also children of the “mother of the free.” In the True North Strong and Free we should erect fresh monuments to Alfred, Edward and other giants, to escape the sense of aimless loss that afflicts those who forget their story.