Britain, liberator and oppressor
A short, insightful history
This royal throne of kings, this sceptr'd isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden, demi-paradise; this fortress built by nature for herself against infection and the hand of war; this happy breed of men, this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea, which serves it... as a moat defensive to a house against the envy of less happier lands. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England... - John of Gaunt, in King Richard the Second, by William Shakespeare, 1595
This is the story of a nation with roots going back many millennia. In Megalithic times between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago it was a vibrant centre of ancient knowledge and culture. For the next millennium it was the home of Druids, warriors, craftspeople and farmers. From 2,000 to 900 years ago it was invaded four times, divided up and considerably set back. During the following 400 years it was ruled by at times tyrannical medieval elites.
In the last 500 years has undergone a tumultuous transformation which has turned it into a prosperous, focal, innovative world power which has contributed significantly to building the foundations of today's globalised order. It has been both an oppressor and a liberator, a destroyer and a builder, and a dispenser of concepts, business systems, legal and governmental styles, inventions and cultural influences.
The islands of Britain were originally more or less unified, a patchwork of peoples and tribes. Its borders were its coastline. Steeped in a history going as far back as those of ancient Egypt, Iraq, Mexico, India and China, it has a rich sense of heritage and at times is as a result backward-looking. Its official and popular cultures are sometimes at loggerheads. Underneath its accepted official history lies a hidden emotional and spiritual history affecting its behaviour today. The British nowadays include the English, Cornish, Welsh, Scots, two communities in Ulster and sizeable minorities of migrants from the world over.
There is confusion between 'England' and 'Britain', mainly because the English are no longer sure who they are. The English are the Brits who are not Scots, Welsh, Cornish or Irish - all of whom know who they are. England has been the dominant of these nations, and from the 1600s onwards it extended its power over the rest. As with Yugoslavs and Afghans, the British are well mongrelised: in former times they received genetic inputs from Trojans, Scythians, Jews, Gaels, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and others, as well as dominant strains from Celts, Germans and Scandinavians. Since the 1600s Britain has taken in a steady trickle of refugees too.
Those who attend churches and mosques are now roughly equal in number. Nominally Christian, Britain is one of the world's most secular countries, with the BBC as chief priest. Britain is a constitutional monarchy without a constitution, claiming the mother of parliaments, though its democracy, when examined closely, raises questions - half of its legislators are appointees and inheritees, and the other half are elected by a dramatically skewed electoral system. This system is historic and nicely complex, and that is the quaint thing about the British.
In recent centuries Britain has been a world-dominator, and it still punches above its weight. USA, the inheritor of this role, has much to learn from the decline of British power between 1900 and 1950, during which time Brits continued to believe that the only direction they could go was up, even though they were going down. The British have brought helpful and harmful influences to the world - epitomised in its recent assistance of the invasion of Iraq - resulting in conflicting feelings and outcomes worldwide. Like the British, Americans believe they have given something wonderful to the world without realising they take and demand a lot too. The British gave the world a global language, capitalism and many technologies, governmental and legal principles. All this was smelted in the crucible of a sufficiently large but rather small collection of islands located on the Atlantic rim of Eurasia.
The ancient Britons
Ancient Britons left no written records. They passed down their knowledge through 'whispered lineages', yet they left plenty of traces in the form of impressive henges, standing stones, dolmens and mounds from the Megalithic period some 3-6,000 years ago - the temples of an arcane ancient high religion. This civilisation used advanced architectural, mathematical and astronomical knowledge in building these sacred sites. The earliest are in the west of Ireland, 6,500 years old, while the zenith came in southern Britain with the building of Avebury and Stonehenge 4,000 years ago. This rather unique ancient religion seems to have come from the Atlantic, from a source unknown. Early mounds and megaliths were built by tribal cultures in the 3000s BCE while the later great stone circles such as Stonehenge and Avebury were built by a society national in structure and scale in the 2000s BCE.
These sites suggest a spiritually, socially and technologically developed society, yet there are also cracked heads and buried weapons there too - as always, the best and worst of human traits thrived in the same society. The temples were high-tech energy transformers, connecting the forces of heaven and earth by aligning standing stones to the rising and setting points of sun, moon and heavenly bodies, in mathematical patterns tracing planetary cycles and aligned also to surrounding hilltops and landscape features. Megalithic culture had declined by 1200 BCE and, by 600 BCE, a new culture arose, partly indigenous and partly prompted by immigrants and cultural influences arriving from mainland Europe. These were the Celts, a mixture of migrants and ancient Britons.
The Celts in Europe were a pan-European confederacy or culture of many different tribes. At their peak in the 800s-400s BCE, their culture spread across territories stretching from Turkey to Hungary to Spain to Scotland. Their heartlands lay in Bavaria and Lorraine, at the headwaters of the Rhine, Danube and Rhône. This disparate assortment of peoples was bound by a common culture, led by an elite of Druids (shaman-priests), Ovates (judges and advisors) and Bards (poets and historians), many of whom served as tribal chiefs. The Celts were communal, semi-democratic (with chosen leaders) and advanced in law and justice, but they were clannish too. They used iron technologies, which helped them shape the land, creating copious settlements, hill-forts, roads and towns.
Britannia - a colony of Rome
By 2,000 years ago, British character was already well formed, with its characteristic elements of pride, ingenuity, heroism, industry, decency, independence and stroppy quarrelsomeness. This quarrelsomeness (as with the Greeks) eventually proved to be their undoing. Julius Caesar staged a warning raid on Britain in 55/54 BCE, but the Britons made a solid response and proved it wasn't worth the trouble. Ninety years later, in 43 CE, the country was in relative internal disarray, and when the Roman emperor Claudius attacked British shores the defences fell quite quickly.
This was a pre-emptive strike. The British made the same mistake as most Celtic peoples across Europe, proudly placing tribal over collective interests and thereby giving the enemy a means of entry, through driving a wedge between them - solidarity is not one of the Britons' strong points. Divided, the British were easy to pick off and defeat. The British fought back but it was already too late. One of Britain's great historic heroes, Caradoc (Caractacus), a druidic high king, headed the resistance. After a while, Caradoc was betrayed by the northern Brigantes tribe, who sought advantage and clemency from the Romans. He and his much-loved daughter Gladys were sent to Rome as royal hostages.
Gladys and her entourage later invited Jesus' disciples Peter and Paul to Rome. Before the Roman attack, Caradoc had admitted Christian refugees to Britain: there's the tradition of Joseph of Arimathaea building the world's first purpose-built Christian church at Glastonbury, modelled on the dimensions of Solomon's Temple. So the British played a role in the very early development of two strains of Christianity.
The Romans took six decades to subdue the British. Boudicca, a rebel queen, was quoted by Tacitus as saying, in 61 CE: "I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters" (they had been raped). The Roman invasion was motivated by money and power. Britain, possessing rich reserves of tin (in Cornwall) and lead (in Somerset), was in a not dissimilar position to the Arab Gulf States of today, possessing rich resources and thereby capable of holding the Roman economy to ransom if they so wished, by withholding supplies or flooding the market.
The Druids, whom the Romans saw as magical terrorists with occult weapons of mass destruction, had retreated to Britain for a last stand. This time of British guerrilla resistance, incurring enormous losses and for a time engaging one third of the Roman army, left strong psychological scars on the national psyche. Britons were divided amongst themselves - some were spirited resisters against the Romans and some were pragmatic collaborators - and the national spirit was truly sundered.
Tragically, resistance movements such as this represent an attempt to preserve a traditional order when it is already too late. The lapse of unity that had admitted the Romans to Britain remains a forgotten stain on the nation's psyche. It also set a precedent for the future - this island fortress had lost its invincibility.
The Romans stayed for 350 years. During this long phase many Britons became romanised. People from across the empire visited and settled in Britain. Aquae Sulis, or Bath, a spa resort, became one of the empire's richest towns in later Roman days. By the 300s the country was a prosperous exporter of crafts, metalwork and textiles. On the Roman withdrawal around 410 there was a serious collapse of the economy and social systems, but it was eventually followed by a revival. These were unsteady times, punctuated with raids by the Irish and the Picts of Scotland.
Then, during a domestic political battle around 450, the high king Vortigern invited Angle, Saxon and Jutish warriors from north Germany and Rhineland to settle in Kent, to add military muscle to his case. His plan, to change the elective monarchy to an hereditary one, did not succeed. Meanwhile the Saxons had gained a foothold, and this was to lead to trouble. Again, internal disagreements amongst the Britons led to foreign incursion.
This brings us to the legendary Arthurian period around 490-540, the time of a mythic war leader who united the Britons, beat back the Saxons, restored peace and, according to tradition, set in motion a profound national spiritual quest. The Grail Quest was a search for the nation's soul and the essence of the ancient mystery traditions, during a confused time when Britain had become multicultural, multi-religious and highly transitional.
The history of this time is foggy, but there is some basis for the Arthurian legends, even though they were embellished with medieval imagery when they were written down some 600 years later in Norman times. The legends symbolise times of change and crisis, where the old and the new, the magical and the political were in conflict. A story of glory and downfall, victory and loss, the Arthurian legends recorded a growing character of glory and tragedy within the soul of the British. When Arthur and the order he represented died, the nation's spirit was devastated. The Britons were now to lose much of their land.
The birth of the English
During the 500s, ever-increasing numbers of Angles, Saxons and Jutes overran what became their country, England. They pillaged, seized land, exterminated and drove the Britons westward, though many also kept their heads down and adjusted to the new presence on the land of what became England. This time of ethnic cleansing, lasting shame and heartbreak is rarely given more than blithe mention in British history - a history written by the victors, the English. The Saxons established farms, villages and towns, forging a new landscape, England, made up eventually of seven small kingdoms, the biggest being Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex.
By the 700s Saxon England had become a rich and unified culture, now bound into the Catholic orbit after the visit of a papal legate, Augustine, in 597. We are told he christianised Britain, but this concerned only the English - the Britons had known Christianity for centuries, grafting it onto Druidry. A notable early English national hero was Alfred the Great in the late 800s, England's first proper king, a lawgiver and patron of culture who faced a Viking invasion and managed to turn a catastrophe into a relatively manageable settlement - England was temporarily divided into Saxon and Viking halves.
The remaining Britons had fled to Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria (Rheged), Strathclyde, Ireland and Brittany. These Celtic lands had their subsequent cultural high-points: the Celtic church played a part in preserving not only British but also European culture, founding monasteries and libraries across western Europe during a dark and unsettled time in the 500s and 600s. But the Celtic zenith was long gone. In due course the British church was subsumed by the Roman church: the Synod of Whitby of 664 marked a cruxpoint where the Saxon Catholic bishops overwhelmed the Celtic bishops. This concerned political as much as religious power. The English were setting out to gain control over the Britons - a slow process which lifted off properly in the 1100s. The long uneasy relationship of the English and the people of the 'Celtic Fringe' began, and it has not yet reached a final conclusion today.
The situation was to become more complex. During the 900s the Vikings penetrated Britain and Ireland: there were traumatic, murderous scenes, and many of the nation's finest assets were destroyed, melted down and taken away. Danes settled in northern and eastern England, and Norwegians settled coastal Ireland, west Wales and the northwest of Scotland. The Vikings reached their zenith in Britain at the time of Knut (Canute), king of England and Denmark in 1016-35. But the Vikings did not annihilate the Saxons - both cultures were related to each other. After Knut the Saxons regained the initiative for a while. Then came another disaster.
Originally the Normans were Vikings. They had taken Normandy in northern France, where they thrived, transforming themselves into an armour-plated, church-sanctioned military-political force with big European ambitions. They penetrated armies and royal courts, expanding their French possessions and gaining Sicily, and eventually playing a central role in the Crusades. In 1066 they invaded England. Were it not that England was hit from two directions - the Danes were attacking too, up north - the Normans might not have succeeded.
They were professional occupiers and rulers, not settlers: the Saxons became their subjects, made into serfs (semi-slaves). William the Conqueror awarded estates to his faithful supporters, who took charge of England as feudal lords, each with their own armed force. This was a heartless, proto-Stalinist time: submit, work and obey, or we kill you. Here began England's rigidly emphasised class system, the ruling class being a French-speaking aristocracy which cared little about the people. The country was inventorised for its economic and tax value, all recorded in the Domesday Book.
The Normans brought a phase of economic development and high medieval culture to England. In the 1100s enormous church- and castle-building projects proceeded, and market towns, feudal estates, monasteries and centralised governance blossomed. Yet people were largely treated with disdain: England had become two nations, rich and poor, exemplified in the legends of Robin Hood, a forest terrorist who robbed rich Normans to help poor Saxons. This was England's version of the medieval state-building process we saw in Serbia in the preceding chapter - a very alienating time.
England was a peripheral developing nation but growing in stature. The following centuries were complex: cathedrals were built, universities and libraries founded, fortified towns grew up and the hedge-and-coppice farming landscape of England was developed. Wales was subdued, south Scotland and part of Ireland were infiltrated, and foreign Crusades were joined. The famous Crusader Richard the Lionheart was king for a decade (1189-99), but he spent only six months in England, using the country as a tax source while he was in the Holy Land.
The country had extremes of piety and immorality, justice was rough, society was greatly divided, there were many outcasts and poor, and occasional ugly blood-lettings and persecutions of Jews: this was the medieval order, illustrated in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Life was mean for many and bloated for others, and the aristocracy and church proved a heavy burden on the people. Notable in the grounding of English law and government was Edward I (1272-1307), who founded parliament, gave shape to the English system of common law and made the place a bit more respectable.
In 1348-51 the Black Death came, killing one-third of Britain's population. It created massive disruption, decimating villages and swelling towns, cutting the workforce and effectively ending serfdom by creating labour shortages, turning the country into more of a wage-earning economy. The plague seriously undermined people's faith in the medieval world order. Many of the nation's best people died.
This took place during the Hundred Years' War (1330s-1450s, in several phases, also aptly called The Cousins' War), which to most people was a pointless and costly power-struggle between the royal houses of England and France. In a convoluted way it decided that England and France were never to be united. This aristocratic warring habit then turned into the Wars of the Roses of 1455-85, a civil war for royal power which brought with it more taxes, disorder, random injustice and civil disruption. The outcome of this was the welcome weakening of the nobility.
The beginnings of modernity
During the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47) England started firing up its engines. Something new was emerging: exploratory and piratic voyages set off to far-off lands, a new navy was built, trade and prosperity picked up, a new social and economic order started taking shape and England separated from the Church of Rome. The long Roman and Italian cultural dominance of Europe was ending, and England and Holland now stood at Europe's newly dynamic centre.
The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-40, a forced cultural cleansing, destroyed Catholicism and wiped out a whole order of society: monks and nuns were forced to disrobe, church properties were expropriated and the state religion was made Protestant by decree. This was a fierce and tough time, yet Henry the Renaissance king and his generation, despite their wars with Scotland and France and their ripping and tearing at the fabric of society, brought a new spirit to the country.
During the reign of Henry's daughter Elizabeth I in the late 1500s England achieved a golden age and became a major naval power. It was stable, expanding and prosperous. Elizabeth was popular and cultured, a tough reconciler who presided over a talented and prosperous age. England was modernising rapidly and society was changing. These were the days of Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, heroes of a new England that was spreading its wings and exporting its ideas as far as the court of Akbar the Great in India.
The dynasty that followed, the Stuarts, who brought England and Scotland under one crown, were to learn that royal power could no longer remain absolute. Parliamentarians grew in strength and support while royalty became increasingly grandiose and out of step with the nation. The English Civil War of 1642-48 tore the nation apart, ruining families and the allegiances of villages and towns. A decade-long fight between burgher parliamentarians and traditional royalists, this political revolution turned England into a republic, then into a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and then, with conditions, into a monarchy again.
The English, Scots and Irish suffered terribly from Cromwell's military campaigns. Here began the Protestant settlement of Ulster, the effects of which continue today, and the domination of Scotland by England. In the end, the royal establishment returned to control government while the Protestant business classes focused on economic modernisation and power. Here arose a pattern where power lay officially with the government yet unofficially with business magnates, who could determine, if they so chose, where the parameters lay.
The land enclosures of the 1600s and 1700s robbed countrypeople of their common lands and smallholdings. Landowners simply fenced off land which, up to that time, had been commonly held by tradition, without legal contracts. They had legal backing, simply driving countryfolk away to the growing towns and the new colonies, keeping a few of them as farm- and estate-workers. Long-standing communities and extended families were ripped up and the nation crossed an alienation threshold. The economy was increasingly money-oriented and the institutions of capitalism were being established - stock and commodity markets, insurance, banking, finance and companies.
Throughout the country, traditional arrangements were being superseded by a whole new order increasingly steered by bankers, lawyers and businessmen. Thinkers, researchers, inventors and merchant adventurers pushed out the frontiers. The country was buzzing, unwittingly giving birth to a modern world, and beginning to go global. An omen of the time was the Great Fire of London in 1666, which wiped out the city, causing a burst of reconstruction of the capital. By 1850 London was to be the world's centre of finance and power.
In the later 1700s and the 1800s there was an enormous migration of people from country villages to the new industrial towns, to work in the new 'dark, satanic mills'. Population growth was rapid. Local village communities and kinship networks broke down, supplanted by new urban communities in the factory towns. Canals were dug, industries expanded, new mechanical technologies developed, trade was expanded and newspapers were founded.
There was large scale emigration of disadvantaged people and opportunity-seekers to America, India and the colonies - this rather cruel and tumultuous time was one of many goodbyes. Some emigration was forced: large numbers were 'transported' as punishment for the smallest of crimes such as theft, to penal colonies in Australia, never to return. The British people were meted tough treatment: this represented the atomising of a society, an individualisation process where people felt more on their own, while the crowds grew larger.
In the Scots highlands and islands, the clan system was suppressed and destroyed after the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. Terrorised clansfolk left for the cities and colonies, and their land was filled with sheep supplying wool for the mills they went to work in. Scotland and England had shared the same Stuart kings from 1604, and they were formally united in 1707. Wales had been incorporated in 1532 by Henry VIII. The United Kingdom as a formal entity, with Ireland included, was founded in 1800. Full control of the Celtic Fringe by the English, first started centuries before by the Normans, was finally achieved.
The steam age
A new urbanised society with a bourgeoisie and working classes now appeared. Great cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow and hosts of other industrial towns expanded rapidly, linked by canals and later by railways. By now Britain stood at the heart of a great, expanding empire which supplied it raw materials and in turn bought its goods. Britain's new-fangled machines pounded out goods and its financiers, missionaries, soldiers and engineers fanned out around the globe bringing Western development to places as far flung as Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, India, China and the Pacific islands. This was hard for the working people, who lived in poor conditions in rows of terraced houses around the mills, railways and mines.
Britain had no political revolutions like France, since its political and economic systems had changed earlier, but the gulf between rich and poor was enormous, and there were restive and anarchic times - food and anti-modernisation (Luddite) riots and the beginnings of trade union activism. Napoleon isolated Britain from Europe between 1800 and 1815, causing an economic crisis, but this had a long-lasting effect: from this time Britain no longer saw itself as part of Europe, and its trade and affiliations with the wider world became more important. Napoleon threatened invasion, as did Hitler 140 years later, but nothing came of either attempt. Modernisation was now going at a roaring pace, with radical effects across society. From the 1820s the steam age took off, and railways and steam-boats, growing bigger and faster by mid-century, were within decades to haul modernity and globalisation to the world's corners.
By the end of the century and the Victorian period Britain was on top of the world, a centre of culture, science, industry, business and naval and military dominance. Its innovative, productive and creative output was staggering. By 1900 other nations such as Germany and USA caught up and began overtaking. Society and the group psyche of the British had by now been fundamentally reconfigured, taking the Western style of civilisation through a technical, financial and psychological transition which was to explode in scale and magnitude in the 20th Century. This was the peak of Britain's greatness and global contribution. Its impending decline was hardly visible, partially because of pride and unwillingness to see it, and partially because what was to come was much bigger than anybody could see.
Bertie and Jeeves, Penny Lane and Cool Britannia
This new world was urban and industrial, connected up with railways and telegraph wires, world-spanning, increasingly science-based, a whole world away from the state of things two, three or four millennia before. It was about to go through a quantum shift without forethought. Britain was to lose impetus and centrality and the world would go mad. The first round was 'The Great War' of 1914-18, a disastrous war of attrition between Germany-Austria-Turkey and Britain-France-Russia. The old European aristocratic-monarchical order died an ugly death, at immense cost to the ordinary people. Millions of men were lost in the mud of Flanders, and many of Britain's worldwide assets were sold to finance the war.
The country plummeted into a period of decline lasting until the 1960s. During that period the country's world leadership became outmoded, the empire was dissembled, the Depression and World War Two ate away at Britain's wealth and at the old order. By the late 1940s its cities were a bombed-out mess. In a sense this period was disastrous for Britain. Yet in another sense there were exciting developments in science, broadcasting and public life. The Second World War acted as a punctuation point between past and future, a death and rebirth of the nation.
The population had undertaken two major wars, which traumatised the nation and both united and transformed it too. During the Second World War, in two years flat, the economy was recast into a command-based war economy. This demonstrated how a nation, when fully motivated and mobilised, can overcome enormous adversity and break all expectations: Britain came within a whisker of defeat, but made it through. The price was high and, by the 1950s, the nation was reeling, not sure where to go, releasing old colonies, reviving from an utter disaster and casting around for a future, though looking backwards for clues. It had gone from glory to devastation in two generations.
The rebirth was cultural and social rather than economic. In the 1960s, an explosion of ideas, music and creative arts brought the birth of a new paradigm and a new set of values that were far from Victorian. Times were getting better, and lively and spirited. Britain became a swinging centre in a new international movement, buzzing with ideas, and Liverpool, a declining imperial port, experienced a burst of genius and fame, briefly serving as a raucously innovative world cultural capital.
This movement was to work on the periphery of society during the coming decades, evolving political, environmental, spiritual, technological and social prototypes for future incorporation. Yet it fostered creativity that had a large impact worldwide, particularly through music, publishing and in the work of idealists - across the world in conservation projects, political campaigns and cultural enterprises a British person was invariably involved. During this time Britain was becoming multicultural, absorbing Chinese, Indians, Africans and Caribbean peoples - the full impact came slowly and through second-generation non-white Brits who, by the 1980s-90s, were broadening British culture significantly. This fed back also to their cultures of origin, setting up business, cultural and political connections which have given Britain a second wave of world influence.
By 2000 Britain had grown prosperous again, this time on service industries rather than manufacturing. It had new confidence and a place in the world, no longer feeling post-colonial. Its last significant colony, Hong Kong, was released in 1997. Having played such a key world role, it now lives with the carry-over: extended global tentacles and involvements, with a seat in the international arena larger than it otherwise would deserve. Torn in allegiance between its European and American allegiances, it struggles for an identity. UK joined the European Community in 1972, yet its role in Europe is quirky - at times communitaire, at other times troublesome and uncooperative. The British nation today is a repository of ripples of emotional memory from a long, sometimes cruel, sometimes brilliant, kaleidoscopic past, unsure whether it is creating a future or re-creating a past.
Britain's conservative, class-conscious and military streak was consolidated in Norman times and hardened over nearly a millennium of increasing social distancing between rulers and ruled. Class exclusivity was maintained as much by those at the bottom as those at the top, and the stratified and zoned social geology of Britain acted as a hothouse for cultural evolution. One symptom of this hot-housing is the English language, successful because it had developed so many ways of saying the same thing, being grammatically informal and variegated, allowing easy mutation as linguistic needs develop. Shakespeare, who was responsible for more language-formation than any other individual, contributed mightily here.
This linguistic richness derived from Britain's intense regionality and class structure, in effect creating many nations within one nation. This gave the British skills by which to govern a multiplicity of colonial territories, handling complex and ancient lands such as India, China, Burma, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine. Some of the boldest empire-builders were Scots, who set off to foreign parts to apply British rule over their hapless recipients in the very same ways that the English had earlier applied to them. Wales, Scotland and Ireland had been the proving grounds of a control philosophy which later informed the whole globalisation process.
Britain lacks a written constitution and bill of rights - sometimes called a 'democratic dictatorship'. The British remain technically subjects of the Crown, which is officially the guarantor of all rights and freedoms - though, in reality, and just to complicate things, this is hardly true since the Crown has few powers. Many signs of the class system have now evaporated, yet the nation is still controlled by an elite graduated from Oxford and Cambridge universities.
A strange mixture of emotional hardness and empathy, insularity and internationalism, born not only of island life but also of rugged individualism, characterises the British. This emerged from the heart-wrenching separations and tragedies of British history. With its tough upbringing, this nation has therefore exerted both a creative and a desensitising effect on the rest of the world - a precursor role to that of USA in the last sixty years.
Despite its historic discontinuities, Britain has experienced significant continuity compared with most nations. Brits are experienced in civilisation and modernity and their greatest export is ideas and creative output. The Beatles created unparalleled musical innovations, and their few years of fame gave the world decades-worth of material to play with. Such creativity and capability makes British people liked and wanted, while their conservative, quirky, arrogant streak makes them a wee bit difficult to have around.
In the 20th Century, Britain's decline was both unbearable and an eventual relief. It created difficulties between the English and the Welsh, Scots and Irish, ending up with an independent Ireland, semi-autonomy for Wales and Scotland and an attempted autonomy for Ulster which refuses to happen. The 'Celtic Fringe' has found a new identity, strongly pro-European to circumvent English influence. Northern Ireland hangs on as a post-colonial headache most English find a burden they would prefer to have done with, but historic guilt, plus the possible horrors of leaving Ulster to itself leave the matter hanging uncomfortably. Ulster is UK's achilles heel.
For the psyche of any nation, its heroes and its lauded makers of history constitute just the official, chronicled side. Behind this parade of notables are generations of people who grew the crops, sailed the ships, trod the streets, manned the factories and felt the feelings ordinary people feel. The cruelty of war and the significant loss of menfolk were felt by the women and children, and the levies, tithes and taxes were borne by long-forgotten peasants and working people. In Victorian times, Jane Austen chronicled the lives of the privileged while Charles Dickens chronicled life in the streets of London, and a vast difference there was between them. Upstairs and downstairs were entirely different worlds.
Britain bears comparison with a number of other countries. Like Japan, it is fiercely independent, addicted to tradition, a sacred land with a strong feel for materialism. Like India, it has multiple castes creating a cultural fermentation and boundless creativity. Like China it considers itself great and central whether or not this actually is so. Like Germany, it is industrious and technologically advanced but rather dour and stiff too. Like Israel it is a holy land, manifesting the best and worst aspects of the human spirit. Like France it alternates between progressive and conservative ideas. Like USA it considers itself a fount of freedom and democratic tradition, while its shadow is one of despair and injustice. Like Spain it is one country but different countries. Like Turkey and Austria it is a former imperial power, beshadowed by a sense of loss and former greatness.
This nation's disasters and divisions have nevertheless yielded fruit. The Battle of Britain in 1940-42 forged a new national unity and identity born of triumph over adversity. Yet the nation is today rather lost, casting around for a purpose beyond the making of money and business. In the 1960s a new Grail Quest reappeared amongst the young, whose dreams were subsequently tamped down but nevertheless percolate into modern times. This movement for a spirit-driven world gave expression to deep social conscience and moral questing.
The resistant and sectorised nature of British society, cruelly emphasised during Margaret Thatcher's reign in the 1980s, suppressed and marginalised this movement, and the nation today pays a price for disregarding this vision. Visions don't come with options - the only alternative is visionlessness. As a result Britain cannot decide how much to go along with international consensus and how much to take a stand for what it believes in. So it drags its feet until post-actively obliged by circumstance to do something.
This foot-dragging quality was demonstrated in the way the empire was released. The signs were present by 1920 that decolonialisation was coming, yet there was a lack of forward vision. Winston Churchill resisted all thought of the end of empire well into the 1940s. Insufficient attention was given to nation-building in the colonies, assisting new political and social cultures and initiating appropriate modernisation. When decolonisation gained momentum between 1947 and 1970, insufficient homework had been done. Promises were broken, stupid decisions were made and important matters were left to the last minute. This led to great damage in India, the Middle East and Africa.
This adds to the hidden guilt of the British. It manifests today in humanitarianism and a wish to do right geopolitically. In terms of military intervention, this arguably brought benefit in Bosnia, East Timor and Sierra Leone, and questionable outcomes in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. But the great failing with such interventions is that the job has not been fully done. Britain stands in a strong position to play a progressive influence worldwide, but it is constrained by a fear of loss of business advantage and influence: given the choice between arms exports and humanitarian concerns, words are muttered about ethical foreign policy but the arms are still sold. Had Britain taken a stand for unilateral nuclear disarmament in the early 1980s when such a possibility was mooted (CND was then the country's biggest political organisation), or had it taken a stand in the 1990s for organic farming, clean energy or unilateral action on greenhouse gases, the nation might have placed itself ahead of the game worldwide.
Such strategies would have strengthened, not weakened, Britain's world position, particularly in terms of moral integrity. But it requires guts, innovation and moral resolve. It requires trust in the future and in the love and respect that Brits, by their character, invoke worldwide - and also spoil by their periodic mistakes.
The British are compromised by a self-imposed fear of progressive reform, a self-doubt in drawing on their cultural and social wealth and a reluctance to step out of comfort-zones into the full blast of reality. This is a nation poised for change, biting its nails, pretending to be confident but underlyingly tending to opt for the safe option. Its music is far better at penetrating the bunkers of dictators than its fly-by-wire missiles.
From the book Healing the Hurts of Nations, by Palden Jenkins, 2003.
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2003.
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