English Ways: A Visitor's View

Article excerpt

When Robert Browning wrote, "O to be in England, now that April's there" and envisioned the "tiny leaf" and "the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf," he was expressing a longing to be "in England - now!" The visitor who travels not in April but in October sees the autumnal colors and the end of summer, and also the homeless, and the deranged man who sits by the pond across from Buckingham Palace and shouts "Shut up!" to passersby.

What can one do in encountering "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" but resurrect all those bits and pieces of poetry that shaped the way citizens of the former colony feel about "this nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings"? We are in England "now!," and the ambiance that created such longing in Browning is still in evidence. But also in full view is the Conservative Party's struggle to present a unified front to a public which now gives Tory Prime Minister John Major the lowest public opinion support in the history of British polling. The visitor has landed coincidentally in the middle of the annual meeting of the Conservatives, whose conference grabs as much media attention as the quadrennial American nominating conventions. London's once-proud newspapers show the effect of sleazy invaders like Rupert Murdoch, but the four major television channels are still superior to their American cousins in the manner in which they analyze the posturing and promises of political leaders.

Certain parallels between British and American politics jump out. After 14 years in power with Margaret Thatcher and her handpicked successor, Major, the Conservatives appear to be in trouble, somewhat the way Republicans were in 1992 when the Reagan-Bush era came to an end. Major's aim at the Tory conference was to unify a party badly split between left and right - a struggle that resembles the split in the Republican Party between Bush and Buchanan/Robertson.

Looking beyond politics, the world of the arts here seems to overlap a good deal with the one we know in the U.S. The sports world is foreign, however - though Michael Jordan's retirement received plenty of attention. As for religion, as Robert Benne notes (see page 1036), it seems that the secularization of culture is continuing while at the same time religious voices receive far more respectful attention than they do in the U.S.

To an American contemplating the British government's role in religious education it can seem as if Pat Robertson had won the presidency. John Patten, Major's secretary of state for education, released a statement during the Tory meeting that ordered national model syllabuses for religious education, or "RE" as it is called. These syllabuses, according to a report in the Independent, require schools to "concentrate on Christian doctrines." Parents who do not want their children to be taught Christianity "will still be able to withdraw them from RE lessons and assemblies." To one accustomed to the vigorous protection of First Amendment rights in the U.S., it is strange to read that clergy and other "pressure groups" have complained to government officials that the teaching of Christianity in the schools had been eroded by an emphasis on multiculturalism. …