Britain's Last Stand

Article excerpt

This ideal Britain is about to be replaced by an entirely different country--a place of shrinking liberties, of bad manners and violence, of illiteracy and ignorance, of cringing conformism.

Like America, Britain is a country of the mind as well as a real place, present in the imaginations of free people all over the world. Many who have never been to the British Isles have strong, clear ideas about that unique country, formed in an age when the history of England and of Britain was the founding myth of much of the civilized world. In the imaginations of the educated, the fair and open-minded and the democratic, the heraldic flags still flutter over the tents at Runnymede as King John resentfully agrees to limits placed on his power by the Magna Carta, the dry rattle of steel can still be heard in Whitehall as the House of Commons defies a swaggering King Charles I, London crowds still cheer as honest juries refuse to convict those whom the state seeks to persecute, the first Queen Elizabeth invents religious tolerance, Nelson and Wellington vanquish the overweening power of Bonaparte, leaving the world free and at peace for a century.

This mental pageant sprang to life in the free world's mind most powerfully in 1940, when every last element of it was summoned up by Winston Churchill to stiffen British and American resolve in the face of Nazi and Soviet power. It was a close-run thing. Many needed persuading that Britain or her Empire deserved to be saved. However, as the American poet Alice Duer Miller wrote in the year of Dunkirk: "I am American bred. I have seen much to hate here-- much to forgive, but in a world where England is finished and dead, I do not wish to live."

We who lived here had seen much to hate and to forgive too, oppressive courts and Kings, penal taxes, the merciless and stupid repression of rebellion from the judicial massacre of Protestant rebels in the Bloody Assize to the slaughter of peaceful protesters at Peterloo. The Highland Scots and the Irish had seen worse still, and much of the world is peopled with the descendants of those who fled in despair from persecution, famine or clearance, or were transported by merciless courts. We knew that the pageant and the tourist poster were only part of the story, and that they hid dungeons, gibbets, famine, and squalor.

Even so, by the time we came to our great test in 1940, we had achieved something quite unique--a peaceful, ordered, prosperous society based not upon power but upon the exercise of a free conscience and a universally respected rule of law. It was not as free as the United States, weighed down as it was by its far longer history, but it was extraordinarily peaceful and gentle. From this flowed our other great boasts, a language in which it is far easier to tell the truth than it is to lie, honored and efficient institutions, largely uncorrupt, which had earned the respect given to them, a democracy which was able to withstand the temptations of Communism and Fascism.

If this idea of England or Britain had not existed in the hearts and heads of millions of Americans and Canadians, then 1940 would have been for nothing. A Britain left alone would eventually have had to make a shameful peace with one or the other of the two European tyrannies, and we would all now live in a world so different that the imagination splits and cracks with the effort of envisaging it. Fortunately for Britain and the world, the idea of Britain did exist, and has continued to do so through the long, awkward years of the Cold War and the embarrassing decline of Britain from great nation to whatever she is now.

Having been brought up at the very end of this period of heroic nationhood, I am glad and proud that it should have helped to keep so many good things alive. But I think it is important that Anglophiles-especially those in North America-begin to understand that the imagined ideal Britain which they have treasured for so long has been swept away and is about to be replaced by an entirely different country, a place of shrinking liberties, of increasingly arbitrary authority, of bad manners and violence, of illiteracy and ignorance, of cringing conformism. …