Magazine article The Spectator

Land of the Free, Home of the British

Magazine article The Spectator

Land of the Free, Home of the British

Article excerpt

THE time will soon come when North America is more British than Britain, and the ideas, beliefs, customs and language of these islands will survive in the United States and Canada long after they have been forgotten in our Newlab archipelago. Those English people who enjoy sneering at America and Americans have less right to do so with each year that passes, and we, who seem to have swallowed Blairism without so much as a hiccup, are in no position to write off our cousins because they seem likely to settle for another four years of New Democrat humbug.

It matters less there, you see. Americans can afford to ignore their governments because as a society and a people they are so much more free. In a really big country, where wilderness is never far away and bears or prairie dogs rather than hedgehogs run across the road in front of your car, the hand of the state necessarily lies more lightly on your shoulder.

One small but significant symptom of this is the determined defence of old but good things against the state's meddling urge to modernise. The US dollar bill has been more or less unchanged for a century, and has yet to be replaced with a pocketdestroying coin. The handsome quarter was once seen as an imitation of the British silver shilling, and until the first world war it was worth the same. The quarter survives to this day while the shilling is forgotten. There are no kilograms - just pounds, along with ounces, pints, gallons and miles. True, the American pint is smaller than ours, but that's because it is more ancient - an old English Winchester wine pint just as the American pronunciation of herbs as 'erbs' comes from 18th-century England and the word 'dime' can be found in the works of Chaucer. This sort of thing either matters to you or it doesn't (though if you are really British it ought to), but the European Union's campaign against our friendly, human and unbureaucratic measures seems to me to sum up its dreary, mean mind and dictatorial obsession with uniformity and standardisation which now spread like mildew into every corner of British life. The modernisers tried and tried to get Americans to use the metric system, but the American people ignored them until they went away. Even the more pliable Canadians are now quietly but firmly ignoring their government's attempt to register their rifles. In North America, the law is largely in the hands of the people and they don't need to 'take' it from useless degree-draped chief constables who have forgotten what they are paid to do.

In British universities, the leaden censorship and tiny-minded oppression of political correctness march on unchallenged in faculties and student-union bars alike. In many US campuses, courageous students and teachers regularly invoke the First Amendment of the Constitution to defend freedom of thought and speech in the academy, a continuing battle described by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate in their essential book The Shadow University. In Britain, freedom of speech seems only to apply to sexual or ultraviolent pornography, not to social, political or cultural dissent. In America, the selfabasement and witch-hunting fantasy of the Macpherson report astonish leading police officers, who are amazed that we should have to make the same foolish mistakes that US police forces made almost 30 years ago and have now rejected because they actually hurt black people most of all. …

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