Britain, Benign & Proud

By Daniels, Anthony | New Criterion, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Britain, Benign & Proud


Daniels, Anthony, New Criterion


A. J. P. Taylor's famous book English History 1914-1945 begins:

    Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman
   could pass through life and hardly notice
   the existence of the state, beyond the post
   office and the policeman.... He had no official
   number or identity card. 

This was written in 1965. Exactly forty years later, another Oxford historian, Jose Harris, wrote in her Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain 1870-1914:

    Nothing in the sociological theories of the period
   (or indeed of subsequent periods) quite
   prepares one for the extraordinary coexistence
   of extreme social inequality with respect for
   and observance of the law, of growing public
   order and defence of civil liberties. 

I doubt that anyone will be writing anything similar to either Taylor or Harris in the years 2060 or 2100 about contemporary Britain: that is, if anyone finds contemporary Britain to be of sufficient interest to write anything at all about it. Britain's happy combination of freedom and order was a civilizational achievement of a high order, but, since men are more apt to think about the problems they see around them than the achievement which they incorrectly take for granted and believe to be irreversible, the work of destruction began almost at once. The achievement, in fact, was to be rather short-lived.

One of the reasons it was so short-lived is that no one took to heart Tocqueville's famous dictum, that he who seeks in liberty anything other than liberty itself is destined for tyranny. And social conditions in Britain (as indeed in every other urban society of the time) were such that the failure of liberty to bring all good things to everybody at once was seen as a good and sufficient reason to infringe and increasingly to limit it.

Nowadays, after many years' exposure to propaganda of various kinds, we have difficulty in believing that so unequal a society, with so much poverty, could have been well-ordered. Only six years after the August of 1914, when those sensible, law-abiding Englishmen hardly noticed the existence of the state, R. H. Tawney, Fellow of Balliol College and one of the saints of the First Church of Christ, Socialist (though he deserves as much to be known as a Christian Fascist as a Christian Socialist), wrote in The Acquisitive Society that the Englishmen of his time were people for whom

    there are no ends other than their ends, no law
   other than their desires, no limit other than
   that which they think desirable. 

In other words, Tawney claimed that there was no moral foundation whatsoever in the society that both Taylor and Harris later described. I, however, would like to illustrate, in the sensationalist manner to which, as a journalist and prison doctor, I am naturally inclined, just how well-ordered this supposedly amoral late Victorian and Edwardian British society actually was.

In 1871, an American surgeon with persecutory delusions, called Dr. W. C. Minor, fled America and came to London, where, in Lambeth in early 1872, he shot and killed a man seemingly at random, but actually because he believed that the man was following him. He was found insane and sent to the new hospital for criminal lunatics, Broadmoor, from which he contributed greatly to the production of the Oxford English Dictionary, now famously, thanks to Simon Winchester's book on the subject.

Lambeth then, as now, was not a select area of our great capital. Indeed, it was one of the worst areas; Simon Winchester expatiates at length on its horrors. But when Dr. Minor shot his victim at two in the morning, what happened? A policeman heard the shots, blew his whistle, and, within a matter of minutes, three policemen, armed only with those terrible weapons of Victorian police brutality, the whistle and the lamp, ran separately to the scene of the crime and tried in vain to save the man. No doubt resuscitation techniques have improved greatly since then, but not the speed of police response. …

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