#Brexit: Can we be Proud of Britain’s History?

British MP Liam Fox said last week in a speech discussing why Britain should leave the EU that Britain had a proud history that it didn’t have to hide from…

Now of course this led many to raise their hands and say, “Wait a minute, what about…” Of course they are quite right British History is very much like a Teenager’s face, pot-marked with blemishes…

One example of those questioning Liam Fox’s view is internet Journalist Mic Wright

I’m not one to claim I’m ‘proud’ of being British. The idea of national pride makes me queasy, being a hop, skip and a jump away from the more virulent idea of nationalism. If you come from the position that we are one humanity, the notion of throwing blanket support over one nation is difficult.

That said, my great-grandfathers fought in the First and Second World Wars, my grandfather was in the Royal Navy (national service) and my parents are both Royal Navy veterans. My dad in particular served in the Falklands War, a conflict I believe was entirely necessary. Some hippy notion of a borderless world is also impossible for me to countenance.

The problem with banging the drum for Britain’s historical role during the 20th Century is that it’s only a sustainable position if you’re white and prone to selective hearing and vision.

Britain was a colonial power well into the middle of the 20th century, it pioneered the use of concentration camps during the Boer War, had the RAF firebomb Dresden, withdrew from Palestine knowing war was inevitable between the Jews and Palestinians, saw its soldiers shoot civilians during Bloody Sunday and had its fingerprints on any number of dark deeds during covert wars. And that’s far from a complete list.

For me, as a graduate of History, this is an interesting topic and an interesting question. Can or should we be proud of British History or Britain itself?

This I believe is a matter of perspective. It depends, I contend, on how you judge statism. If you believe in the idea of statism, that is you believe there must be a state and that the state can be a force for good then you may judge the British state rather harshly. If you have a specific standard by which all states should behave, then Britain probably fails. I’m not sure what Mic Wright believes on this point — I won’t pretend to guess.

However as a Libertarian, of the minarchist variety, I don’t believe in the idea of the ‘Good State’. Statism is a fundamentally flawed outlook and as a result all states are bad. The only question that really matters is, how bad? All states centralise power and resources to some degree therefore there will always be a level of corruption and violence associated with every state.

The state is though a historical fact. There is no real example of a non-state society and it’s difficult to think what a non-state society might look like. This may change, but it hasn’t happened yet and doesn’t look like it’s going to. If you take this position, like many Libertarians do, you may assume that the aim of freedom lovers is to minimise state power and violence rather than eradicate it. The latter being impossible.

Many throughout history have come to similar conclusions. This explains why ideas like Democracy and the Judiciary have developed, they are tools to minimise the impact of the state, not to make it perfect. Attempts to limit state power were made by both the Founding Fathers and the Roman Republic. Neither the US nor the Roman Republic are or were perfect societies, they both attempted though to minimise state power and violence. For a period of time they were relatively successful and the US system continues to be to some degree. As Obama said…

“Our Founders designed a system that makes it more difficult to bring about change than I would like sometimes.”

Therefore I don’t believe, unlike Mic, that ‘President’ Trump poses a great threat to the American system. I would contend that the Founding Fathers designed their system specifically to cope with demagogues and populists like Trump.

If you tackle British History from an anti-state/anti-statism perspective then Britain doesn’t look so bad. It could be much worse and over the last 500 years under the British variant of statism a lot has been achieved.

Relatively speaking Britain and its Empire aren’t associated with some of the truly awful crimes of History. Yes, The Opium Wars with China, the 1857 Mutiny in India, the Boer War, Bloody Sunday, Iraq and various other incidents were terrible. They certainly are not to be endorsed, repeated nor celebrated.

However fundamentally Britain for several hundred years now has been a relatively decent state. It has in its own hodge-podge way tried to minimise state power and violence. This is reflected best by the fact that we can discuss the quality of our state, question its current policies, its ideological outlook and its history. There are many states, like Saudi Arabia, where this can’t be done right now.

Also like the spotty teenager mentioned above Britain’s history isn’t all bad — it’s not all spots and surly strops…

The British Empire defeated Napoleon, a nasty power hungry little demagogue. It was British Parliamentary Democracy that between 1808 and 1843 ended Slavery within the Empire entirely. It was the British system that allowed both the Suffragettes and later the Gay Rights campaigners to succeed.

The British played a significant part in defeating Nazism and Communism — both truly abhorrent strains of the statist disease. Britain is not associated with any truly horrific acts. It doesn’t have the Nazi death camps or the Communist Gulags. There was no Great Leap Forward.

Unlike the Spanish Empire it didn’t plunder so much silver and gold that it brought its own economy to its knees. It didn’t carry out the Gallic Wars, which Caesar himself believes killed 1 million people.

Britain for centuries has been a relatively peaceful, stable and free country. As a result it is a country that has allowed many new political and philosophical ideas to develop and flourish. Many great thinkers such as Smith, Mill, Hayek, Keynes, Woolf, Orwell and even Karl Marx have lived and worked in Britain. Great debates have flowed between the likes of Paine and Burke, Hayek and Keynes.

In science we gave the world both Newton and Darwin — both highly controversial figures in their day. In medicine John Snow discovered the cause of Cholera and Alexander Fleming gave us penicillin. Britain not only played a crucial role in developing many positive things but also helped spread these things around the globe.

In Britain today we don’t beat Women because they’re caught spending time alone with men. A result of a relatively free country, that over time has done away with a lot of the religious superstition that holds much of the world back. And importantly for a long time we’ve had a diverse and powerful feminist movement.

States are not pretty, cute institutions with clean hands — they’re not like Battersea Dogs Home… They are dirty, often poorly led, incompetent, and history shows they generally commit acts of horrendous terror. Britain though is and has been one of the better states — we’re not Switzerland or Luxembourg — but we’re somewhere near the top and we’ve given a lot to the world — certainly more than Switzerland and Luxembourg…

I’m not sure I’m proud to be British or proud of all its history. I certainly can’t lay claim to any of the achievements nor am I responsible for any of the crimes or failings.

I am though very glad to be British. I’m glad I was lucky to be born in a relatively free, wealthy, stable and pleasant country. This is a result of our history — as Newton sort of said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants…” And overall there is no doubt in my mind if the world were a bit more like Britain it would be a better place.

  14 comments for “#Brexit: Can we be Proud of Britain’s History?

  1. Mar 9, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    No country (culture – people) has a perfect history – but the history of this country is more good than bad.

    The actions of people such as J. Wedgewood (and others) their inventions and business skill (not “state intervention” as the ignorant claim) created the Industrial Revolution – which was good not bad. Just as the work of great people before them in the 18th century created the agricultural revolution – which was also good not bad.

    Conquest? Compare places such as Singapore (a swamp full of head hunters and so on) before Raffles, or East Africa before Lugard (human sacrifice and tribal war). To what such men created – nor were men such as Raffles and Lugard really “servants of the state” – although the state took over what they created.

    Slavery?

    All nations have had slavery – till the British turned against it. Indeed the Royal Navy fought a hundred year war AGAINST slavery (this is forgotten now).

    Serfdom?

    Serfdom collapsed in England in the 14th century – and due to such things as Trial by Jury (which kept the law in the hands of the people – rather than the state) it did not return. In most other countries Trial by Jury collapsed and the law became the play thing of the state. With most people either belonging to the state or to private lords.

    Bottom line.

    Yes we can be proud of the history of this country (this culture – this people) – it is more good than bad.

    And we should be proud of it.

  2. Mar 9, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    If I had to name a single British thinker whose work and teaching is horribly underestimated it would be Thomas Reid.

    Not only did Kant never read the philosophical and political thought of Thomas Reid (reading instead a crude summery by someone else, leading Kant to dismiss Read and carry on with obsession with David Hume), but his work in the physical sciences also.

    If you want to name one person who, more than any other, was responsible for the respect of the Founding Fathers of the United States for reason (for the existence of the human person – Free Will, and for universal morality – ethics) and for their respect for the natural sciences and technology – that person would be Thomas Reid.

    More even than the American philosopher Samuel Johnson (also forgotten now – although the British Dr Johnson is remembered) Thomas Reid and thinkers like him are responsible for the good side of the modern word.

  3. Mar 9, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    If I had to name a single British thinker who is horribly underestimated it would be Thomas Reid.

    Not only his work on philosophical matters (Kant never read Reid – he read a crude account from someone else, which led Kant to dismiss Reid and carry on with his David Hume obsession), but also his work on science and technology.

    Thomas Reid, more than anyone else, is responsible for the beliefs of the American Founding Fathers – their belief in human personhood (Free Will) and universal moral right and wrong, and their belief in progress and the virtue of the study of natural science and technology. In all this Reid, and other Scots “Common Sense” thinkers, were more influential on the good side of the Founding Fathers even than American philosophers such as Samuel Johnson (also forgotten today – although the British Dr Johnson is remembered).

    For the good side of the modern world (not the evil side) look to the thought people such as Thomas Reid.

  4. Julie near Chicago
    Mar 10, 2016 at 11:54 am

    I don’t know, Paul. I’m afraid I agree with you. And Britain is more than just its government at any given moment. Britain (meaning the people who together make up the British populace) has managed, at least up until pretty recently, to hold onto an idea of liberty and decency and achievement, and I for one think that all her offspring in the Anglosphere were fortunate in their choice of their Mother Country, because we were all bequeathed this same sort of outlook.

    As for Luxembourg and Switzerland, I believe those two mighty nations have a little slimmer membership than does Britain. And I believe that the Two Alberts were Swiss, nein? (Not Victoria Regina’s Albert, of course. I think he was from the German branch of the Royal European Family. *g*)

    Pride is a funny thing. We feel proud of our parents when we think their positive achievements (if we haven’t become alienated from them anyway). We feel proud of our children, the same. We even feel proud of our friends and sometimes of people we never have met and never will meet. We feel proud of membership in a club most of whose other members have achievements to be proud of in small or large degree, and which club’s members have also at times joined together to accomplish some positive achievement which is not of the sort available to individuals. And this is true even though we be members of the particular club by accident of birth, and only much later by choice.

    And yet we ourselves didn’t do the achieving in any of those cases. How dare we say “I’m so proud of him!”

    Pride is a glow of satisfaction, I suppose one could say. We can feel a glow of satisfaction in an accomplishment of our own, be it as mundane and “non-heroic” as showing up for the final exam knowing, just knowing that we haven’t studied as assiduously as we should have.

    And we can feel a glow of satisfaction in the accomplishments of other people, be they near-and-dear or utter strangers; and of other Clubs as well.

    It is a dreadful mistake, of course, to think that the Bible inveighs against the Sin of Pride. It does not. The sin, the evil to be avoided, is false pride — hubris, or vanity, or the belief that one is superior to others in some way that is fundamental. (And if one is a being superior to others, one rightly condescends to them, or condemns them as simply less worthy than oneself, or concludes that it is right that one rule them.)

    Be proud of being proud. 🙂

  5. Ayumi
    Mar 11, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Good article.

    Mic Wright’s quote.. If you come from the position that we are one humanity, the notion of throwing blanket support over one nation is difficult.

    I disagree. All humans require the sense of belonging. We are all tribal. It’s because we love our own nation that we also respect others.

    Healthy national pride is like private property. You claim it, you take ownership over it, you understand it, you take care of it, and you’re proud of it. Because your own property is important to you, you respect other people’s properties too.

    Society without people who know its history is like a rootless tree.
    We can’t lose British identity to mass immigration.

    • Julie near Chicago
      Mar 13, 2016 at 4:09 am

      I like your thought, Ayumi. And I think you’re right to speak of “healthy nationalism.” A nation that overall tries to conduct itself with genuine respect for its own people and for other nonaggressive nations, and for human beings in general, is a nation to be proud of.

  6. Ken Ferguson
    Mar 12, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    All humans require the sense of belonging. We are all tribal.

    Not true. I am not the least bit tribal and believe that it is the duty of all true libertarians to free themselves from the shackles of all community identities. Nationalism is always a pernicious force.

    We can’t lose British identity to mass immigration.

    I don’t think there is a meaningful “British identity” but, if there is, it has undoubtedly been formed as a result of mass immigration throughout our history. Your comment smacks of jingoism or worse.

    • Richard Carey
      Mar 13, 2016 at 1:29 pm

      “it is the duty of all true libertarians to free themselves from the shackles of all community identities.”

      How is such a thing even possible? This seems like nihilism.

      “… it has undoubtedly been formed as a result of mass immigration throughout our history.”

      Hang on, what’s this “our history”? You have just failed your own libertarian purity test! You obviously haven’t managed to free yourself from the “shackles of all community identities”, because you are still self-identifying as part of a collective with a shared history. Perhaps this will help you see how impractical, if nothing else, your viewpoint is.

      • Ken Ferguson
        Mar 13, 2016 at 6:10 pm

        Hi Richard

        You seem to be misunderstanding what I am saying- let’s look at my own cultural and community identities as an example. I was born as a Protestant in the West of Scotland so which community identity should I be defined by?

        Should I celebrate my Presbyterian heritage by commemorating the Battle of the Boyne? My Scottish heritage by celebrating the victory over the English at Bannockburn? My Britishness by reveling in the success of the Napoleonic wars? Or perhaps my European heritage in successfully colonising much of the globe? Maybe just the great win by the clan Ferguson over the McDonalds in 1232?

        Community identities are defined in relation to others and usually by past and current conflicts with other communities. I don’t deny that some people seem to need such an identity to find meaning in their lives (and of course they have a right to do so) but I am not one of them. Is it not possible to enjoy football, for example, without supporting a particular team and participating in the expressions of hatred vented at rival supporters? Is to do so nihilism?

        Of course the British state is an entity and has a history which I know a good deal about but it is not “mine” and I feel no obligation to share it because of the location of my birth (which I was entirely unable to choose). So I see myself as a component part of none of the above community identities- just a human being living my life according to the ethics and responsibilities which I have defined for myself (these are founded in the non-aggression axiom). The only time this becomes difficult is when living life as an individual conflicts with the tyranny of some community- state power in particular. Nationalism is the antithesis of libertarianism and supporting the closure of state borders is to support the state itself.

        “We can’t lose British identity to mass immigration” is not at all a libertarian sentiment, I’m afraid, and I thought all libertarians knew this!!!

  7. Richard Carey
    Mar 14, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    Ken,

    “Should I celebrate my Presbyterian heritage by commemorating the Battle of the Boyne? My Scottish heritage by celebrating the victory over the English at Bannockburn? My Britishness by reveling in the success of the Napoleonic wars? Or perhaps my European heritage in successfully colonising much of the globe? Maybe just the great win by the clan Ferguson over the McDonalds in 1232?”

    I would say you are free to celebrate all of them, some of them or none of them as you see fit. Failure to celebrate such things does not preclude you from identifying as a Scotsman, a Protestant, a European or anything else. As for Clan Ferguson’s 1232 victory over the McDonalds, if you really wish to disavow the incident, you will have to change your name to something neutral.

    However, you seem to be narrowing down the definition of identity, as if it only involves celebrating historical battles, and I suspect that your view of these things may be influenced by the sectarianism which still exists in Scotland to a far greater extent than England (so I’m told).

    “Is it not possible to enjoy football, for example, without supporting a particular team and participating in the expressions of hatred vented at rival supporters?”

    Hmm .. you’re coming over a bit Reggie Perrin – i.e. as if we should play football but rather than two sides, all be on the same one – then we all win hurray! It is indeed possible to enjoy football without supporting a particular team, but this does miss a large part of the experience of being a football fan. Additionally, supporting a particular team does not necessitate “expressions of hatred vented at rival supporters”. I don’t care too much for football anymore, but when I was a big Arsenal fan, I still had close friends – and a sister! – who supported arch-rivals Tottenham. There can be such a thing as friendly rivalry.

    “Of course the British state is an entity and has a history which I know a good deal about but it is not “mine” and I feel no obligation to share it because of the location of my birth”

    We were talking about “British history”, now we are talking about the history of the British state. These are not the same at all.

    “I see myself as a component part of none of the above community identities- just a human being living my life according to the ethics and responsibilities which I have defined for myself”

    These ethics of yours are rooted in a culture – and a language – you share with other people. They didn’t just occur to you.

    “The only time this becomes difficult is when living life as an individual conflicts with the tyranny of some community- state power in particular. ”

    This seems to be merely a tautology. One is free up to the point where one ceases to be free. Individualism does not require someone to reject community with other people.

    “Nationalism is the antithesis of libertarianism”

    I would say authoritarianism is the antithesis of libertarianism. Nationalism can be authoritarian, it is true, but authoritarianism is not necessarily nationalistic – it can be imperialistic, for instance. Often in history, nationalism has risen in opposition to imperialism, such as Czech nationalism against Austria-Hungary, or East Timorese nationalism against Indonesia. Today’s nationalism usually defines itself against supranational powers or forces.

    “supporting the closure of state borders is to support the state itself”

    One could equally argue the opposite. Given that mass, uncontrolled immigration would not be popular among the majority of the people in this or probably any other country, opening the borders in the way you seem to favour would have to be imposed on an angry population with state violence.

    ““We can’t lose British identity to mass immigration” is not at all a libertarian sentiment, I’m afraid, and I thought all libertarians knew this!!!”

    It may not be a libertarian sentiment, but that does not mean that it is contrary to libertarianism. If I said an opposite statement: ” We must get rid of British identity through mass immigration” that seems arguably less libertarian than the first.

    • Julie near Chicago
      Mar 15, 2016 at 2:29 am

      Very good commentary, Richard.

    • Ken Ferguson
      Mar 16, 2016 at 7:57 am

      Richard

      I would say you are free to celebrate all of them, some of them or none of them as you see fit. Failure to celebrate such things does not preclude you from identifying as a Scotsman, a Protestant, a European or anything else.

      Why should I need to identify as anything other than myself? To do so rather diminishes who I am.

      We were talking about “British history”, now we are talking about the history of the British state. These are not the same at all.

      This is a very narrow distinction. The British nation has been indistinguishable from the UK state for centuries. Who went to war in the Falklands, the nation or the state? Was it something to be proud of?

      I would say authoritarianism is the antithesis of libertarianism. Nationalism can be authoritarian, it is true, but authoritarianism is not necessarily nationalistic – it can be imperialistic, for instance.

      Empires are usually pursued by nations, however broadly agreed. But how can nationalism ever be libertarian?

      I““We can’t lose British identity to mass immigration” it may not be a libertarian sentiment, but that does not mean that it is contrary to libertarianism.

      Using the threat of state violence to prevent individuals crossing borders and peacefully living their lives where they choose is not contrary to libertarianism? I’m in the wrong place then.

      Ayumi

      What happens to a man when his cultural roots are cut? Suicide, alcoholism, depression, ask any Native American tribe in the US, they will tell you.

      So far I’ve only go the alcohol problem but it doesn’t sound like I’ve got much to look forward to!!!

  8. Richard Carey
    Mar 14, 2016 at 11:56 pm

    BTW, I think the original statement from Dr Liam Fox is rather silly. As someone who loves history, I think there are two reasonable positions towards the history of your own nation (or culture, religion etc):

    Either you care about it, and feel a sense of connection to it, in which case you should acknowledge the good as well as the bad; or else you don’t care about it, because you’re not interested and feel no connection. I love history, so take the first position, but I do not expect others to share my interests.

  9. Ayumi
    Mar 15, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    Hi Ken, you say… “my life according to the ethics and responsibilities which I have defined for myself (these are founded in the non-aggression axiom).
    I doubt if you would have come to this creed if you were born and raised in Saudi Arabia.

    I’ll use my life to make my point as well. I grew up in 5 different countries (with 6 different families of different cultures). I’m a global citizen with no real roots. Two points:

    1. Everyone is tribal about their culture. People have always been happy and eager to share with me the particulars about their culture. (In my country/city/village, we eat this, we say this, this is our history, look at that building, I used to go to school there, it was built by… etc.) And NO, being proud of one’s culture does NOT make one scorn another. You didn’t say this Ken, but I get it all the time, as if being proud and protective about one’s culture is “racist”. It’s NOT.

    2. Western people immigrated en mass to the New World, and soon started killing the native population. Promptly, instead of killing the man, people (now a governing force) killed the Indian inside the man.
    The US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) took Native Indian children away from their families into boarding schools and taught the Western way of life. (Their hands were hit with a ruler if they talked in their own tribal language.) This happened until the 1950s and 60s. The US knew exactly how to make people into obedient citizens of the State, which was to uproot people from their tribal, historical, religious, family, affiliations. What happens to a man when his cultural roots are cut? Suicide, alcoholism, depression, ask any Native American tribe in the US, they will tell you.

    As a Libertarian, I am against State, not nation. Nation, or cultural affiliations, is what makes society tick. It’s what’s kept the idea of ‘Liberty’ alive so far, through Western culture. By allowing mass immigration of people who are not familiar with (and some, even hostile to) the idea of Liberty, we are risking losing what our ancestors have kept alive for so long.

    Also, the state of ‘State’ (no pun intended) has changed greatly in the last 50 years. ‘State’ has become bigger entities, much bigger than many nation states, with a lot of power, money and bureaucracy, like UN, WTO, EU, Codex Alimentarius, NATO, WHO, IMF, World Bank, etc., its influence often overriding that of the smaller nation States. If in our Libertarian fight against ‘state’ we lose our ‘nation’, these bigger faceless entities of the world can more easily take our individual rights away.

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