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…
“The United Kingdom, is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history” #scc16
— Dr Liam Fox MP (@LiamFoxMP) March 4, 2016
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.