Did the English Get It Right?

Posted on August 26, 2019


As usual, something reminded me of a historical phenomenon we need to reexamine: the old British empire and its legacy to the world. The recent outbreak of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong aimed at the China’s center of political power in Beijing recalled the historical period of the British empire which governed over a significant portion of the world from the eighteenth century to about mid-twentieth century.

We in this country, facing so many issues over what is constitutional and what is not, First Amendment rights, the very principles of property and justice for example, were born as an apparent rejection to the British Empire. But, in many immensely significant fashions, we are heirs of a way of thinking and philosophy about liberty, rights and constitutions that goes back centuries in the England of Great Britain.

Today the Brexit movement in Great Britain is a reflection, no matter how pale, of the transcendent significance of the old empire, now no more in fact, but certainly living in the political cultures of many nations who owe much to having at one time been a part of the old empire.

First a quick definition. England refers to the old historical England. The British Empire refers to the combined “nations” of the British Isles, including Wales, Scotland, and parts of Ireland. Look for exact definitions of any or all these terms in Wikipedia to satisfy your curiosity,

Now, here is the gist of my ruminations on the inheritance of those nations and peoples who at one time or another in their history were part of the old British empire. These include but are not limited to Canada, the U.S., South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and some other Asian (Pakistan for example) and literally over a dozen African countries.

British rule was not uniform nor necessarily accepted the equality of all the people they governed. Post-colonial studies of the last half century of colonial Africa and Asia have concluded that the British were often racist and autocratic in their colonial governments and governed simply to extract the most resources, and to dominate the world against competing European empires, such as those of the French, German, Dutch, Italian and other rivals.

Notwithstanding modern scholarship on how badly the British may have behaved, there are two aspects at work here.

One, how much of one’s failures can you attribute to others?

I.E. were the British really all that injurious, regal and racist, and the sole source of so much discontent, political tyrannies and poverty in much of Africa and Asia?

And two, is one place’s in the modern world determined not simply by outside or exterior circumstances, but, more honestly, to one’s own culture and decisions?

Like Christianity, whether you accept or reject God’s intervention and will in human affairs, it is up to you to decide whether to believe or not. The British may not have been the most munificent and exemplary colonizers, but there was another side I’d like to consider: their heritage among those places and nations where the English population and descendants played a dominant, and persistent, role in determining the culture—political, economic, social, intellectual, etc.—of the U.S., of Canada, of Australia, etc.

At the core of the English political legacy was, paradoxically, what led it to lose its American empire in the late eighteenth century: liberty and the rights of people to govern themselves. Both of those principles that drove the American Revolution had been around for centuries, some arising from what political philosophers loosely labeled “natural law” in the secular world, and what Christians understood quite well for a thousand years and more as one of the guiding principles of Christianity: liberty and free will to determine one’s present and future. The absolutely core principle of the freedom of religion arose from this understanding.

These principles were embraced to greater or lesser extents by other English people who had migrated–or been sent as so many had as ex-convicts to penal colonies like Georgia and Australia—to the Americas, to the Pacific, to Africa, to India. There were other principles that emerged, such as the sanctity of private property, freedom of competition in things political and economic, religious diversity, and others you can easily identify especially from the first ten amendments to our Constitution.

None of these were aimed at replacing the individual responsibility to work principle for example, and, equally important, to be held accountable for what you did. No principle was devoted to having the state replace the individual as the engine and arbiter or our culture, or, let’s expand it a bit, our civilization.

The expanding role of the state to take the place of the individual was a modern invention of socialists and Marxists with the intention of not simply leveling the playing field but also leveling all the players. Let me be clear on this. Equality and how one achieves it is the role of the state in socialist/Marxist ideology. Modern practitioners of socialism/communism use a variety of accusations and tools—racism, sexism, misogynism, nationalism, patriotism, and others—to achieve their aim—the lifting up of the state over the individual as the prime source of power in the lives of a people.

That British rule over the centuries included forms of racism, slavery, European supremacism, and others is true. We also were a slave-holding society until the Civil War. In the Christian context of understanding life and God, all have sinned, but as individuals we can repent, ask for forgiveness, and receive it through the grace of God.

And as a nation we can recognize wrongs and work to make them right. That the British legacy across five or six modern nations, including ours, included liberty and some of the freedoms—rights—which we hold dearest, and which sustain the principle of liberty, is also true. As the old and simple adage goes, don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

Don’t exchange your liberties for the tyranny of a socialist/Marxist regime which promises everyone everything and will govern with an iron hand. Marxism and communism have always delivered tyranny.

Why do people all over the globe want to immigrate to this country, and not China, Venezuela, Cuba, or Russia? Sometimes the politically correct brain washing that goes on can persuade a lot of people to believe what is not in their self-interest.

Returning to the theme of this little piece, “did the British get it right?” Take a look at Hong Kong demonstrations today in favor of democracy and liberty of political and economic choices. Remember that Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997 when Britain withdrew, and communist China assumed sovereignty. It is a complex relationship, but the Hong Kong Chinese recognize their rights and liberties. These were born under the mantle of the old British empire, not cultivated or instilled by a communist dictatorship. What is happening in that part of the world is worth at least a small seminar or public discussion at some place like UA where one presumes that the emphasis on diversity occasionally includes an academic dimension. How about a seminar on liberty and totalitarianism?

Published as “Honk Kong protests are a legacy of British rule,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Aug. 25, 2019