Britain: Historical and Political Sketch

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Britain: Historical and Political Sketch

People in Britain and the U.S. speak the same language. Yet a strange barrier of incomprehension lies between them, as though the common language had lulled them into complacency. Several "blind spots" tend to show up.

The Name Problem  For example, there's the difficulty Americans have in knowing what to call the country they're visiting. Americans regularly use the word "England" and "English." Yet, a Welshman like Richard Burton might take exception, not to mention a Scotsman like Sean Connery, or an Irishman. It's natural for Americans to be prejudiced in favor of the name "England," since that was the country against which the U.S. Founding Fathers were rebelling. Great Britain didn't come into being as a national entity until 1803, by which time Americans had become set in their linguistic ways. But in Britain, the process of national evolution went on, as Ireland was annexed and then partitioned, until the present "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" came into being.

So now we're ready to sort out the various names. "England" is simply one part, the largest part, of Great Britain. Like the others, it was once a separate country. But through inheritance, its monarchy became the royal family for the country as a whole. Use the name "England" to refer only to England proper—just as you would use the name "Scotland" or "Wales."

Looking at the name problem geographically, you'll be concerned with the distinction between the different islands that make up the "British Isles." The largest island is "Great Britain," the second largest is "Ireland," and there's a scattering of other, tinier islands like the Hebrides, Shetlands, Orkneys, the Isle of Man, Angelsey, and the Isle of Wight.

Speaking of national entities, there is Great Britain, or simply Britain, which is the name the British themselves use. It refers to the nation composed of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—plus those miniscule islands.

The Birth of a Nation  Of all the peculiarities of British history, none is more remarkable than the nation's smooth evolution over the centuries. How could tribes who once warred savagely with each other—Picts and Scots, Welshmen and Anglo-Saxons—have forged a political bond which stuck? Part of the answer is the British passion for order: the habit of prudently forecasting events before they occur, then preparing for them. In Britain, order has long been identified with a living symbol — the monarch — and with the traditions which he or she embodies. The British don't ask so much "Why is it done?" as much as they wonder "Is it done?" If it's "done" — if it's the traditional way of doing things — then that's all one needs to know.

Britain vs. "Europe":  An example of the role of tradition: the way the British use the name "Europe." Americans include Britain in "Europe" as a matter of course. Yet the British continue to think of themselves and their traditions as distinct from those of the Continent. Britain forms a continent all by itself. The British speak of "going on holiday in Europe," "buying a European auto," or "joining Europe" (the Common Market). Americans are tempted to reply: "But you're already in Europe!" But that's not the British view.

Modern problems: This important role of tradition makes Britain less adaptable to modern conditions, to be sure. The deepest cause of Britain's economic malaise is probably its traditional low esteem of business schools. Yet tradition has kept British politics on a smoother and steadier course than on the Continent.

Political turmoil: But why these traditions in the first place? The answer lies in Britain's birth as a nation — a low and steady process, but with periods of occasional turmoil. One of the darkest: the Wars of the Roses in medieval England, when the English throne was never permanently secure. Great noblemen had as much wealth and power as the king, and didn't hesitate to use them against him. Two such noble families, vying for power: York and Lancaster. York emblem was a white rose, Lancaster a red rose. Hence this period is called the "Wars of the Roses." The demonic Richard III was a York, depicted in one of Shakespeare's history plays. The popular Henry V was a Lancaster, also featured in a Shakespeare play.

Elizabethan calm: The memory of these wars was deeply imprinted on the English mind. By the time of Shakespeare, the English were determined to avoid such strife among noble families. The only guarantee against it: a strong monarchy, able to put down plotting nobles. The Englishman's desire for peace became linked with loyalty to the monarch and the traditions he represented. The monarch symbolized national interests as a whole, against narrower interests of nobles. This is what made the Elizabethan era seem like a paradise. A spirit of optimism, self-confidence, or "Merrie Olde England" runs through Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare depicts chaos as the chief political vice — worse even than tyranny. By the same token, loyalty to the crown becomes the chief political virtue. You can thus understand why Shakespeare's history plays were such instant successes, since they glorified the stabilizing role of the monarchy. Elizabeth herself was hugely fond of them, and had them performed at court.

There was one later period of strife: the Civil War, fought between King and Parliament. A compromise was worked out — the king continuing as a symbol of national identity, but with Parliament ruling — and no threat of civil war disturbed the peace again.

Town and Countryside  Britain is the smallest of Europe's "biggest" states. The total area is 58,000 square miles — barely the size of the state of Michigan. The length north and south is 400 miles; ease and west: 300 miles. Yet 56 million people are crowded into this space, making for a density of 790 inhabitants per square mile, the highest in Europe after Holland. In London, the figure rises into the thousands.

But once outside the bigger cities, the countryside looks idyllic and uncrowded. Country towns evenly spaced apart, with open pastureland between. Thus, well-heeled Londoners can "get away from it all" by spending summers and weekends at manor houses, often with thatched roofs.

The British climate astonishingly mild by U.S. standards: It averages a low of 35 degrees in London in the winter, and a high of 65-75 degrees in the summer. A summer "heat wave" would be 85! The weather is proverbially unpredictable, but smog has largely disappeared from London, due to Clean Air Act and strict regulations about burning smokey coal.

Religion  Half of the British population belongs, nominally, to the Church of England (of which the U.S. Episcopal Church is an affiliate). The Archbishop of Canterbury is the chief clerical figure, though Queen Elizabeth is nominal "head" of church. The Church of England is officially "established," and hence receives support from the state. The Parliament must act on major revisions in the Book of Common Prayer. Other denominations are popular in Britain, with the usual baker's dozen sects. Witchcraft is still popular in back-country towns: voodoo, magic, Devil worship. It's part of yet another tradition which the British are loath to part with: leaving room for everything in British religious life.

Parliament and Politics  The British parliamentary system is unique. It works in Britain, but the same system in France and Italy has brought chronic instability in the past (and present). Queen Elizabeth is nominal chief of state, but her power is confined to personal influence (which can be considerable in a crisis). Parliament does the governing . It's called the "Mother of Parliaments" because it's Europe's oldest. The name is from French: parler, speak. Speaking is what Parliament does best: MPs trained in debating traditions of Oxford and Cambridge.

The chief difference from U.S.: Parliament determines chief executive (Prime Minister) and cabinet. In the U.S., the chief executive (president) is directly elected. So in the U.S. you can have one party in control of Congress with a president from another party. This can't happen in Britain.

The traditional two-party system was invented in Britain, and it has kept the nation from major political upheavals. In addition, the British simply don't care that passionately about party politics, voting for the man rather than the party. British politics is thus low-keyed by U.S. standards. A British Prime Minister can ride out a period of low popularity quite handily; if the same situation existed in France, the voters would be wheeling out the guillotine, and in the U.S. pollsters would be predicting doom, and stocks would plummet.

The two major British parties: Conservative (or Tory), and Labor.

General election must take place at least every five years, but the Prime Minister can call one any time. He'll pick a time of high popularity, if possible. Sometimes the scheme backfires, or else the results are the same as before.

What makes the whole system hang together is yet another tradition: an unwritten constitution. This constitution dictates the rules of "fair play", and as such it's something felt, not spelled out — a kind of gentleman's agreement about what's "done" or "not done" in politics. This may be the ultimate explanation for Britain's legendary political stability: a constitution felt "in the bones" isn't as likely to be quarreled with or reinterpreted arbitrarily. It's something likely to last a long, long time.

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