The British are down to Earth and realistic even during heights of international turmoil. For example during World War 2, when most the countries in Europe became either Communist or Fascist, largely through their own choice, Britain maintained its own conservative democracy. Not only that but through all the turmoil, the British public never inclined to vote in parties either to the left or right. Anything which offers the British public an ideal solution is met with skepticism. The British are not religious, not idealistic, but pragmatic. The British just get on, aiming always for small improvements. The most popular British governments promise little and achieve little.
“The English distrust abstract philosophy as much as they distrust formal logic. Some suggest that this is because they do not understand philosophy or logic, but the better reason is because they know that they are apt to lead to error. The English approach is empirical. The solution to every problem depends on the question, Will it work?”
Sir Alfred Denning (1951)1
British ambition is traditionally said to be sombre, relationships low-key, and the overall advantages of all this are a fundamental societal stability over the long term. The ebbs and flow of rash opinion rarely catch foot in England, as such there is massive potential for a nation of mature excellence. Trash culture, the mess of ignorance at the core of UK youth culture, is the principal weakness of the British.
But our realism and resistance to all forms of extremism and idealism are a big strong point. Many countries are swayed by religious fantasies, frequently into war, or by political/social fantasies into disastrous social experiments such as Fascism or Communism, but the British merely mutter "it must be too good to be true", and shun anything that is too far removed from they know to work. The Government is experimental but only implements anything in slow steps, always testing the waters. An underlying conservatism is balanced by a vague boldness and stubbornness. The British nowadays do well at just getting on, finding work, sometimes finding niches to excel in, but most of all in keeping a cool rational head. Compared to the tumultuous violent world out there, being laid back British-style is a wondrous gift.
The United Kingdom has a culture of construction: Social welfare, science, education, the major pillars of society here are all age-old. Our scientific establishments are world-class, our commerce is mature and wise, our politics is multinational and we are naturally peace-seekers. We boast a highly advanced society of science, computers and gadgets. We have the most developed national DNA database and was the first country to build one2. High-tech solutions in every arena. We're not rich enough to be the cream on many of sciences magical desserts, but at least we're a good firm sponge for all modern endeavours.
Our society is well-ordered, our government is largely finely-tuned and our democracy is well-founded and secure. Social dangers are dealt with maturely, carefully and generally wisely - "in the rest of Europe [...] England is seen as a model of how to look after the mentally ill."3. Our Human Rights record is very good. Problems of crime and poverty are constantly tackled through a mixture of well-tested and experimental measures. Education is excellent although inconsistent and bipolar; we tend to produce either experts and specialists, or vaguely educated complete idiots.
Not only these things, but we gave the world many of these elements. We taught the world many sports, many civilities, state welfare support for the poor4, and many aspects of what is now common in every country. Although we are now merely the world's biggest exporter of TV formats5, from the industrial revolution until World War 2 (but no later), England was the bright future of Humanity. We still excel in some areas.
“They more or less invented much of the modern world. 'We were all born in a world made in England and the world in which our great-grandchildren will mellow into venerable old age will be as English as the Hellenistic world was Greek, or, better, Athenian', is the way one academic puts it.
They developed the current forms of soccer and rugby, tennis, boxing, golf, horse-racing, mountaineering and skiing.
The English created modern tourism [...], the first modern luxury hotel [the Savoy...]. Charles Babbage produced the world's first computer in the 1820s. A Scot, John Logie Baird, was one of the inventors of television. [...] He held his first public demonstration in Soho, London. Sandwiches, Christmas cards, Boy Scouts, postage stamps, modern insurance and detective novels.”
One area of consistent excellence in education, although Scandinavia also shines brightly "on some measures, Britain accounts for almost half of Europe's 20 best universities." - including Cambridge University, Oxford University, Bristol University and Imperial College London7. In scientific research we are also top class: we publish 12% of the world's cited papers (only America is more productive), and "British scientists claim around 10% of internationally recognised scientific prizes every year"8.
Our irreligiosity helped create the pro-learning paradigm that led to a confident system of Universities. Bertrand Russell describes the Queen (and a mob) protecting Wycliffe, an eminent scientist against Pope Gregory XI's condemnations of him and much scientific teaching. "The University of Oxford refused to admit the Pope's jurisdiction over its teachers" and "even in those days, English universities believed in academic freedom"9 in the face of religious attacks on science and learning.
England has produced some of the absolute best news services and information services ever. The BBC is easily the world's most intellectual, widespread, objective and organized news/media organisation of its size. It is highly respectable and caters maturely for all types of people without falling into the trap of dumbing-down content in useless ways.
We have a host of highly informative and intellectual broadsheet newspapers that have no comparison in any other country. They more than compensate for the trashy tabloids that are also very popular: In many countries such trash is the only style of daily newspaper available!
In literature we have been a voluminous nation, from this island has come many of the major names in the formation of both scientific methods and scholarly traditions.
Our animal rights movements are notable. We were the first country in the West to spawn multiple high-profile, effective animal rights groups. Although Europe in general has a compassionate attitude towards animals, the following two quotations hint that the UK has a particularly developed sense of humanity towards animals:
“[In] 1990 the UK banned the use of the veal crate; no longer could calves a few days old be imprisoned in a create so small they could hardly move and be fed a liquid deficient in iron and fibre for those five months before slaughter. Instead the calves are exported out of the UK and imprisoned in the crates in other EC countries only to return as veal to the UK.”
Even now, in a relatively enlightened era in the West, the USA has described our care for animals as "extreme" but for less commercialist cultures such as ours, it is taken for granted that any moral being cares for animals.
The World Economic Forum, a highly respectable body, ranks the UK as one of the highest countries for gender equality. This is a result of decades of activism by, and on behalf of, women.
“The UK's high ranking in the league, produced by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, is founded primarily on its success in educating girls to secondary and higher education level. The country also benefits from an above-average representation of women in political posts, a rating skewed by Margaret Thatcher's 11-year premiership. [...]
Perhaps surprisingly, Britain ranks 28th on the scale of female health and well-being, a category including teenage pregnancy as well as maternal and infant mortality rates and the effectiveness of government efforts to reduce inequality”
Greenpeace, Royal Society for the Protection of Animals, Royal Society for the Protection of Children, the Green Party; the list of "activist" success stories in the UK is very long. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has over 1 million members12 and 5% of the country are vegetarians13. The United Nations frequently need look no further than the UK for good demonstrations of what can be achieved through moral concern groups. The best thing about British activism is that it is simultaneously successful and committed without being extreme. Our animal welfare groups, unlike ones in the USA, do not resort to violence. Our Nuclear Disarmament groups, Feminist groups and the like are all mature, sensible organisations that rely on methodical methods of peace and intelligence. Fathers for Justice's worst stunts are closer to pranks than criminality (although the police sometimes disagree). Even our religious activists are tame; especially when compared to the USA's activist fundamentalists, Greece's institutionalized Christianity, France's anti-religious battles, etc.
When activism does become unacceptably forceful, the British public take a common-sense line and reject it. The Economist on 2006 Jul 29th reports that "the British are famed for preferring pets to people, and Britain has long been in the vanguard of the animal-rights movement. But the tactics of some activists, which include vandalism, sabotage and other sorts of harassment, have caused a blacklash."14. Support for animal testing has now gained momentum in Universities, government bodies, and charities that fund research into diseases and cures.
We are clearly a nation of people who care about big issues, and who know how to pursue such interests with an almost Buddhist-like social grace, erring towards liberal activism, but avoiding extremism.
The Economist in 2007 published a special report on Britain, and reported on the effects of a 14-year period of growth and economic health, and that the UK now has the second-lowest rate of unemployment in the EU:
“[UK] is enjoying a period of extraordinary prosperity. Fourteen years of stable growth have kept unemployment down. There have been social gains as well as economic ones; fewer children and pensioners live in poverty than ten years ago. Crime is broadly lower. And with prosperity has come renewed political clout. Britain has helped shape aid for Africa, the debate on climate change, European enlargement and, last week, negotiations to restart world trade talks. [...] Britain's GDP per head has once more overtaken not just Italy's, but also France's and Germany's.”
There is deep core in British culture that is good, worldly and beneficial to international politics and advanced humanity. But it is largely overcome by our negative points; that we reject too much of Europe and the world to be properly integrated. Our educational and societal achievements of the past are still with us, but the mainstream trash culture covers it all up with an ugly, ignorant veneer. Beneath that surface is a wonderful mix of British cultures of intelligence, independence, ultimately wise passions and insight. London is a fascinating centre, a melting-pot of a hundred subcultures all tapping into the great British traits of intelligence and realism, all trying to maintain their own against social decay. Such have the games always been in the post-empire century of every ex-colonialist. Except for the drink and ignorance of youth, Britain is an excellent futuristic mix of societies and intellectual subcultures all combining into a potentially world-changing vitalism; what we need to do is stimulate the masses to awaken to the errors of pub culture, and there would be little to criticize in modern England.
Political Ideologies (2003). 3rd edition. First edition 1992. Published by Palgrave MacMillan.
Sword and Scales: An Examination of the Relationship Between Law and Politics (2000). Hart Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK. Prof. Loughlin is Professor of Law at the University of Manchester, UK, and Professor of Public Law-elect at the London School of Economics & Political Science, UK.
The English (1998). Quotes from 1999 Penguin Books edition.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
History of Western Philosophy (1946). Quotes from 2000 edition published by Routledge, London, UK.
Vegetarianism: A History (1993). Published by Four Walls Eight Windows, New York, USA. Originally published as "The Heretic's Feast" by Fourth Estate, London, UK.