On Bank Holiday Monday, a few days ago, I heard a curious Radio 5Live phone-in. The topic was whether we should drop the term "Empire" from awards such as the OBE. One might have expected such a discussion to revolve around whether the idea of Empire was anachronistic, but instead the focus was on whether the British Empire was something we should be ashamed of.
Well, obviously (along with any vaguely historically literate and rational person) I'm going to think the notion that the British Empire was a Bad Thing is utterly absurd. We can save exploring why bringing British justice, the civil service, Christianity, political liberalism, engineering, commerce, trade, capital, capitalism, medicine, scientific discovery and educational opportunity, and attacks on caste systems, slavery, widow-burnings, banditry, child sacrifice, cannibalism, racial oppression, genocide, famine, disease, infant mortality, ignorance, superstition, and the predations and tyranny of other competing empires might not have been something to be ashamed of another time.
For now, however, what this made me think of was how Britain should think of herself today. What should we aspire to, and how should we hope to get there?
Just as there are different kinds of individuals, with different kinds of roles in this world – and each role has its own honour; those with roles more commonly exalted could not achieve anything without those with vital roles more often overlooked – different countries also have different roles. Some are focused within and focused practically, upon the needs of their citizens – they hope to reduce hunger and disease and ignorance and violence amongst their own populations. Others are focused spiritually – perhaps they are the location of important religious sites to which pilgrimages are made from other countries. Some are the locations of great historical ruins or natural wonders. Others are the homes of ancient peoples – sometimes preserved in their ancient states; sometimes evolving and cutting-edge.
Other countries are regional power players, seeking to achieve some particular strategic goal that will promote the prosperity and wider longer-term ends of their people – say, adding a deep water harbour to their territory. Others are religiously inspired, aiming to spread worship of their gods by voice and sword. Others seek to implement particular political philosophies they have learned from others, to move beyond historic disasters.
Britain is like none of these, and has not been like any of these for some 350 years. Britain, instead, belongs to a small set of countries – no more than perhaps four or five – that are global players. That is to say, Britain aims not simply to mould events for her own citizens or in her own region or even for those with whom she interacts most directly; instead, she aims to mould the progression of events for the world as a whole.
Britain has historically been very well-suited to this role, particularly because she was quite clear about what she had to offer the world. She believed that history and fate and God had gifted her special constitutional knowledge, that all nations and peoples would benefit if they did things her way rather than another way, and that she had an ethical or moral duty to spread her knowledge to others. That did not mean she herself could not improve – indeed, the ability of her constitutional arrangement to allow for improvement was one of its great strengths. But there was no doubt that her way was better and her citizens were especially blessed to have been born under Britain's benign protective wing.
This confidence carried her through when times might otherwise have seemed tough – when her Empires contracted dramatically, as from time to time they did, when wars were lost, as very occasionally happened, when her economy slumped. Such events were simply the challenges the dutiful must overcome if triumph is to be glorious. They did not, in any sense, mean we were wrong.
There is no reason for any of this to change. We do not need to abandon our belief in the superiority of our ways of doing things. But we do need to remember where that superiority lies. It is not that the English or other races of the British Isles are blessed with greater vigour, intelligence, resilience or other such virtues than are those of other races (though – who knows? – we might be). It is not that we are more righteous than other peoples (though we may well be more righteous than many). It is not even, quite, that it is our manifest destiny to rule this or that or dominate this or that field of thought, endeavour or discovery.
No. The reason we look outwards, that we seek to project our values rather than consolidate our strength, is that we have a particular gift of social organisation, of constitutional arrangement, and others would benefit if they shared it.
Now notice something of the highest importance. Those that seek to destroy the unique value of our constitutional arrangements threaten not only our own stability, liberty, peace, and prosperity. They also threaten our role in the history of the world. For Britain's liberal democracy to cease would be a historical disaster of the nature (perhaps, but not necessarily, even of the order) of the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The first step for us to become what we aspire to be is for us to comprehend our own virtue. True humility does not lie in self-belittlement, in claiming to be less than one is. The truly humble person is able to be painfully aware of her strengths as well as her weaknesses, to see herself as she really is and to respond accordingly, acknowledging her duties as well as her needs. Britain's Establishment and society in general has become addicted to self-abasement, to the seductive comforts a teenager finds sulking in her room, saying how worthless she is, how everyone hates her, how they are right to hate her, but how unfair they are to hate her even though they ought to.
We should be participants in the history of the world, but we must be worthy participants. If we are to preach to others about their constitutional arrangements, we must have enough confidence in our own to see them evolve and improve as they change, but evolve and improve in our own ways, not according to what other countries do or say. We must embrace self-sacrifice, being prepared to kill and die – with regret, but without shame – for what we believe in and project. We must acknowledge that justice does not always come without pain, and sometimes justice will entail impoverishment, loss, unemployment, economic contraction. We tell others there is no magic formula, but do we believe it for ourselves? We know that the justice of man does not right all wrongs or punish all wickedness, and that the proper goal of a country's justice system is not that all the guilty be punished and all the innocent go free, yet we find it tempting to compromise on this in the individual case, because it is tempting to sacrifice our long-term ethic for the apparent merits of the case before us now.
We participate in the history of the world, over-riding those goals of other countries that I described near the state, because we believe ourselves to be the Good Guys. And as the Good Guys, we are entitled to so participate and over-ride. But, after understanding our mission, and humbly accepting our role, our next task must be the unflinching devotion to being the Good Guys.
So, Britain should think of herself as a participant in world affairs, with an offering to history of a particular constitutional arrangement and its practical consequences. She should be fierce in protecting her offering and humble enough to see how strong she can be in projecting it, thus accepting her duty to history, to fate, to God or whatever other treasury provided our constitutional bounty. And she should accept the self-sacrifice of eternal vigilance in being the Good Guys and eschew the seductive comforts of the long sulk.
If we could convince our Establishment and society of these points, we would have convinced them of almost everything worthwhile in this arena.