The American image of Britain is curiously mixed. Village pubs and Sir Winston Churchill sit uneasily beside Islamist militants and an over-large, inefficient and centralised state.
This month’s riots will only increase the confusion at the contrast between the Britain that Americans admire and the one they have seen burning.
The burning is a problem, centrally, for Britons themselves. But the riots revealed some things that they have affected everyone who respects Britain, or, at least, would like to respect it.
The revelations speak to a problem that Churchill himself addressed, in an era when the problem was still an opportunity.
On his retirement from Number 10 in 1955, Churchill received a heartfelt letter of thanks from the young Queen Elizabeth. Always a monarchist, Churchill replied regretfully that Britain no longer had the authority it possessed in the days of Queen Victoria. But Britain was still a great power, thanks in part to worldwide “respect for our character and good sense and the general admiration not untinged by envy for our institutions and way of life”.
It is sad to read those words today, because it is a long time since they were true. There is little about British institutions as they function today that commends them to foreigners, and the more the British way of life is defined by burning buildings, the less envy it evokes.
It is a mistake, of course, to believe that Britain’s world role can rest on respect. Power matters more. But Churchill’s words captured a great truth. The world’s image of Britain was shaped in the Victorian era, and the British character that Churchill praised was Victorian – keep a stiff upper lip, don’t grumble, and stay steady on.
In modern Britain, this Victorian order has been broken down. The order wasn’t just about private behaviour. It shaped public expectations. The media was supposed to be an instrument in service of the broader good.
Politicians were expected to avoid personal corruption. The law was made by Parliament, not by far-off bureaucrats.
Too few in Britain now uphold these standards. By itself, that is a problem. But both in Britain and outside of it, Britain is still known for the traditional standards. Every expenses scandal, every disorderly mob of over-privileged students, every riot is a grating reminder that Britain as it exists is no longer Britain as it is remembered.
This is not just a matter of bad policy, bad individuals or bad policing, though it is all of those. It is a stab at Britain’s identity. In modern life, defined by constant change, a well-grounded identity is especially valuable, it defines standards and gives you roots.
Predictably, the American left – mirroring elements of the British left – used the riots to condemn the Cameron government’s cuts and to make the case that even the slightest trimmings of America’s bloated welfare state will bring about similar disasters here. Their argument appears to be that red tape holds the nation together.
It naturally suits the left to portray large parts of the population as victims, because that justifies the doling out of ever more public money as an opiate.
This is an absolution, not an explanation. And that is part of the problem. Since the 1960s, the prevailing belief in Britain has been that the nation badly needs to be brought up to date. Institution after institution, belief after belief, has been afflicted with modernisation. But it is a lot easier to tear down old foundations than to build new ones.
The long march of the rioters through the courts now is paralleled by the long march of the left through British society. When Margaret Thatcher argued that what Britain needed was a smaller state and more personal responsibility – in a phrase, Victorian values – the left couldn’t boo loud enough. But if the alternative is more social spending, there is not enough money in the world to bribe everyone into respectability.
The breakdown of the Victorian order in Britain is mirrored in the United States. The parallel is not exact. The order is stronger in the US, which has less property crime, more religion, more charity, and fewer births out of wedlock, than Britain. But the US is not immune to the British disease, which is echoed in most of Westernised world.
Victorian Britain had an enormously good opinion of itself. At times, that could be comic. Yet in the end it was a great thing to create a genuinely liberal state that was limited and honest, and a society that was steadily expanding in wealth, in literacy and in opportunities. Who can say that today’s Britain has any of these qualities?
Churchill was wrong to base the continuance of Britain’s world role on the respect the world felt for Britain. But he was right to imply that if Britain lost its sense of self, it would have neither respect nor role.
Ted R Bromund is a senior research fellow at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, based at The Heritage Foundation, Washington.