24 May 2017

Empire Day

A very happy Empire Day to one and all! (Or Commonwealth Day if, like me, you were born after 1958.)

I have – as it should be clear by now – a very complex relationship with the British Empire.

On the one hand, I love Great Britain dearly as a son or a brother separated by an ocean can. My ancestors dearly valued their loyalty to the British King, far more so than they valued their own property and livelihood and even their own lives. And I can understand why – when the head of state of the United Kingdom is Queen Elizabeth: a truly decent, warm, caring and virtuous human being who takes seriously the idea that she embodies a culture and a civic tradition, it is hard for one’s loyalty not to be swayed.

My intellectual and emotional attachments are also to Britain’s past – even though I can lay claim to Low German, Swabian, Ashkenazi Jewish, Danish and Yugoslav heritage as well (at least according to Family Tree DNA), no author or artist or cultural figure from any of those nations has moved me as profoundly as have the works of Bede, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hooker, Laud, Astell, Johnson, Swift, Austen, Oastler, Porteus, Strachan, Southey, Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Ruskin, Morris, Gore, Chesterton, Tawney, Grant, Tolkien, Sayers, Lewis, Pargeter, Dart, Milbank and Hitchens. (That said, of course, I do also have a love for Yugoslavia and for Serbia in particular that played a role in nudging me toward the Christian East.)

But these artistic and literary figures were – it should be noted – either partially or wholly, directly or indirectly critical of the Imperial direction that their nation was taking. They represented an elder, more humane national tradition: a tradition which railed against the factories as they were rising, against the gunboats as they hammered foreign shores, against the trade in the blood of slaves that sweetened British tea, against the dogma that ‘free trade’ is best for everyone. And my own attitude toward the British Empire follows roughly the same lines. It produced some of the finest minds, some of the most sublime poetry, some of the most subtle œconomic theory and some of the greatest philosophy of its time. But the British Empire’s greatness did not lie in its military or œconomic strength or in its geographical extent; still less in the wars it fought in Africa or India or China or Eastern Europe. It lay instead in its humble origins, its common traditions, its (as Ivan Aksakov would call it) obshchestvo.

Britain, indeed, is still a source of inspiration although its imperial strength is gone and isn’t coming back. The elder Tory strain which still occasionally expresses itself actually more through Labour and its organs than through the party which call themselves ‘Conservatives’, is still very much worthy of heeding.

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