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Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role

Dean Acheson, former U.S. Secretary of State, 1962

A new government with a large majority, chosen by just over 22% of the electorate, according to its strangely undemocratic system, has come to power in the United Kingdom. There are many who sigh resignedly. Regardless of which political party ‘wins’ elections - and in the last fifty years, the winners have all been minorities - the United Kingdom seems to lurch on without direction.

Only the very elderly now recall the time of British Empire, when Great Britain was a world power and had purpose and direction. (The question as to whether that purpose and direction were ever the right ones is of course another matter). Since two exhausting European World Wars and resulting US dominance of world affairs, British government ministers have, one after another, shuttled between two centres of power, in the USA and in Europe, seeking to find a role between them. Most of the time, one weak Prime Minister after another has sold out British interests, either to one centre, or else to the other. Thus, farming and fisheries have collapsed beneath the diktats of unelected European bureaucrats in Europe. Food prices have soared, people are crushed beneath the stifling weight of European Union directives, which have little or no popular support. Similarly, when the administration of another Union, the American one, insists that the United Kingdom support its aims, feeble British Prime Ministers scurry to obey, as was the case in the recent oil war in Iraq.

Perhaps the British have only themselves to blame. For hundreds of years, Great Britain was used to ‘ruling the waves’, setting up a worldwide trading Empire. In so doing, the British Establishment made itself hated in many parts of the world. The crimes of British Imperialism are well-known - from the crofts of Scotland to the villages of Ireland, from the settlements of Yankees to the temples of India, from the cotton-fields of the Sudan to the paddy-fields of Burma, from the sugar plantations of the Carribean to the farms of Kenya, from the mountains of the Maoris to the genocide of Tasmania, from the teepees of Canada to the concentration camps of South Africa. Perhaps there is historical justice in the lap-dog antics to which current British politicians are reduced, as they curry favour with those who have power in today’s world.

However, the most admired moments in the history of this North Atlantic island archipelago are not those of Empire and Conquest, or the diplomatic kow-towing in European cities and Washington. The great moments have been those when we were the underdogs of history. It can be seen in the folk-heroes of these islands. It is in the Celtic leader Arthur, in the English King Alfred, in the anti-Norman heroes Hereward of Bourne and Robin Hood, in the Scotsmen William Wallace and Robert Bruce as they battled against the French Kings of England, in the Welsh national hero Owen Glendower, in the English revolts against the tyrant Henry VIII, in the Irish freedom-fighters from the sixteenth century on.

Most recently of all it was sixty-five years ago, in 1940, when, backs to the wall after the miracle, but also disaster, of Dunkirk, Great Britain stood alone against the might of Hitler’s military empire and planned genocide. Then we were saved, not by the antics of a Chamberlain in Munich, but by ‘the few’, in what Winston Churchill called ‘our finest hour’. However, when a few years later we were no longer the underdog, but the top dog, we began to forget our moral conscience. And so we helped sell out half of Europe to the atheist murderer Stalin, we massacred the German civilians of Dresden, and handed over Russian and Serbian patriots to their Communist executioners.

No country is great when it behaves without moral purpose. The only moments of glory in our island history have been when we acted with moral purpose and justice. It is the same in the histories of all nations. Thus, the American colonies can be proud of winning their independence from the mad German King of Great Britain in the eighteenth century, but cannot be proud of their descendants’ role in the Vietnam War, which it lost, because it lost its moral purpose. Thus, Russia can be proud of freeing the Bulgarians from centuries of Ottoman oppression in the nineteenth century, but cannot be proud of the anti-Russian Soviet era of its history. Thus, England can be proud of fighting for the underdogs on many occasions in her history, but cannot be proud of invading other countries in order to plunder their natural resources. Examples could be given for every other country in the world.

Life, and history, which is simply past life, teach us about moral purpose. They tell us that whenever we act without conscience, without moral purpose, however much we may delude ourselves into thinking that we have such a conscience and purpose, we punish ourselves, we deprive ourselves of vision. We are always blinded by the moral and spiritual injustice we commit. We find no peace, no clear conscience, for the mirrors of our souls are befouled, dirtied by our own dishonesty, lies and self-deception. And therefore the task of returning the history of the world to its proper course turns out to be beyond us. For this, each of us will one day be called on to give account of our deeds.

Most probably, the new government in the United Kingdom will change nothing whatsoever in any of this. Our decline over the centuries into the moral quagmire of always following the prince of this world will continue. But let it not be said that we were silent about the compromises with the powers of this world. We still say that we could take another path, independent of the economic, political and military power of Washington and Brussels. We could still set up a Confederation of the Isles, of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, independent of both Washington and Brussels. We could still choose to follow our consciences. But to find again the historic path of our destiny, both the governments and the four peoples of these islands would need the intervention of a miracle. This would be the miracle of repentance, to be found beyond doubt, in the Light of the Resurrection.

Fr Andrew

Thomas Sunday 2005

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