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A great British legacy: how will it play out today?

By Chris Lewis - posted Monday, 11 June 2012


It is hard to write about any country other than your own, especially when you have never been there. So why does Britain make immense appeal to myself? Are there reasons beyond my love of British sport, history, music, politics and documentaries?

Sure Britain has a dark past, including its own internal struggles involving England, Scotland and Ireland. Britain did gain immense wealth from its colonial empire backed by a navy that ruled the seas, including slave plantations in the West Indies from the 17th century and India from the 19th century.

And Britain exploited many workers during its rapid industrialisation during the 19th century, including women and children, a reality that helped inspire the emergence of a great and effective labour movement by the early decades of the 20th century. 

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But I never agreed with Eric Hobsbawm’s critique of capitalism, which explains the emergence of protective laws for workers as mere toleration by British industrialists now rich and confident enough to be able to afford such change. This includes abolishing the Master and Servant code (1875), and trade unions being given legal status with the Reform Act (1867), essentially setting up an electoral system to be largely influenced by working class votes.

Rather, I argue that it is the rule of law and the capacity of British society to evolve its liberal democracy that has long inspired me. Britain, like continental Europe with its own great Enlightenment thinkers, was also influenced by the power of ideas. For instance, David Hume (1711-1776) continued the argument against the existence of innate ideas to conclude that humans gain knowledge from experience. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) further promoted the idea of liberty that freedom of the individual was necessary to counter unlimited state control. And Adam Smith (1723-1790) promoted the benefits of free trade.

Britain’s economic prowess was aided by many scientific discoveries and the use of force, but its ideas and literature still help shape a better world.

My university study of European history also convinced me that British pragmatism was a prime factor to why fascism and communism had little influence there when compared to parts of continental Europe.

Despite its own contradictions, the type of society Britain was becoming provided important reasons why it possessed moral standing in its defence of democracy against Germany in two world wars. Democracy, and its associated norms and institutions, still provide inspiration for people around the world.  

While Britain has experienced considerable much international political decline since 1945, it still has provided many lessons for the world, including Australia, which upheld many of its societal characteristics.

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Britain evolved further as one of the most tolerant nations in the world. By 2010, the United Kingdom (which includes Northern Ireland) had 7 million foreign-born residents in the U.K., around 11.3 per cent of the total population. This included 4.76 million being born outside the European Union, with about 1.46 million from south Asia alone (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).

Sure evidence of British racism remains evident, with the possibility that tensions can still erupt in times of economic difficulty, but the British example illustrates how different ethnicities can live together.  British movies that helped break down racist (and other) attitudes include To Sir With Love (1967), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Bend it Like Beckham (2002). I also have great memories for ground-breaking television shows challenging racism such as Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76) and Mind Your Language (1977-79).

British art also reminded us of what can go wrong in society, and why we must always pay attention to the less fortunate rather than simply aspire to be a perfect corporate economic model. I thank film directors like Ken Loach for that.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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