In this the week leading to our nation’s annual celebration of independence from England, we should be concerned about the mother country. England’s historic greatness cannot be denied, but after the vote last year to leave the European Union, known commonly as “Brexit,” the country’s geopolitical and economic profile is uncertain. A national election earlier this month added to the concern as the ruling conservative party was weakened by the outcome. The politics there is now more divisive than it is on our side of the ocean. The concern is that England will no longer have as important of a place at the table in influencing the weighty matters that effect Europe and hence the world.
I am a big fan of Great Britain. The country, along with Rome and the United States, were the most important nations in developing the modern world. England spread democracy, healthcare and education throughout the planet. A friend, who is a native of India and who can speak angrily about European colonization, concedes that England not only gave his country a democratic political system, but also a language that is spoken throughout the nation. Prior to that, India was a jumble of different languages and sects.
Our American Revolution was inspired in many ways by European political philosophy put into practice here, where there was no burden of kingdoms and empires to stand in the way.
As with any productive nation, there was slavery in the days before industrialization (with British commercial ships often acting as the carrier), but England was also among the first to raise objections and to outlaw the practice.
There have been many glorious moments in British history – none so great as during the years between 1939 and 1943 when England fought alone against the Nazi takeover of mainland Europe. With the mighty U.S. not yet involved, England, whose population base had already been depleted by World War I, was the lone sentinel as France, Italy, Scandinavia, Central Europe and North Africa fell.
On that historic morning in June 1944, when the largest invasion force in the history of the world headed for Normandy it left from British soil where the invaders had trampled the countryside for training.
For its effort, England was bombed throughout the war, not only from planes but also by unstoppable rockets. Some of the enemy bombers met their end because of gutsy British fighter pilots and radar technology honed by British scientists.
If wars were fought with words England would rule the world, having produced some of the globe’s finest quotes including those spoken by Winston Churchill the wartime prime minister. (Churchill speaking after military success in North Africa: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”)
Most notable though were the passages attributed to William Shakespeare – for whom some of the grandest words were about war, such as King Henry V addressing his outnumbered troops on the eve of a battle against the French in Agincourt:
“From this day to the ending of the world,
… we … shall be remembered-
we few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
for he today that sheds his blood with me
shall be my brother…”
Shakespeare’s phrase, “band of brothers” would become part of the language of war especially after historian Stephen Ambrose gave his book, which was made into a television series, that name.
England’s latest crisis is not a military war but a theoretical battle. Yet theory is sometimes molded by war, including the notion of a untied continent that was inspired by the aftermath of World War II. From that hope came the European Union, which Britain now seeks to exit.
There are dangerous days ahead. On the night of the Brexit election the British foreign secretary lamented in a television interview that his country could be shifting from “Great Britain to Little England.” As Churchill might have said, let us hope that this is not the beginning of the end.
*This blog has been updated and modified from a blog that originally ran in June 2016.
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